Welcome to the Zoo

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How did you get started doing your wonderful pottery?  

It was a gradual process really. As a small child I was always fascinated by animals. One of my Mum’s early memories of me learning to talk was me bringing anything that moved in from the garden saying “Dut beekuw”, my version of “look beetle”. I was always drawing and making things too. I made lots of animals in Plasticine, a coloured modelling material. My interest in both nature and art has continued to this day.

Like most teenagers, when I was about sixteen years old and a student I wanted more pocket money for buying records and things, and my opportunity came when my brother bought me a little mouse for Christmas. It was a small unglazed ceramic mouse with a leather tail made by a local potter who had a shop in town. I looked at it and thought “I could do better than that” so I went to see the potter and proposed that I make mice for him. After a demonstration he agreed and he supplied the clay, I modelled the mice, and he did the firings. I started making them in slightly different positions or decorating them to make them less boring. Then I came up with new designs for other simple animals. Things progressed and my Mum and I bought our own small kiln so that I could do the whole thing. That gave me the liberty to look elsewhere and I soon started supplying a local craft centre and another shop. This was while I was still studying. I carried on part time like this for a few years. My studies were in sciences because as my father, who was a geology lecturer, said “art won’t get you a good job, science will” Since I loved nature anyway I studied biology, and added maths which I was good at, and chemistry. My biology and chemistry studies do come in useful for my work though.

Events in my life meant that at twenty four years old I had the choice of either becoming a full time ceramic artist or giving it up completely. The artist in me won and I dived in head first and spent the next few years desperately trying to keep my head above water. I won’t pretend it’s an easy choice but I don’t regret it.

I have now been a professional ceramic artist for twenty nine years, and am entirely self-taught.

Hippopottermiss by Hippopottermiss

What tools and equipment do you need to do your craft?

The essential piece of equipment for my work is a kiln. I have two electric kilns. After that the most important is my hands, followed by a variety of tools which are mostly bits of wood or dismantled pens or shapes that I have made myself from clay and fired. I do have a few “real” potters’ tools but they aren’t any more real than my box of bits and pieces. When I first started out I worked on a small board on the dining room table in my parents’ house but now I have two rooms of my house that are my workshop. One room where I do the modelling and the kiln room where I also do the glazing. I’ve recently added a storeroom which has all my packaging and my stall and equipment for when I go to craft fairs. The clay stock will soon be moving into there from the garage too. It’s great to not feel like I’ve got so much piled around my ears when I’m making things.

Where does your inspiration come from?

We think we’re artists but nature does it better. My inspiration comes from nature and from my sense of humour which makes me like the quirky things, the brightly coloured little oddities of this world, or animals that I find funny or attractive. I’m never short of ideas. I’m always short of the time to be able to try out all the new things in my head. Every time I come up with a new design it adds another one to the list of things I haven’t really got time to make. I deliberately don’t stay on the same thing for long or I get bored with it. It’s nice to come back to it again later.

Can you give us a short tutorial on how you make your pieces?

The basic steps to my work are first the modelling of the animal then careful drying so that it doesn’t crack or warp, and sometimes some decoration with coloured slip. This is followed by the first firing, known as the biscuit firing. The clay is now hard but as yet unglazed. Next comes the glazing and a glaze firing. Some pieces are now finished but some of my work requires a second glaze layer and another glaze firing, and occasionally a third. I don’t sketch my sculptures first, though I sometimes sketch odd ideas for it to see if the shape might work. I prefer to start directly with the clay and see how it goes. Clay has the advantage of not only its plasticity but being able to add bits as well as taking them away.

How difficult is a piece like “Warming up for the Frog Hop”?

