Head Verger David Worsley will be presenting his work in our next Artspace exhibition called ‘Turn of the Wheel’ from Friday 19th July, which will include a chance to meet him to talk about how it all came about. We spoke to David ahead of the exhibition to find out more about his work as a potter.
David, what is your background when it comes to pots?
My time as a potter comes after about thirty years of being an artist and organising arts events. I went to art college – I did an MA in sculpture – and felt that that was a very engaging way of looking at the world, thinking about the world, and asking questions about the world. That kind of creative approach to how we go about things was how I engage with life.
But I was never wholly satisfied that it was the way that I actually wanted to engage creatively. It seemed to be that Fine Art is quite intellectual; you can’t take something home with you: You go to a gallery and you stand back from whatever it is you’re looking at. You engage intellectually and with the eyes, and then you go home.
I had only ever really spent time with people who had done art. But then I came up to Yorkshire and started to volunteer with the Saltaire Festival. Around ten to twelve years ago I moved into the area and I offered my services as a volunteer to Helen Kemp, who used to run a shop that’s now a pay-as-you-go café in Saltaire. I literally offered to put leaflets through the door and that led to me to organising all of the arts activities at the festival, which was rather unexpected!
Because the amount of art was quite limited – it was really a music festival – I felt that there was an opportunity to expand what was on offer and out of that came the Saltaire Arts Trail which we opened up in the first year. We used houses as art galleries, and put on exhibitions and various other activities within them. In the second year we expanded and so on and it grew and grew, and then we decided because the Saltaire Festival was big, and the Arts Trail was getting bigger, that it needed its own time, so we moved the Saltaire Arts Trail into May. So that was my art engagement at this point.
I really liked the community aspect of living in Saltaire; you could knock on people’s doors to meet them. You could get the people there involved with the local community and do it through the medium of art. I was beginning to meet people who made crafts, who I hadn’t really met before. I wanted to turn the Saltaire Arts Trail into a textile festival, which seemed wholly appropriate for the area, with Saltaire and Salts Mill, but no one else wanted to do the same thing. I always give myself very steep learning curves. I’d never organised a festival before. It’s fine having the energy and enthusiasm to start something, but it’s very different keeping it going. After four or five years there wasn’t any money for me and I couldn’t find a way to make it sustainable so I stopped doing that and passed on the Arts Trail to other people, but I was left in a hiatus period.
Three months later I was walking across Roberts Park and I had a light-bulb moment where I thought: ‘I’m going to do pottery!’
I knew nothing about clay, I’d never touched it before, didn’t know how it worked, didn’t know what a potter was. But for some reason I thought I’d make pots. It was very random! But I think the reason for making pottery after art was because I wanted to bring a beautiful object together with a functional object. That functional aspect was missing in the art. You can bring that aesthetically pleasing object into your home and eat your porridge out of it, or drink your mug of tea, or something like that!
I could have been a furniture maker or a tailor, but for some reason I chose pottery. And it’s very difficult to learn how to do! I had no studio space and I was living on Dove Street in Saltaire.
Prior to this I’d done an adult education course in what were the Kirkgate Studios in Shipley, spending a couple of hours a week doing pottery. I was making slab bowls where you roll out the clay and make it into a shape. Rather than making fine art pottery and ceramics, I wanted to make tableware. I wanted people to use what I made: there’s the sense of my hands being very much present in the making of the object, and then transferring that to the user, so it’s like touching hands through an object. I realised that I wanted to make tableware on a wheel, and I got a Christmas gift to Swarthmore in Leeds to do a weekend on the wheel. I then realised I needed to buy a wheel but the only place to put it was the cellar inside my house, so I cleared out the cellar for it. I didn’t have a kiln so I couldn’t fire anything I made, or keep it, so for three or four months I just made things and destroyed them.
I was learning how to throw. I’d make it, cut it in half, learn how it worked, and then start again, repeating this process over and over again. I later hired a kiln, which was very small and didn’t work very well, but it was the next stage. I was self-taught so it was all in stages. After three or four months I was online and researching into events and I discovered the ‘British Craft Trade Fair’. I didn’t know anything about the pottery world at this time but put my name down on the mailing list. Two hours later they rang me back and said they had a space free, and they asked whether I’d like a table at the fair for £500, for the show in six weeks’ time. At this point I’d been making pots for six months and now there was this opportunity to take part in a trade fair but it was going to cost me £500. My intention was to make a business out of it, and with this opportunity arising, I knew I had to take it. I knew now that I needed some studio space, so moved out of my house. I didn’t know what to call my business, but because of where I had been living, on Dove Street, I called it ‘Dove Street Pottery’. I moved into a workshop and started taking part in shows.
That was quite a turnaround?
I had only a few things in the show. I got one order that covered the cost of the stand, so that was good. It was all very weird! There was a trade fair in London called ‘Origin’, which is a top event that had been going for a long time, with all the best makers from the country, and international, at it. It had taken place in Chelsea Town Hall but had stopped for some reason, but someone had been wanting to create a show to replace it and he’d left his card on my stand, and asked me to apply. This was in April and what turned out to be a show called ‘Made London’ was to be in October. I applied to the show and had been accepted. By this point I’d only been doing pottery for a year. I was entirely self-taught and my range was about five objects, the biggest and most expensive of which was a cereal bowl which cost about £15. The show cost £900 to take part in, which is a lot of £15 cereal bowls to cover your risk! But, again, the opportunity is there, and I had to take it. It was then all about taking the photographs: it doesn’t matter what the object looks like – a photograph can cover a multitude of sins! I began to meet other craft people to get advice. Once you’ve been to one show you make contacts and there’s a circuit that you get on. I was in that show for about three years and it led onto other shows. People from other shops come to the fair and you can pick up orders. My workshop was full for a year ahead, and I found it difficult to manage. I had no experience of the business side of things, with order books, pricing and invoicing.
