Jane Silk – Artist and Ceramicist
I was born in 1951, in Beaconsfield and then lived in Oxted (pre-M25 days!), Surrey, for several years. A change of job for my father necessitated a move to Berkshire, near the river Thames, between Maidenhead and Cookham.
In Oxted we lived in a quiet, no-through road with fields at the end, where we would sometimes gather mushrooms for breakfast. There were woods at the bottom of our garden and my younger sister and I would play outside with friends nearly all day in the woods or garden, or on our bikes in the road! Those were the days when the milk cart was pulled by a horse. There were also visits from a rag and bone man and occasionally a knife sharpener. It was very much the ‘50s era of ‘make do and mend’ to get by. My mother was a portrait painter and my sister and I would have to ‘sit’ for her periodically – I was never very good at keeping still for long! She used to make our clothes as well. One autumn, I remember her devotedly knitting an entire mini wardrobe for our dolls as our surprise Christmas presents… Somehow we didn’t register that these tiny clothes were for dolls!
Apart from my parents, the rest of my family were farmers, either in Dorset or Essex. Most school holidays we’d stay at one or other of the farms, between them a mix of dairy cattle (beautiful Jersey cows, with rich creamy milk), sheep, pigs, chickens and a range of arable. I was devoted to our grandparents and loved staying on the farm, despite one farmhouse having no heating and playing outside most of the time. It instilled in me a fundamental love of the countryside and being outdoors, something that has never changed.
In Oxted I went to a wonderful little primary school and was happy there until we moved away. I was already showing a love of Art and we had a remarkable teacher who encouraged us in all creative aspects. I remember we had weekly Picture Study and even now can still specifically recall certain paintings by Constable, Vermeer, Goya, Pieter de Hooch and others. They made a deep impression on me! We would take country walks and, back in the classroom, make detailed drawings of the wild flowers we’d picked (no rules against it then I’m afraid). At other times we would collect autumn leaves and make prints of them with shoe polish.
After we moved from Oxted I spent a couple of years at a convent in Maidenhead, when I started to learn the piano and then went to boarding school in Bexhill, from the age of 12. Although homesickness was always an issue, I grew to be happy there and made some good friends, with whom I’m still in touch over 50 years on! I was very much Arts biased, loving Art and Music the most but also languages and sport. I’ll never forget the absolute joy of running up to the Art room when it was time for the lesson, opening the door and being greeted with many colourful jars of newly mixed powder paint! At quiet times over weekends I had free access to the Art studio to paint whenever I wanted, which was wonderful. I would also spend many an hour in the practice rooms.
Being away at boarding school meant I had few local friends, so when there were no arrangements to stay with friends from school, I grew fairly independent during the school holidays, occupying myself with any creative project I could lay my hands on. I enjoyed reading, playing the piano and going on long bike rides round the country lanes nearby. We always loved walking our dog along the river towpath each day.
As it had always been my forté, it was an easy decision to continue with Art on leaving school, so I enrolled on a Foundation year at Art College in Maidenhead, living at home for the year. My parents and grandparents were quite happy for me to follow this route and I don’t remember any concerns. I have to admit though, had I been a boy at that time, there may have been some opposition! I loved every aspect of the course, which gave a fantastic grounding in a huge variety of disciplines – including my first introduction to clay. This was life changing. I immediately took to it, loving the tactile qualities of working with this pliable material and owe so much to our ceramics tutor at the time, Peter Simpson, known affectionately as Henry. His teaching and encouragement helped me make the decision that this was the direction I wished to pursue. Those first pots were coiled, as I was already naturally drawn to hand building, although I learnt to throw on the wheel while I was there.
