Pottery: a philosophy of the elements

The ancient Greeks believed that all matter was made up of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. They formed the cornerstone of philosophy, science and medicine for 2,000 years but aeons before this, pottery was the most basic and functional human realisation of the elements. Pottery was, and is to this day, the elements made manifest.

Creatively inspired by Siramik pottery

The elemental quality of pottery is never more fully appreciated than when you are sat at a potter's wheel and discovering, for the first time, this most ancient yet essential of crafts. Such was my experience when our founder (and my neighbour) Kate Dewmartin and I recently visited CraftCourses maker Yoka Kilkelly at Siramik Pottery in Carmarthenshire. The recognition of earth, water, air and fire and their most tangibly connected form is profound: the everyday made exceptional; the ordinary made extraordinary but, to really understand it, you have to witness and feel it first hand.
Yoka, a native of the Netherlands and passionate about pottery from the age of six, has been settled in the UK for more than three decades. She began her UK life with ceramics working for a Carmarthenshire pottery and raised a family with her husband on their farm. In 2004, when a stone barn on the property became available, everything she had learned (including a degree in ceramics and a teaching qualification), the experience she had gained, and the desire to share her knowledge, came to happy fruition with the birth of 'Siramik.'
A selection of Siramik ceramics

Arrival at Yoka's pottery studio is rural to say the least! Her instructions tell you that you will think you're "in the middle of nowhere" and so it seems as you drive up a long track through forestry and countryside strangely reminiscent of the Netherlands with tidy, open fields and windmills. As you enter the yard, the beautiful stone barn, formerly a milking parlour and farmhand lodgings, is directly ahead and already there is a sense of being in another world. Creativity of any kind is a form of escapism, and this stunning place truly feels like an escape from the ordinary concerns of the everyday, and the entrance to somewhere very far removed from that.
The converted stone barn and entrance to Siramik
Yoka began our session by talking a little about herself, her history with ceramics and how she came to be in this place and we admired the way she has cleverly organised the space to accommodate six students in comfort. All around there are examples of her completed work, pottery at various stages (both student's and her own), as well as interesting objects that she has collected or that arrived with her from the Netherlands. Notable are the Dutch clogs repurposed as brush holders and a delightful set of miniature clay teapots - "With compliments of Mr. Cheng" - found in an antique shop and treasured as much for their aptness as for their aesthetic quality.

Our eyes roamed hungrily over this veritable treasure trove of arts and crafts memorabilia. The earthy smell of clay was all around along with the sweet aroma of hay and wild flowers, the sound of bees and the sense of the purposeful history in the building.
A flavour of 'home' elements put to good use

By anyone's standards, Yoka is an accomplished artist. Notwithstanding the current societal debate on whether craft can be considered art, she is an artisan who makes practical objects that are functional and useful but that are also beautiful, wonderful to hold, and undoubtedly worthy of the term 'art.'

"I am a very practical person and therefore my major wish is to make beautiful ceramic pieces that people can use, hold & enjoy." - Yoka Kilkelly

Yoka has created a studio with accessibility in mind so that all feel welcome, and no-one need feel excluded or unwelcome in any way. If you think you are too big to sit comfortably behind a wheel or you have back or knee problems, Yoka will help you to adapt and adjust so that you can enjoy and fully engage in the session. Mindful of my own slightly dodgy back, I eagerly eyed up the bags of damp clay stacked up like sentries on duty, and tried to contain my enthusiasm as we donned aprons and prepared to get started.

