Q&A: The Light Forge
‘Each vessel has a considered surface and our marks are made with both brush and thought. As we work, we aspire to bring a quality of the ‘non-decorative’ to our awareness and we hope our contributions to daily lives provide nuances of light.'
The Light Forge is a studio practice in Cape Town, South Africa, that makes small functional ware exploring the fine translucency of porcelain. Set up by Katherine Glenday whose love affair with the translucent nature of porcelain has extended over more than 35 years, The Light Forge strives to create vessels for daily use which they hope contribute poignant moments of reflection to each day. Katherine was joined by Alistair Blair in 2015 who has also pursued his own explorations within the studio resulting in extending the production to include red and black clays. Their joined forces are responsible for the studio production of the Light Forge and their work is exhibited in South Africa, in New York, USA and now in London, UK by THROWN.
With work that becomes even more breath-takingly beautiful the more time you spend taking it in, we wanted to know more about the philosophies behind theses pieces. We put 5 questions to Katherine and Alistair, resulting in answers that we could just read over and over again:
To Katherine, going back to the very start, do you remember your first experience with porcelain?
K: I certainly do. There was a student at my art school in the 1980’s who threw a fine porcelain bowl when the rest of us were using terracotta and stoneware. It was deemed too complex a medium to teach students to use, however when I saw this vessel it was an instant and abiding love affair.
Alistair, when did you first learn about the Light Forge and decide that you would like to join the studio?
A: I first came across Katherine’s studio in 2015 when I attended an intimate concert in the space. I hadn’t ever really connected with ceramics until that moment. I was truly in awe and inspired to create work like Katherine’s if I’m honest. I was supposed to be going to Medical School after finishing my Honors in Physical Oceanography but after not getting accepted for that year’s intake, I thought I would try spending a year learning from her. The longer I spent learning and working the more I found what I guess one would call a vocation. The life and philosophy Katherine has established in her studio and working practice is something that I had been working towards in my own life through meditation.
The life and philosophy Katherine has established in her studio and working practice is something that I had been working towards in my own life through meditation.
It took me a couple of years to commit fully to the studio as I was filming at the time and enjoyed that type of pressure and intensity. I’ve now been living above the studio since 2016 which has allowed me to progress slowly as time allowed. Initially I couldn’t fully invest myself in the studio as there were often times when I would start a project and then be away for a few weeks. Ceramics is not the sort of career that suits a lot of moving around. Over time my interests clarified and shifted and Katherine offered me the opportunity to be more fully involved in the studio practice. So I decided to quit filming and working in oceanography so that I could focus on the work here. It’s a very gratifying type of work for the kind of person I am. Working with my hands in a quiet beautiful environment is hard to not enjoy. The collective working ethos also helps me expand certain ideas that are floating around my mind. Having Katherine to chat to about philosophical and creative ideas has been hugely beneficial. I have a very good group of people around me. As I haven’t studied ceramics formally, it’s been essential to have Katherine to learn from - there’s only so much one can learn from books and Youtube, especially when your hands are full of clay and you’re stuck.
We are completely blown away by the collection that you have created for our exhibition 'On The Edge of the Light', can you tell us more about the development of this work in particular?
K: This has been an ideal show for us to participate in and we relished the opportunity to think about all the ways we could work with light. Working towards a show is always a refining and challenging sort of process - and I got drawn back into the production aspect of the work because of the challenge. (It was so great that Alistair made contact with you and that you have given us this platform, and more particularly to work with the subject of light.) Up till now we have only shown our functional work in The USA.
Having loved translucency and explored many aspects of it over decades - there were so many ideas that were there for revival and for us to explore. Contrast and relationship between things (in this case dark and light) led to our showing both porcelain and black clay. I had explored working with strongly etched black surfaces on porcelain for many years - so that was also a necessary combination. The more subtle and simple plays of light led to the cups with faceted walls and then there was the matter of variations in wall thickness which also throws up the translucency to good advantage. In the past the cast vessels were always done in porcelain but Alistair was very eager to explore casting in black clays so we experimented and the black pieces are as a result of this. We also included some of Alistair’s more recent vessel forms which have been added into our repertoire.
