When is a Teapot not a Teapot?

UWE History student Holly John reviews the work of potter Oliver Kent.

These exuberant teapots are a playful twist on an archetypal ceramic object. When I visited the Ken Stradling Collection, I was drawn to them because of their irregularity and their tactile quality. The deliberately incongruous insertion of the spout into the main body of the pots, and the rough attachment of the handles, allow for the making process to be seen clearly in their unrefined finish. To me, these teapots are a celebration of the act of making outside the constraints of precision, skill and tradition.

Habitat Teapot, earthenware. Oliver Kent, 2008. (Ken Stradling Collection)
Rhodes Architrave Teapot, earthenware. Oliver Kent, 2007. (Ken Stradling Collection)

Teapots have long been used to tell stories, both through the act of sharing and confiding in one another over a cup of tea; and aesthetically, through the countless design possibilities of their complex functional form. In their ceremonial context, they represent tradition, ritual and culture. In a domestic setting, they represent warmth, comfort, friendship, and community. Historically, teapots have been used for commemoration of events or to make (often subversive) political statements. Teapots tell their own stories, which is why many designers are so drawn to these homely, quirky objects.

Rhodes Grill Teapot, earthenware. Oliver Kent, 2007. (Ken Stradling Collection)

The Ken Stradling Collection holds four of Oliver Kent’s hand-built, irregular form teapots. A basic leaf shape is consistent of all four, as well as many of his other teapots outside the collection. Oliver works quickly, and the permutations of the basic leaf shape come about very directly with the clay on the spot.  Three of Oliver’s teapots in the collection are decorated with coloured glaze poured across them diagonally, creating loose stripes which flow in various directions. This motif of splashed glazing is a distortion of the sorts of patterns that you might find on the more traditional ceramics on display in a museum. The fourth teapot in the collection is unglazed raku, drawing from a process employed by Japanese potters.

Raku Teapot. Oliver Kent, 2004. (Ken Stradling Collection)

These ‘anti-craftmanship’ teapots were inspired by two subversive Japanese potters.  Jiro Takaishi was in Bristol in 1992, visiting several art schools as part of an exchange, which was organised through his connection with the British potter Kevin de Choisy. Jiro found Japanese ceramics to be constraining because of the very strong established traditions, which the majority of Japanese potters work within. Jiro deliberately subverted traditional making skills; he told stories through his work. Having never left Japan before, he was intrigued by Bristol, and Bristol’s graffiti. He use to walk around the city with slabs of clay, pressing them onto relief surfaces, including carved graffiti on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, to collect their marks.

British Pot, Jiro Takaishi, Bristol, 1992. Earthenware.
(Jiro Takaishi)

 The other influence came from Goro Suzuki. He too deliberately subverts Japanese craftsmanship. He works quickly, haphazardly chucking the clay around to create his form, but still decorates his pots with variants of the traditional Oribe style. Oribe is a style of Japanese pottery which dates back to the sixteenth century. This stoneware is characterised by richly coloured glazes, freely applied. Blue, green and copper glazes are common on Oribe ware, and common decorative motifs include plants, trees, and natural scenes.

Oliver’s ‘teapots’ are ceramic sculptures rather than utilitarian ware, but I think that it was precisely their resemblance to such a familiar functional vessel that drew me to them. The sense of comfort evoked by the idea of a traditional teapot is offset in these pieces by the freedom of their form and decoration. They bring about a sense of the joy of creation. Do these teapots inspire you to get making?

By Holly John

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