A potter pushes the limits

CorrespondentJune 6, 2009 

Englishwoman Kathleen Ryall has pottery in her blood. Her grandfather was a "dipper," whose job was to add glaze to ceramics in a factory setting. Her great-grandfather was a fireman, not one who puts out fires but one who tends to them. In this case, it was the firing of a huge oven filled with ceramics.

"It would take three days to fire, and he would sleep there," she said. "Firemen could make or break a factory, because if the firing failed, a number of weeks of work would be ruined."

Ryall, 59, grew up in the county of Staffordshire, England, and moved to North Carolina in 1990, first to Winston-Salem and then to Oxford. The city she lived in, Stoke-on-Trent, is akin to North Carolina's pottery capital of Seagrove, though much larger and more internationally prominent. Nicknamed "The Potteries," the city's most famous industrial designer and manufacturer was Wedgwood, though there were many others.

In her own creation of porcelain ceramics, on display through July 2 at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, Ryall combines her training and career in industrial manufacturing with her aesthetics and work as an artist. The results are unique and striking -- thin and elegant vases and bowls with sensual colors and lips.

Both Kathleen and her husband, John, who works with her, have long histories in ceramics, even running their own 20-person factory in Stoke-on-Trent. When the pottery business there started to decline, John, now an American citizen, turned his sights on the United States. When John got a job as a designer and model maker in 1993 at the now-defunct Lenox China plant in Oxford, they moved from Winston-Salem to Granville County. Kathleen established her own studio in 1997, after she was granted permanent residency in the country.

Unconventional

Ryall's education is in fine art and design, and she has also worked as an exhibition and display designer and as an interior designer. She has a master's degree in industrial ceramics and worked for several years as an industrial designer.

"The courses were about educating students to go into the industry as designers, but for me it was about taking the information with a view to making my own work using industrial methods with molds, not machinery," she said. "I use the technique and the innovation and industry of Stoke-on-Trent, and I push it to the limits and try to be more innovative. So I'm not a conventional studio potter, because I'm using industrial methods, which include casts and molds."

That sort of artwork doesn't always get the respect it deserves, she said.

"In art colleges, it was taught that there was a purity in actually using a wheel and being true to the clay," she explained. "It was called 'truth to materials,' because you're using an organic material. But I think it's a misconception that one is better or more work than the other. I do as much work as anyone who throws on a wheel. I use industrial techniques, but it's all done by hand. All my work is handmade."

A complex process

Ryall uses the technique called slip casting, where "slip," a liquid form of clay, is poured into plaster molds.

"I'll have a concept, and I'll draw something. It has to be able to be made in the way we make it in the molds, so there's a lot of discussion before we even get going. There's a huge investment in time and energy before the piece is even out."

From Ryall's design, a model and mold are made, a process that contains many steps. After pieces are taken out of the molds and dried, they're put into the kiln. For the vases and bowls with distinctive rims, Ryall sculpts the tops by hand after casting. After pieces are fired, some are glazed and fired again, sometimes with a luster finish that adds an iridescent mother-of-pearl effect.

Among Ryall's specialties are complex double and triple castings, where one color of slip creates an outer layer and a second (and sometimes even third) slip forms inner layers.

She is also starting to decorate her pieces with relief patterns, which add depth and dimension. They're made by working in reverse, with the finished product not exposed until after the firing.

"I'm so excited about it," she said. "You're working in the dark for a long, long time without getting a result. It's a challenge."

Although Ryall has worked full time in the region for 12 years, her work is not well-known. A Craven Allen Gallery owner first saw Ryall's work after she donated a vase to the Durham Arts Council for a fundraiser last year. Only one gallery in the Triangle, Accipiter in Cameron Village, regularly carries her work. Ryall also sells to galleries in Charlotte, Wilmington, Banner Elk and in several other states.

"I suppose I've kept a low profile," said Ryall, who typically contacts galleries directly to see whether they want to carry her work. She figures she hasn't joined local artisan guilds not only because her husband is a ceramist, but because her daughter, soon returning from England, is a jeweler. "I suppose I get all the input I need from them. My husband draws, too. We said that some day we should all do a show together."

While Ryall might not be a household name, her former work does appear in households via television with some regularity.

"We did relief modeling for a designer who did a lot of work for the BBC," she said of the British Broadcast Corp. television programming "We'll be watching a period piece on TV, like 'Sherlock Holmes,' and I'll say, 'Oh, there's my bowl!' We've often seen our work on different programs. It's easy to spot."

Send suggestions to diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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