About a Pot
When I first joined Marlborough College Malaysia as Head of Art and Photography back in 2021 we were still in the midst of the pandemic. Work was online for the first half term and getting to know pupils who I had never met in person via Google Meets was always something of a challenge; younger years in particular would often tilt their screens so that all one could see was a scalp and a ceiling fan – if they appeared at all. Bizarrely, this led to many pupils returning to school and their teachers not being able to recognise them (masks didn’t help that situation either).
However, as an Art teacher you tend to get to know pupils via their work that they send you. From the start it was clear that Linda was very obsessive with her design work. When I say ‘very obsessive’ the phrase cannot be understated. Her title page alone took well over a month and a half to produce. This is not normal; but it was beautifully decorated. Even at this early stage the idea that would lead to the pot was beginning to emerge – the Chinese dragon design was already there.
The idea of a ceramic pot was mooted whilst we were online. Whether I nudged Linda towards it or it was her own suggestion I cannot remember. I do recall my own excitement of the idea that at some point, after a year of being outside the classroom, that we might be able to create something substantial, in clay and getting our hands dirty, instead of whatever painting materials – digital or otherwise – that pupils had at home.
This is the first thing that the pot symbolises: the break from the pandemic. A pot this size would be very difficult to support as a teacher whilst online. It would also have been impossible to fire without being in school. The sense of detachment from one another whilst online made the teacher-pupil relationship sadly distant and impersonal.
The return to school changed all of that. Linda and her Art group returned to a classroom that they knew well (and that I was lost in for a short while). All of the GCSE and IB students were excited and ambitious with their new work. They were also nervous and understandably a little unsteady to start with.
To make the pot, Linda first built a small practice version. This took ages. I mean ages. To create a pot it can either be pulled on the wheel or built as a coil pot. At this stage the school did not have any potter’s wheels. Besides, to pull a large scale pot on the wheel would take years of experience. The alternative is to create a pot built up in coils. Each coil of clay, like a sausage, is placed on top of one another to build up the structure of the pot. The sides are then smoothed together to shape the pot both inside and out.
Linda did not yet have a design to go around her pot but she had an idea. She wanted her design to be based around her. In particular, she wanted to say something about her traditional Chinese heritage whilst also reflecting on her place in the modern world.
It is worth noting at this point that most of the first term had elapsed whilst the small pot was being made. Progress was slow. Very slow. To make matters worse we were still unsure of how to put the design on to the pot. One suggestion was to cover the fired pot in wax and then etch through the wax with a needle to create the design. The pierced shapes would then be filled with the coloured glaze. This approach can be very hit-and-miss. With all glazing in ceramics you can never be sure of what you are going to get back. Therefore, this strategy seemed too high risk. Then we found glaze pencils – so simple! Linda simply had to draw on her pot to create her design. And she did.
Weirdly, making the large pot was much quicker than creating the small one. There is no doubt that Linda had much more confidence with the second one. The problem was still the design. Linda always had a clear idea of the design in her head but had yet to commit it to the page. Instead she did a very ‘Linda’ thing and drew it – for the first time – straight on to the pot. As an Art teacher I can say that this is not the best way of doing things but it is what works for Linda.
The deadline for the completion was closing. This was now two terms of the Hundred and the pot was still only designed on one side. This was despite the numerous amount of time spent by Linda during breaks, lunchtimes and after school. It would seem that the pot would have to stay that way. However, I had not counted on Linda’s true obsessiveness – there is no way she was going to let the pot be glazed fired when it was half-complete. So she gave up some of her revision time to complete the design. And we are very glad she did.
As noted already, it is difficult to know what you are going to get back from a glaze firing. We had the pencil design on the pot but it was easily smudged. As an underglaze it needs a coat of glaze over the top. The small pot experiment showed that we needed a transparent glaze but it smudged the pencil when applied with a paint brush. So we sprayed it instead – with no idea whether it would work or not; when we tried this process again on other work after that it actually failed miserably. It worked on the pot and that was everything.
The pot represents more than just one pupil’s obsessive attention to detail and her incredible passion for this subject. It also symbolises our freedom and the release from the pandemic. It represents the past and the future. More than that it symbolises personal identity: Linda’s cultural history but also her character and aspirations. Lastly, it shows the power and importance of art. Art is about communicating ideas, desires, philosophies and emotions.
I genuinely feel that the sale of this pot is an amazing thing: that the life of this pot will go on to help others through the money that is raised. Whoever buys the pot will also own something completely unique and irreplaceable.
Mr Clements, Head of Art and Design
Some of the mess made building the pot.
The trial pot showing the glaze experiments.
The finished pot.
Linda with the pot on display in the ‘IN’ Exhibition at the Australian High Commission Singapore.