‘Becoming established’

James Hake ‘Becoming established’

After ten years making and selling pots James Hake can justifiably consider himself to be well established. He has a reputation for producing high quality reduced fired stoneware with an emphasis on glaze qualities. Two years ago he acquired a house with outbuildings in Over Kellet, near Carnforth, Lancashire and converted them into the rather beautiful home and studio which he occupies today. The new studio, represents much more than just the journey to becoming established, it is also somewhat of a liberation. At last he is in a situation in which he can capitalise on all his hard work. He has established the main criteria for his style of making and he is at that stage of fluency where he has the liberty to exploit with freedom the abilities he has so carefully nurtured.

The first decade of a potter’s career is a formative time; it is the decade of becoming established. Perhaps the most important element for making really good pots is to develop the best circumstances from which they may emerge. The ‘circumstances’ in this instance refers to the studio, the materials and equipment, together with the skill, motivation and confidence of the potter. The journey to achieving this kind of circumstance is often long and fraught with difficulties. Any potter will tell you that it takes time to become established and that what is meant by ‘becoming established’ is complex. For example, it involves exploring what to make, the technical decisions about body, glaze and firing; establishing where best to sell the pots and perhaps most importantly, establishing a reputation for producing quality work.
James Hake was one of my students at Manchester Metropolitan University at the turn of this century. He was a gifted student and demonstrated great determination to acquire difficult skills. On graduation, he joined the Crafts Council of Ireland’s pottery skills course at Thomastown, in the Republic of Ireland. He was one of the first to be offered a second year of study and he recalls spending it making as much experimental work as he could, particularly large work. On his return to the Lake District in 2005, he began working out of a studio on an industrial estate near Lancaster, supplying work to both local and national galleries, as well as undertaking commissions. During this period he gradually developed his range of forms and glazes with which we are now familiar. It was not an easy journey, working alone in unsympathetic circumstances and he had to undertake a lot of part time industrial work in order to save towards acquiring a better studio.
The new studio, houses a large gas kiln which will enable him to fire much bigger pots. The workspace is already filled with an array of very large chargers, mei ping jars and a batch of the squared and rectangular bottles which he seems to be making better than almost anyone else currently around.

There has recently been a revival of interest in making rectangular bottles by British potters. This is a form that most of us became aware of through the work of Shoji Hamada in the 1950’s and 60’s. Bernard Leach also made several versions, normally press moulded with an added thrown neck and foot. The form is one of those genres where the apparent simplicity of the idea is deceptively difficult to pull off. Subtle proportional relationships provide the key to success. The shape presents the possibility of having a front and back which, makes a really interesting set of parameters within which to work. The technique of press moulding a body, allows the potter to individualise the neck and foot. An alternative method of slabbing is a slow and potentially unsympathetic process. James Hake takes a very different approach to manufacture by throwing a cylinder without a base then manipulating it into a rectangular shape which he attaches to a separately made base. A thrown neck completes the pot. The resultant bottles are both unique and lively, a refreshing take on a much maligned form.

His interest in large mei ping jars and chargers is perhaps driven by his desire for differing surfaces to carry glaze. His work is characterised by his passion for using glaze and there are an abundance of glaze trials scattered around the studio. He works with some of the classic glazes, tenmoku, celadon, shino, nuka, ash, copper red, and makes them work for him by layering, to produce a wide range of surface interest. To some extent the forms he chooses to make are developed with the potential for glaze interaction. The rectangular bottles are a good case in point as he says that he looks at the top of the form to begin his glaze pouring ideas ‘I think about the top (of the square bottle) and whatever I do there will lead to what happens below on the sides’.

In an age when many young potters are restricting themselves to one form and one glaze it is refreshing to see a potter unafraid to take on the distinct challenges of maintaining a complex series of difficult shapes and glazes. The glazes may be classics but they are notoriously difficult to produce with the special qualities that define them. His use of poured glaze is often explored on small dishes which he tackles with freedom, seeing them in some ways as a means of testing ideas which may be interpreted on the very large chargers which he is becoming known for. His admiration for potters of a previous generation like Edward Hughes is reflected in their obvious influence but he has his own style, his own language of expression and he is constantly developing new ways of presenting these ideas.
The large mei ping jars are an ideal vehicle for displaying glaze. This is a difficult form to make and he now has the skills to throw them with fluency and sensitivity. The fullness of the shoulder of the pot encourages thickly applied glaze to move around during the melt. Glaze flowing down the steep sides of the pot must be carefully controlled through application. It is a risky business but when it comes off the result can be enthralling.

Developing a market for his pots led him to concentrate on selling through the many ceramic fairs that are now a major feature of the annual potters calendar. Currently his typical working year involves a busy making cycle during the winter months before spending much of the summer attending fairs to sell the pots. ‘I learn so much from doing the shows, [for example] being opposite someone like David Frith and watching how he deals with selling his work and communicating with customers’. Ceramic Art London is an important show for him and has helped to establish his reputation for making exceptionally high quality work. He has participated in as many as twelve shows over the summer months and now plans to supplement this with a special annual studio sale.

Hake is a potter who has the quiet determination to achieve whatever he sets out to do. He says his ambitions are to get familiar with the big kiln and its potential for scale. He would like to broach the international market, perhaps the USA and Japan, but for the moment there is plenty to keep him occupied here in the UK and he can look forward to concentrating on pots and potting now he has established the circumstances from which great work may emerge.

Alex McErlain, March 2014