One of the ceramic artists I most admire and respect is Ian Gregory, who has been making pottery and sculpture since the 1960s. Over the years, Ian has produced many different types of work, including salt-glazed stoneware and raku pottery, life-sized statues of the human figure, animal and bird sculptures, as well as large-scale, mixed media installations. More recently, he has embarked on a series of sculptures in bronze.
Early on in his ceramic career, Ian produced beautifully detailed models of furniture, such as dressing tables and chests of drawers, in salt-glazed stoneware. Here is a photo of one of those pieces; a lidded box, which I'm honoured to have in my collection:
Today, he is perhaps best known for his impressionistic sculptures of dogs, which have a very special charm and appeal. Alongside the Martin Brothers potters, it was my discovery of Ian Gregory's wonderful salt-glazed sculptures in books and on the internet which first inspired me to try my hand at working with clay. His approach to ceramics is similar to the Martin Brothers in as far as no two pieces he produces are ever alike. Each creation is crafted with the same level of loving care and attention; the product of enormous skill, dexterity, passion, and a very vivid imagination.
On a personal level, I have learnt a huge amount, both from his writings and entertaining talks and demonstrations at ceramics events around the country. His willingness to experiment with unconventional methods and push the boundaries of what is possible in ceramic technology is truly inspiring. Ian always encourages other artists to learn through practice and to never accept received wisdom untested. How many ceramicists in the 20th Century would have even considered the possibility of firing a gas kiln to stoneware temperatures in less than fifteen minutes? Or manufacturing a portable kiln from slabs of kiln fibre attached to wire mesh? Or mixing paper pulp with clay slip to create a revolutionary new ceramic material? Ian Gregory was one of the first potters to invent paperclay, and discover its remarkable properties. Many of his sculptures are made from this material, which has incredible green strength, solves the problems of cracking from uneven drying, and even allows raw-clay and bisque-fired components to be joined together.
Listening to Ian speak candidly about his many experiments and some of the frustrations involved in reaching creative goals, helped me to accept regular failures as part and parcel of the learning process. Clay, kiln and glaze disasters are simply treated as a necessary part of discovering which processes work and which don't. Also, it's only by taking risks that useful discoveries (such as Ian's application of household emulsion paint as a perfectly acceptable slip!) can be made purely through serendipity. As someone once said: "failure is the doorstep to success". He also made me realise that success does not necessarily come from sticking to the same creative formula or defined genre, that it's okay to strike out in completely new directions and see where they take you. After all, being an artist should ultimately be about embracing creative freedom..the idea that "with clay, there are no rules" !
Here are a few photographs I took back in May 2006, when Ian demonstrated his sculpting techniques at the "Where I Fell In Love" Gallery in Shipston-on-Stour:
The images show the early stages of a dog sculpture in paperclay, using an armature made by pushing metal braising rods into blocks of polystyrene foam. This is another of Ian's inventive solutions, which allows the supporting framework to be finely adjusted and the pose of the sculpture to be altered at will. Ian works quickly and instinctively..pushing, pinching and modelling the clay, as well as using carving implements to sculpt the desired form. On that day in Shipston-on-Stour, it was quite miraculous to watch how, in a matter of minutes, (with no model or photograph to work from) the dog took on a convincing form with a life of its own. Ian does not aim to create a sculpture which is anatomically correct in every way. Rather, he seeks to capture the essence of a dog; the expression of its soul, its behavioural quirks, the way it sits, lies and moves through the world. In the same sculpture he will often capture a dog's potential for menace as well as its softness and vulnerability.
For me, Ian Gregory's works have a timeless quality, partly because they deal with eternal emotions and concerns. There is something deeply compassionate and spiritual contained within his sculptures, human or animal, and at their core they often seem to speak of the fragility of our existence and the flawed nature of our psyches. The speed and fluidity with which Ian creates his work are not to its detriment..on the contrary, his gestural techniques facilitate the expression of deep-seated, unconscious streams of thought, and aspects of the human condition which remain beyond words. The result is sculpture which can be both charming and highly disturbing..light-hearted and whimsical, yet at the same time, heavy with latent meanings.