1. The remote areas of a country away from the coast or the banks of major rivers. 2. An area lying beyond what is visible or known. Origin: late 19th c. from German ‘hinter’ (behind) + ‘land’.
It is the second definition of the word hinterland that alludes to the artistic sensibilities of Joanna Still and her pottery with her smoke-fired work hinting at some liminal, numinous quality. Still’s solo exhibition in Messums Wiltshire’s Long Gallery is her first since 2012. It comprises a completely new body of work, demonstrating a noticeable shift in a practice which in early and mid-career included salt-glazed stoneware and decorative earthenware. The starting point for Still throughout her career has been the potter’s wheel, used in the shaping (or throwing) of round ceramic ware. Her latest oeuvre is arguably her most assertive, and adventurous yet, with the presence of her hand visible in the visceral gorges and fine scratches of every pot’s surface. This tactile, visual language evokes the image of prehistoric making, of smoke firing in earthy pits with the marks of usage and the passage of time redolent on the surface. Yet Still’s are not functional objects, instead their role is to appeal to our sensitivities.
Joanna’s studio (Photos by Iain Kemp)
Once removed from the wheel, Still applies colour and texture to create distinctive surface variation. The work is then ‘bisque’ fired to fix the form. At this stage her work is surprisingly pastel-coloured, suggesting underwater statues blanketed in coral and algae. The second low temperature ‘smoke firing’ partially obscures the pastel oranges, greens and blues with a darker, smokier hue. Still uses an open-bodied clay which can tolerate the thermal variations typical in this process. She has adopted a significantly freer approach in this collection of work, allowing the element of chance to complement the essential nature of her firing technique. In order to maintain the appearance of vitality and spontaneity it takes knowledge and discipline, requiring the experience and expertise of a lifetime’s work to foresee and achieve the desired outcome.
In 2016 she was invited by the Swindon Museum & Art Gallery to create a piece which took its stimulus from a work in their collection for the exhibition ‘From Where I’m Standing’. Still chose Dark Hill, Landscape with Hedges and Fields, (1940) a watercolour and gouache painting on paper by leading British modernist Graham Sutherland (1903-1980). It is no surprise that the rather surreal, mysterious qualities of this picture, with its muted, soft pink and grey tones has provided a continued influence for the series of work on view in the Long Gallery. The diverse types of mark-making in this image, ranging from thick, dark strokes to speckles, lines and cross-hatchings are similar to the textural surface of Still’s work; reminiscent of the grooves tractors leave when sowing seeds into the fields. Indeed, it does seem as though Still’s translucent surfaces, clouded by smoke, are the perfect landscapes from which sown life can spring. Fittingly, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the deity Khnum was said to have formed the first human beings on a potter’s wheel.
Still is intrigued by other, (often ancient) cultures and how they and their descendants use historical, regionalised techniques. As a maker, Still is able to understand how archaic pots, on display in institutions such as the British Museum and the V&A, were made: whether they were imprinted, pressed or thrown. She is particularly interested in a type of prehistorical Japanese pottery – known as Jōmon. Handmade, with an appealing feel, these pots begin with an even base which then erupts into an ornamental symphony of rope-patterned decoration. They are otherwise known as ‘flame pots’, a name which perhaps indicates their energy and fervour. Still has had many experiences with native makers in a wide range of countries including Mexico, Zambia and Ethiopia and recounts her excitement at seeing large, traditional pots in Nigeria for the first time. Wherever one is located in the world it would seem as though there is a universal connection through the material of earth – a literal system of communication when our multiple languages fall short of uniting us. This fire-based tradition brings cultures – and people – together.
Born in 1951 in Shaftesbury, Dorset, Joanna Still studied first at Aix-en-Provence University, France, then worked on a trawler in the North Pacific before enrolling at the then renowned studio ceramics course at Harrow School of Art, graduating in 1976. She lives and works in Wiltshire.
Photos by Iain Kemp Photography
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