Inexpensive and inordinately satisfying to touch, look at and play with, ceramics have had a renaissance in recent years. But that should come as no real surprise. We live in an age of instant gratification, where everything we could ever want or need – ostensibly at least – can be sourced, ordered or called upon through that shiny phone screen we touch all day, whether it’s supper or a date.
Clay is the absolute antithesis.
To turn it into something takes a careful alchemy; mixing earth, fire, water and air with years of experience and lots of patience.
It takes concentration, time and mess but, eventually, out the other end comes something that can last forever. It’s no wonder so many people are discovering the thrill in making, with the rise of members-only studios and evening courses.
The appetite for ceramics is not just in making but in owning, too. Last year, a new record was set for a single piece of clay when esteemed artist Magdalene Odundo’s 1988 work Angled Mixed Coloured Piece sold at auction for £240,000. The fact that she is a living artist, and not one of the post-war greats such as Lucie Rie or Hans Coper, shows how pottery has become an important sector of the contemporary art market.
This contradiction of clay is what makes it interesting. It’s worthless. It’s literally mud. What makes it something of note is skill, passion and, of course, sentiment, too. We can probably all remember the dinner plates we were raised eating supper on or the cups our grandmother served her tea in.
We’ve maybe all got the cruddy pinch pot we made in pottery class at secondary school (hello, Mrs Derry) or an ornament from a naff gift shop, or candlestick from a souk bought on holiday. The value of ceramics is so personal, in a way paintings or sculpture just aren’t.
Clay objects offer a warmth, opacity, tactility and depth that counteract the glassy, transparent austerity of a world full of technology. The contemporary scene is dynamic and varied, but there is an overwhelming bent towards pieces that embrace their handmadeness. Imperfect, rough, ugly even.
Ceramics have the power – like indoor plants or textile art, which have both enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years – to bring a bit of analogue life to inert spaces in an overwhelmingly digital world. They can alter the character of a domestic environment and change the way we feel on a day-to-day basis. That is nothing new, but it is a fact that is being appreciated afresh.