Clay is fussy, says Chicago-based ceramic artist Polly Yates, who speaks about her curvaceous, wobbly clay forms almost as though they were her friends. Selected as one of TOAST's New Makers this season, the Chicago-based potter talks us through her process from learning techniques in Japan to honing her skills in hand-building.
Polly Yates knows the ins and outs of her clay; when it's in the right condition to assemble, and when it will be dry enough to fire. It is no wonder that Polly has taken to giving each of her works a familiar, inspiring and friendly name, from the British novelist Elizabeth Bowen, to her own mother-in-law, Phyllis.
Polly studied Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Arts, followed by an MA at Central Saint Martins. But it was a spontaneous move to Japan that gave her a certain curiosity towards clay. I had never even touched clay at art school, Polly explains. But I had a really terrific teacher in Japan. She taught me to think through my hands, to feel the weight of objects.
Her time in Tokyo and in the small, rural pottery town of Mashiko was spent sat at the potter's wheel, throwing vessels, perfecting her skill through trial and error. She immersed herself in both the material and culture, often delving into her teacher's kitchen cupboards for inspiration. It was like a treasure chest, she says, stacked full of beautiful bowls, teacups, little dishes all in different shapes, sizes and colours.
One move soon led to another. When her husband was offered a job in Chicago, a new set of limitations in an entirely different surrounding were proposed. Polly re-adjusted to a slightly colder climate, and spent her time seeking out affordable studio spaces with access to kilns. She researched classes in ceramics that she could take part in, and it was only when she enrolled herself on one that Polly started to hand-build with clay.
I was hand-building a series of big vases and I brought one in to show my teacher, Polly explains. He said to me, you are good on the wheel, but you are very good at hand-building.' And from this moment on, she switched to focus on hand-moulding forms.
Combining coiling and pinching techniques, Polly builds her vessels piece by piece, joining together the different shapes to form a whole. The surfaces are gently textured with fingertip traces, and each form has a soft asymmetry, unique to hand-building. It's a slow process that requires patience, Polly describes. But there is an intimacy to holding an object that has been formed by your own hands.
Polly's live-work space is a short journey from Lake Michigan, and in between studio hours she works as a teaching artist. Mornings and late evenings are spent in the studio, and afternoons are dedicated to teaching, with breaks for walks while the clay dries out. I walk over to the lake with my dog Frankie, she says. It's very calming, to have a big body of water to look out over.
There is a similar stillness that Polly craves from working at home, saving the extra messy tasks like glazing and firing for her communal studio. I like the solitude,'' she explains. I like being able to listen to music loud, and I like being close to the dog, and the fridge! She takes the time to live with each of the forms she creates. Mis-fires and prototypes sit around the house on her shelves and kitchen table, allowing Polly to slowly adjust to the feeling and presence of each.
Workshop imagery by Alyce Haliday McQueen.
Words by Daisy Gray.