“From Travel to Templates – a Life of Slab Building Pots” by Tessa Wolfe Murray

The guest speaker at our January meeting was ceramicist and artist, Tessa Wolfe Murray who lives and works in Hove and is a celebrated member of the Sussex Guild and Craft Potters Association.   She makes sculptural and functional ceramics ‘pot plaques and jewellery using an age old method of hand-building with clay (slab work).

Tessa graduated from Ravensbourne College of Art with a Fine Arts Degree, followed by a post-graduate diploma in ceramics from Goldsmith’s College.

Her talk provided an interesting insight into her world and looking back over the early years Tessa told us how, as a young ceramicist, luck and opportunity led her down various career paths up to the present day.

After leaving college her work was spotted by a buyer for Conran.  Impressed with her designs she was asked to make slab pots for sale in their shops and having set up a small studio initially made each piece individually.  However demand dictated that she find a mould maker and the pots sold in Conran shops across the world and individual pieces were found in galleries far and wide.

She told us how she developed her skills by sharing a studio and working part-time for Anna Lambert who worked with white clay which meant moving to Yorkshire.  However more opportunities followed when she established a small studio in Leeds and continued to enhance her reputation as a ceramicist and teacher.

Tessa has that natural ability to look at the ordinary with an artist’s eye and she cited many occasions when she would see patterns, textures and colours in crumbling or derelict buildings and decaying city landscapes.  When on a walk or on holiday abroad she would use her camera to great effect taking photographs which she would pin on the studio walls for future inspiration.

She then explained and showed her method of ‘smoke firing’, which she experimented with over time as she needed all her pieces to be both waterproof and functional. This is done in the open where pots are laid in a fireproof bin, surrounded by damp sawdust.  She then rubs sawdust on the pot and sets fire to it.   The colours and patterns which emerge give the pots their unique look.  Tessa has become known for her unique smoke fired pieces and samples of her work are displayed at craft and fine art galleries in the UK and Europe.

After her talk Tessa set up a table and demonstrated the art of slab building showing us the simple and inventive tools used for cutting and shaping a vase.

It was a treat for us to watch Tessa in action and was a fitting end to a most enjoyable morning which finished with a question and answer session and a sight of some examples of her current studio pieces.