In conversation with Stephen Murfitt
These evolve through a sustained exploration of form and process. Influences are diverse and come from a fusion of visual elements seen in the natural and built environments.
The effects of weather, erosion and decay provide a constant source of reference. Small groups of related forms are hand built simultaneously. The slow and contemplative pace of coiling allows for considered developments and refinements to be made. Each stage of construction enables intuitive and selective marks and textures to occur.
Glazing and firing methods are adapted to enhance the form and surface of each piece. This combination of the making, glazing and firing methods result in one-off pieces which are completely unique.
Stephen studied alongside famous potter Dame Magdalene Odundo at the Cambridge School of Art.
Who are you and what do you do?
"My name is Stephen Murfitt and I make pots. I was born and grew up in the fenland village of Little Downham."
How did you get into clay and how long have you been working with this material?
"My first pots were made at Soham Grammar School in the late 1960s. My art teacher and early mentor Peter Askem managed to persuade my parents that the Foundation Course at the Cambridge School of Art should be my next step. This was an excellent two year course at that time and Friday became my favourite day: life drawing in the morning and pottery with tutor Zoe Ellison in the afternoon."
You’ve done many exhibitions in the past, with more to come. Is there one that really stands out to you, and if so, why?
"My first solo show took place at Beaux Arts in 1985. It was particularly memorable for a number of reasons. When I arrived at the PV, I was thrilled to see a good sprinkling of red dots! Later on, I met Dame Elizabeth Frink, and she purchased one of my pieces."
What is your connection to Primavera?
"I have had a long and happy association with Primavera Gallery in Cambridge. It was in Primavera when I was a Foundation student, that I first saw works by the famous potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper at first-hand. The innovative way Coper constructed his powerful sculptural vessels from thrown elements and explored rich textures on the surfaces was an inspiration then, and has continued to be so to this day.
The current director of Primavera, Jeremy Waller, visited my studio at Wicken several years ago, and we have had a friendly and fruitful relationship since. It was Jeremy who commissioned me to make the four monumental bowls in this exhibition. But typical for Jeremy: he set me a challenge. Jeremy wanted each piece in a new and different glaze. Producing the four large forms fitted into my working routine perfectly in that small groups of related forms are hand built simultaneously."
Can you tell us more about the process of Raku, and these pieces?
"Hand rolled coils were added to thrown bases at a steady and contemplative pace, which allowed for considered developments and refinements to be made. The making process for these extra large forms lasted for eight weeks. After prolonged drying for at least a week, the bowls were biscuit fired up to C1060˚. The pieces were then glazed by swilling the glaze mixture around the interior of the bowl to create a dramatic surface. An undercoat of the same glaze was then brushed over the exterior and finished with a thinly sprayed top coat. Some interesting marks occur where the brush strokes can show through the thin top coat of glaze.
The pots are then dried out thoroughly before being Raku fired. Once it can be seen through the spy hole in the Raku kiln that the glaze has fully melted and matured at around C1000˚, then the piece is removed and placed into a ready prepared reduction bin. A large piece like each of the four bowls will be fired very slowly to limit the effects of thermal shock. So the maturation temperature will take around 2-3 hours to reach. When ready, the top section of the kiln is removed to leave the form exposed on a raised base and accessible using the purpose made ‘pitchfork’ tongs. The reduction bin can be a metal dustbin, oil drum or purpose made metal, lidded container. The pot is gently placed on a prepared bed of sawdust and wood shavings which ignite on contact with the red-hot vessel. Buckets of sawdust and shavings are tipped over to cover the pot and the lid is then replaced.
‘Reduction’ occurs by limiting the amount of Oxygen in the atmosphere. This ‘post-firing reduction’ method will have the effect of creating lustres in glazes which contain oxides such as Copper, Iron and Manganese. Crackle in the glaze is caused by the glaze coat shrinking around the body of the pot on initial cooling. The smoke generated will carbonise and blacken areas of naked clay and emphasise crackles of various sizes by penetrating the shrinkage lines in the glaze."
What is it that inspires you to do Raku?
"My first experience of Raku took place during my last term at Cambridge. A few of Zoe’s pottery students got together to build a small kiln with some house bricks in her back garden. We had each made some small bowls which had been biscuit fired in advance and were ready for glazing on the morning of the Raku firing. These were all fired throughout an exciting and eventful afternoon, the memory of which has remained with me.
Right from that first experience on my Foundation course, I was drawn to Raku because of the direct involvement with each stage of the process. Glazing and firing methods are adapted to enhance the form and surface of each piece. This combination of the making, glazing and firing methods results in pieces which are completely unique. The pots absorb and often reflect the intense drama of the firing."
Can you talk to us about some of your influences?
"Clay is an incredible material, so tactile and versatile and is a constant driving force for my work. Recurring elements for exploration and development include edges, folds, seams, fissures and textures which result from the making and refining processes. My influences are diverse and come from a fusion of visual elements seen in the natural and built environments. The effects of weathering, decay and erosion provide a constant source of reference.
My current studio is based in the heart of a beautiful fen woodland environment which presents an ever changing vocabulary of visual delights. These include textured and patterned tree barks, gnarled and weathered roots and stumps. Ancient bog oaks are regularly being revealed and retrieved from the black fen soil. These can be so sculptural and ruggedly textured imposing forms. Both ancient and contemporary pots by other makers continue to inspire and collections such as those at the Fitzwilliam and British museums are frequently visited. Work in other media can be influential.
My wife the artist Terry Beard and I share our studio space. Although we use different materials and processes, the environment we find ourselves must be reflected in our work. We both enjoy identifying the inevitable visual connections made between the different disciplines of painting and ceramics."
Do you have any future goals for your work?
"I am currently putting together a book on Raku commissioned by the Crowood Press to be published in 2022. My future goals are to complete the book project and continue exploring and developing ideas for making ceramic forms and vessels."