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Originally published 2019
This year sees the 25th anniversary of Norfolk & Norwich Open Studios: a celebration of this county’s most exciting creative talent. Until the 9th June, studio doors will be flung open and the public are offered a rare opportunity to meet the people behind the process. This is your chance to discover what inspires them, and find pieces you will treasure forever.
I have come to the collaborative workspace of Gwyn Durand-Grace and Karen Kavanagh who own and run Fire and Flux on St. Benedict’s Street in the Norwich Lanes. They opened the gallery and teaching studio in 2016 with the intention of developing a centre dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of ceramics, and well as an outlet for their own work. The shop itself is framed by beautiful decorative windows in a soft grey. When I arrive they welcome me into the light and airy gallery space and my attention is immediately taken with the unique range of domestic ware and sculptural pieces on show. I already have my heart set on a cream teapot with forget-me-nots delicately brushed on. The working studio behind is the creative space, dominated by a huge worktable full of vessels and sculpture of every kind in all stages of preparation. Beautiful highly glazed cobalt blue bowls and stacks of matt glaze beakers (cups with no handles to you and me) just waiting for a green tea. I sit on a slip spattered chair to tap into the minds of this talented pair. Their passion for pottery is immediately evident as they begin describing the ceramics processes and their work.
Karen: I fell in love with pottery at school and actually went on to do a Geology degree. I came back to ceramics through Adult Education courses. The turning point was when I bought a little kiln and tentatively began firing my own work, then there was no going back.
Gwyn: Working with ceramics is incredibly stress relieving and therapeutic, before you know it, hours have gone by. It is also such a versatile medium and until a piece is actually fired, you can change your mind and the clay can be recycled. There are so many different types of raw clay material, from white porcelain to earthenware in various colours of buff, grey, dark red and black.
Gwyn: I just love nature, the natural world inspires so much of what we do; light and form, textures, patterns, formations… I have recently completed a body of work titled ‘Geodes’ which are sculptural pieces initially wheel thrown and then hand worked with each crystal individually rolled and faceted, going through two glazes and firings to give a lustre glazed finish. The process is extremely time consuming and labour intensive.
Karen: I am currently working on a ‘Smoked Fired’ collection which are elliptical forms thrown on a wheel then burnished to create a smooth surface. They are then pit fired with various oxides which create the beautiful nebulous smoked colours. Every piece is an entirely unique natural form. The pit firing process is unpredictable and you never know quite how the colours are going to turn out. I even use sawdust sprinkled with white spirit on pieces, you set fire to it and whoomph! You have to be prepared for breakages, it’s part of the course.
The chemical processes of glazing and firing are far more complicated than I had imagined with various types of vitreous coating changing the appearance of the final piece. Adding the same copper carbonate oxide will do different things depending on what you are doing with it: it will turn
red in pit-firing, green if glazed and fired in an electric kiln and without glaze at all turn black. The creative possibilities are truly infinite.
Gwyn: When you are working as a potter it can be very insular as you are working by yourself a lot of the time. In the studio you have the exchange of skills and advice and you learn so much more. We are a community from all walks of life and all support each other in our work.
Karen: Not everyone has the space to pursue their work after doing a course, that is where we come in. There also isn’t anybody else exhibiting exclusively ceramics in Norwich and as an art form it shows itself better when exhibited with other ceramics.
Gywn offers to show me how the wheel operates and centres a lump of clay onto the bat while controlling the speed of the spinning table with her foot. Dipping her hands into water and using controlled pressure of her thumbs and fingers, she deftly raises the anonymous clay into being and forms a perfect bowl in mere minutes. It looks deceptively easy however I am sure it requires a lot of patience and practice.
Pottery is one of the oldest of the decorative visual arts, and this studio is the culmination of a lifetime vocation for Karen and Gwyn. They inspire creativity and I already feel as if I want to put on an apron and try my hand with some clay. And as Gwyn warns me, pottery is highly addictive…
Fire and Flux are also in the process of expanding and moving to a much larger premises on Lower Goat Lane, where you are sure to find them doing what they love – just more of it… LH