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Interview with Alex McCarthy, Ceramicist

Interview with Alex McCarthy, Ceramicist

The young British ceramicist on his process—every planned and unplanned detail of it

Jon Sharpe
By Jon Sharpe, Chief Creative Officer

Like any skilled ceramicist, British artisan Alex McCarthy understands the delicate balance between creative interference and the beauty of natural chance. Contrasting carefully hand-shaped, elegant silhouettes with naturally cracked surfaces and freely flowing trickles of metallic paint, the result is part refined, part rustic.

As a Spring/Summer addition to LuxDeco’s brand roster, discover what brought this young artist to his recognisable aesthetic, who inspires him and the creative process behind Alex McCarthy ceramics.

What was your journey into the world of ceramics?

My ceramics journey started in my A-level years when I took both Art and Design Technology. My tutor advised me to go on and study a foundation degree in Art and Design where I was encouraged to work with many different materials—one of which was ceramics. Once I started working with this material, I realised it was for me for two reasons—I enjoyed working with clay but, also, it came fairly naturally to me. By this point I knew I wanted to specialise in ceramics and so went to Cardiff School of Art and Design to do a BA Hons degree specifically in ceramics. I graduated with a first and haven’t looked back since.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

My inspiration comes from all this around us, mostly for their textural qualities. Anything from coarse brickwork, tree bark, road and path surfaces, but also ranging towards marine life and anything in between. The forms of my work are almost of second importance. I love simple ceramic profiles that lend themselves to having a textural surface. I feel a truly successful pot is one that has a harmonious connection between surface and form.

Interview with Alex McCarthy | British Ceramics Artisan | Style Guide
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Which artists have influenced your work?

Two artists that spring to mind are artists I did personal studies on in my A levels—Roy Ray and Rob Woolner. They both produce heavily textured paintings and I have been influenced by them ever since. Along with these painters, two potters called Svend Bayer and Nic Collins have been of great influence and inspiration for one purpose—their use of scale. I enjoy producing the larger work as it is much more of a challenge which, when you overcome it, is a brilliant feeling.

Your work has a very strong theme yet it seems organic—how do you balance evolving your work whilst maintaining the integrity of your style?

I think once you have created a style that you are happy with and that is popular it is hard to move away from. With this comes natural progression—one could even call it evolution of a style. Experimenting is always key and with new textures comes new form and then colours and lustre types follow.

What fascinates you about ceramic as a medium for your designs?

What really fascinates me about ceramics is the endless amounts of outcomes that are achievable with the same material. There are hundreds of different clays from all over the world that all fire differently and have a range of finishes. I think in my personal work it is the fact that no two pieces are ever the same, so the client really is receiving a one-off object, produced by a human and not a machine.

Which materials do you use and how do you source them?

I use two different types of clay—a grogged stoneware and Royale Porcelain. The reason I use these is their gradients in shrinkage rate. When clay dries out it shrinks and then once fired it then shrinks further—the higher the temperature the clay is fired the greater the clay shrinks. Some clays shrink more than others. The porcelain shrinks more than the stoneware clay and this is how the crazed style of vessel I produce is made. I mix my glaze up from raw materials including Cornish Stone, Whiting as well as Chine Clay. The gold, platinum and copper aspect of my work is in fact the precious metals I have just stated and not a copy, they are called lustres and are applied on a third firing at a much low temperature.

To what extent do you plan your designs and to what extent are they the result of natural chances?

When I sit down at the wheel I know what I am going to produce, however this doesn’t mean that each pot goes to plan. Clay has a very strange aspect to it—it sometimes feels like it has a mind of its own. If you are not respectful of it you will waste most of your day try to fight against it. I find if I don’t have an agenda to work towards I end up losing concentration and not making many wares.

Interview with Alex McCarthy | British Ceramics Artisan | Style Guide
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What’s the process for creating one of your vases?

There are several processes/stages in producing my wares. Firstly, I start by preparing the clay—this process is called wedging. The easiest way to explain it is the opposite to a baker kneading dough. They are trying to get air in and wedging is the process of getting any air bubbles out. Clay is not ready to be used straight out of the bag it’s supplied in. Once the clay is ready I then throw the pot on the wheel, then turn the pot, then add the texture by adding slip (liquid clay) to the outside of the vessel.

Once these stages are complete I leave the piece to dry out thoroughly before its first firing, which is a bisque firing. Moving on from here, I have to apply the glaze and the oxides to the pot before its second firing, a glaze firing. Finally after I remove the ware from the kiln I then apply the lustre and once again the pots are returned to the kiln for there final firing which is much lower and is called a lustre firing.

What’s the most difficult/time-consuming part of the process?

I don’t think any one process stands out to me for taking longer than any other process. Each piece takes a lot of time and concentration and so to me each stage is as important as the next.

How long does it usually take you to complete your pieces?

I never time myself making a piece as I tend to make the smaller pieces in batches and the large wares in stages. But the rule of thumb is that the large the piece the longer it takes.

Which environments do your pieces suit best?

My work needs space, I think. What I mean by this is that, due to the heavily textured surfaces and opulent lustres, a viewer needs to be able to focus on the vessel and not be too distracted by things around it—for example, the end of a sideboard, the centre of a table or a solitary shelf. The wares need space to breathe.