Tom Kemp - The Clay Sensation
Posted on 17 November 2016
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I live in London, UK, and trained as a computer scientist. However, I'm fascinated by writing, the physical making of visual language. Years ago, I was watching someone wielding a large brush dipped in water on a dusty blackboard. The huge, glossy, black, swelling strokes mesmerised me and I asked how I could learn to use this amazing tool. It turns out that there was a single, rare book explaining how this brush, which had a square-cut edge, was historically used so I camped out in a library for two weeks and learned all about an ancient Roman sign-writing technique which was apparently used to write the monumental letters we see on classical Roman buildings with just a few strokes per letter. They were carved out afterwards to fix them in place but the point of the book was that these letters were handwritten with all the fluidity and idiosyncrasy of any hand-written forms.
I studied this for many years and wrote my own book about it eventually. But then I got bored and started making more abstract shapes with this brush I now understood so well. Eventually, I started using it to make abstract paintings with the appearance, but without the language, of writing. My formal training is in computer science and mathematics but that’s another life.
When did you decide that you wanted to try pottery?
I started pottery five years ago when I was looking for something new to try. Someone generously suggested that I try throwing pots on a wheel because it had that real-time nature which I liked so much in formal writing. I did a few weekend classes and realised that it was something I could take seriously.
Did you self-teach or go through courses or workshops?
I’m mostly self-taught but I have attended a few classes. Basically, I have watched and learned from hundreds of YouTube videos of potters from around the world. It’s wonderful what you can learn for free these days online. I was particularly attracted to porcelain (because it’s white like paper) and so I particularly studied the videos made by Hsin Chuen Lin who is a very quiet but excellent teacher. The only way to learn to throw properly is to do it A LOT and to reflect all the time on the mistakes you’re making: what did I do that made the pot wobble or be too thick in parts or be an ugly shape? Keep answering those questions and you will inevitably improve. Oh, and cut your first few hundred pots in half to see where the clay is and whether you moved it to the right place within the pot or not. It’s more important to understand why something worked than why it didn’t. So even the good ones must be dissected!
What are the qualities that you think have helped you a great deal in mastering this craft?
Firstly, you must really enjoy the feeling of bringing a pot to life on the wheel. I don’t do hand-building. That technique doesn’t appeal to me. I want something which creates a pot quickly, in front of my eyes, with very little editing or adjusting. If you enjoy it then you will automatically find yourself sitting there for hours on end in an effort to get the next pot a bit better than the last one.
The videos of you making pottery on Instagram are just mesmerising to watch. What made you think it was a great idea to share these videos on Instagram?
Thanks very much! I have to thank Stine Dulong at our studio for that (@skandihus_london). She suggested I might enjoy it and she was right.
Have you received a lot of inquiries regarding advises, instructions or purchases of your pottery from users who noticed your works on Instagram? How do you engage with users or keep them engaged on this social network?
I have had a lot of interaction with many people on Instagram. It’s been amazing how many people want to follow along. I get a lot of enquiries about purchasing work but even more just friendly questions and comments from people who are interested in the work. I try to answer all the comments and questions, even some of the more dismissive ones. I do get quite a few ‘haters’, as they are known. However, I find they are people looking for some education; they just don’t express themselves with the greatest wit or eloquence, perhaps...!
Could you share with us 3 of your pottery works that you are most happy with?
"It's taken a little while to start making sense of these. It's the lightest, gentlest stroke I can manage: a sharp but painless blow; how we kiss from a distance, letting the mere air carry our emotion and intention, with full faith that they will arrive intact."
"All that soft, breathful, moving heat of being has been caught under glass; there to rest until our sun sees fit to expand its reach and melt it all back to square one."
"Slowly the art is beginning to arrive. Art is inexplicable understanding. However, the measure of a work of art lies not in its inexplicability but in the depth of the understanding it provokes. And I'm just starting to feel some seeping in."
How long does it take you, averagely, to complete the simplest pottery, from start to finish?
Throwing a simple cup on a wheel takes less than a minute. However, then it needs to dry and be ‘bisque’ fired in the kiln, then I write on it, then I glaze it and fire it for a second time at a higher temperature. The whole process can take a couple of weeks because I work in a communal studio with many members (@turningearthuk). Bigger pieces can take much longer as they have to wait until there is a big enough space in the kiln.
Do you conduct any workshop?
I haven’t tried teaching ceramics formally. I give the occasional bit of advice to other members in the studio but that’s all. I’m still learning so don’t feel very qualified to teach yet!
Is your pottery for sale?
We have three or four sales a year at our pottery studio in London but I’m considering making some of the larger works available online soon. I’m not sure if they will sell so it’s a bit of an experiment to see if there is a big enough market for my work.
Figgs’ favourite works of Tom’s