In 2014 / 15, I went to the ‘Made London’ show in October and was completely booked for over a year, including a bespoke collection for Take Britain! They had a Barbara Hepworth retrospective and they wanted some Hepworth-inspired pottery in the shop, so I had to come up with some designs that the Barbara Hepworth Estate had to agree on.
I always felt out of my comfort zone, and ahead of where I should have been in terms of my skills and experience, and I was always being pushed. The thing with pottery is that when you have a creative life you realise that change comes out of failure. Nothing can ever happen without you ever failing at something, and something going wrong. When you’re self-taught, everything goes wrong all the time, so it’s this constant battle with failure and trying to make yourself better and better. That was an interesting place to be, and quite a dynamic place to be, and it means you’re constantly thinking about ways to make things better, and that becomes part of who you are.
Is pottery something you still do?
It isn’t, as I don’t have the time or somewhere to keep the wheel. It’s not in my hands any more. I don’t want to make something and think ‘that’s not right’ but then not have the opportunity to change it and then become frustrated. I also think pottery is seven years out of a thirty year creative life. I’m not a potter – that’s not my identity – so I don’t miss being a potter. I also think I’m quite a 3D kind of person so I see the Cathedral as a sculptural place, so my creativity has been funnelled into a new area.
How many pieces will appear in the exhibition?
There will be around thirty pieces. At the end of the pottery business I moved away from the tableware into more sculptural things. I was beginning to make more vases and things that were objects in themselves. I was just beginning to do that when I stopped, so it will be predominantly vase-shaped forms. I won’t have tableware. Maybe some jugs and large bowls, but not mugs and plates.
Do you still use anything you made?
I do still use them at home. I used to not worry about any of them breaking as I knew I could replace them but not now. It’s the way I look at life. I was a frustrated potter. I was never happy. When you look in a mirror you always see the things that you’d like to improve on, so I was constantly thinking of the ways in which the pots could be better, and I was never happy with how they were. Other people would say how lovely or beautiful they were, but I would be self-critical. I do have ones at home but I look at them critically. But now I don’t do it there’s a greater opportunity to have a wider range of pottery in the house, rather than just mine.
Do you still have the passion for pottery, even if you don’t make them yourself anymore?
I have a passion for craft that I didn’t have before I started making pottery. I definitely have a passion for things that people have made; the things that are about nurture, and sustaining life: food, warmth, nourishment, so textiles, pottery, that sort of thing. It’s the sense of the investment of the human hand. I didn’t have that before I started making pots. I think it’s a very human activity.
Did you set out to create the pottery decoration in a particular way?
The design was what I naturally gravitated towards. The decoration literally came out of the process of making. The framework was created by me, but what happened within those parameters was completely about the process. Each pot is individual and created by chance. There are certain processes which are involved in making the pots, natural processes that you go through. I just left the evidence of those processes on the pots. It’s like architectural buildings that show their function on the outside, or the utility of them.
When you make the bowl, the wheel turns, so it’s always about motion whatever you make in pottery. In my pots the motion is left in the piece; there’s a dynamism evident in the pot. That fluidness of the beginning gets permanently fixed in the end result. It’s a dichotomy: the end pot is a very permanent thing but displays this look of fluidity. You have to make the inside of the bowl, but it comes out of a lump of clay, and the rough base is left, which you need to get rid of into a more bowl-shape, so you have to take the bowl off the wheel and turn it upside down, put it back on the wheel, and then carve the outside shape, to create the profile of the bowl. This second part is very sculptural, so as the wheel is turning the marks of the tool you’re using are left on the side of the bowl, and it’s these marks that leave ridges on the side, so when you glaze it these ridges create different surface heights and levels for the glaze to sit in and on, which creates different patterns. And because the lines are different, the glaze is different. Each object is similar, but different at the same time.
I always struggled in the past, as my template was manufactured pottery. In my house when I was growing up, we just ate off tableware made in factory like most people, so that’s what my hands knew, with no imperfections. It was getting my head around this. When you make something it’s your personality that comes out in what you make. Some people can make pots that have rough edges that are out of shape, which I really like but I can’t do, as it looks wrong! It’s a reflection on me to always be critical of myself, so when I see my pottery I always see the things that aren’t right or aren’t working. To have that humanity still evident in the pot was a struggle that I fought with, because even though pottery is all about humanity there was always a battle for me to get my own humanity into the pottery that I made.
What can people expect from your ‘Meet the Artist’ session?
I will talk a little about my pottery and how I came to make pots and why I left pots to become the Head Verger.
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
A good answer!
The pots will be displayed around the building rather than the exhibition space, so I hope that by looking at the pots people will engage with the building differently as well as looking at the pottery.
You can meet the artist from 7pm on Friday 19th July to learn more about ‘Turn of the Wheel’, with refreshments available from 6:30pm. The exhibition will run from that Friday through to Sunday 1st September. The pots showcased in ‘Turn of the Wheel’ will be available to purchase from the Cathedral.
You can reserve your place on our Eventbrite page.