I went on to spend 3 gloriously happy years on my degree course (called a Diploma in those days) at the Bath Academy of Art. At that time the college was at Corsham (9 miles east of Bath), a lovely old stone village, surrounded by beautiful Wiltshire countryside, and of course the parkland estate of Corsham Court itself, complete with peacocks and guinea fowl. Those really were golden years! To spend all day, every day up in the Pottery and then most evenings playing one of two amazing concert grands in Corsham Court’s gatehouse music room… I was in my element. An incurable romantic, I recall memories of riding my bike along driveways abundant with cow parsley in May, to the screen printing studio; the unmistakable smell of the thinners in the etching studio; the huge gas kilns in the old coach house part of the Pottery, opportunity for full immersion into my clay work and ideas sometimes well into the late summer evenings … It was a broad course, specialising in ceramics, but covering secondary disciplines such as printmaking and music. My inspiration in Pottery, unsurprisingly, was mainly derived from nature – seed pods, fungi, organic forms of one type or another, most of it hand formed, although I used the wheel occasionally for specific projects. I worked a lot in porcelain at the time, and was strongly influenced in particular by the legendary 20th century potter, Lucie Rie. I still love her simplicity of form and simple, fluted bowls.
Having not shown any particular interest in teaching previously, I found myself as a full time teacher at an independent girls’ school immediately after leaving college. I was really thrown in at the deep end, teaching multi disciplines of Art to girls aged 11-18, some of them only a few years younger than me! Initially it was totally exhausting while I struggled to keep on top of things, but during the 5 years I was there I grew to love it, and I’m aware of how lucky I was to have been guided in this direction. To teach bright, enthusiastic young girls in a subject that you love, sharing your passion, interest and skills, has to be one of the best jobs ever! During this time I got married to Pete (in Cookham church), a fellow student at Corsham from the year above, specialising in graphics, and we set up our first home together in St Margaret’s, a converted Edwardian ground floor flat that needed extensive renovation. I joined a weekly jewellery evening class up the road in Kew, feeling that Pottery evening classes would probably be frustrating after Corsham, and enjoyed those for a couple of years.
After moving in 1977 to a delightful cottage on the edge of Ashtead Common, I really missed working in clay and after our first child was born, a close friend and I decided to purchase a second hand kiln between us. She recognized my need to get back to pottery and her part of the deal was that I would teach her! This arrangement worked well and was great fun. Thus I began my own small pottery business from the shed in the garden or, when too cold, from the top of the washing machine, (all hands on deck to move everything when it went into ‘spin’!) It was very low key, fitting around family life with two children, but gradually I attended various craft fairs in the area and discovered people liked my work. This included a fair amount of wheel thrown, functional domestic ware to begin with, although I still continued with my preference for hand building, and was making sales and taking commissions.
I recall one commission when I was asked to make a ‘chicken brick’. I had no idea what this meant and those I asked didn’t know either, so I turned up with the finished product at my client’s front door to be greeted with, “Oh! I wasn’t expecting that!” I had made a large, uniquely detailed and feathered broody casserole hen! Fortunately she loved it (and bought it!) and that was the beginning of my love affair with making birds.
Although I hadn’t planned to return to teaching, wanting to continue with my own work, it became necessary to get a ‘proper job’ again after our move to Rudgwick in 1986, and I was extremely fortunate in my timing to land a position in the Art department at St. Catherine’s School, Bramley, specialising in ceramics, where I eventually stayed for 24 years, becoming Head of Art for 18 of those. Despite this position not being my original plan at all, I count myself blessed to have had the privilege of being part of a caring, supportive team of colleagues, sharing my love of Art with so many talented, capable and intelligent students, many of whom are still in touch – it has been a humbling experience. I had the good fortune to be there during what could perhaps be described as a ‘Renaissance’ in the Art world, with the groundbreaking “Sensations” exhibition at the Royal Academy in the late ‘90s. The emergence of conceptual Art, both challenging and exciting, was hugely inspiring for the A Level artists. I was thrilled and proud when one of my 5th form ceramic projects, inspired by Hans Coper’s textural pots, won a major national prize, which was presented to us at the newly renovated Tate Modern in the Turbine Hall – a week before the Queen officially ‘opened’ it in May 2000! Part of our prize was to have an Artist in Residence the following year, which resulted in a fantastic collaborative whole school project and subsequent spectacular Bible mural, now permanently on display in the school dining room.
