Art for All Artist Q&A: Joshua Schoeman

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Posted 12th November 2021

Co-production: Community and Artists

Just as Mary Watts invited the local community into her studio-home to learn new creative skills and promote new social enterprise, we create creative partnerships between artists and the local community. Our Watts Chapel is testament to the work of a village with Mary’s designs rendered by the hands of local children and adults in terracotta and gesso grosso. While the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild, which Mary founded with the locals she trained, is evidence of social impact the work of artists can bring to communities.

Participants from our Art for All Community Learning Programme have co-produced a collection of ceramics with potter Joshua Schoeman for the 2021 Limner Collection.

Participants’ drawings and designs gathered from workshops have been brought together to create a lovely range of tableware and to inspire the forms of ceramics with the participant’s sketches featured on the glaze. Participants and Joshua studied the pottery made by the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild and worked together to create a collection influenced by the potters who worked at Watts Gallery with Mary Watts.

How did you work in partnership with the community?

The restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have encouraged us all to move online this year, and the 2021 ceramics co-production project has been no exception. Through the use of digital media, I have been able to work safely and directly with members of the Watts Gallery’s outreach classes. The Watts’ new online resources and visual aids, created to maintain an educational platform during 2020, have been invaluable in communicating the history and ethos of Mary, G.F. and their creative legacy. That same legacy being the drive behind the Watts gallery’s community engagement programs.

Using gallery resources - the personal drawings of Mary Watts, the photos of the original Compton Potter’s Arts Guild and the pottery which they created – I began a series of drawing workshops which aimed to study the pottery of the Watts Gallery through sketching. Community members were encouraged to record their interpretations, both direct and abstract, through various drawing exercises and to vocalise any thoughts and feelings which the work evoked in them.

The community group’s sketches were then collected, digitised and used to inform the ceramics I made, both in the shape of the larger vases and directly through decal transfer process onto some functional wares. I very much appreciated the community comments that I have collected, expressions of resonance and interest in the reasoning behind the art of ceramics. These are comments that I often receive upon project completion, rarely during. Although not obvious in the immediate outcomes of the project, I believe my making has been enriched by the honest joy and eagerness I experienced from the Watt’s community.

What have you learnt about your creative practice through co-producing with our community?

This project has been my first community arts commission, and so there have been many things which I have learnt along the road of co-production, mainly through trial and error – and then lots of trialling again! As a fine-art ceramicist, the centre of my practise is the creation of one-off interpretive sculptural ceramics, and I rarely make work that can be reproduced and sold commercially. For a project motivated by cottage industry and commercial education, I have had to adjust my making time (getting faster!) and avoid making too many creative choices to ensure the resulting collection of work is homogenous, concise and appropriately saleable for a picturesque countryside gallery.

Through the co-production project I have learnt that my practise has room to expand into a commercial setting, and the value of exploring methods of creating more affordable ceramics. I have grown to understand the joy and connection an interested person feels from the possession of a mug, plate or coaster – anything that can be a functional or commemorative token for posterity. Working with an eager community who are excited at the prospect of their art being owned and cherished has reminded me of the importance of inclusivity and financial consideration when creating work, and I will hold onto this lesson for projects to come.

What challenges did you face while co-producing and how were these overcome?

For the co-production project I have been using materials that are new to me, working with terracotta and glaze types that lean into the aesthetic heritage of the Watts Gallery, which have posed their fair share of practical issues. Having done a series of small tests, especially while making a safe modern alternative to the lead – green roof tile glazes that decorate the Gallery today, I approached the project confident that I knew how the new medium would respond. This proved to not always be the case, and one major challenge was the inability of the new green glaze to accept the community participant’s decal drawings successfully. Having discovered this, I changed my glaze recipe to create a finish that was more familiar to me, and the resulting honey glaze was used to decorate from then on. I probably haven’t learnt my lesson from this, as making changes and taking risks is a part of being a ceramicist, but it is always important to have backup plans to keep your creative options open right until the end. I have found from experience that issues and errors are most easily overcome when you have a mental ‘maker’s toolbox’ of tried and tested solutions to pull out when needed.

What tips do you have for artists working with community groups to co-produce?

My advice for artists new to working with community groups is to put fun squarely at the heart of the project. I have had the most enjoyment during my time co-producing when interacting, drawing and learning with the Watt’s community, and the outlooks which were shared have helped me ease into the work. I see a main outcome of this co-production project to be inspiring and encouraging individual members of the Watt’s community to continue their creativity, seek out opportunities and to eventually use their own voices to help and support others in turn. For this aim to be reached, it is important to devote time to intimately engage with the community, allow participants to feel heard and represented in the project. So have fun! Enjoy the experience and enable others to enjoy the creative ride with you.

How did you respond to the collection?

At the beginning of the co-production project I was treated to a tour of the Watts collection by curator, Emma Coburn. This tour included the archival documents of Mary Watts, sample images of work from the Compton Potter’s Arts Guild and a private collection of functional pottery.

Previously, when I would imagine the pottery of Mary Watts, I would envision formidable, weighty terracotta vessels decorated with humorous snakes and scrolling curls. After my visit to the archive, what I took away was the delicate nature of the pendants, the potpourri jars and oil holders. So thin, precise and considered, the pottery could have read to me as a different style completely if not for the signature Watt’s decorations. Finely decorated with a mix of Celtic and floral repeat patterns, finished with romantic blush and blue paint, I was amazed at the precision and care taken over each piece individually.

The collection having an absence of functional glazed wares, I drew a few lines and created tankard like mugs representative of the type of rural pottery that would have been used in the Watt’s setting in Mary’s time. Inspired by the hallmark garden vessels, the co-produced collection is made in British terracotta and finished in a glaze I developed during the project from the roof tiles of the Watts Gallery itself. When the work is handled, my hope is that it will feel as generous and considered as the original Compton Pottery itself.

You can own your own beautiful piece of the 2021 Limner Collection, shop the ceramics in our shop and online. 

Profits made from the collection help support our Art for All learning programme.