Our interview with Derek has the sense of another presence, weighted by the access that social media has allowed into the studio, and his practice. Derek talks to Turf and Grain about his journey into being a studio ceramicist, finding a balance with social media, and the importance of teaching others and passing on a craft.
Describe your journey into ceramics. Where did it begin, and when did you realise that being a ceramicist was something you wanted to dedicate a career to?
Ceramics was first introduced to me during my foundation year at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art. Initially, I had wanted to study architecture or design, but the tutor pushed me to explore the possibilities of ceramics, which I then took for my degree. The course focused almost entirely on sculptural work, at that stage I wasn’t really interested in function. As my time at college came to an end I knew that I wanted to make a living from my practice, which led me to think more about functional work.
I then applied for a course in Kilkenny, run by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. It was very traditional— strongly skills oriented with a focus on throwing.The course was established as a means of providing skilled potters for the craft industry, to meet the demand for the tourist market. However, when I joined we were coming to the end of the Celtic Tiger, so there wasn’t a lot happening in the craft industry. As a result, the course started to change, and they gave us a little bit more freedom to experiment, which was ideal for me as I was still really developing my skills.
After that I worked as an apprentice for a few years, producing work that I didn’t necessarily like, but it was very important to me to work in the industry, to learn the trade and its practicalities. It was very production focused, there were days when I was producing 250 cups, just sitting at a wheel like a machine. It was repetitive, but ultimately something that I needed to do, as it honed my shaping skills. It’s really important to be able to produce something— for someone to give you a shape and a target of how many to make to that specification. I think it’s critical to do things you don’t like sometimes.
From there it was make or break, and I applied for an MA in Fine & Applied Arts - that was just a complete cut-off point. It was another big change, which pushed me back towards sculpture, equipped with skills honed by making more functional objects.
After completing my MA I was accepted onto Craft NI’s ‘Making It’ program, which had been formed to boost the creative industries — at that time there was less in Belfast in terms of creative businesses. I was set up with Ulster University on a two-year business mentoring scheme, which was perfect as I don’t think anywhere else would have worked. That gave me the opportunity to refocus on designing a studio and production range that would allow me to start a business.
How does the process of creating functional objects and sculpture differ, and how do they influence each other?
There has always been a crossover, and the essence of the boundaries between the functional and sculptural has always been of interest to me. Many of my sculptural pieces give a sense of functionality even if they weren’t designed for that purpose.
There’s always a sense of play there, a balance between them; they bounce off each other. At the moment I’m producing less and less functional work: recently it’s been almost entirely sculptural work for upcoming exhibitions. At the end of that, all I wanted to do was go away and make some cups! Working on function can give me a bit of breathing space at times.
The studio practice tends to be quite cyclical, in that I’ll work for six weeks on functional pieces, and then around six weeks on sculpture. There is never really enough time, especially with ceramics, as it is such a slow material and a slow process. People often ask if they can have things made in a couple of days, but in reality, it takes three or four weeks to make something.
Working on both keeps them creative and fresh for me in a sense. It may eventually come to a point where I don’t make functional work, something I think I’m creeping towards at the moment. But then it might even go on another rail entirely—I might focus more on designing a functional range for industry or even focus on teaching more.
What would you like people to see or feel when they come into contact with your work?
I’m interested in how they feel when they interact with my objects, the appreciation of the space. I don’t always necessarily want my products to be used. Of course, the tableware should be used, but I mean for other designs, people see that a sculpture I’ve made can contain something and then assume that the piece is a vase, which can confuse me.
I used to wonder when people would say my work is so beautiful, it made me think was I making my objects too pretty? I guess that goes back to wanting to display something deeper, or a sense of integrity with my work. That being said, I’m not specifically trying to make some huge statement either.
How would you describe good design, and why is good craftsmanship so important?
I’ve always admired the aesthetics and reference to minimalism in the approach of painters like Ben Nicholson and Carmen Herrera. I’m also inspired by historical references to ceramics — I like spending time in the V&A around pieces from times where ceramics were more essential than they are today. Also, because ceramics are three-dimensional objects, it can be the angles of a piece or the depth or shadows playing along.
Craftsmanship is really important, especially nowadays with the growing influx of people into pottery; often people think they can make something but they aren’t necessarily always well made. I can be really hard on my students in that regard, as I try to emphasise that what they are producing has to be beautifully crafted and executed. I have students who will show me pictures on their phones of other people’s work and tell me that they want to reproduce it. While it’s great that people are interested in making, it's important that there should be some knowledge of material and an aesthetic approach. That extends to design in the industry as well - there has to be a value to what we are making.
Today we are bombarded with images of products on social media, and it renders the products we make very disposable - we just flick. When I began on social media I enjoyed using it to give people a glimpse into my studio, but for me it has become a double- edged sword: whilst it gives you this great instantaneous global reach, the downside is you can leave yourself open to ‘influencing’ others’ work, to being quizzed about materials and processes—something which happens more and more. In that sense, I’ve become a bit more closed off from it. On one hand it’s nice to let people know what you’re doing, but on the other hand, some people feel like they have immediate access to you. I know you join social media to put yourself out there, but ultimately I come to my studio to work, not to sit on my phone.
When did you decide that you were ready to start teaching others your craft?
Directly after my MA, I began teaching foundation students at the Ulster University. Foundation is so interesting as the students are at such a critical stage of their career; they want everything to be very experimental as they search for a discipline to focus on. There’s a lovely energy, and you’re trying to break them away from the rigidity of what they were used to during their A-levels, to extract something unique from them in terms of the way that they work and how they think.
Currently, I teach on the degree course, the foundation course, and the evening classes at the University so it’s very busy, but it also gives me a sense of escapism from the studio. I get enjoyment and satisfaction from teaching, passing over that knowledge, and educating people about quality and integrity.
I also run short courses at Ulster University, and over the last few years demand has surged, and there is such interest in people's desire to make, wanting to work with ceramics and craft in general. I think that's down to sections of society looking for something else, a move away from more mass produced items and a desire for greater personal involvement in how objects are made.
How do you find Belfast as a location to centre your practice?
When I really started my own practice I did a lot of shows in London. As I was going back and forth so often it was costing me a fortune, and I remember questioning why I was still here in Belfast and if it might be more viable just to move. I weighed everything up but came to think that it would be quite sad to leave, so I started looking for a studio space.
I’ve been in my current studio at Portview for four years now. Initially, I was anxious that I would be isolated out here by myself, but it has been one of the best moves I’ve made. There are some really good businesses around me, and over time more and more people have started to call in and visit. There’s a good energy around the city at the moment culturally and I’m really settled