Visually it is the proximity of fragile porcelain and dark clay together which amplify one’s perception of light. Light and dark help to define one another. I guess one could say the same thing about what happens when one works in relation to another: One is forced to clarify one’s own signature or to add and develop something already in place. (Sometimes its hard for Alistair and I to work out how to do this together because it is not common to share a creative production.) It is true to say that sharpening and defining perceptions of our individual methods and styles is important for a healthy collaboration and we often come to this point where we take stock of what is happening. (I don’t believe in technical things being kept secret or being owned - most artists use the same materials to very different ends. Only sometimes one may have a glaze or material that one has stumbled on or ‘stolen' which one wants to keep within the studio practice.)
Visually it is the proximity of fragile porcelain and dark clay together which amplify one’s perception of light. Light and dark help to define one another. I guess one could say the same thing about what happens when one works in relation to another: One is forced to clarify one’s own signature or to add and develop something already in place
I guess its been a challenge for Alistair to be finding his own voice alongside me as I have been working for so many more years and I have a pretty clear trajectory and have been through many quite different phases of expression. Ceramics provides an absolutely endless maze of possibilities and at least I can throw some of the knowledge his way - but in the end I believe something deeper determines one's path. As can be seen from Alistiar's own work coming to your next show - he is expressing himself with a strong and clear direction.
Philosophically we both believe that rather than performing as circumscribed individuals (as most creative people feel they need to do) - there is a place for working with what arises and for finding the form or resolution to it. The nature of contemporary Western studio practice often requires a person or a persona or an individual’s signature - however part of how this work has arrived is involves attempts to navigate being open to a flow of creativity and interest.
The notion of the Unknown Craftsman - whilst not being intrinsically part of our Western culture is often what makes potters likeable and less inclined to have massive egos. Circumscribed ownership of technical discoveries perhaps goes with an individualist ego but in fact far more productive is the openness to relationships which by their interaction more clearly define and refine the individual voice. Thats a long answer, but it is these more subtle things which I believe inform the quality of the work. It springs from a philosophical outlook.
The notion of the Unknown Craftsman - whilst not being intrinsically part of our Western culture is often what makes potters likeable and less inclined to have massive egos. Circumscribed ownership of technical discoveries perhaps goes with an individualist ego but in fact far more productive is the openness to relationships which by their interaction more clearly define and refine the individual voice.
I love the phrase ‘our marks are made with brush and thought’ which is un-doubtable within the work, do you both approach this process with the same eye or would we be able to tell a piece worked on by Katherine compared to one worked on by Alistair?
K&A: We can always tell who did what, because as with all mark making there certainly are idiosyncrasies. When one is at one’s most poised - the mark becomes a cypher for the person and the state of mind. Sometimes one is internally well poised and can do something which on another day does not work - and that same thing would look different depending on who did it. (This idea relates for example to the Zen tradition of Enso painting.) In the end our common goal is for poise, simplicity, balance and quiet. One is not always quiet or poised or focussed. There needs to be a sensitivity to the whole, to the form and weight and surface quality - mark making needs to be considered in the greater context and this sensitivity one develops over time. One is always on a path….
In the end our common goal is for poise, simplicity, balance and quiet. One is not always quiet or poised or focussed. There needs to be a sensitivity to the whole, to the form and weight and surface quality - mark making needs to be considered in the greater context and this sensitivity one develops over time. One is always on a path….
How do you feel that your location in Cape Town affects your work? Your work seems to hold light and darkness in a way that feels so different to any of the work coming out of the UK. How would you compare the light between us?
The most obvious thing that springs to mind is that the quality light in Africa is pretty brilliant and harsh compared with the softer light of England. That is a bit of a cliché - yet is is true and I always feel this when I look at British ceramics. I see more subtleties of tone and renditions of pots and paintings with far more saturated colours than we tend to do. Of course the Light Forge’s work for this current show concentrates on tonality, contrasting opacities with translucency rather than focussing on hue. However the studio’s close proximity to the sea and the tidal pools where we live inspires a daily sensitivity to the most beautiful qualities of light.