London based ceramicist Liam Owen creates delicate but distinctive tableware and grander sculptural pieces. We visited his London studio to discuss his distaste for brown pottery and why art doesn't necessarily need context.
Liam Owen's signature speckled two-tone design.
The calm before the storm: Liam's pottery wheels take a break.
How did you discover ceramics? You went to Glasgow School of Art a number of years back, didn't you?
Yep, I did ceramics at Glasgow School of Art. The whole story is that I'm from Northumberland and I didn't really have anything to do with ceramics at all when I was growing up. My mum and dad had friends who ran a pottery studio, so I spent some time in there, but it was never really a thing. I went to Newcastle College to do a foundation course with the idea of going to an art school. I was with either going to be an artist or I was going to do graphic design. But you have to choose three subjects to specialise in - I chose ceramics, fashion and textiles, which I'd never even considered as an option before.
How come you chose those subjects?
I just think I just suddenly realised there's a whole other world of creative stuff you could work in and I really liked the whole tactile thing. And I have to admit, out of those three, ceramics was pretty much instantaneous; as soon I started doing it, I totally fell in love with it. So, I think even then I knew that was the one I wanted to continue with. But this was around 1994-1997, a long time ago when ceramics was a very different world to what it is now.
Naked ceramics: a glimpse at the process behind Liam's homeware.
Liam overlooks his selection of colour swatches.
Fizzy-coloured ceramics on display in the studio.
How was the ceramics world different then?
It was just potters working in garden sheds making very brown, traditional pottery. That's the way I saw it. There wasn't really a trend of ceramics; it was very brown. And I didn't think it was very cool; I was a 19-year-old kid. So, from the day that I graduated in 1997, I didn't touch clay for nearly twenty years. I finished art school and wondered what I was going to do. I realised you couldn't do it for a living, it wasn't really a job. So, I went off and did something else and for a long time, I didn’t even think about ceramics. But about seven or eight years ago I started to think about it, and I wanted to do my own thing again.
My wife said just go and do it, and for my birthday one year, she bought me a month's membership at a group studio in North London. I went in one day, they showed me around and they asked me if I wanted to start right there and then. They gave me some clay, I sat at a wheel, and I threw a pot for the first time in 20 years. It just came back to me instantly.
Why do you think there’s now a demand for places like the Kiln Rooms?
I guess there's loads of reasons. A clear one in my mind is people are so digitalised they like the idea of doing something with their hands. They don't get the opportunity anymore because they spend a lot of time staring at computer screens. And it’s just something tangible. I think people are desperate for that sort of thing. Ceramics seems to be a very easy way into that sort of world; a lot of other ways of doing it are maybe a bit more complicated.
Stretch it out: an art school favourite for Liam, here yet to be painted.
What's the rationale behind your style?
I guess it comes from two different places. I’ve got this real anti-brown-classic-pottery thing, so I was very keen straight away to do something else. Coming from a graphics and graffiti background as well, I've always been in love with bright colours. My two favourite colours have always been pink and sky blue, so the first thing I wanted to do when I started firing stuff was to find those colours again.
The other side is my sculptural background, which has always been to do with nature and time, like how marks in time are shown in trees, rocks and things like that. I wanted to take that concept and put it into something functional.
So, these things...(refer to left image), I was making these at art school. Ironically, they were brown then. I've still got them in my garden. And when I made them they were just part of a brief for some project. I instantly loved them but I never thought I'd do anything with them. And when I came back to ceramics, they were one of the first things I started to make because they're really satisfying to make. But everyone still struggles to know what they are or what you do with them!
Why do you think people need to find a purpose or a meaning for them?
I think people are scared to have something without knowing what the purpose of that thing is. They need someone to spell it out to them, otherwise, they don't know what to do with it. They question it. There’re people here who've discussed that. When they're selling their wares they label them to tell people what they are, so people pick them up and know. Whereas I've always been slightly against that, to say ‘this is a vase’, because it doesn't necessarily need to be a vase, it can just be a nice object.
Partially speckled ceramics prepare to be painted.
Temporary storage in the workshop.
A closer look at a selection of colour swatches.
How do you find working in a group workspace? Do you find you can bounce ideas off other people?
That’s the biggest pro. You bounce off other people, you get ideas from other people, other people are doing different things. A lot of the time people see the stuff that you're doing and have a completely different take on it to what you were trying to do, which is always quite interesting. It's that keeping you fresh, keeping you a little on edge, I guess. And every day there is always an expert running the studio, and they're usually great people to work with. If you've got problems with how things are working functionally, they're always there to give you a good heads up on ways to do it.
Do you have a routine that you follow every day?
Yeah. With ceramics, you have to have routines. I work four days a week on my freelance work and one full day a week I work in the studio, normally Tuesday. But, it depends on what it is I'm doing. Currently, I have the freedom right now to experiment pushing my ideas forward, before the new orders to come in, so I'm looking at just sketching and making ideas up and then continuing the process, repeat, repeat, repeat. When you've got orders coming in, then it becomes hideously structured, where you've got to work out exactly what you're doing minute by minute. You have to know when something can be done so that it can dry enough for you to turn it, and then finish it.
I'm finding now that, and this is something I never used to do, everything is noted down. Absolutely every single thing I do is noted down to minute detail, so I know exactly what I have to do to make a mug. That’s the amount of clay, how much I centre it, how much I pull it up, how much water I'm using, exactly how much glaze I’m using too, so that if someone says I want another ten of those mugs, I know exactly how long it'll take from the minute I start throwing the clay to it being finished. So now I've got a really boring spreadsheet full of lots and lots of detail, but it helps. Actually, in the long run, it massively helps.
Poetry in motion. A key stage in process of creating stoneware.
You were saying that years ago this whole thing wouldn't have existed. Where do you think the future lies with it all?
I can't see it going anywhere. I think, going back to the whole idea that people are doing more digital and spending less time actually using their hands, that's always going to be something they want or have a need for, so there's going to be the demand. Whether it stays fashionable, I can’t imagine for the foreseeable future it's going to go anywhere. But everything has cycles, so there will be a point where people might want wood more than they want clay.
But still, Peckham's awesome, it's really pushing the boundaries of it all at the minute. There's always craft weekends, there seems to be more and more of them, and there are more people trying to do pop-ups and shops. It just seems to be an ever-growing community. It's a good place to be.