A frog like this one is a fairly basic piece which only needed two firings and is not too big, about 12 cm high to the tips of his toes. I modelled the body in white clay then added the legs to it. Sometimes I have to support parts like the foot until the clay has dried enough to not bend under its own weight. One of my home made clay tools is the round shape for doing the eye, and the other end is the almond shaped eye-middle (also useful for cats eyes). Before the first firing I put red and black slip clay on his eyes and a coating of clear glaze that will once-fire on top of the slip. I also painted the lighter green glaze spots on him. After his firing he was matte white with shiny green spots and shiny red eyes. Next I dipped him in a bucket of darker green transparent glaze. This takes on the porous unglazed parts of the frog but only puts a thin film on the glazed parts. A slight bit of green on the green spots is OK but I have to carefully clean it out of his eyes and make sure there is no glaze underneath that will stick to the shelf in the kiln. A second firing and he is done.

People often ask me “How long does it take to make one like this?” but it is very difficult to answer because as you see, even for a simple model there are so many small steps involved. The modelling is the longest part on the frogs and one like this would typically take me about 45 minutes to do the modelling.

Warming up for the Frog Hop by Hippopottermiss

What is involved in making a piece like “Mouse Cheese Bell”?

This is a different technique to the frog, both in the making and in the decorating. The base and dome of the cheese bell are thrown on a potter’s wheel. The dome is thrown upside down as a bowl an them trimmed to form a continuous curve rather than leaving a foot-ring like on a bowl. The handles on the base are added while the clay is still slightly pliable. The same goes for the mouse on the dome. It has to be modelled onto or attached to the clay before the dome hardens otherwise as the mouse shrinks in drying it will crack away and come off. I also coated the dome in blue slip clay and put pink slip in the mouse’s ears and black on its face before it was dry. When the clay was nearly dry I took a sharp stick and scratched the spirals through the blue slip to show the white clay beneath. After drying it was biscuit fired. Then all I had to do was to glaze it with a transparent glaze and do a second firing.

Mouse Cheese Bell by Hippopottermiss

How complicated was a piece like “Hello Little You”?

Hello little you is a much more complicated piece to make. For a start it is bigger than the frog so it is harder to manipulate while modelling. I don’t remember the exact size but it was probably about 20 cm high.

First I make the mother dragon then I make the hatching egg separately. The tail is difficult to deal with because the clay is still soft and it risks bending and splitting every time you turn the dragon over to do something on it’s back or side. It is hard to find a hand position where you can adequately support everything at once while you work. As you can see I partly solved this by having her hind feet holding her tail – this also makes the finished piece less fragile. The end of the tail was still a problem though and it had to be supported by bits of foam rubber etc until it hardened a bit. Fortunately the extremities and thinner parts dry faster than the rest.

Once I’d modelled the big dragon, with its hands in approximately the right position to hold the egg I covered it in a polythene sheet to prevent it from drying while I made the baby. I made the egg then the baby’s head and one foreleg and inserted them into the hole in the egg. Mum and baby were put together but I didn’t join the egg to the dragon’s hands – just left it in place to dry.

 When the dragon had hardened enough to handle it without deforming it I hollowed out its body. This is essential if you don’t want your work to split while drying or explode in the kiln. I couldn’t make the dragon in grogged sculpture clay because I wouldn’t get the same fineness on things like the ears and feet. It is made in fine white earthenware clay. A bit of red and black in the eyes and it is ready for drying and firing.

After the first firing I glazed the big dragon green. I didn’t want the egg glazed though so before glazing the baby I painted a wax emulsion onto the egg to make I resist the glaze. I put the egg in place and fired them together. The glaze on the big dragon’s feet glued the egg in place.

Dragons generally have a bad press so I make nice dragons to redress the balance. Ones with babies are quite popular, as are the ones I do eating ice cream cones. I’m intending to make a series of dragons for a naïve art festival I’m participating in early next year. I never repeat exactly the same one though.

Hello Little You by Hippopottermiss

Can you tell us about “Neneg the Hippo”?

I like hippos. I have been making them since my early amateur days (not so well as I do now) but I really fell in love with them when I was traveling in Kenya and Uganda and came close up to real hippos, or rather they came close to me. You can read about that here www.jen-robinson.com/ghipa.htm… . Lots of other people like hippos too and my hippos are quite often bought by hippo collectors from France and more recently from the USA too.

