ROSL has a long-standing connection to the RCA thanks to the Overseas Prize at the AMC. Natalie Healey speaks to RCA’s Felicity Aylieff and Steve Brown about guiding the next generation of ceramics artists, and what it takes to master the craft

Ziming Han, Cross & Risen & Layer Collection, 2021

The ROSL Annual Music Competition (AMC) is one of the most anticipated dates in the social calendar. Musicians from all over the Commonwealth surprise and delight with their command of instrument or voice. But the AMC is not just a celebration of outstanding classical musicianship, it also showcases artistic prowess. The Overseas Award, the prize given to a promising musician from outside the UK, is a one-of-a-kind trophy, expertly crafted by a student from the Ceramics and Glass department at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London.

In 2003, Dr Steve Brown was that student. “It’s just an amazing evening,” says Brown of the AMC. He has fond memories of excellent canapes and remarkable musical performances. That year, the Overseas trophy was an intricately patterned ceramic cornucopia. Brown reveals that the pattern was created from photographs of the Royal School of Organists former headquarters in South Kensington, London. The extraordinary structure is a Grade II-listed building, cloaked in decorative panelling. “I turned the photographs into a digital image and used oxides to make it look ancient,” Brown says. The resulting structure resembled an archaic wind instrument – an apt trophy for a music award.

Brown’s first love was textile printing – that’s how he started his career in art. But when he decided to embark on a multimedia course in Exeter in the late nineties, he discovered ceramics and never looked back. “It really got under my skin,” he says. “Fairly immediately, I started to combine printmaking techniques with ceramics, glass and other materials.” Brown honed his craft at the RCA – where he was taught by Professor Felicity Aylieff. He is now acting head of programme for the college’s Ceramics and Glass master’s degree course.

Another dimension

Aylieff is an artistic tour de force. She has exhibited her work all over the world. And she is the recipient of two major Art Council awards. She encountered ceramics relatively early on. “When I was at school, we were very lucky to have an excellent art department,” she says – which included a pottery room. But at first, Aylieff ignored clay and instead concentrated on painting and drawing. Later, during a foundation course at Bath Academy of Arts, she was reacquainted with the pottery wheel. Like Brown, she was hit with the realisation that she wanted to work three-dimensionally. “I wanted to put my paintings and drawings on to my pots,” she says. She has taught Ceramics and Glass at the RCA since 2001.

Ceramics, once considered a niche pursuit, is something people are increasingly trying their hands at. Pottery classes are booming in the UK, perhaps a result of television show The Great Pottery Throw Down, where ordinary people compete to make the best ceramics. Another factor is social media. Artists now showcase their work on platforms such as Instagram, bringing the ancient craft to a younger audience.

As well as a way of expressing creativity, ceramics is often perceived as a therapy… the deliberate, methodical process helps them

As well as a way of expressing creativity, ceramics is often perceived as a therapy. Pottery commands your full attention, and it takes time to produce something you’re satisfied with. It’s perhaps not surprising then that some people find the deliberate, methodical process helps them step away from the overwhelming demands of modern life. Watching a pot take shape can be a mesmerising process. Working with clay could even help some individuals get in touch with their inner child, adds Brown. “Clay forms part of a child’s creative response,” he says. “Engaging with the materials and bashing clay out and forming it is something everybody can do.” Ceramics might even offer support for people with serious medical conditions. Artists, such as the RCA’s Katie Spragg, run pottery classes for people with dementia – helping individuals with the disease feel less isolated and learn new skills.

Art vs science

Of course, there is a big difference between taking up ceramics as a hobby or a therapy and pursuing it as a career. Students on the RCA course must master many complicated techniques, such as glassblowing, pot-throwing, and firing in a kiln. The high temperature transforms weak clay into a durable glass-like material – but it’s not easy. “Firing is a different thing,” says Brown. This is when art and science combine. “The first part is easy,” agrees Aylieff. “You soon realise it’s a much bigger subject, with the chemistry of it and the technical skills.”

Learning the craft takes years of commitment, says Brown. It’s not something you can dip in and out of it. “It takes a lot of perseverance to be able to control the transformative process and the alchemy.” He suggests even a naturally talented potter must put in tens of thousands of hours to fully master the art of ceramics. “You’ve got to have an ease and a speed with your fingers,” adds Aylieff. “And good hand-eye coordination.” Then, outside of the studio, there’s research and learning to immerse yourself in. Students must fully understand the ideas behind the work while acknowledging the contemporary context, she says. “There’s a level of intention that takes it beyond therapy. It’s what their imagination tells them that they can do with it that’s important.”

Not many people have what it takes to be accepted on the RCA course. But those who do often go onto great things. Katharine Morling, who graduated from the RCA in 2009, is now an award-winning ceramics artist. In 2010, she represented the UK at the European Ceramic Context in Denmark. Her sculptures have been exhibited internationally, from New York to Kuwait. The Royal London Hospital even commissioned her to create a large wall-mounted installation for their new children’s ward. The artist describes her work as “three-dimensional drawings”. “Each piece, on the surface, an inanimate object, has been given layers of emotion and embedded with stories, which are open for interpretation,” said Morling in her artistic statement. “She’s someone that had always dabbled with ceramics on a therapy level but then had a clear intention she wanted to take it to a much more professional level,” says Aylieff of her former student.

Antonio Fois, TIME SPACE TRACES, 2021

Sunyoung Oh, The sensuality of trees, 2021

Seize the opportunity

Both academics agree that even if you do make it to the top of your field in ceramics, you never stop learning. “We all have strengths and weaknesses,” says Brown. “We can’t all be glassblowers, throwers or sculptors. But we all have a research profile and that’s very important. That means pushing things to the edge. You do new things all the time and learn from that.” Sometimes that means making friends with uncertainty, however uncomfortable that may feel. Aylieff says trialling new techniques helps her to empathise with the students when they are feeling insecure about a project. “It’s the difficulty of making decisions and probably feeling slightly inadequate, but it’s what drives you to be more creative.”

The pandemic has been an additional learning curve for both teacher and student. But there have been some positives. Thanks to the new-found popularity of video conference platforms, Aylieff says she’s been able to invite lecturers from all over the world to give talks to class, which just wouldn’t have been feasible before. At the same time, students separated from the RCA’s specialist facilities by coronavirus restrictions or geographical barriers have been forced to improvise – sometimes with tremendous results. One student based in Tenerife, has resorted to using an oil-based clay, similar to plasticine, to make his art. “He’s produced these images that are astounding,” says Brown. “And I’ve never met him. There’s been a huge breadth of challenges, but also resourcefulness and inventiveness.”

For obvious reasons, a ceramics Overseas trophy was absent during 2020 – and this year’s AMC will also be a more intimate affair than usual. But all being well, a scholar from RCA’s Ceramics and Glass course will craft a bespoke award for next year’s ceremony. Aylieff says collaborating with external organisations enhances the students’ practise, and helps them explore ideas within and beyond the traditional routes of art and design. “The relationship we have with ROSL is so important because it’s something for the students to work towards,” says Aylieff. “Plus, putting the two arts together – music and ceramics – is just brilliant.”

Teaching at the RCA since 2001, Felicity also has work in numerous collections globally

Steve’s horn-like work was chosen as the AMC Overseas Prize in 2003