Miniature teapots courtesy of Mr Cheng

The first task was to prepare the clay. This involves a process known as 'wedging' where the clay is manipulated in a repetitive turning, pushing and rolling action the purpose of which is to expel any air pockets, compress and align the particles within the clay more closely, and to make the clay more flexible, malleable and conditioned ready for use. Sounds straight forward enough right? An experienced potter like Yoka makes it look easy but, for a newbie it is surprisingly tricky. The result (with a little assistance) is a piece of clay shaped a bit like a shell. A wire cutter is then used to slice through to make several, similarly-sized pieces of clay which we slapped and patted into balls ready for the wheel.
Eager student - Niki of CraftCourses
Yoka explained how to centre the clay and after a couple of frankly feeble attempts, I had the hang of it and finally, after much imagining of what this would feel like, I was able to fulfil that long-held ambition of throwing a clay pot on a wheel. I make it sound so easy! It is not!! But, it is sooooo much fun trying. As Yoka coached me in the correct way to link my thumbs and to position my hands to begin the process of shaping the clay (it's extraordinary how your once well-behaved hands now seem to have become completely delinquent), I began to understand why this craft is on most people's bucket lists. Where pottery is a craft of the elements, the feeling of moulding wet clay as it spins on the wheel is the most elemental sensation to experience - earth and water.

Feeling the clay is as important as seeing it!

“Connect your two hands so both brains are working.“ - Yoka

I created the central 'hole' of my pot and then gradually began to raise the walls, smoothing the rim after each repetition before bringing the sides outwards into a bowl shape. I understood how my arms and hands, rather than manipulating, simply created an appropriate space within which the clay could move. The clay felt smooth and silky as Yoka kindly kept trickling water over it to save me losing my focus and my pot! I remember the exact moment when I felt my lack of coordination transitioning into some semblance of control; where I could feel the clay respond to my hands and begin to transform from an amorphous lump into a functional and recognisable object. It was an actual 'aha!' moment; an epiphany of sorts.
My 'aha!' moment
“You definitely have a feel for this, this is poetry in motion.“ - Yoka

I feel Yoka was a little generous in her assessment of my bowl-throwing talents, but the sense and feeling of accomplishment was powerful. You tend to meander through life with fairly solid expectations of how easily you think you'll achieve new skills, but the reality is often surprisingly off-kilter. I'm mindful of my first attempt at skiing a million years ago when I arrived full of confidence but simply couldn't find my courage or coordination; or the first time I took my dog to an agility competition after a year of training, and watched helplessly as she ignored my directions and set off on an adventure of her own.

I came to the potter's wheel similarly, with a creative person's positivity, and left it with renewed respect. Respect for the skill involved, for the reverence of the process, for the honing of techniques that take years to master, and for the potter who can take earth and water and create magic!
Mission Impossible becomes Mission Completed
Air is the third of the elements and, after carefully transferring my bowl to a wooden bat, it was placed to one side where exposure to the air would slowly dry the clay, initially to a point known as 'leather dry.' At this stage, the clay feels dry to the touch but still has too much water content to be safe in the kiln.
My first wee-bit wonky wheel-thrown bowl! Imperfectly perfect!

This is however, the perfect point at which decoration can be added by hand painting or scoring into the clay with a variety of tools and techniques and which has given much of Yoka's pottery its particular style. Slips (watered down clay that contains additives which can produce a variety of colours on firing, but have the earthy tones of clay in its raw form) can then be applied before the pots are left to fully dry for six weeks at which point they are made ready for the last of the four elements - fire!
Hand-scoring flowers into a leather dry jug, a process known as 'sgrafitto'
Favouring a more modern approach than the wood-fired kilns used by the ancients, Yoka has an electric kiln with the capacity to fire several layers of pots at once. For earthenware which is Yoka's specialty, the items undergo two firing processes. The first 'bisquit' firing (a term stemming from the French word 'bisque') transforms the pottery into a porous state for glazing and also allows the potter to do much more decorative work with stains, underglazes and glazes. The pots are brought to temperature slowly to lessen the risk of them cracking or exploding during the glaze firing. 

First firing complete, and the pots can now be glazed in preparation for the second firing. The kiln is heated to 1,100°C at which temperature the iron and other minerals within the clay reach optimum maturity. During this firing, the glaze attains its glassy finish, protecting the clay within and providing a surface that is safe to eat and drink from. Throughout the firing processes, each pot shrinks by about 10% as water is removed from the clay by the heat, something to be aware of when planning the finished article.

