We had an inspirational and uplifting conversation with Cardiff-based artist potter Robyn Cove. Fusing Japanese and British ceramic traditions, Robyn tirelessly pushes the aesthetic possibilities of ceramic materials in order to create deeply textured and tactile stoneware pottery emanating a rustic homely warmth. Skilfully carved perforations of delicate surface rhythms and energies imbue her work with a modern, yet earthy feel.
Robyn welcomed us with a radiant and warm smile and invited us in to her cosy home where we quickly engaged in a lively conversation about her creative journey and artistic influences. After showing us some of her recent pieces of pottery, she offered us a delicious fruit salad and took us to her studio where she explained her pottery making process and surprised us with an invitation to try our hand at carving two of her pots. We continued our conversation in the forest surrounding Castell Coch ‒ a 19th-century Gothic Revival castle overlooking the river Taff ‒ where Robyn offered us a poetic glimpse into her Scottish childhood and shared with us her plans and ambitions for the future.
What or who inspired you to become a ceramic artist? Are there any artists in your family?
There are lots of artists in my family and they had a huge influence on me. The house I grew up in was always full of interesting things, Seth Cardew Pottery, wire or paper sculptures, leatherwork by my grandad, textile and fibre artworks as well as sketches, collages and paintings mostly by some family member or another. There were also many handmade antiques including watches and some really stunning furniture including a full size Orkney chair! I remember my mother going to college to study applied craft in Carlisle and how excited she was about her projects. She had stacks of fat sketchbooks that were heaving with every material you can think of. She had collected some dead butterflies that she kept in a tin box for sketching; this fascinated me, I never did find out if they had died of natural causes or if she killed them! … Or how she caught them... Perhaps she skipped around the garden with a butterfly net but I never witnessed it!
There were always good pots around, as I say lots by Seth and these were often the favourites; so much so that to my knowledge there are none left from that household! I did not break any (of course!). I had done some small scale sculpting with clay at school but when I went to college is when I got the opportunity to really get to know clay. I made some slab jugs and that was that, I was completely hooked. I loved that I had to go and check on them every day to ensure they were drying evenly. Working with ceramics requires a lot of 'going and checking' and being aware of 'how the clay might be feeling': rearranging, turning the pots around or upside down, carefully spraying a mist of water on this bit or that. I was besotted with this material which demanded so much mental and physical space. I specialised in ceramics for my 2nd and 3rd years of study which meant I spent 2 years hiding in the basement pottery. The tutor would come and show me a new technique every now and then, and I would spend my days practicing endlessly. By the end of my time at the college I was a potter and there was no going back.
What is the most vivid memory from your Scottish childhood?
There are many but this one stands out to me right now... My auntie was visiting and at that time there were two beds in my room and so she was staying with me. I woke up one morning and all around me was covered in torn up brown paper envelopes and on each piece of paper was a charcoal sketch of me sleeping. There in amongst the flurry of papers was my auntie, cross legged, charcoal in hand, wide eyed and happy. She had been awake all night making these studies of my scruffy hair and scrunched up sleepy face. They were fantastic drawings!! This was not strange to me as there were often bursts of creative expression, activities and projects at my childhood home especially when there was family visiting.
And there was also magic!... Once my mum woke me up in the middle of the night, she showed me a handful of snow. With her sparkly eyes and a broad grin she exclaimed 'Wake up, look it's snowing!!' So in my pyjamas and bare feet I followed her outside where we ate handfuls of white crisp fresh smelling snow that appeared blue in the moonlight, then I went back to bed to sleep.
Tell us about your experience as a Ceramics student at the Cardiff Met. What did you enjoy the most and what would you change (if anything) about the way that ceramics is taught?
It was great to have time to explore a variety of ceramic practices and that is certainly what I did. In retrospect, now I feel that I may have benefited from a more traditional skills based training program, perhaps as an apprentice in a pottery making functional wares. I found it tricky to fit what I wanted to make into the necessary requirements in the project briefs and other aspects associated with gaining a degree. I feel that I have learnt more since leaving university; not least what kind of ceramics I want to make and what I want from pottery.
Are there any ceramists or artists who influenced your style?
Many!! Top of the list at the moment are both Akiko Hirai and Lisa Hammond. The strongest influence for me making pottery is that it has to function. It has to be comfortable and practical as well as beautiful.