During all this time I continued to work at home (on the kitchen table), fitting it around my teaching whenever possible, and exhibiting in a number of local exhibitions. It was important to ‘keep my hand in’ – for my teaching as well as my own work – and also to maintain a level of confidence. When the time came to retire from teaching, I was finally able to focus entirely on exploring and developing my work, now created in a beautiful custom-built Pottery studio overlooking our garden!
Ever since that ‘hapless’ broody hen, my love of birds has always been present in my work. We kept chickens for 20 years, getting to know their behaviour and personalities. I also enjoy making all sorts of predominantly wild or game birds, such as guinea fowl, partridges, ptarmigans, penguins, and others. Back at the beginning, Peter Simpson instilled in me the importance of surface tension and simplicity of form, key to these bird forms, which are somewhat anthropomorphic in personality. I aim to capture their ‘essence’, behaviour and movements, preferring not to be too literal, happy to stray from overly realistic interpretation. I use a mix of pinching, piecing and slabbing as hand building methods, working in a variety of clay bodies. Surface texture is important to me and coloured slips and oxides are used to enhance this, as well as glazes. All work is fired twice, the second (glaze) firing reaching either 1100º or 1245º in my electric kiln – not the same one I started with – I invested in a new kiln in 2017!
My love of walking in the countryside, especially on the coast, has provided a strong contrast in the way of inspiration – rocks, cliffs, energy, power, space, drama. Out on open moorland and up on the cliffs there is excitement and a feeling of being at one with nature. I find my resultingmore dramatic ceramic pieces complement my birds, partly due to the overall colour palette of my slips and glazes, and I enjoy their contrasting shapes. I am keen to return to painting again, not to replace my 3D work, but to complement it, in the hope that each can inform the other . . .There is always something new to learn . . !
I am full of admiration for the work of many artists and ceramicists. To name just a few . . .
Painters: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Matisse, Barbara Rae, Peter Lanyon, Rose Hilton, Bernard Dunstan, David Mankin, Jeremy Gardiner . . .
3D: Hans Coper, John Maltby, Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley and many contemporary ceramicists.
For anyone embarking on or considering a career in ceramics – a practical tip would be, where possible, to share the cost of equipment, as unfortunately it is very expensive. This was a huge help to me when I started out. I believe as in my case, it’s never too late to follow your dream. Even if you have to wait a while, take the chance when it comes and go for it! I’d always vaguely imagined I would work in a Pottery somewhere . . . !
Looking back over my journey to where I am today, I am aware that, although teaching had not been part of my original plan, it provided enormous opportunities for growth, as well as so much enjoyment and fulfilment. As a teenager I was a bit of a dreamer, shy and lacking in confidence and wouldn’t have imagined I’d end up with the career in which I eventually found myself – it’s been immensely rewarding! And this has in turn provided me with additional experience and understanding and has enabled me to pursue my own work with renewed confidence. I’m eternally thankful for God’s guidance at these key points of my journey – for giving me not necessarily what I thought I wanted, but in fact what I needed!
My love of the medium and my ‘need’ to be creative drives me to continue! When I am in the Pottery, time just seems to stop and I am completely immersed in what I am making. In short, I love what I do! Accumulated experience of the material over time gives the confidence to try new things, to push the boundaries, accept mistakes when they happen and learn from them. Being highly visual, I’m always distracted by the natural world around and this tends to keep a constant flow of inspiration going, feeding into my subconscious as possible material for the development of new ideas – often in the middle of the night!
My work has been in a number of exhibitions and galleries around the UK and is regularly at the Padstow Gallery, Cornwall, the New Ashgate Gallery, Farnham, and the Cranleigh Arts Centre, as well as frequently exhibited at Fircroft, Albury Heath. I was a finalist in Surrey Artist of the Year in 2018.
Visitors are always welcome to visit my pottery studio by appointment.