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Peter Hayes on clay, outdoor commissions, and sustainable practices

As international art consultants, Artelier specialises in curating art for luxury residential, hospitality, yacht and aviation projects. Artelier's Artist Walls presents a collection of artists whose originality of ideas and dedication to their materials makes them true contemporary masters. Through collaborating with Artelier, they have created large-scale custom art commissions that reinvent the concept of the mural for the modern age, pushing the possibilities for feature wall art.


Peter Hayes is a ceramic artist who has worked closely with artistic and indigenous communities all over the world. From his travels in Africa, Australia, Japan, India and Nepal, he has engaged with the ancient practices of these cultures, and has incorporated them into his own work.


In a two-part interview, we learn more about Hayes' inspiration and experiences working with clay. In this part, we explore further Peter's intuitive response to the earth and the medium of clay, and how these are deeply connected to the natural world.



Whilst you have engaged with communities throughout the world, can you describe your specific work in Africa? After living there for a decade, what drew you back to the UK?

In Lesotho, Africa, my job at first was to run a studio for pottery. These were the 1970s, and in those days a lot of artists went over to Africa to set up various projects, and potters were very much in demand as there are many potters in Africa. I was asked to go out there when I was twenty four, as an artist consultant. I was given an old brewery, and asked me to convert it into a pottery studio; I employed twenty-eight people, built kilns, working with the local community. Lesotho is an absolutely wonderful place. It’s completely landlocked, and so is all mountains and sky – it has the most beautiful mountains, and wonderful people.


After 18 months working in the studio, I wrote a report about how I felt that since there were many urban problems, wouldn't it be better if I went to where the people lived in the mountains and worked with them there, rather than having them come to the centre? About a year later, the report somehow ended up with the Commonwealth Secretary, who thought it was a good idea, so I was given a new contract.


They gave me a Land Rover and two horses, and rather than teaching at the studio, I was going on horseback to these villages right in the mountains and seeing how local people work clay. I did the same in Swaziland, and Botswana, it was really quite exciting. But the trouble with that kind of work was eventually I was becoming a kind of "briefcase expert", and I'm not; I'm an artist. I was spending lots of time in consultancy meetings, going around with a briefcase, and so after 10 years in Africa I decided it was time to come home. It was a very good job working with the Commonwealth Secretary, but I came home in 1982 to start my own work in England again.

You have been based at your current studio in Bath for many years since – do the natural surroundings of the studio, on the bank of the River Avon, influence how you work?

When we first moved to Bath, we bought this beautiful Georgian house, and I tried to covert part of it into a studio; but, that just didn’t work, as I can be fairly “anarchist” in how I work and leave quite a trail behind me! But I used to go on a lot of walks along the river, and there were these old toll bridge houses; they were completely deserted, and going derelict, but nobody had vandalised them.


They were listed buildings, and so I went to the council and said that these would make fantastic artist studios. I had thought these beautiful buildings, converted to studios, could make quite a little artist idyll. I managed to get one for a good rent, and that's how I got my studio in Bath. It’s right on the river Avon, an old three-storey converted toll bridge house. I’ve been there now for 34 years.


The river has played a part in creating some of my artworks. I’ve always been drawn to archaeology, to the found object; I like my artworks to have history, have a story. At one time, I was making these huge, 8ft Raku pieces, but to fire them was getting incredibly complicated. So I had the idea to still make large scale artwork, but to break them into pieces to fire them, and repair them like an archaeologist would. I would build the piece up almost as a found object, and then it has history – it’s been made, it’s been broken, it’s been repaired.


What I actually do, as I have the River Avon going past the studio, is sometimes I actually make the pieces and sink them in the river. Because I use copper on the ceramics, after leaving them there for two or three months, when I fish them out they have a natural patina, created by time. Because I've tried to forget all about it, the piece does become important – I have to discover it again, as I have to fish it out of the river, and clean the mud. It's like discovering your own piece.



Where do you source the clay for your sculptures, and what different qualities can they have?


Throughout my time I have used the most amazing different clays, and I use a lot of clays from different locations. At one point, I even got some Australian clay sent to me – I spent time working in Australia and they've got this wonderful clay called Ice White. They invited me to go to Bendigo to work; that's where the old potteries are in Australia, industrial potteries which are closed down, but every so often they invite artists to go over and play with their huge industrial kilns. They gave me a tonne of this wonderful porcelain clay, and after a month working with it, I fell in love with it. So that was an example of a very fine porcelain, but I work with all different kinds.


Much more locally, a clay I still love working with is actually everywhere in Bath. Bath is full of canals; when they were being built, in the 1790s, every third of a mile they put 20 tonnes of puddle clay on the surface or on a tow path. That clay has been on the surface for about 200 years.


Because the clay has been weathered, with the rain, and snow and frost, it has been broken down, and roots have grown into the clay. I find it absolutely wonderful clay to work with. Every so often, I go on a little walk, and dig the canal clay! I use it very, very raw – even firing with all the roots in, which gives it lots of texture.


What happens to the roots in the clay when they're fired? Does it take a lot of experimentation?

