Moira Vincentelli interviewing Simon Carroll

Hereford, on the balcony outside his studio which he was clearing to leave (23rd May 2004). The studio was in the outbuildings of a farm in an idyllic rural setting. It was a sunny afternoon, the birds were singing and occasional farm machinery can be heard in the background.



MV So, can you just say when you began to make pottery and where you trained originally?

SC I went to Hereford Sixth Form and then I did Foundation as everybody else did.

MV At Hereford?

SC At Hereford yes, I mean I didn’t even know that a Foundation was for setting you up for a degree. I didn’t really know why I was there to be honest, I was half decent at drawing at school and enjoyed it and it was suggested I went there. I was playing around as you do on Foundation with bits of paper and all sorts of things and different textures and stuff. And Clive Higginbottom who had been to the Royal College had come and had just started teaching ceramics there. He suggested ceramics and then he suggested Bristol or Cardiff. So I went to Bristol

MV But what year were we in here?

SC That would be ’85 to ’88. I did my degree in Bristol. Wally Keeler was there, Mo Jupp and Nick Homoky. There was a guy called Dave Robinson who put me in touch with painting and drawing, because I didn’t think I could draw or paint and he kept taking me up to the library and showing me various forms of painting and drawing. Painting became a really important part of my work. It became something that I longed to be able to do.

MV. So did you do a lot of painting at Bristol as well as ceramics?

SC Yes and a lot of printmaking. Mono prints and stuff, and I’ve always stayed with that.

MV So you’ve always liked mark making really?

SC Yeah, yeah

Influential experience: labouring work, teaching at the Royal College for the Blind, Hereford, discovering slipware

MV So, when did you begin to work with slipware?

SC Slipware came about when I was at the Blind College, which was in ’94 when I first went there. After leaving college in ’88 I did various jobs like construction work and boat building.

MV. So actually working with materials and manual labouring has influenced you?

SC Pencil, and chalk marks… like when you strike a line…like when you‘re putting wallpaper up, you strike a line – like a plumb line and sometimes builders, they’ve got a string with chalk on it quite a long distance apart and they pull it tight and strike it. All these images were becoming very relevant and it’s a really wonderful thing. I’ve never done any work, besides labouring to get money.

MV So you did completely different work to get money to keep you going to make art?

SC Yes. I did various projects and then I was cutting grass, and living in caravan in the middle of the horse yard. During that time I didn’t think I was going make art again, because I found myself getting into this way of living really which was just cutting grass, going up the local – and that’s what I became. The dreams and the longing to paint were still there, but it had almost vanished you know, but somebody I knew was working at the Blind College in their art department and I just went up to see him socially and he said would you like come and help out here. And I said “Ah yeah, that’ll be great” And I slowly started to see the beauty of what the students were doing. Hay on Wye was just up the road. It was full of antique shops and in these antique shops there were pancheons, which are glazed on the inside. And, I always loved them, just the simple tradition of them. But the knowledge I had about glazing was so small, although I’d been on the degree course and I got a First, which is good. Funny I’ve never been proud of that, but as I get older I am. So, these pancheons – I’d never known how they did it – just slip with a lead glaze on it. So I just started doing this sort of a white and lead glaze, clear glaze. And I didn’t even know about Thomas Toft really, although I’d seen his work about. So I went to see Kathy Niblett at Stoke and she showed me some of their slipware…and then I started getting in to that. I got my first workshop with a Crafts Council grant. And I’ve really kept it simple. I didn’t try to complicate things and try and work out new glazes, I just stuck with what I knew, because it’s so varied. I still use basically three slips, a tin and a lead glaze, that’s all I use, and a red clay. But the variety is just massive – the mark making and the form and the tones, it’s all there. I don’t really need anything else.

Vessels, pottery, sculpture, fine art

MV. So you do keep to vessel form don’t you? Is there any thing you don’t do in vessel?

