Friday, 28 October 2016

Woman’s Work - Jessie, Kate & Enid by Joanne Ayre

Sometimes I think I'm a frustrated dancer. Unable to move on the dance floor in a coordinated manner, my style of dancing could generously be labelled 'abstract' or 'expressive', 'post-modern' even, if that means you nick moves from around you collaging them together into a disjointed series of steps, sways and swings of limbs. Making is my moment as a dancer. A place where uninhibited choreography is enacted by my fingers. A chance for grace and elegance. There is a recognised contentment to be found in being in the flow of a process; the flick of a brush, the decisive cut of a wire, the sweep of a sponge. There are other benefits to making objects- a chance for self expression, the enquiry and exploration into materials or subject matter, a way of processing the world. In recent years there have been times when I have felt that I have lost my own practice, that I have become wrapped up in other work or life or circumstance, but the joy of process has been a constant. The pleasure of a well oiled guillotine made trimming work for display a stolen pleasure in a busy day of teaching.

Moving back to Stoke has provided me with freedom; space, opportunity and encouragement have played a part in allowing me to channel my energy into my work as an artist. Working alongside others is an important part of what I do and I am increasingly intrigued by collective endeavour; what happens when people make together. What happens when individual identity becomes more difficult to define or even irrelevant? Why is anonymity such a source of fascination to me? How does this relate in particular to gender? Are women more happy to work collectively, less ego driven perhaps? Or is there more a denial of their individuality that means they have only been identified as a collective?

Photo by Stephanie Rushton
To open my research I have presented three collections of objects brought together in response to three named women who worked in the pottery industry. Their individual stories seemed a good place to start, with some information recorded and accessible. As the residency progresses I hope to uncover stories of other women, who may not be associated with a specific object but for whom the work of their hands is nevertheless part of the process of making ceramics.

Detail of Jessie by Joanne Ayre

Born in Stoke on Trent in 1928, Jessie Tait was one of Midwinter Pottery's most prolific and popular designers. Many of her patterns are so familiar to us they have seeped into the archetypal aesthetic of 1950s British design. Exploring some of the vast range in designs she created, it is remarkable how elements of these appear to have been adapted or reinterpreted by other designers. Pieces like those in the Domino range feel so ubiquitous it seems strange to attribute this to the work of one designer. This is a reflection of the success of Jessie's playful rhythm of line, dot and dash. Her relationship with the 'army' of women who 'incorporated hand-painted details' into the ware is one that I would like to explore further. To me, many of her designs seem to celebrate the deftness of the paintresses' hands. Would it be romantic to suggest that she purposely made this an essential part of the process rather than turning to more mechanised ways of applying decoration?

However, the part of Jessie's story that intrigues me most is her dedication to making. For Jessie lived a double life, designing by day and making with clay at night. Clay as a material and form, as well as a surface, must have had a real draw for Jessie. She made use of access to night school to create wheel thrown tubelined wares. I would love to know how she felt about these two approaches to ceramics, whether she would have preferred to work as a 'studio potter' or if she saw both pursuits as complementary. Was working as a 'designer' a more respectable career option for a woman? Cheryl Buckley describes the role of designer as an alternative to domestic roles for women. Would an independent potter have been a step too far in terms of gendered expectation, for was it more a matter of financial stability?

Kate by Joanne Ayre

Kate Bruce was a paintress at Spode from the mid 19th century for over fifty years. Her skill at executing detailed decoration, in particular a cornflower design, led to her becoming one of few, if not the only, woman permitted to sign her work. Pam Woolliscroft has more information about Kate here:

I wonder how Kate's feelings about her work changed after she was granted this permission? Was she proud? Was it an added pressure? Did she feel stuck with painting more cornflowers? Was her loyalty and long service driven by financial need or did she take pleasure and pride in her work? Did the social dynamic with her colleagues change after her individual endeavours were acknowledged?

Detail of Kate by Joanne Ayre
Designer Enid Seeney provided a third focus for my initial exploration. The 'Homemaker' design is one that I recall spotting during trips to the Potteries Museum as a child. A feature on the regular tour of the potteries museum with my nan, which included the dolls' house, the cow creamers, the chip shop and taxidermy, it jumped out of the case at me with its bold use of line and the detailed depictions of furniture. It connected with my fascination with encyclopaedias and maps and diagrams of homes or towns illustrated in the inside covers of Milly Molly Mandy, Peter Pan and the Hobbit. I had not given the design a second thought until this year when I became involved in a project with artist Anna Francis. Enid's story is a fascinating one, which Ray Johnson's film Homemaker records through interviews with Enid herself. She trained as a designer with Spode Copeland in the 1950s, where she learned 'how to draw better'. However, she moved to Ridgway Pottery on completion of her training as she wanted to 'do modern designs'. In the film her love of drawing radiates from the footage and her recollections. She speaks with great excitement about the wonderful atmosphere of the studio, the pleasure of designing and the satisfaction of having her designs accepted after many attempts to bring in a fresh, stylised aesthetic to the traditional manufacturers. Enid worked as a designer for seven years before leaving Stoke on Trent to marry her first husband. 

A modest woman, Enid describes the surprise at discovering the Homemaker range for sale in her local Woolworths. In the film Enid makes no suggestion of regret, she seems pragmatic in her reflection on the way she left the profession to 'be a wife' and 'make a home'. How did Enid reconcile her creative urge? Or did she find other sources of fulfilment; swiftly filling the gaps left by the end to her career with other passions, roles or activities? The unearthing of the Super 8 footage by Andrew Branscombe is a wonderful glimpse into her life. It captures a relaxed, happy, playful young woman. There is a degree of self reflection when examining the lives of others - how would I feel if this were me? But there is a complexity to feelings, motivations and behaviours that make 'conclusions' elusive. There is an ethereal quality to personality which denies definition. And there is a way of 'making the most' of it that many people possess.

Detail of Enid by Joanne Ayre

So where next? I am interested in delving deeper into the lives of these women and others beside. I hope to 'understand' more about them and their work through the making of ceramics, reflecting not only the visual elements and processes of their work but also the settings, where they worked, who they worked alongside, how their work formed part of their daily or weekly activities. Collective working and the anonymity of identity is an area I would like to explore through working with other women in the city. Memories and accounts have already begun to flow my way and I now look to identifying ways of recording and responding to these stories of 'woman's work'.

Woman’s Work is a partnership project between AirSpace Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Woman’s Work seeks to make visible the hidden and unsung labour carried out by women in the home, the workplace and public life, and in particular seeks to redress the imbalance in history and the arts, where work made by women has been undervalued, or simply not recognised.

The exhibition is open at AirSpace Gallery 11am - 5pm, Thursday - Saturday, 30th September to 5th November 2016. The evolving Woman’s Work programme at Potteries Museum and Art Gallery runs through to November 2017

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