I had a recent conversation with an uncle who told me about a wide dish he owns that had warped during firing so ended up a triangular sort of shape. He said many would dismiss the pot as 'deformed' but he finds it ideal for kneading bread dough as it is the perfect shape to wedge in against the stomach for stability. This is what us potters call a happy accident. Such happy accidents often inform how a potter makes the next pot. Only through use can we learn what is useful.
You returned to Scotland after you finished your degree in Cardiff. Can you tell us more about the time you spent on Isle of Skye?
Yes, I lived on the Isle of Skye in a small place called Borreraig which is towards the north. Myself and Peanut (my cat) set up in a caravan with a little wood burning stove. Everyday I would check the tide timetable and make my way down to the rocky beach where I busied myself picking winkles. To get around without a car I would hitch lifts or more often walk; negotiating ownership of the road with large highland beasts.
Out walking one day I discovered the whole universe in a pony’s eyes (only seen by sweeping the long ginger mane from its face). Big pools of iris blue getting darker towards the middle with peppered flecks of white; a truly magical being!
Running your own business could prove challenging for many people. What do you consider as being the most rewarding and the most stressful side of this venture?
The most rewarding for me firstly is that I can manage my own time whilst having a creative outlet. Second is the satisfaction of understanding everything about the business and how it works, I enjoy full understanding, control, and organisation of systems, and processes. The most stressful is probably the scattered income, relying on sales requires a lot of forward planning.
Where do you source your raw materials from?
I buy in commercial clays that I mix to achieve the material I want. All the glaze materials are also bought in. One day I would like to source from local quarries.
Can you talk us through your pottery making process?
Well first I mix the clays by slicing and hand wedging; working with 4 x 2 kilo lots per session. This is left to rest before throwing on the potter’s wheel. The pots can take a day or two to dry before they are placed back on the wheel where I use loop tools to trim their bottoms which removes the excess clay from the throwing process. I will often turn foot rings in my pots at this stage. This is also when lids are trimmed to fit the pots and the knobs thrown on top. I put my signature stamp on the pots straight after trimming. Next I measure and mark the pot before carving (though occasionally pots are carved before trimming). Teapot spouts will be cut and attached at this stage. Handles are pulled by hand from a large lump of clay, left to dry a little before being attached to the pots. These pots will then be left another day or so before they can withstand a layer or two of slip, insides and outsides must be done separately normally with a day of drying in between or the pots slump and collapse. The work is then left to dry completely to what is called a bone dry state at which point they are ready to put in the kiln for the first firing that will take them up to around 1000 degrees Celsius. I make the glazes by weighing out materials and sieving these through a fine mesh. The bisque fired pots can then each have a liquid wax painted on their bottoms and be dipped into the buckets of glaze. Then they must fully dry out again which can take a week or more then they go back into the kiln for the second firing that takes them to stoneware temperatures around 1250 degrees Celsius. Each firing takes about a day to reach temperature then another to cool before the work can be removed.
What about the beads?
The beads are usually hand rolled and decorated by pressing texture or left plain before firing and glazing. It's very relaxing to sit and make beads for a few hours. They become like little sculptures allowing a freedom of expression that on a larger scale could take days or more to explore. They require careful glazing so not to get any in the threading holes where the molten glass would seal the gap. They are threaded onto a special wire that can withstand high temperatures and placed on my handmade bead racks that resemble the Djenné mosque in Mali. The beads can then be fired to stoneware temperatures without too much risk of them fusing to anything, although some casualties do occur.
You seem to incorporate a wide array of rustic and tribal motifs in your Ragged Robyn designs. What is your relationship with traditional cultures and indigenous tribal peoples?
These are styles that I am aesthetically drawn to. I think this originates from my interpretation of objects brought back as gifts from Africa and India throughout my childhood that have greatly affected my aesthetic preferences. Interestingly (or un-interestingly perhaps?!) I have never been to either of these counties and so my appreciation of their beauty is possibly a little disjointed and therefore not a true likeness to a specific place, era or group. I have always admired images from Africa and countries in the Far East and this definitely informs my work. I make what I like and what I think is beautiful.
How do you engage with the local community of designers and creatives?
I am a member of South Wales Potters (SWP) which has exhibitions and organises group meetings at talks and events. I’m lucky to have so many inspiring potters on my doorstep ‒ you can find out more about the members’ work and details on our website.
There is also an Etsy makers group called Cardiff & Vale Etsy (CAVETSY) whose members also provide a great community network. I don't often make it to the more regular meetings as I am so busy making, but do stay in contact regularly with CAVETSY online.