A lot of things can happen when firing roots, actually. At a lower temperature, the roots burn away and give the clay a different texture. If you fire it very high, the ash itself actually starts melting, giving almost a glaze finish. I experiment a lot, playing endlessly. That’s one thing – I never think about 'working with clay', I just play, and of course in experimenting you make lots of mistakes. One thing I don't do is sit down and say, 'Today, I'm going to make a masterpiece.' I just 'do'. Some things work, some won't; the ones that don't can get thrown into the river, as the clay just gets returned to the earth. If they do an archaeological dive outside my studio, they will find 30 years' of shards – I do like the idea of people discovering a piece of mine, and scratching their head!


Clay is very much a material of the earth, and is created naturally. Do the sustainable qualities of clay form part of your inspiration?


Yes, clay is very much a sustainable material to work with. You can dig it, and you can return it as well. I've also got a studio in India. There, they have long been creating these little clay pots, called coolers – you can use them to have your coffee and so on, and then throw it away.


With the invention of polystyrene years and years ago, however, you now go to a place like Udaipur, or a train station in India, and you're knee deep in polystyrene cups. Udaipur, the place I go to, has the most beautiful scenery, the most beautiful lakes. You look on this beautiful scenery, and then on the shoreline, it's heaped with plastic cups. But, in the old days you would have the village potter making these cooler cups.



They used to be made by the millions, and then thrown away, and of course being low temperature fired clay they just went back into the earth and broke down naturally. That's the way it used to be, but with the invention of plastic, that changed. Now, though, and I've been going to Udaipur for the past eleven years, Udaipur has a whole system to help clean it; the cleaning process has been remarkable over the last few years. And four years ago, when they banned polystyrene cups, so the potters have come back – making these cooler pots again. It's very interesting, how things can turn around. The potter's coming back into fashion again, because they've done away with these polystyrene cups.

I've actually got three thousand of these little cups, as I was going to do a water sculpture with them. I quite like the idea of this “throw away” thing that you actually save. I'm a great believer in using something that is completely discarded, completely useless – to look at something broken and say, I can make something out of that. This whole project was all about sustainability. I had a local Indian potter make these cups for me, and a potter can make 900 of these a day, so I wanted to give him a week's work and pay him much above the normal rate. What I wanted to show with that idea was how some people have to work so hard, to produce a throw away item.


For much of your work, you use the Raku firing technique to fire your ceramics; is that an especially earthy way of working?

Absolutely, it’s fundamental. The idea of working with literally fire, water and earth is important; when you bring those elements together, it's very basic, right down to the ground level. You make a piece from earth, and then put it in the fire, and wait until those surfaces have started melting.


Then, you take it out with tongs from the red hot kiln and plunge it into water very quickly, and then into sawdust. Now, if you use things like copper, you get a copper reduction – because you're putting the molten piece in sawdust. And copper, if you starve the copper of oxygen, which is what you do if you put it in sawdust as no oxygen can get in, you get these lovely, wonderful colours. It's just those elements coming together, to create such effects.


You’ve done many commissions for outdoor artworks, not only with ceramics but also with glass and bronze. Do you enjoy how those artworks interact with the elements?


I do – I recently did a big Raku art commission for a Koi pond, creating these standing stones at about 6ft to stand in the pond. It's a very quiet place, and so these standing stones would be very still in the pond. I also created a big Raku boulder underneath, which the ducks and so on could walk on.


That boulder was wet all the time, and so it was self-cleaning, in a sense. While the sculptures were incredibly still, there was movement coming over this big boulder, and so it was interacting with the water. Another thing about doing outside sculptures, is you see them in all weathers; in the frost, in the snow, in the sun, in the evening, the sunset. That's what I love about doing artworks for the outdoors.


Have you created other works for water features that incorporate the movement of water?

Yes, I have done glass art sculptures also; there’s one I’m working on which will be a water sculpture over a pond. It's made of two big sheets of glass, very minimal, which are about 5 ft x 2 ft.


I've laminated them together, with a channel going right up the middle. Water would be pumped to the top of the plate of glass that is fused together, through a hole. As the water comes out of the hole, the idea is you get a little bubble of water floating in the hole. And then, all the water streams down the glass – as it ripples down, there's always movement. When you're looking through the glass, you can also see the landscape behind. So, it interacts with the landscape too, as you get a diffused vision looking through the artwork.

Do your outdoor sculptures change much over time?

Over time they do, anything left in the outdoors will. Of course, because I use coppers, that's especially the case. If you go to Rome, you can see the Michelangelo sculptures which are outdoors. They're usually sculpted out of a beautiful marble, and they have copper studs to keep the pieces together. I was always fascinated by them because, due to the water pouring over them, you get these wonderful green stains from the copper – these green stains can only be done by time. Only time can do that – hundreds of years of water falling over these copper studs, and it's actually stained the white marble. I just love it, it brings in that time element. So, my sculptures too, eventually are influenced by time.



Peter Hayes has collaborated with Artelier's art consultancy on numerous artwork commissions, including a current art commission project for an outdoor pool, where he is creating a large-scale Raku triptych feature wall. He is included as part of our 'Artist Walls' collection – visit his dedicated page on our website here.

Artelier's art consultancy plays a fundamental role in all artwork commissions, and as the appointed art consultant for projects we bring artists and clients together to achieve forward-thinking and intelligently curated art installations.


To read the other instalment of the two-part interview, where we discuss how he has drawn inspiration from particular ancient ceramic traditions, click here.

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