Artist Gabriele Koch in her studio.
LONDON - Born in Germany, Gabriele Koch moved to Britain in 1973, studying ceramics at the Camden Institute and Goldsmiths’ College. From her studio in North London she has developed a distinctive style of hand building and smoke-firing, creating instantly recognisable forms and vessels. Her works reside in some of the most prestigious international public and private collections, and a selection will be included in this year’s Made In Britain in London on 25 March. I caught up with Gabriele to talk about her work:
What initially drove you to move to Britain in the early 1970s?
I had obtained a degree in English from Heidelberg University and they arranged a one-year teaching contract for me at a London comprehensive school. I soon spent my lunch break in the art department making my first pot. This led to pottery evening classes at Camden Institute and after a few years I enrolled at Goldsmiths’ College to do their highly praised Postgraduate Diploma in Ceramics. One year was beginning to turn into a very long affair.
The impact of Bernard Leach on the development of studio ceramics in Britain is far-reaching, but how does your work fit into the context of the ‘Leach’ school, and indeed the ‘craft’ tradition in Britain?
I read A Potter’s Book by Leach, recognize his historical importance and respect his ideas, but I had come to ceramics in quite an independent way. As a young person I felt passionate about 20th century painting and architecture and finally discovered clay as a medium I wanted to work with when I spent some time studying in Spain. I was excited about the desert like landscape of the interior and discovered the ‘matter’ paintings of Antoni Tapies, which he made using a combination of mud, sand, earth and powdered minerals. I also loved the wood fired peasant pottery with its simple forms and fire marks on the naked clay. This made me look closer at the strong forms and beautiful, tactile surfaces of African and South American pots and the pottery and artefacts of the ‘unknown craftsman’ from all over the world.
My vision was to create a contemporary object which would express my interest in form and colour, my love for the material and my fascination with the elemental aspects of the ceramic process, guided by the tradition that has come before, worldwide. In this sense I’ve never felt part of a particular national ‘craft’ tradition, be it British, German, or even Spanish. However, I think it is very British to be open to and absorb diverse cultural influences, as was indeed the case with Leach, and the crafts in Britain reflect and celebrate this diversity more than most countries. It is thanks to this openness that I received a Crafts Council grant in 1984 and that my work has received so much support from galleries and collectors, which I am very grateful for.
In one of your earliest showings at Zebra Gallery in Hampstead, the first purchase was made by local resident, the late Sir Anthony Caro. How do you consider ceramics position themselves alongside sculpture and the fine arts?
This was one of my earliest pots. It proves, just as ceramic artists look at fine art, fine artists look at ceramics. And the best collections (such as the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich or Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge) show fine art and ceramics together. All these art forms complement each other, the artists or makers experience similar challenges, often ask similar questions, often work in similar ways - alone in their studios for endless hours, never easily content with the outcome - trying to find the right form to express their ideas or realize their vision. Just as a painting or a sculpture can be full of associations so can ceramics bring meaning or pleasure to the beholder. One art form can enhance the other and heighten the experience.
Your studio has been in North London since 1977. How important is London, as a city, to your success as a potter?
London has been absolutely fundamental to my development as a potter. Not only was there plenty to see and study in all the galleries and museums, there were evening classes and ceramics courses in abundance, a situation which, sadly, has changed dramatically in the last few years due to cuts in funding. Studio space was available and affordable and a change in direction was possible since I could continue with part time teaching for a few years while I was developing my career in ceramics.
To what extent do you consider yourself as part of an artistic community in Britain?
Although there are many hours of being locked away in concentrated work in the studio it is nice to know your colleagues are out there, struggling away in the same way. You could go to a private view or open studio a couple of times a week and meet some fellow artists, it is good to see developments and experimentation, young talents emerging, old talents going on strongly. If there is a problem you can always make a phone call and moan or compare notes. But most of the time we are just working away…
In terms of the technical construction of your work, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect?
After all these years I am pretty much in control of what I’m doing, unless I change the technique as I have recently done, and a period of experimentation follows, with initially more failure than success. The constant in my work, however, is my concern with form and it is this that requires my total attention and concentration. To achieve the right lift off the surface, the development of the contour line, to counteract the forces of gravity and readjust a sagging form every time you come back to the piece to add the next coil, to create tension and harmony at once, to achieve physical and visual balance, stability on a relatively small base, to achieve the right visual and physical weight and relationship of all parts of the form to each other in a 360 degree view. The relationship between inside and outside, the opening, the perfect rim.
Your work never ceases to amaze, with varying forms and colours, and in the past few years a sharp departure with the black and white inlaid designs – what do you see as being the ‘next step’ in your artistic journey?
I am still only at the beginning with my new work. The black and white contrast has been very exciting but I have started to introduce colour, first by making black porcelain for the inlay, emphasizing the difference in texture of black porcelain and black stoneware clay. My most recent experiments introduce yellow creating a double inlay, which adds richness and depth. I am still excited about making the pattern on the form rather than facilitating it as I do with my smoke fired work, which I continue to develop. To change between the two techniques is a very good way of working for me, and I think the pots made by either process complement each other; they are not glazed but reveal the elemental properties of clay.
For further details of Gabriele’s work including pictures of her in here studio, see Tony Birks’ book Gabriele Koch – Hand Building and Smoke Firing, published by Stenlake Books in 2009.
Robin Stewart is a specialist in the Modern British Art department, Sotheby’s London.