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Walter Keeler Solo show at the BDC

Written by May Haddon | Posted on: October 21, 2016

It was a privilege to meet Walter Keeler at the opening of his solo show at the BDC.  In Walter’s opening speech, he described the different processes he has used to make his works.  I enjoyed Walters description of his extrusion technique as,  “squeezing toothpaste out of a tube”, which sounded really exciting.

Speaking to Walter afterwards, it was nice to find that we had a common interest in mud larking – as kids we both used to enjoy scouring beaches along the River Thames for old clay pipes and ceramics.   I have my own box full of my treasured ceramic pieces, which I’ve always found fascinating and it was great to share this fascination with Walter.

It was lovely to chat to such an icon of pottery, and it was wonderful to see his pots up close.  I love the clean sophisticated lines that Walter creates and I particularly loved his use of colour, the acid yellow on the inside of the mugs looked so vibrant and exciting.

It was particularly timely for me to see Walter’s exhibition, as I have just started attending pottery classes myself, so I was able to appreciate the craftsmanship behind his work. It was interesting to see what my own work could aspire to.

To me, Walter’s exhibition is an inspirational insight into seriously well crafted contemporary ceramics, made with integrity and a sense of fun.

I have asked Walter a few questions about his work, and below he gives a fascinating insight into his process.

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 It was really interesting that you described extruding the clay like squeezing it from a tube of toothpaste.  This sounds like a really fun way to work.  Can you describe this process and is it a new way of working for you?

I have used extrusion as a method of making handles for very many years, but it is only relatively recently that I have used them to make hollow forms. Last year was the first time I attempted much larger pieces. I found it both exciting (following an unexplored path) and extremely challenging. A big, soft clay tube wants to collapse and distort, it also very easily looses its fresh untouched quality which for me is an essential characteristic in all my pieces. I had to find ways of handling and supporting the fresh extrusions by trial and error – it’s an ongoing saga. The process fulfilled my ambitions for the project; an alternative making method to throwing that, like throwing, speaks vividly of the dynamics of the technique that forms the piece.

I am amazed at the precision and clean finish to your work, how do you achieve such a polished product?

I use a hand powered extruder, (it’s a 4 inch square tube with a lever operated piston which forces the clay through a dye fixed at the bottom of the tube). Depending on the shape of the opening so the exact profile of the extrusion is determined. A tube is formed by suspending a central shape which leaves a space between the outer profile to determine the wall thickness. I often use dyes roughly cut from plywood to cause striations on the outside surface of the tube to emphasise the dynamics of the process.   My precision is just who I am; I find it very hard to work in a free and loose way, much as I enjoy the more plastic qualities of clay. But clay is so fantastically versatile, and it is capable of almost engineered precision which actually reveals a different set of characteristics which can still be read in the finished pot. So for me it is about imposing my will on the clay (often with hard edged tools) and accepting the materials fighting instinct to resist and reveal itself despite my efforts.

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I love the colours of the glazes that you use, particularly the acid yellow tea cups.  Where do you find your colour inspiration?

My saltglazed pots have always been rather restrained in colour, I suppose form is always my main concern and I use colour to enhance and enrich the pieces. The earthenware pots are inspired to a large extent by 18th century Staffordshire pottery, particularly the tortoiseshell wares with very mobile melting glazes in strong colours. I think this category of pieces speak for themselves, but the grey glaze that I call inkwash  was developed to reveal the clays reaction to my severe making techniques, small scratches and burrs are made more obvious by the pooling of the tinted glaze. Originally the pieces were made in the same white clay but clear glazed, I could see the subtle reaction of the clay, but people found them too cold – the inkwash glaze bridged the gap. After a while I felt that large groups of grey pots looked rather dower: that’s what sparked the idea of using an acid yellow glaze to zing against the grey. It’s a difficult glaze to use because the yellow stain caused the glaze to craze, so I had to reformulate it using a low expansion fritt which changes the nature of the fluid glaze making it unstable when pouring and dipping. This is a deterrent to me using it – perhaps that is a good thing – restraining me from over use!

Walter’s exhibition at Bluecoat Display Centre runs until Saturday 12th November.

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