“That’s your breakfast bowl .. but you’re on a diet from now on as the bowl shrinkage in the kiln is 10%!“ - Yoka

The kiln after the first 'bisquit' firing
The final process in the production of my first wheel-turned bowl was to apply two slips (one light and one dark blue) in a splatter pattern. I feel I may have been a little heavy-handed in my splatter technique but will have to eagerly await the outcome for a few more weeks. 

In completing my part in the making of this little bowl, I'm left with the positive feeling of trying something that is a completely new experience. The overriding impression in my case, is a better understanding of the beauty of pottery throughout its creation using the four elements, where each piece has its own unique qualities. Therein lies the appeal of handcrafted pottery over mass-produced, factory-manufactured ceramics. It is the individuality of every piece that you hold: you can sense the hands of the craftsperson who has made it; you can feel its heart and soul.
Applying slip - more heavy downpour than splatter!
Meeting Yoka and ticking this incredible craft off my bucket list was an absolute privilege. To hear someone talk so passionately about their love for their craft and the joy of passing on their skills to others is wonderful. For me it was emotional and uplifting - we often trudge from day to day forgetting to take time out to try something new. When we step away from the norm and towards something untried, it opens up a plethora of emotions and reminds us of the capacity we have for new experiences.

An array of rollers for making impressions in clay

As we drove away with Yoka and Siramik in the rear-view mirror, I was buzzing with the thrill of a fledgling skill, eager to see how my little bowl will turn out, and keen to have another go as soon as I can. While the possibility of having my own pottery studio and wheel is remote, I have fulfilled a long-held ambition and it didn't disappoint. I can imagine how others are bitten by the pottery bug and how, once bitten, are taken in a completely new direction creatively, emotionally and practically. It's the stuff sea changes are made of.
Examples from Siramik's 'Fish' collection by Yoka Kilkelly, potter and pottery teacher

Why I teach - Yoka Kilkelly

You may be a craftsperson who has thought about sharing your skills with others but not sure if you're ready to take that step. Yoka is the perfect example of someone who has taken their passion, knowledge and joy of making, and created a winning formula of teaching students alongside creating pottery for exhibitions and for sale to a public who are reacquainting themselves with quality craftsmanship and artisan crafts. Neither has lessened her joy or dampened her enthusiasm for her craft. For Yoka, pottery is; 

“...everything. I’m in the zone. I do something of my own. It’s the connection you have with the clay. You are the creator.” Yoka
A lovely rendition of 'Siramik'

For Yoka, the joy she feels is multi-faceted: it's as much to do with seeing the sense of accomplishment in her student's faces as they grasp the techniques, as it is about her success in maintaining her integrity in an increasingly commercial and cynical world. She has found her niche in this special place and wants to continue giving others the opportunity to experience the same.

"I have decided that I don't want to be 93, sitting on my chair with my stick in my hand and feeling that my head will explode with all the knowledge I have built up. It is the reason why I teach and want to share this knowledge and see people's stars in their eyes when they have made their pots. Teaching is not work for me, it is sharing what I know and I thoroughly enjoy it." - Yoka

Thank you Yoka for a truly special experience. You have taken the elemental, the fundamental four components of Mother Earth, and metamorphosed them into wondrous, colourful works of art that are functional as well as beautiful. Your enthusiasm and love of your craft are inspirational.
Siramik tableware and pottery courses

If you would like to experience the beautiful craft of pottery with Yoka, you can book a place on one of her courses here: Pottery on the Potter's Wheel - Half Day at Siramik or if you'd love to have one of Yoka's beautiful pieces in your home or as a special gift for a loved one, you can browse Yoka's handcrafted gifts here: Siramik handcrafted gifts.
Siramik holds the CraftCourses Silver Student Choice Award

CraftCourses is privileged to have a fabulous community of potters teaching a variety of pottery and ceramics techniques. If you would like to find a course a little closer to home, you can browse our comprehensive range here: Ceramics and Pottery.

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