Kin and clay come together at Warburton Waterwheel

Each vase in the exhibition is unique and made using three different firing techniques. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

By Callum Ludwig

May’s exhibition in the Warburton Waterwheel features a variety of vases from a local Warburton potter.

Helen Matthews’ ‘Kaolin: Clay, Clan, Community’ exhibition is on display for the next month and features an astonishing 150 vases.

Ms Matthews said the name of the exhibition is a play on kaolin (a soft white clay used in china, porcelain and the making of paper, rubber and paint among other things) and kin, referring to family and connection, which is what she explored through her works.

“The way I see it is they have likenesses like family members often do, but they are each individual in their own way through the variations in form, as well as the marks left behind by my hands as I form them on the wheel,” she said.

“If you’ve heard of Dunbar’s number, Robin Dunbar was an anthropologist who proposed that the number of stable, healthy relationships that people can maintain at any one time is 150 as an average, so I brought that number into it by making 150 vases,”

“I like to explore alternative firing techniques, which is a way of decorating ceramic pieces not with traditionally manufactured glazes, so I then divided my 150 into groups of 50, and they form your clan or your kin group with the three different decorating styles.”

The three firing techniques used by Ms Matthews were pit firing done on her block of land in Warburton when fire danger period restrictions allowed, saggar firing (firing within a sealed container) in an electric kiln and an ash glaze made using the ash from her fire pit.

Ms Matthews said the vases are all a similar style of vase and some might be a similar size, but you won’t find two that are identical.

“With a pit fire, you can’t predict the results, so every piece is completely unique and saggar firing again produces very individual and sometimes unpredictable effects in a similar way to pit firing, but without the need to actually light a fire,” she said.

“Ash glazes are inherently quite unique because ash deposits are unique to each fire based on the types of timber that’s been burned and other things that have been burned in the fire, so it’s not possible to exactly replicate an ash glaze.”

Ms Matthews classifies herself as a hobby potter still, because she enjoys it and isn’t a big stream of income, though she had her first lesson as an adult 18 years ago.

Ms Matthews said for many years she was just taking evening classes.

“I did try hand-building at the start, but I really enjoy the process of wheel throwing more, so that’s what I’ve concentrated on,” she said.

“Eventually I just set up my own little home studio and as time allowed, as I was raising a family so often there was not much time, I just kept at it and when we got our land at Warburton, that gave me the opportunity to explore these other firing techniques and I’ve fallen in love with those.”

Ms Matthews prefers to make functional pieces through pottery, such as vases, but they are still ‘beautiful in their uniqueness’.

Ms Matthews said pottery and ceramics have become very popular at the moment with studios popping up everywhere and lots of people giving it a go.

“I did for a little while teach some beginner classes locally, but I don’t do that anymore and I think with pottery, particularly with wheels, if you’re wanting to learn how to throw pots on a pottery wheel, it’s a slow process to become proficient at,” she said.

“I think everyone can do it it just requires lots and lots of practice and time to practice, improvements and progress generally happen quite slowly for most people but if you just keep at it and have the means to keep practicing, you do get better,”

“Teaching beginners, I could see a real frustration because when they see it done, whether it’s on social media reels and videos, the person doing it usually makes it look quite easy but they soon discover it’s not as easy as it looks.”

Ms Matthews also volunteers herself at the Warburton Waterwheel once a month, answering questions from visitors and managing any sales from the hand makers section which she herself sometimes produces pieces for.

“I was quite close to the gallery each month and would see each changing exhibition and then last year I thought ‘maybe that’s something I would like to do too’, I’m celebrating a milestone birthday this month so it was a way to mark that birthday,” Ms Matthews said.

“The Warburton Waterwheel Gallery is such a magnificent space with the beautiful high ceiling, the exposed beams and the light that comes in, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.”