South Wales Potters

Me and my Pottery by Niek Hoogland

I was born and raised in a Tegelen a town in the Netherlands that owes its existence and even its name largely to the clay that is dug here. The Romans used the Tegelen clay to set up a roof-tile and brick making industry. The region has continued to be a centre for ceramics production ever since, and still is today. In the early 19th century Tegelen had well over 30 potteries, all making lead-glazed earthenware and/or flowerpots (most of these potteries made slipware). A number of these potteries developed into brickyards, others developed into roof-tile factories. By the end of the 19th century there were only a few potteries left, most of them surviving on making terracotta flowerpots for an emerging agricultural industry.

The town of my youth was a town of factories that made bricks, roof-tiles, floor-tiles and ceramic pipes. My father worked as a maintenance-painter in one of these big ceramics factories. There were no health and safety rules like we have today so during the holidays I quite often accompanied my father to the factory, he’d get me some clay and I’d find me a place to play with that clay somewhere in the factory. Our neighbour was a potter and as a 5 or 6 year old child I often went to his pottery just to see him work. So as you can tell I’ve been interested in pottery as long as I can remember.

After leaving high-school I wanted to become a potter but unfortunately, it was the end of the sixties and everyone went for the bright colours of plastics, so most of the local potteries had to shut down due to lack of demand. My parents thought it better that I had ‘a proper job’, so I became a nurse, working with mentally disabled people. It was there that I met my

Wife, Pim, who shared (among many other things) my interest in ceramics. We used to travel a lot and on our travels we regularly visited potteries and pottery villages. In the early eighties, I lost my job and I was given the opportunity to train as a potter. A local slipware potter, Thé van Rens, was my teacher. The training was very traditional and had its main focus on decoration techniques like slip-trailing and sgraffito.

I soon realised that traditions always have a source somewhere else and/or in something else and, this goes for all traditions, if your only influence or inspiration is that tradition you are on a path that becomes narrower at every step.

Studying European slipware by visiting local and regional museums with slipware collections, reading archeological reports, visiting digs and talking to curators and collectors I found that in many places people like to think of slipware as a typical and original product from their own small town or region.

The reality was that potters often moved from town to town but also from region to region (often to marry a potter’s daughter or a potter’s widow to continue an existing pottery if there was no successor) thus influencing existing pottery-traditions. So what we like to think of as typical for a specific region is often the sum of local tradition, plus an outside influence, combined with the particular ‘handwriting’ of the potter picking up the new influence to incorporate that in his own work.

And of course there were fashions that were copied and there was trade, pots often travelled a long way before they were sold and used.

Very important for my personal development as a potter has been my apprenticeship with Joop Crompvoets at “Pottenbakkerij De Walsberg” in Swalmen. Joop is a maker of gas- and wood-fired salt glazed stoneware.

It was there that I learned about workshop routine and also about a professional attitude. Joop introduced me to all sorts of people who walked in and out of his pottery. A lot of them of course potters but also suppliers, painters, sculptors, gallery owners and archaeologists. It felt good to find other people that shared the same interests and it came all together in that pottery.  Many things fell into place for me: my interest in crafts, art and history and in folk-art.

After I finished my training, I found a job at a big production pottery in Beesel making a large series of pots, vases and dishes for flower-shops. Repetition production throwing, although it is boring and tedious (to make pots that you don’t even like) is very good training. It forces you to economise your handling of the pot. Discarding all unnecessary work, you learn to find the shortest way to your goal. Later I did another apprenticeship with Guul Jacobs at “Potterie De Olde

Kruyk” in Milsbeek. I worked there two days a week for about a year and a half before Pim and I decided we better set up our own pottery. Guul let me borrow one of his wheels and from the little savings we had, we bought a small

second-hand electric kiln and from May 1, 1991, Pottenbakkerij Hoogland was a reality.

The first few years of the pottery were tough. We had two small children, I was working hard to make and sell pots and Pim had to take a job in a care-home to have at least some regular income, in her spare time she helped me in the pottery. I those first winters trade more or less stopped. But every year we did a little bit better than the year before and in April 1999 Pim joined me in th pottery full-time.

We make our own work. From the beginning it was clear to us that we wanted to make slipware, I had had my training as a slipware potter, there was an old slipware tradition in our region that was not completely dead and although I had worked with stoneware during my apprenticeships, it was slip decorated ceramics that appealed to me most.

We wanted to use that slipware tradition to find ways to make contemporary ceramics. For our standard work I use a red earthenware clay from the German Westerwald, that is mixed with sand and grog. I mix the clay in an old dough-mixer after which the clay is pugged in a de-airing pug-mil. A non-functioning freezer is used to store the pugged clay.

For more individual work I use a very crude clay from a clay-pit in nearby Maalbeek. It is a red to light-brown that fires to a maximum of 1,100 deg C. (This clay is dug directly from the quarry.)

To prepare this clay, I dry-mix the clay in the dough-mixer. When the clay is well crumbled I take the clay out of the mixer, put water in the mixer and then, while the mixer is turning I sieve in the clay crumbs. To make the clay more workable I mix in silica sand that comes from the same quarry.

I let this clay cure for a few months before I start working with it. Most of my work is either thrown on an electric wheel or slabbed, for which I use an electric powered slab roller.

I like to work as direct as possible. I work by making a small series of a particular shape or type of pot. Before I start a series, I weigh the balls of clay to have even portions but I set no height or width gauge. While I’m throwing I like to consider each pot of that series as an individual piece.

I like to finish a pot on the wheel as much as possible so I have to do very little or no trimming when the pot comes off the wheel. Marks of the making and handling are not over emphasised but nor are they polished away.

The plasticity of the throwing clay may well show in the finished pot. Trimming, if necessary and handling is done when the pots are leather-hard. I like to pull handles straight from the pot. When you make slipware it is hard to define where making ends and decorating starts.

While making you leave marks both intended and unintended, these marks are often covered with a slip and first show after the pot is glazed and fired.

Slipping is done in the leather-hard stage by pouring, first the inside of the pot, and then when the pot has dried back to leather-hard, the outside. Marks of the slip pouring like overlapping layers of slip, the running down from the pot or a thin layer of slip showing the red clay under the surface, add to surface quality of the pot when glazed and fired.

Sgraffito, slip-painting and slip-trailing is done on the leather-hard pots. When the decorating slip can be touched without it getting damaged the pot is ready for raw-glazing. I like raw glazing because it enables me to work very directly and the time between throwing, decorating, glazing and firing are not too spread out, making my work more a whole.

Raw glazing also saves one firing which is not only important because of the economics but in a time of global warming we also must try to reduce our carbon footprint. Standard ware is fired in an electric kiln fired to 1,100 deg C.

Once or twice a year I fire a woodfired kiln.

I enjoy making pots that can be used, salad bowls, casseroles, teacups and teapots, jugs, cutlery-drainers and colanders.

I also make tiles, individually decorated as well as whole tile-panels.

Another part of the work I make and which has a direct link with our regional tradition of slipware pottery are commemorative items. Individuals as well as societies and companies commission me to make these items.