SC No..but, as I was saying to you earlier, about the backs of these plates, and the cracks. I would like to be able to get away from it. And just give myself the option, which relates to the recent painting.

MV So you’re feeling all the time that you’re sort of….loosening up with your work…and you want to go freer and freer?

SC Yes, freer and freer. The painting is really beginning to grow and my work has changed quite a lot, like the boldness maybe at the tops – and these marks. This kind of mark around the top is just so casual. I would have had to have done it all the way round nice and tidy at one time. So I think – to answer you question about the vessel- I think that’s why it will inevitably go away from that. Maybe or it might become pottery.

MV. So you make a conscious distinction…what do you call what you do then, as opposed to pottery?

SC Yeah that’s right, …maybe another word to use to help the distinction between the two would be crockery? (laughs) …when you say crockery, it’s definitely quite a tidy functional, pot. You don’t even use the word ceramic with crockery hardly, do you? So… I don’t make crockery.

MV Would you ever call your work sculpture or would you shy away from that?

SC I shy away from it because …not so much now… it is becoming easier. It’s just I’ve got this ingrained bloody committee in my head which I was cursed with from when I first started learning about how to throw. You know, being taught by people like Wally – wonderful amazing potter – er…not that I want to associate the word ‘cursed’ with Wally because that wouldn’t be right. Definitely not right because he’s a hero of mine, I go and see him regularly. But for me… because other people like a sculptor recently has been here…talking to me about my work, and he just sees it as ‘sculpture’. You know it’s not even an issue for him, because he’s never been conditioned into stuff.

MV So is it on the ceramic course that you….felt you got hung up on how to categorise your work? Did you feel that because you were on a ceramic course rather than a fine art course?

SC Yeah that’s right because I used to hang around with the fine artists. But they were doing fine art and I was doing ceramics.

MV And you felt less?

SC I guess I probably did…I know you’re putting words in my mouth a bit there, but you do feel less. Because it doesn’t somehow feel as…as powerful, you know it doesn’t have the power to go with it. People say ‘Who do you like?’ and I’m quite pushed. But the ones I do like have a real power and a real depth of thinking…equal to any fine artist.

Other admired artists and makers

MV But who..I mean somebody like Peter Voulkos ?

SC Yeah

MV That kind of American Expressionist ceramics?

SC, Yeah, I mean Peter Voulkos in his day, he was star wasn’t he? He’s amazing. Just really quite amazing stuff.

MV Is there anyone now, working now, anyone in Britain in ceramics?

SC There’s people like Takeshi, Alison Britton, Wally Keeler, Ken Eastman, Liz Aylief. Martin Smith’s installation at the Tate looked great. Then there’s Phil Wood. His attention to detail is amazing. He is a perfect example of someone who is making pots but has a real power and depth of thinking equal to any fine artist. And his drawings too – they’re incredible.

MV And other than ceramics?

SC It’s difficult…Richard Deacon , I really liked the stuff I saw of that. Sometimes I feel I can get into anything. When I stop and think I can actually be entertained by absolutely anything that anyone does. I mean my work at the Blind College taught me that. So I am entertained – and I use that word – I like to be entertained by people’s work. I am entertained by most things. But some things actually make me think.

MV But you feel you’re really making progress now?

SC For myself, yes. The benchmark is how I feel about it really. And that’s just a result of how I am able to conduct myself and my life really. As I become more open. As I become more….

MV Confident? Do you feel more confident now?

SC I do feel more confident and as my thought about the path I’m on becomes wider, …and I accept more…and it’s just endless that feeling.

Winning the Arts Foundation Prize, 2004

MV. How much has it helped you since you won the prize?

SC A hell of a lot, the Arts Foundation.

MV What has that done for you?

SC Initially it gave me what an award gives you really, in any form. It makes you feel that you are valued, you know, it gave me a real feeling of value. The value thing is quite important’s surprising really. Because…that kind of thing happens to other people, you know. When they called my name out it was just so weird. I just thought I was there, going along for the ride, an also-ran, you know.

