Alan Birchall – Potter

How did you get into pottery? A long term interest or something you stumbled on later in life?

When I was about 20 I was doing a science degree at a college in Luton where I stumbled upon a ceramics department and had sudden desire to do pottery. I have since realised the influence came from watching the Potter’s Wheel, a short interlude film often shown on BBC TV during the 1950’s and 60’s. So I did evening classes for a couple of years. I desperately wanted to study medicine however, so when I eventually got into medical school ceramics went onto the back burner. I eventually became a GP and once I was earning, collected other potters pots instead of making them.

The desire to make however was still there and in my mid 40’s I decided the only way to do it was to retire early and start studying again. I couldn’t go to evening classes because we did all our own out-of-hours cover. So I worked towards retiring and did so when I was 55. Four days after seeing my last patient I started a City & Guilds at the Arthur Mee Centre in Stapleford. I did this for 4 years and also did a Learning Through Work diploma at Derby University. I then had my pottery studio built behind my house, haven’t looked back since and have been seriously potting for about 8 years.

Pinching a tea bowlYou are heavily influenced by Japanese pottery: why?

I attended many workshops by well known British and Japanese potters during my training and subsequently. I love the traditional styles of Japanese pottery. I am intrigued by the tea ceremony and tea ware. I like the methods Japanese potters use to make their pots which haven’t changed for centuries and I like the way they rely on naturally occurring materials to produce their work – clay, bamboo for tools, wood to fire their kilns and natural wood ash from the firing to decorate their pots. Natural features often influence the designs – mountains, rivers, trees. Many of their pots are simple but elegant. Wabi Sabi often influences the final work – an appreciation of the imperfect, the incomplete and even the transient. The harsh firing process often produces what we in the west would call defects but are desirable and appreciated by eastern eyes. I particularly enjoy making Chawan or Japanese tea bowls and other oriental styled pots.

Take us through a ‘typical day’?

I don’t have a typical day as such as I don’t work at my pottery full time. I have many other interests. I tend to do pottery in phases but will often do it for weeks on end and have been known to lock myself away in the pottery for 10 or 12 hours at a time! As a studio potter I follow the whole process from buying clay through making and decorating the pots, glazing, firing in my own built gas/wood kiln, cleaning, marketing and selling. A lot of time is spent collecting and burning wood to produce ash that is then laboriously prepared for my ash glazes. Wood has to be cut for firing the kiln, kiln shelves have to be cleaned of glaze drips, I make frequent modifications to the kiln to improve its performance and each firing takes about 12 hours when I have to constantly attend the kiln. I sell work from my showroom and website, through galleries, open studios and at ceramic shows as far a field as Scotland. I have spent a lot of time developing my website which also needs regular maintenance and updates.

You use local wood ash in your glaze: do your surroundings influence you in other ways?

I am influenced by natural forms especially geological and the textures and colours of lichens.
I make my glazes from specific wood ashes, typically apple, pear, oak, cedar, hawthorn. each giving subtly different results. I also use clay slips which I paint onto the pots before glazing. I use a red clay slip which is local to this area and which I have dug from neighbouring gardens. It is probably the same red clay that was used to produce bricks here in Chilwell many years ago.

Best career moment?

Two stand out.

In 2013 I was voted a finalist in the Craft & Design Magazine designer awards for ceramics. Unfortunately I didn’t get any further but it was a great experience all the same.

Last year I was selected to exhibit 3 of my tea bowls along with 140 other potters from across the globe at the 16th International Chawan Exhibition in Singapore and even took my pots to Singapore as well as selling them at the private view.

What are your plans for the future?

I will continue to develop the Attenborough Beeston Chilwell Art Trail (ABCAT) group of which I am a founder member. We are having our first significant Open Studio event on 30th/31st May with 18 artists/makers showing their work and demonstrating at six venues from Beeston through to Attenborough

I will continue to fight the relentless closure of ceramic courses that is happening up and down the country

I have been selected for the next International Chawan Exhibition in Belgium later this year.

To continue to make the pots that I like and not to pander to a shifting fickle market. I am nearly 70 and many potters reach a great age, often continuing to make pots into their 90’s. That will do me!

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