Neneg was a hippo I made this summer. I often do a modelling demonstration on my stall when I’m at a ceramics fair. When I’m making hippos quite a few people say that they prefer them matte grey to shiny grey like the finished ones. I use white clay which in its raw state it is grey. Matt grey is OK but they fire to matte white – not so appealing! I was working with black clay making something else and decided to make a black hippo and ask my hippo collecting friends what they thought. They loved her and she sold almost straight away so I’ll be making some more. Black clay is a funny consistency to work with when pure but this is grogged black clay so it behaves a bit better. The odd thing is that they’ve grogged it with white grog so it has small white specks in it. The only parts of her that are glazed are the insides of her ears, round her eyes, and in her nostrils. Firing the clay to a fairly high temperature partly vitrifies it and gives it a nice natural sheen.  She’s called Neneg because my bigger pieces are nowadays named to make it easier to give people authenticity certificates. Since they are made here in Brittany in France they all have local Breton names.

I have just come back from a trip to Chicago where I was invited to the annual reunion of Hippolotofus, an international group of hippo lovers and hippo collectors. I did them an afternoon hippo modelling demonstration and they were the most fantastically enthusiastic audience I’ve ever had! We collectively decided to call the piece I made Wrigley and The Bean  jenzanimo.deviantart.com/art/W…  both of which are references to Chicago. It can be dried and fired by one of the other members so I had decided to donate it to the protection of wild hippos. In the evening it was sold in an auction and was bought for 600$. Another finished piece called The Bloat  jenzanimo.deviantart.com/art/T… , that I took with me for the main prize in a raffle I organized helped us to raise over 1000$ too. This gave us a wonderful total of 1800$ for wild hippo protection on the Congolese side of Lake Edward in central Africa, I was so proud and happy.

Neneg the Hippo by Hippopottermiss

What was involved in creating “Two Silly Cows” ?

For a few years now I have been incorporating copper and brass wire with ceramics for some of my work. One example of this is my silly cows. Cows have lovely soft eyes and not much brainpower and they appeal to me. I have to admit that the ones in the field opposite my house aren’t quite that colour but maybe when the moon is full and I’m not watching the fairy cows come out to dance in the fields.

I have to make the ceramic parts of the cow separately from the metal wire sections because I couldn’t fire them with the metal already in there. Even the modelling wouldn’t work. The clay shrinks as it dries and would split round the metal. Same applies to shrinkage during firing even without the problem of the oxidization of the metal in the kiln. So – I make a “cow kit” consisting of the body, the head, and four feet. Next problem – there isn’t a flat part which can be unglazed and sit on the kiln shelf (apart from the feet). Actually this isn’t the case for the sitting down pink cow because she’s sitting flat. Generally I have to make a disposable three pronged support for the cow body when I glaze it. The glaze sticks to the tips of the clay spikes and I have three small bumps to grind down after the firing. How I deal with the same problem for the head depends on the size of the cow. The larger cows need three pronged head supports too but the smaller ones can be supported on a vertical spike inserted into the hole that I’ve made for her neck wire. All the holes for the wires have to be made when I make the cow kit.

After the kit is glazed I make the legs, necks and tails and glue the metal into the holes with a two-part epoxy glue. Mostly I use twisted wire so first I have to twist it. Cutting and manipulating it is easier for the smaller cows but the thickness required for the larger cows is really hard work to bend into shape. The biggest cow I’ve made started with about 20 kg of clay for the body! Of course the body needs hollowing out later so it didn’t weigh that much when fired but it will give you an idea of the size of the body and the weight that the legs have to support. All the wire sections have to be bent to shape before gluing them in otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it afterwards without breaking the cow. Trying to hold it all at the right angle while the glue sets is fun too. Masking tape & rubber bands are my helpers. Of course this all takes ages to do.

Two Silly Cows wasn’t one piece of sculpture but a couple of the cows I made when I was making a long line of dancing cows for a ceramic animals exhibition in a ceramics museum. I put them on a concrete block wall in my garden to take the photo and just thought these two looked good together. One is white earthenware and the other partly glazed red clay. Lots more of my cows can be seen here www.jen-robinson.com/gcow.html

Two Silly Cows by Hippopottermiss

Do you take your own photos?

