Potter Steven James Will on the alchemy of ceramics
Words Kinna Mosley
Photographs Sam Walton
Driven by a compulsion to make, Steven James Will justifies his work by making it as ‘local and personal as possible.’ It would be hard to find anything more real and local than the very earth he dredges out of rivers with his bare hands, while wild swimming with his dog Otto…
Will spends his days playing with this foraged mud, experimenting, forming, shaping. Through what seems like alchemy, he combines this earth with bonfire ash to create unique and natural smoke-fired glazes for his porcelain homewares. Each item comes with a local map, marking where he found the clay. This strong sense of place gives each piece an authenticity, a story, a life of its own.
‘It’s more tactile than visual’
For Will, the process is all about using raw materials from nature and the experience of making something with his hands. It is his way of making sense of the world, he says: he wants his work to be touched, felt, used, lived with, even smelled if possible. The thought of it being stuck in a glass box makes him shudder. He aims to integrate his creations into people’s daily lives to make their day just that little bit better if possible. One trick he employs is making thin porcelain bases for mugs. ‘This enables the sun to shine through and illuminate your morning cuppa once you reach the end of it’, he explains with delight. He incorporates the same technique into his lampshades, making the top of the shade thinner to allow more light to shine through.
Although also producing wth stoneware teapots, Will currently works mainly with porcelain. It wasn’t until someone put a ball of porcelain in his hands that he fully connected with the technique of throwing: ‘It’s like throwing with cream cheese,’ he says with a grin.
The sensory experience of ‘doing’ certainly takes precedence over aesthetic pontification. ‘It’s more tactile than visual,’ he explains. But there’s know denying Will’s work stands out aesthetically too, with authentic beauty in its realness.
While many potters use reduction firing, Will simply has a modern electric kiln which he experiments with. He has a collection of different pots of ash used in the glazes. One is the remains of a burnt boat from Orford, full of nails and brass bits that he’s hoping will give interesting effects. Another is from a house clearance bonfire. Many more come from willow bonfires burnt on nature reserves across the Norfolk Fens: he also has photo sketchbooks documenting where he has collected his ash or clay from. Each piece he creates will be brilliantly unique and unrepeatable, due to his experimental and playful approach.
After a relatively academic childhood and a BSC in Botany, Will set up an organic micro-box scheme which he ran for around eight years, growing vegetables and cut flowers for 30 customers. During quiet winter months, he used his veg-packing shed as a studio where he pursued a love of pottery. (He’d first discovered this interest in the tactile nature of clay as a child while playing in rivers, he says.) Around 10 years ago, he submitted work for his first exhibition in Bridport, called 6X4. After a positive response, he realised the possibility of taking pottery more seriously and signed up for a two year Art Foundation course in Brighton. Although there was no pottery taught in the first year, Will cleverly mirrored each module at home in clay as a way of experimenting and expanding his learning. For example, he would try out slip decoration from life drawings, or projected onto pots and wove coils of clay into bowls during a module in weaving.
During his second year in Brighton, Will specialised in ceramics and created a project around items he found while walking. Being in urban Brighton, this meant he would mainly come across litter. Through his alchemical processes, he transformed this rubbish into neat and beautiful ceramics. For example, a Morrison’s trifle pot, found on a walk, would become the mould for a series of bowls.
After Brighton, he moved to Norfolk, near his family, and signed up for the part-time City Lit Ceramics Diploma in London – a course he found to be fully immersive, pushing him to develop ideas and skills. After graduating, Steven was part of the collective gallery Klay, a pop-up shop in Camden. Although originally intended to run just for a month, the Klay gallery was so successful that it continued for nine months. Steven moved to Suffolk and found his current studio a year ago when a space became available next to one of his former ceramic teachers, Annie Turner – delighted with his new-found home among the sticks and estuaries of the rural Suffolk coast…