The third post in our ceramics studio tour series, this week we’ll be looking at the gorgeous Somerset pottery of renowned British potter Mike Dodd.
A maker for whom use and understanding of local materials is vitally important, Dodd’s pottery embodies – literally – the surrounding landscape through his naturally sourced glaze ingredients and his expressive decoration.
Set in the idyllic South West of England in Butleigh, just a few miles from Glastonbury, lies Mike Dodd’s home and studio. Sheltered by hedgerows and facing out onto nearby fields, the back of the house leads into a garden of resplendent greenery.
Grasses, flowers and herbs of all kinds jostle and sprawl in a space that, like Dodd’s pottery, nurtures an appreciation for the natural world. Beyond the garden lie raised beds brimful with vegetables, apple trees bearing fruit, and a ramshackle greenhouse. A calming pond, cool and still under a blanket of lily-pads, completes his little Eden.
Inside the workshop, greenware pots, leather-hard and ready for decoration and glazing, stand on rows of dusty shelves. Many of Dodd’s recurring forms – small beaten vases, tall bottles, large lidded jars and handsome teapots – welcome embellishment and will undergo trimming, faceting and fluting subsequent to being thrown, either being returned to the wheel or cut from a workbench.
Mark-making remains a core element of Dodd’s work. Frequently spotted on the sides of his vases and jars are incisions, paddled motifs, rows of tiny teeth-like indentations, all of which catch fluid ash glazes and slips as they run in the kiln and produce contrasts of colour, tone and texture on each pot they adorn.
Many of Dodd’s tools are homemade and improvised: hand-carved wooden paddles and ribs, hardened clay wheels and gears for ‘chattering’, woven lengths of macrame rope, and a tiny meat tenderising hammer gifted to him by his daughter. Together, they offer a multitude of possible symbols, lines and designs to embellish the side of a weel-thrown pot.
Dodd throws at a hand-built kick wheel, the lack of motor lending the process a greater sensitivity of touch. His textured vases, thrown tall, incised, covered in China clay and then expanded, have become something of a signature form, the direct application of clay dust giving the pot its characteristic scale-like surface.
Sourcing and processing local ingredients for use in his glazes, Dodd has over the years experimented with innumerable glaze and slip combinations, slowly curating a wealth of knowledge and experience in using the materials that his local environment has to offer.
Somerset basalt, Devon hornfels, and Cornish granite, alongside willow and hawthorn ash, river iron, and peat clay, have all been put to use in over 30 glazes in the last year alone. Throughout the workshop lie pans and sieves for the cleaning of wood ash and scales for measuring out weights of clay, as well as tools used during throwing, such as the rusted iron calipers used to determine the diameter of an open neck or the correct width of an intended lid.
Housed in a small building next door is the oil kiln in which all of Dodd’s work is fired, each 12 hour firing being charted in a kiln logbook. Once complete, work is unpacked and cleaned, including the removal of the small circles of ‘wadding’ that prevent pots from fusing to their kiln shelves which must be ground off and sanded away.
Inside the house, pots fill shelves, table-tops and cabinets alongside a plethora of wooden and ceramic artifacts. Though much of Dodd’s output is overtly functional, including a broad range of standard tablewares – bowls and plates, jugs, jars and casserole dishes – his curiosity, his experimental streak, comes to the fore in his small vases and bottles.
Here blue-white broken slips, brown and black basalt glazes, and wood ash / porphyry mixes are combined with dynamic decorative marks. Each recurring design and wax-resist motif is made with a liveliness that revives an appreciation for cultural symbols from the past and brings them firmly into the present.
That Dodd’s pots stand as comfortably in the garden, sheltered by overgrown ferns and winding grasses, as they do in his home perhaps reflects the importance he gives to connecting his art with the place where it is produced.
The result of years of exploration of and devotion to local materials, Dodd’s work is a portrait in clay of his environment. Within that restriction of ingredients, he has discovered a palette of ever greater breadth and depth of expression.