by Angie Boyer
Published: September 2015
craft&design Selected Maker of the Year 2015
and Gold Award for Ceramics
by Angie Boyer
Moyra Stewart seemed rather excited, if a little surprised, when I phoned her in early May to say she’d won our Gold Award for Ceramics. But that excitement and surprise suddenly took on a new meaning when I added that she had also won our Selected Maker of the Year, having polled the most votes of all this year’s Gold Award winners. I seem to recall that she said something about needing to sit down!
You may think that Moyra’s work looks familiar, and if you’re a regular reader of craft&design, it probably will be, for we published an excellent feature about her by Martin Horan in our November/December issue last year, written before any of us might have guessed at her success in this year’s Awards.
Paul and I meet Moyra on a morning in late June at her studio in Auchtermuchy, in Fife. Her light and spacious workspace and gallery sit over her husband John’s woodturning workshop. Their house is alongside and, in between the two, is her kiln. All of this is surrounded by the gentle hills and farmland of the Scottish countryside. It’s a gorgeous place to live and work and it’s a lovely surprise to discover that she has prepared a piece to fire whilst we’re there. Whilst Moyra fires up the kiln, she tells us something about her work and the inspiration behind those gorgeous finishes.
“My work is about personal transformation viewed through the lens of nature: the strata of rock, patterns wind on sand, lines of growth on a seed. Those things mark our world and give me inspiration. Actually I believe I am affected in my work by the same forces that affect the natural world.
“Some of my vessels are very large and I really enjoy making work on that scale, but I want my work to be accessible, so I make each shape in a variety of sizes. The pieces I make are oval: it’s a more organic shape. I like the tension the shape creates as well as the infinite potential that exists by changing the profile of the curve. An oval piece has a say in its creation in a way that a round shape never does. It more accurately imitates nature. Once I have formed the basic shape, I work the surface until it is as perfectly smooth as I can get it.”
The work that won Moyra our award is inspired by Lewisian Gneiss; ancient rocks with distinctive bands of grey and white layers, which take their name from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where they are most prolific.
“The glazing process for my Lewesian Gneiss series is quite involved,” she continues, “I apply a number of layers of slip and glaze to the pieces, carving lines into them to create what will appear as contrasting tonal bands in the finished vessels. It’s an exact process, I have to carefully calibrate the viscosity of the glaze I apply in order to achieve the tonal difference that I’m looking for.”
When the glazing process is complete and the pieces are fully dried, Moyra raku fires them in her outdoor kiln, just as she does now, whilst we’re chatting with her. It’s as spectacular a demonstration of raku firing as ever there was, the magic of the process never fails to fascinate, the anticipation of how the piece will turn out always creating a little nervousness. After shielding the kiln from the wind that has suddenly found its force, Moyra explains the process of Naked Raku that she uses to create such stunning effects.
“Bringing the pieces up to about 860 degrees, I pull them out with tongs when the glaze is nice and shiny - it’s not so much about the temperature, the timing is more dependent on the glaze and whether it’s melting.”
This is where the debris from her husband’s woodturning comes into its own, the reducing bucket is packed with wood shavings that emit a warm, familiar aroma as they smoke and glow when the Moyra plunges the vessel into them, hot from the kiln. It’s left there for about fifteen minutes, anticipation building before she removes the blackened form.
Then the hard work really starts, when Moyra, using copious amounts of water, systematically rubs off the glaze and slip layers that she’d applied before firing. “This takes time and effort, the pieces need to be handled very carefully in order not to damage them at all. After that it can then take two or three days for the larger pieces to dry out fully, then, finally, I will get to see whether the work is successful or not.
“The excitement is still there,” she enthuses. “I do what I love and I love what I do. Raku is something else again, it’s the immediacy of it that fascinates people. Weather permitting, I’ll always do a firing when it’s Open Studios, people love to watch and it helps them understand the process, the hard work and the craftsmanship involved.”
Moyra’s travels and life experiences have clearly influenced her work. She shares openly the sentiment and philosophy behind what she does:
“My vessels are my response to the challenges in life, the personal journey that is taking place at a deep level in all of us. My aim is to make objects that resonate in the mind and the hand, in the way that a favourite rock brings us inner calm. I make sense of inner turmoil and transform it by making objects of beauty to inspire others, so am rewarded when people are constantly compelled to touch my work.
“Artist Hans Stofer says ‘Objects are catalysts for ideas, thoughts and feelings’ and he articulates a truth that I have always felt, that the act of making is the method through which one can transform internal and external conflicts in order to grow and achieve serenity.
“Learning how to embrace change is something I strive to do in all parts of my life, and I believe it is an intrinsic part of working with clay. Being inspired by rock formations like Lewisian Gneiss has made me conscious that even something as apparently solid and ancient and immovable like billion year old stone is actually in flux too. It is a realisation that I find curiously reassuring and which also makes me understand why I may have this long obsession with rocks.”
As a final thought, I ask Moyra why she thinks potters have fared so well in our Awards over the years - more than half of our Selected Maker of the Year awards have gone to potters.
“The ceramic community understand the amount of work that goes into what we do,” she says, “and so are very supportive of one another other. That network achieves a strong public presence, increasing awareness of the intricacies of our work. Also there’s the historic association with the ceramic industry which gives us an advantage over other craft media. Fortunately, the people who buy from us understand the value of having handcrafted ceramics in their homes and support our community beyond financial transactions.”
With work in galleries from the north of Scotland to the south of England and Hong Kong as well, it must be that many other people also appreciate the absolutely unique quality of her work!
Many congratulations on winning our Award, Moyra, very best wishes for the future and enjoy spending the £1000 that comes as part of your prize!