Letting Go

Charles Bound fires his rugged pots slowly in a wood kiln. Here Jim Robison helps fire the kiln, and talks to the potter about the way clay, form and fire are combined in these pots.

The sun is low on the Yorkshire hilltop and streams in under the vast farm shed roof. There is surprising quiet as the precut bundles of slabwood from the local saw mill are separated into individual pieces and fed into the fireboxes at the front and at the midway point along the side of this reclining beast of a kiln. There is a regular cycle of charging the fire, watching the pyrometer drop while the kiln seems to gather itself up under the pressure of unburnt gases, then smoke followed by flame erupts from every opening and reaches into the sky from the 18foot chimney. The pyrometer climbs again but seems to resist reaching much beyond its previous high.

Those of us who have arrived to watch and help Charles Bound with this firing are awed and a bit tentative. "It's almost as if the kiln is sulking at the loss of attention" Charles comments as he studies the flow of the flame within the climbing chamber. After thirty-six hours of stoking, cones nine and ten are on the way down. A draw ring is pulled from the rear of the kiln and examined for glaze build up on the combination of fire clay body and brushed white slip. A soft sheen is visible on the surface and when the draw ring is broken in half the effects of a reducing atmosphere are visible on the cross section. With a grunt of satisfaction, Charles and the rest of the firing team settle down for just "a few more hours" of stoking to ensure an adequate build up of ash on the pots.

Where have these pots come from? What is the aesthetic origin of these bold, ash encrusted pieces? "The answer is that I really don't know" he replies. "I suspect that one part of it is a way of working with clay that recognises my own limitations. The inability to work in a cerebral, refined way. It seems that the more I let go of that (efforts at refinement), the more successful the work. Loose and awkward is how I would define it." There is a love of what clay can do the cracks, dryness that promotes splitting at the sides, building in layers. Pieces frequently fall apart and are picked up and reassembled. "It's as if I need something to start with and then I must go well beyond what is sane and rational to make it work."

Large plates with torn and cut segments, gaping holes and spontaneous marks covered in slips and applied bits of clay attest to this approach. Stacked cylinders twist and writhe upwards. Granular feldspar,, sand and grog additions to the clay body are evident in abundance, and even the smallest teabowls have surfaces which are full of life.

"Another influence is living and working in Yorkshire" Bound declares. "Nature interests me, the bark of a tree, crude, rough walls, a cliff face, I'd like people to think about these things when they look at my work". Indeed, his work from previous firings, spread around the farm looks strangely at home. Dark textures fit into the livestock-trampled field amid stones, knarled trees and rusting farm machinery. And his kiln, rising half buried out of the soil has the air of an archaeological dig.

There are also other influences. His life has seen a number of years in Africa, working for a publishing company, and he has American origins where space, large scale and giants of the contemporary ceramics scene abound. For me, viewing his work as another American, the energy of Peter Voulkos and the loose vitality of Ken Ferguson are apparent. "A whole world of clay workers came out of that place in southern California," Charles says, "yet I was trying to make these pots before I knew any of those guys." Stephen DeStabler and the painter Anthony Tapies are also artists who have influenced the way Charles works.

"My first efforts on the potters wheel only came to life when using a fifteen pound ball of clay. Small precise movements are impossible for me. Clay is so different from wood or metal. A free interchange exists, it always has something to say about itself and if I try to overrule that, it fails. Clay is a suitable material for me because I can't be precise. So if there is an aesthetic here perhaps it is an extension of an undisciplined personality".

As with many potters, Charles came to study ceramics later in life. His wife Joy already had an interest in the field and he thought it would be worthwhile attending an evening class to be of greater assistance to her efforts. His enthusiastic activities at Jakob Krammer College of Art in Leeds led tutor David Graham to rely upon him as technician. Eventually he was to teach recreation classes himself, both at the College and at nearby Armley Jail. He is modest about his lack of formal art training, saying that in those days, he knew nothing about ceramics and simply learned while teaching and being a technician, yet he admits to hours and hours of testing clays and glazes in the informal and supportive atmosphere that existed in colleges at that time. He set up a studio in Otley and made efforts to begin earning a living from his acquired skills. Charles found that the production potter's life taught him much in a short space of time but that his frustration with repetition was difficult to contain. "I would take orders for things but then my hands would make different things", he says. Furthermore, as confidence grew, so did his impatience with conventional pots.

Now, through the generosity of Eric Taylor, artist and former Principal of Leeds College of Art, and his family, he has acquired use of space on a beautiful North Yorkshire farm near Weatherby. A place to build his big wood fired kiln and the chance to create work of a more personal nature. Many of his previous practices in glazed stoneware have been eschewed in favour of bold forms full of life. The vigour of the man is evident in each piece. They move and twist with the marks of their making, accentuated with brush strokes created by the passage of flame through the kiln. What he calls a 'river of fire' develops colour and tone as it carries deposits of wood ash throughout the chamber. Another paintbrush is in the form of a garden sprayer filled with salt water solution. With this he aims a high pressure jet of liquid into the firebox and onto the pieces beyond it. Nothing is precise, yet nothing is purely by chance. In his own terms, many pieces do not succeed but Charles Bound makes with intent and fires with intent (sometimes refiring work several times). They are brave attempts at creating pots with life and soul. Hand and heart moving clay as a means of personal expression.

This article by Jim Robison
first appeared in
Ceramic Review
Issue 155, 1995

Charles Bound feeding the kiln

Charles Bound feeding the kiln

Joy checking the pyrometer