I take a lot of my own photos but not all. I have a friend who takes some for me and he’s a good photographer so his are often better than mine.

Taking photos of shiny things is difficult. If I use a flash I get lots of flash spots and although I can remove them to a certain extent with Photoshop it is time consuming and not always easy. Sunlight can be a problem as well because you get a lot of reflections. When I can I prefer a tripod and natural shady lighting outdoors.

The background is quite important. The focal point needs to be the animal not what’s behind it. I don’t always have the time to get the background right before having to pack the new pieces in the van to be whisked off to a fair so sometimes the background isn’t very good.

At least my animals don’t move as I’m trying to take the photo. If I touch the image up afterwards it is only to remove flash spots or to correct the colour to what it actually is. I would never try to touch up imperfections or try to make the work look better than it is

Do you participate in any shows or exhibitions?

Yes I do. My principal way of selling my work is through ceramic fairs, potters’ markets and sometimes through exhibitions and galleries. The success of shows is of course very varied. Sometimes they’re excellent and sometimes a disappointment. They are quite varied and one of my good ones is an international naïve art festival that runs for a month each year.

It is hard work doing shows. Some people think it must be great to just go out on weekends to chat with colleagues and sell a few things but they have no idea of the work and hours involved. It is good to see my fellow artists and craftspeople, and the technical exchanges can be very useful. Social contact is good too as I work on my own. At a ceramics market you get the direct input and comments of the customers on what they like and dislike about your work, this is something you don’t get from galleries or exhibitions. Sometimes there is a themed competition where you make a piece to a set theme. It’s good to participate because it stretches your imagination to doing things that you wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise. I’ve won quite a few of them over the years and try to use the prize money to buy something that is work related but that I couldn’t otherwise afford – like when I bought my digital camera. Once I bought the circular saw which I needed for cutting up sheets of plywood to make my new stall display stands.
Now that I have a website my regular customers can check where I will be because my workshop isn’t open to the public. I don’t have enough space to display my work at home and anyway I’m lost deep in the countryside where nobody drives by.

The current state of the economy, and competition from imported crafts, means that fairs are generally getting less profitable – just at the time when the cost of doing them is going up. I’m trying to reduce the number of fairs in favour of exhibitions, galleries, and direct selling from orders and commissions, either through my website or from people like the hippo collectors. I recently did a commission for a hippo collector who is a dentist. The hippo is laid back in the dentist’s chair with his mouth open and his teeth a bit broken. It can be seen on the hippo page of my website www.jen-robinson.com/ghipa.htm… .

Some years ago I also worked with Greenpeace and designed a series of brooches that I supplied for their UK mail-order catalogue. They were a great success.

Do you belong to any organizations and what benefits are there?

I am a member of two associations of professional potters here in France. A lot of the ceramic fairs that I do are organised under the umbrella of these two associations. They’re the best ones because they’re organised by potters for potters. We know what we need and lots of people give the organisers a hand. Nobody is making any profit out of organising them either.

I’m also a member of a local nature protection group and participate each year in an animal art exhibition which is part of their annual nature festival. It is restricted to wild European animals and since I don’t like taking the same things each year it forces me to think a bit. That’s fun to do rather than a big money earner but I get lots of valuable constructive criticism from the animal experts.

Animals have always been such a part of my life, and another association I work with is the Breton Mammals Group (GMB). There are otters on the small river that runs through my land, which is now designated as an official otter haven and is part of the network of otter havens created in partnership with the GMB.

I am of course a member of Hippolotofus too, and DeviantArt.


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Hippopottermiss's avatar
Hi all :)
Unfortunately, publishing the interview coincided with my mother's death and as a result I have been away for a couple of weeks :(

I'm pleased people enjoyed the explanations and picked up some hints and techniques :D

Thanks to you all for your nice comments :hug: