The Art of Decoration
Mandy Haggith explores the mix of art, craft and business at Highland Stoneware
HIGHLAND Stoneware is a unique company that supports the livelihoods of a cluster of artists in the northwest Highands.
THE ‘decorators’, as the glaze painters are known, are all artists in their own right, with individual styles, and give each pot they finish a personal touch. When I visit the company’s headquarters in Lochinver, Tracey Aird is painting little grey flowers onto vases, but in her mind’s eye they are bright purple.
She has scratched the delicate shape of the blossom down through layers of glaze to the base glaze, to ensure that the colour will be as vibrant as possible. Next she paints delicate grasses with fine brushstrokes. All I can see is a surface of dull, matt, brown, white and grey marks, but once the vases are fired in the kiln, a gleaming, multicoloured image of machair flowers will emerge.
How on earth can she tell one bland whitish glaze from another? She laughs. ‘You have to try not to mix them up. For example, puffin red, white and blue all look white at this stage, and inevitably we have had a few red sheep and blue sheep!’
Linda Macleod, another of Highland Stoneware’s decorators, explains that it’s essential to keep the colours in the same configuration on the table beside her. ‘My hand knows where to go to get each colour’, she says. I watch her painting puffin mugs, marvelling at her ability to work in shades that will only come apparent after they have been fired.
The colour-transformation is one aspect of the magic that ceramic kiln-firing brings about, and is perhaps at the heart of why this art form is so compelling.
‘I still get a thrill when I see what comes out of the kiln, especially if I’m trying something new and it works’, Tracey says. This is after twenty years of decorating pots. She joined Highland Stoneware in 1992 after studying at art college in Aberdeen and doing a masters degree at Stoke, working at Wedgewood on porcelain jewellery.
‘I just came here for a year, to do a porcelain development project’, she says, then goes on to explain how she met her husband in Assynt and has never looked back. These days as well as decorating some of Highland Stoneware’s most popular designs, and painting bespoke tile panels, she also manages the company’s website, designs their leaflets and brochures and does some of their photography.
Dorell Pirie has been with Highland Stoneware even longer, since she left art college in 1987. When she isn’t painting at Highland Stoneware, she has also developed her own line of decorated glass, distinctively coloured with the tones of Assynt’s land and sea. A mother, she appreciates the flexibility of the company in allowing its staff to shift between full-time or part-time work, and recognising that work with Highland Stoneware may be only one strand in their lives and careers.
This sentiment is echoed by Linda Macleod, who says. ‘Everyone here works flexitime, which is fantastic for me, as I couldn’t work here otherwise’. She started with the company in its early days in 1976, straight out of art college. ‘I graduated on Saturday and drove up here on Sunday from Dundee. I’d never been up here before – it seemed very far and felt very pioneering’.
Highland Stoneware was founded by David Grant, who has a unique mix of artistic and entrepreneurial talent. Along with co-directors David Queensberry and Grahame Clarke, David started the pottery with the aim of bringing employment to this remote corner of his home county of Sutherland, and these days it is an important local employer, with 24 staff. It also generates a lot of business for local contractors and the post office as well as attracting tourists. For a community of only a few hundred people, it is a crucial part of the economy.
David is proud of their company’s long staff relationships. ‘It’s good to have created these livelihoods, but it’s a big responsibility too’, he says. Although a successful businessman, David is still primarily an artist. ‘Yes, it’s a business,’ he says, ‘but basically I enjoy making things and I want to share that.’ He has created, and continues to paint, many of the companies most successful designs of Assynt landscapes, seascapes and features of the local environment, like rockpools.
Dorell Pirie now manages the Ullapool part of the company. Like David Grant, her management role does not overshadow her work as an artist, and she is found on a daily basis decorating pots and painting tile panels, which she describes as ‘huge blank canvases’. Dorell says, ‘I love painting panels, it feels like being a proper artist’, as if her exquisite representations of otters, birds and fish were somehow less impressive when painted on the curved surface of a bowl or a jug.
Linda Macleod’s puffins are all complete one-offs. ‘I make them all slightly different’, she says. Of the four she is working on, one has a bunch of grass in its mouth, another tilts its head saucily. She takes inspiration from photos of puffins. ‘It’s a quite unique situation,’ she says, ‘to be able to be so flexible with designs. Most industries work with one pattern at a time, or with transfers. We’re more people-organised, and it’s really good.’
Tracey says, ‘Sometimes we’ll paint one pattern all day, sometimes you’re painting one different pattern after another’. Increasingly they do bespoke work, designing individual pieces to commission, from huge aga surrounds to little gifts. I watch as Dawn Healey paints a dog, with painstaking perfectionism, onto a mug that will be the owner’s birthday treat.
Seeing the work of these people, I find myself asking questions about the blurred territory between art and craft, and why paintings on functional 3-dimensional surfaces are usually taken so much less seriously, and are indeed so much cheaper, than those on conventional 2-dimensional wall-hangings.
Highland Stoneware’s production is substantial, but far from being a semi-industrial setup it has at its heart a community of highly talented artists, both hand-throwing pots (such as the many beautiful forms created by Fergus Stewart) and conceiving and painting the range of decorations. If you are already the owner of any of their stoneware pots, check out the signature on the base and you’ll know which of the artists’ work you have in your kitchen, and if not, perhaps it is time to treat yourself to a bargain piece of Highland artwork.
© Mandy Haggith, 2012