MV So it was given at a ceremony?

SC Yes they read out the short list and then they said who the winner was. The people I was up against were really good, you know.

MV So you did feel that you were really given value. And since then, what are you going to do with that money, what difference does it make to you?

SC Well I’ve done those big paintings. Well, actually I’ve changed my feelings, I feel that I am now an artist, even though it’s what I’ve always been. Before I was hoping to be one, maybe and I now feel that this is what I do and I really hope to continue doing it. And…the scale of the paintings and the lack of fear…and the big jugs. The scale has changed and I feel I can manage now and go off this summer to do the beach drawings.

MV. So in a way it’s buying your time, so that you can do that. Do you think you ever would completely leave ceramics, I mean – just be an artist in another medium?

SC. Like painting for something? For a while I would be quite happy to do that, printmaking, but some of the qualities I get…in quite a quick way, like the marks around the top of that piece for instance. I do love it, it does do something. It would be nice to do other things, like the beach drawing and some painting. I’ll have to see.

MV, So its kind of painting and collage, and mark making?

SC Mark making, yeah

The beach drawings

MV So going to the beach, is it the environment that inspires you?

SC It’s the scale. They’re about the size of a football pitch, these drawings. I do it with a garden rake in the sand you see.

MV And then how do you record these things?

SC I just photograph them.

MV So when did you start doing these?

SC A couple of years ago. I was sitting on the beach and I had a lot of these social things I didn’t know how to do, because I had been quite wild a lot of the time. And I was sitting on the beach and I thought what do you DO? Do you just sit here? And I wasn’t patient enough to read a book, twiddle my thumbs and jump in the sea a few times and I saw these children who’d written their names in the sand, and I thought ‘Ah, yeah..I’ll do that’. So I drew something in the sand and got up on to the cliff and it was too small and I could hardly see it. So then I bought a garden rake and went down there with the rake and started doing these really big drawings and they slowly developed and I went back each year, sometimes I’d just go down to do a couple.

MV Is there a particular place you go?

SC Two beaches so far now….one’s Bedruthan Steps just below Padstow and the other one is Daymar Bay just north of Padstow. But this summer I’m going to just drive the whole coast, just keep finding beaches.

MV So in terms of exhibiting these it would be more…in terms of the photographs.

SC Oh it would be a photographic exhibition, yeah. It would be nice to have a photographic exhibition maybe with some ceramics.

MV You don’t think you would lose your identity if you moved away from ceramics? That’s not a concern for you?

SC No, not at all

MV Ceramics is just something that’s a convenient medium….

SC …At the moment I…I’m quite happy to stick with it. It’s what I know, but I’d be quite happy if I did continue to make a living out of art, to make it in whatever form it took. That’s what I’d ideally like, which I guess is a lot of people’s dream really, it’s not easy to get…but I’d pursue that.

Aberystwyth collection

MV So when you came to Aberystwyth and looked at the collection what were the things that you remember or have used.

SC Well,..ceramics, I do love tradition and traditional ceramics, I do really love looking at different forms and techniques. But I found myself being drawn to the slipware all the same. Because it is very seductive, it’s very easy to read and it’s very expressive…I guess it’s my language really at the moment. Even though you see I’m trying to broaden my horizon and broaden my visual vocabulary. But it is easy to read so I just stick with looking at that. The big brown slipware pieces …and Mick Casson’s stuff, I mean you can’t go wrong with that, bless him. But I did like some of the cast stuff as well.

MV Yes..because in fact …you have taken up some themes from the Swansea porcelain which is quite the opposite.

SC Yes, I do like that, they’re very crisp. I do like it, it’s weird. I like the traditional repeat patterns and things like that. They’re very easy again see. That’s really quite gentle.