Do you like experimenting with new materials and techniques?
Absolutely yes and I believe it is a vital part of progressing as an artist. New projects and processes are important to ensure one keeps challenging oneself and to keep the work fresh. When a business is making things it can feel a little mechanical, a bit like a factory production line. To continue learning, developing and growing it is vital to test out new ideas, experiment with clays, glaze materials, tools and firings for new effects and purposes.
Tell us about your tools ‒ do you make your own and do you have a favourite one?
Yes, I occasionally make my own tools and do have favourites. I find the best tools are the ones I least expect to be good. I'm never sure where or when they arrived but they kind of just wriggle their way to the top of the pile then stayed there… so becoming the most crusty and clay caked of all the tools. The highest compliment for a tool!
I was taught watercolours at college and that you should always work with a brush that is much bigger than the mark you wish to achieve. And so I continue using this trick with my pottery making, not just with paintbrushes but also with turning tools; this seems to work well for me. I must make some large rib tools as I'm pretty sure it would also be true for those. A rib is a shaped flat piece of wood that is used against the wet clay pot while forming on the potter's wheel. These are commonly used to smooth out the throwing lines on a pot as well as helping to refine a pots shape.
“Out walking one day I discovered the whole universe in a pony’s eyes (only seen by sweeping the long ginger mane from its face). Big pools of iris blue getting darker towards the middle with peppered flecks of white; a truly magical being!”
You are a potter, a jeweller and a teacher while running your own business ‒ what do you do to relax?
Making on the potter’s wheel is very relaxing, and I would say the most relaxing thing I do. I also like to read and go to the theatre for plays and contemporary ballet. My favourite right now are the Matthew Bourne productions. I am lucky here in Cardiff as there is the Wales Millennium Centre that facilitates some of the big touring shows from London and overseas.
How long have you lived and worked at your current location for? What made you choose the area?
I was keen to move away from the hustle and bustle of the city and I came across this house 'with studio' in a village on the edge of Cardiff. I hadn't realised until I came to view the house in 2013 that I had in fact been through the village many times before as it is on the Taff Trail which is a popular cycle route that runs from Cardiff Bay all the way up to Brecon. There is also a well known castle here called Castell Coch which seems to appear on TV rather a lot.
What does a regular day look like for you?
The first thing I do when I get up is put the kettle on, let one cat into the house while the other follows me to the studio to check on pots that are in the process of being made. This is when I decide if I need to mix clay/glaze, throw, trim, carve, handle, apply slip or glaze etc. Peanut 'the studio cat' follows me back and forth as I make my coffee and breakfast porridge. I like to get going in the studio early on in the day if I can. Peanut likes to check in on me now and then or lounge around on my lap or on the big table while I work. I make beads in between making pots. Once the shelves are full and there's no more space then I plan out how and when to do the firings, glazing etc. A day in the studio soon flies by and it's time for food, emails and social media updates.
Do you listen to music while working?
I sometimes listen to music while working, it very much depends on the task at hand. There are a lot of tasks that require intense concentration such as making or applying layers to the pots when I don't want any distraction. If I'm working at the potter’s wheel I like silence or occasionally classical music. Then there are some tasks such as preparing clay which involve rather a lot of muscle and activity so I like something up tempo that's going to motivate me and get a rhythm going. My iPhone is full of old blues and soul music including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Odetta, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and many more.
When you are not working in your studio, where is one most likely to find you?
Um… Sleeping ha!
What is your favourite dish?
I love salads, the regular is a leafy salad with sun dried tomatoes, olives, grated vegetables and homemade dressing containing plenty of mustard and garlic.
If you could live and work anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I would like to visit and work for a short period in Norway, mostly for the light quality and landscapes. Also Japan for its pottery history, culture and aesthetics.
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
I used to knit and spin yarn on my spinning wheel but found there wasn't enough time for it all and so recently sold the wheel and fibre. I have also made felt and felt clothing from natural fleeces in the past.
What are you working on at the moment?
Glaze development for both pots and beads.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Unknown Craftsman by Sōetsu Yanagi. Another book (fiction): Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.
A film: The Price of Milk
A song: “Twenty Four Hours a Day” by Billie Holiday.
“I make what I like and what I think is beautiful.”
Thank you, Robyn for the warm welcome and for the wonderful insight into your creative and personal world.