Giorgio Salani is a PhD student at Central Saint Martins, studying artisanal ceramic tableware: a practice-led enquiry into qualities and values in contemporary British and Japanese pottery.

Giorgio Salani

Giorgio has found that research is a very isolating affair, social media offers him a direct way to develop a network of acquaintances that can get him access to interviewees, often people he would not easily have a chance to meet in person. It gives him the feeling of being part of a community, and even if that’s not really always the case, it is still a great morale booster.

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Through Instagram, Giorgio posts about his research trips, residencies in potteries, things that inspire him and his PhD journey. He uses feeds and posts to stay in touch with current news in his field, current thinking, events and general trends in ceramics. Giorgio tests responses to ideas and theories on Instagram, to see what people react well to, what photos or comments they’re interested in.

He uses blogs and posts to practise writing, forcing himself to put down his thoughts regularly. Even with only a handful of followers, he is aware that what he writes could be read by others and this changes his attitude. He hopes this can form some initial training for his future 80,000 word thesis. Instagram gets Giorgio into the habit of writing every day, it refines his skills but he also accepts the inevitability of a bad day and he will still try to post something.

As part of his PhD Giorgio spends time in pottery studios around the UK and in Japan, conducting ethnographic work and developing ceramics skills and techniques.

Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall

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My mugs straight out of the kiln at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. My research is practice based and this involves making ceramics in the style of my participants. This year I spent a total of 5 weeks at the Leach, conducting interviews with the potters and helping out with humble tasks required to run a production pottery.

Making pots with the potters makes my job of craft ethnographer much easier. It allows me to enter the workshop with an appreciation of methods and procedures, talking to makers as a maker myself. It helps me develop a critical eye on opinions and explanations I hear in my interviews with the potters, and ask more pertinent questions about pottery making techniques. It also enables me to reflect on my own experience of making their range of tableware, how I felt about using their wheels, their tools, and their clay. This mixed methodology is designed to elicit the knowledge of craftsmanship often embodied by the potters but hard to talk about in abstract terms during an interview.

At the Leach I am focusing on understanding the way individual techniques are employed in a workshop environment. By analysing specific making procedures I uncover connections that are often untraced or unconscious. I would like to think that asking and answering questions benefits the potters as much as it informs my study. A precious spree of revelation can emerge in an otherwise tedious conversation about centring clay, which is sufficient to validate hours (weeks!) spent transcribing my interviews. It takes me about 7 times the duration of the interviews to transcribe the conversations word by word. Many more hours will be spent coding and analysing their content.

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Back at the Leach Pottery in St Ives for a second round of interviews and filming. I’m interested in the way pottery making procedures affect qualities in the final pieces, what goes into making contemporary British tableware by hand. Often the technical discussions about making processes reveal fascinating little stories, personal reflections and tricks of the trade well worth sharing.

Ghana

My workshop for a day in Vume, Ghana, the most beautiful place. Micheal Cardew started the first modern pottery here in 1945, introducing wheels, pugmills and kilns to the local potters. Vume was already known for traditional pottery at the time and Cardew knew he could set up a pottery here due to local knowledge and availability of clay. I visited Vume last Easter on my way back from Togo and decided to return to interview the potters and learn about their ways of making pottery.

My doctoral research is exploring making methods in handmaking pottery in the UK and Japan. My wife is currently living in Ghana and I visit here regularly, so I also like to explore Ghanaian crafts and pottery in particular.

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Vume is a great place to study pottery as you can see both thrown ware and traditional handbuilt pots being made here, sometimes by the same people. Women tend to make traditional pottery and men are throwers, but I met female throwers and men who know how to handbuild as well. Edit and Comfort, the two traditional potters who showed me how to form the initial half pot, were excellent teachers and great fun to work with. They laughed at my wonky shapes, something I had experienced in Ghana before, but they also encouraged me with a few “not bad”. They said you need to be laughed at to learn and I agree it works. I was laughing with them and could see all the things I was doing wrong.

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A handbuilt pot I made at Vume guided and helped by Edit, a traditional potter based there. She is a great teacher. The front one is mine, the others are Edit’s. The curve is wrong as I wasn’t supporting the shape well enough with my left hand while pulling the walls with my right. It’s a wonderful coordinated movement that no one will ever teach you at art school. It’s an elegant and highly skilled action equivalent to pulling walls and rimming when throwing on a wheel, but coordinated in a single gesture.

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We visited a brass workshop in the village of Kofofrom, south of Kumasi, Ghana. The coils in the picture are made of bee wax and are extruded into spaghetti-like shapes. The extruder itself was a work of art, naturally handmade and with a primitive yet futuristic look that reminded me of bad American action movies from the 80’s. The process follows simple but laborious steps which take about a month from start to finish.

Roughly speaking: first a positive mould is made with clay. Then wax coils or thin sheets are laid to form the desired shape. This is why much of the brass jewellery and sculpture from Africa have characteristic bands of lines, something I never thought about before. Shapes are mostly done with coils, sheets or free form and you can easily trace the process by looking at the final pieces. The wax pieces are then joined by using larger coils, so that each piece receives a single coil on top and links to another piece with another coil at the bottom. The composition is then covered again with fine charcoal powder to preserve the details. It’s then covered again with a mix of chalk, clay and cow dung. The final mould looks like a fruit with a single hole on top. The mould is heated up and the wax is poured out, then the liquid brass is poured in and left to dry for about an hour. The mould is broken up and the brass is revealed.

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Kofofrom artisans only use recycled brass already in brass alloy form, mostly from old taps and plumbing, to which a maximum of 10% copper is sometimes added. I discovered this in my brief visit to the workshop, an enchanting experience of traditional artisanal skills in Ghana.

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