Tiny hand thrown pots came to represent the emotional journey of lockdown for ceramicist Fran Marquis while she experimented with new glazes, Instagram, threw for the NHS and rethought her practice.
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Since graduating in Ceramics from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 2000, I have worked with community groups and students at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and pupils in schools in Angus and Aberdeenshire as well as patients in various hospitals through Aberdeen City Council and then in Tayside through THAT (Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust). More recently I have run classes weekly and some at weekends and five day workshops here at home in Arbroath in Angus. I like organising events through Open Studios, at Pittenweem Arts Festival and as Exhibition Organiser with the Scottish Potters Association (SPA).
So almost all my time has been with people, other potters , makers, artists and people in the community who are inspired and excited by the creative process. It has been a very big adjustment to thinking “Well I can’t teach, but I like making, I now have time and space, what shall I do?!” It was quite a moment, that I had hardly experienced in 20 years!
My first instinct was to make work that responded to lockdown: tiny little pots, in case I ran out of clay before the end!
Then, when finished, to put them in the eroded red sandstone niches that I photographed on my walks around the harbour and cliffs near my home.
Then I began to make hollows in clay for the pots to “self-isolate” and to “stay safe”. Covid has made me aware of feeling quite fragile and aware of my own mortality. There has been a freedom in “following the process” with no real need to make for exhibitions or events. Although I have sold a few pieces just randomly through Art Aboyne online and then a couple of SPA exhibitions that went online.
I love the process of making pots on the wheel and the magic of creating a round vessel from mud still absorbs me. However, having time without deadlines has also enabled me to explore different clays, including local clay from Lunan Bay, which takes time to process, sieve and wedge ready for the wheel. Recently I have been watching the Great Pottery Throw Down on Channel 4 and am aiming to complete most of the challenges which is certainly pushing me out of my comfort zone of vessel making into hand-building a house/light, portrait sculpture and fountain design!
Before lockdown I had been running Wellness Classes in Arbroath using Tai Chi, meditation, Tapping/ EFT and other techniques to reduce stress and had between 12 and 20 people, mainly aged 55 plus, coming to my classes in a local church hall. In April my colleague and co-host of the classes suggested we run them by zoom. I was initially very doubtful, but it worked and has been good for my health and attendees, have also benefited from their weekly dose of “Wellness”! Some even said that it has been a bit of a life saver during these strange times. It also enabled me to become familiar with zoom which has been useful for other meetings. For myself I use Meditations on the “Calm” App focusing on breathing, heart beat and visualisations which has helped me to relax and making space in my head but has also fed into my ceramics, and I have made a few more sculptural pieces about feeling spacious and open within.
During lockdown I have aimed to better understand Instagram (IG) and have taken an online course by Kat Coroy which was useful, and still to be finished. But the process of using IG has given me feedback from other makers especially potters and has also allowed me to see how others are coping with not meeting at selling events. I have been improving my website with the idea of selling through it, though I’m not sure that I have the self-discipline to photograph each piece and package items as they sell. To explore this I took part in an IG project #throwforthenhs which gave me the experience of making on the first of each month, photographing and posting my work, selling and sending out pots to folk who direct messaged (DM) me to buy them. It has been quite a learning!
One of the lessons of all this has been that small pots are much easier to package and send out safely to buyers. I was making mini pots anyway, but this increased my preference for them and it satisfied a lot of goals. I did not use too much clay, or space in my kiln, or waste money and time-consuming work trying out new glazes.
During lockdown there have been various problems with the fabric of my old Georgian house, in June a 10 foot length of cornice fell down in my pottery teaching studio, landing where I had been sitting moments before. I felt grateful to be still be alive and that no students were injured! This has now been sorted: cornice remade and a wall repainted. Then in August I discovered that a pipe had been leaking from an ensuite upstairs into my office downstairs and had turned the plasterboard and part of a ceiling into black mush! This has led to a re-think so that this ex-office will become my own studio when classes begin again and there will be a pair of opening doors onto a sunny area to sit, dry work and lead easily to my kiln room outside. Improvements in my house are happening, but so slowly in these strange times. The insurance has been very tricky as they will not pay out for “wear and tear” in an old house but will pay for “catastrophic” water damage. So incredible persistence and patience has been required; not my strong suits!
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken ceramic with gold and so giving it more value than it had originally. One of the pieces from my collection, that was damaged when the cornice fell has been mended by my friend, John Burness. I think that it is now more valuable and beautiful that it was before. It is also a symbol for re-building our lives, or our society to be better and more valuable than it was before.
I have always enjoyed the buzz of organising my own and others work for exhibitions and one that had been set up prior to Covid was in the Watermill Gallery in Aberfeldy where the SPA was planning a selected exhibition. I asked Carol Sinclair if she would help with the selection, along with the curator of the gallery, and we have done this by zoom in the last month. The exhibition has now been delayed until 16th July when hopefully visiting 3D exhibitions will be possible and will run until the end of August. Having this focus of selecting others’ ceramics has helped during lockdown too. The connection with AAS Zoom Coffee Mornings has been good and I passed that experience to the SPA, who have begun coffee mornings and now also evening get togethers for chat and support for potters.
Thankfully, I have had a small widows’ pension and a tiny university pension from past part-time teaching and research jobs, costs have been lower this year and now am nearly state pension age so losing the income from teaching pottery classes in my house has not been too serious financially. This enforced free time has given me a lot of space to explore where I want to direct my energy next.
Moving on I have asked my colleague and friend who was teaching some pottery in my house if she would be happy taking over weekly classes, including doing the associated admin and I will just teach the 5 day throwing intensive weeks which I enjoy. I will have a new studio in which to create surrounded by my own inspiration. My next step may be creating clay mini-pots in local clay in the striated colours of the harbour wall and cliffs and placing them in the niches and hollows there, random pot art as a symbol of coming out of my safe space and into the community again. I have the idea that I may not fire the pieces, so they gradually dissolve in the wind and rain as a reference our own mortality, although I may still be too attached to finished objects to let go to this extent!
Top image: “Stay Safe”, Fran Marquis
Read the experiences of other makers: Voices of Makers #1: Carol Sinclair, Voices of Makers #2: Fiona Thompson, Janet Hughes & Kathryn Williamson, Voices of Makers #3: Jo Garner, Voices of Makers #4 :James Donald, Voices of Makers #5: Clare Waddle of Yellow Broom, Voices of Makers #6: Lorna Brown, Voices of Makers #7 & #10: Claire Heminsley, Voices of Makers #8: Olive Pearson, Voices of Makers #9: Ann Marie Shillito and Voices of Makers #11: Lar MacGregor.
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