Qualities – freedom and gentleness

MV Gentle? You use that word quite a bit – soft as well. So what’s the opposite of gentle to you? I mean in terms of ceramics? Some people might not think of your work as gentle at all.

SC No they wouldn’t. But the reason it’s gentle for me, maybe, is because to actually make some ceramics spot on is a headache. That intensity of working some people find calming and it might suit them, you know, but not me. I have to work like this because it’s not me to want to do that. It does my head in. But it’s every one to their own.

MV So you like the freedom to make use of all the accidents and all the things that you don’t control.

SC And …the gentleness of it is the fact that I’m letting myself off, and having the freedom.

MV But you’ve taken quite a bit of inspiration from that Japanese book with the photographs, and they’re quite precise?

SC They are quite precise but I imagine the people who do them are pursuing exactly the same thing as me. The goal is exactly the same, it’s some kind of peace. And an ever widening path…..without direction – that’s what I want. And to be honest with you, to absolutely accept that is really tough. Because it means everybody else has got the same path as well, you know and there’s no control involved in that. And that can be really scary.

MV, So if we come to this large piece here…when did you do this?

SC A few weeks ago

MV Right, and you are pleased with it and the way it has big crack down the back.

SC I didn’t like it at first because there’s conditioning…But then I thought ‘no, you can live with that’, the way it swoops and…several things like that. Actually it really relates to the collection. The reason it relates is because slipware gets so many splits in plates and platters and they are really valid and actually treasured things. You know, so why can’t it be treasured now? And the cracks came about as a result of the way I work you know, and… I accept the cracks and imperfections.

Working processes

MV So tell me how that was made. It’s a mixture of throwing and assembling, isn’t it?

SC Yes, it would have been (counts) one, two, three pieces thrown and then stuck together. And this top bit is thrown into a two piece mould. And this bit sticks out the top you know, I can just sort of push my fingers in that bit.

MV So this is all actually free hand work to get this kind of finish. That pink glaze seems very untraditional, and quite unexpected actually.

SC That’s splashed off another pot, the pink…it was white, but there was brown pot in the kiln which must have had chrome or something in it and the gas as it reduced slightly maybe has picked that up and taken it onto another pot.

MV So you weren’t at all expecting any pink on this?

SC No, on that one, no.

MV But you were pleased when it came out?

SC I was quite indifferent to be honest.

MV You were quite indifferent?

SC Yeah, it was pink, I thought that’s cool…well I didn’t even… you know ….what I looked at was the shape, I really like these shapes, these big holes.

MV So in a way you’ve left marks from a firing situation really, and that kind of roughness over the smoothness is something you like?

SC Yes, I like that…because it came from a practical reason, it had to be done. And that’s probably why it cracked, because it had extra weight on it.

MV What about that green and white jug? How do you feel about the sort of comparison between those two?

SC Now that’s interesting, because I like that green and white jug and I do like the jugs…see I slip straight back into liking pottery. It’s such a pain though.

MV But you see that as pottery, I mean you feel that as pottery?

SC I do, but a potter wouldn’t really.

MV No, I mean it’s still quite free, but it’s definitely a jug. It’s got very precise references to tradition …in the spout and the top part.

SC It’s thrown into a two piece mould as well.

MV You are using the difference between shiny and matt.

SC I do, I like that. It’s about that contrast I was talking about earlier on. But I’ve sort of stuck into this rut of same proportions…but I don’t mind it.

MV In your work every piece has a very distinct character. In that sense I make quite a lot of parallels with human beings, they do have a strong sense of personality. Would you say that’s important to you? Do you feel that? Do you see them like people? I mean some potters do talk about pots almost like children.

SC I don’;t know. I do know every one has a value…they are very special. I do love the fact that they’re all different. I do like them altogether and don’t like them to be separated out because it is nice to see the variety. I like having so many, that’s why I am almost not worried about selling them because I enjoy owning a lot of them.

MV They’re kind of close to you?

SC Yes, I suppose they are, even though it’s only pottery.