Helen Evans is a pioneer in glaze technology. Paul Bailey met her in London while she was over on a visit from Tobago

Tobago

Weighing out clay in preparation for throwing, in the Tobago studio. (Photo: Christoph Meurer)

 

Helen Evans spends most of her time running her ceramic studio on the island of Tobago, while still retaining business interests in London. Some would say it’s a dream life, but how did she get there?

Formal training started at Bath College of Art, where she joined a Foundation Course. It was here that she discovered ceramics. She explained: “We had to make some vessels, and I had an instant creative reaction to the material and the process; my large pots seemed to grow out of nowhere in a truly exciting way.”

After Bath, she was accepted at Central Saint Martins in London for a degree in Ceramic Design, then under Kathryn Hearn. It was here that she was taught glaze technology by Nigel Wood, and throwing by John Chipperfield. At the time she didn’t realise how fundamental glazing would become to her work many years later.

Raw materials have to be shipped in, once a year. (Photo: Christoph Meurer)

In 2010, she became the studio manager for Kate Malone, and at one point was managing a team of eight people for a special project. She stayed there for the next seven years. Talking about that time, she said, “Working in a larger studio for Kate Malone was a very inspirational experience. When you’re surrounded by other successful artists (both Kate and her team), it spurs you on to continue making and improving your work. The interaction and sharing of ideas is a key factor, and something that I thrived on when working for Kate, and in all of my London studios, and which I’m really grateful for.

The De Beauvoir Studio, London. (Photo: Becca Chatterton)

While with Kate she also had her own studios in London, the final one being at Craft Central, while it was still in Farringdon. It was a very special time for Helen. It was a very professionally run studio, with a dedicated and experienced team on hand who worked hard to create opportunities and promote the work. The gallery spaces were great and enabled artists to put on affordable exhibitions in a central location. It’s a great model, and in Helen’s opinion, there should be more professional spaces and schemes like this to encourage entrepreneurs in the crafts industry.

In Tobago, her studio has gone through many changes. When she first arrived, in 1998, she had a studio in the main business area and, over the years, she employed up to four people. She also had a shop on the main tourist beach, which she still has today. After relocating the Tobago studio to her home in 2009, she renovated an empty space into a lofty, breezy two-level studio. There she has the kilns and big equipment, and it’s where most of the production takes place. Recently she has introduced a ‘Pottery Corner’ work area into the shop on the beach, to create a more interactive experience for customers and visitors. Here she can work, give demonstrations and put on courses. This provides an inspirational opportunity to visit one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, learn a new skill and experience pottery-making at the same time. She commented, “What I love most about my studio is having it at home, so I have constant access to the work in progress. I really appreciate the space and light and its effect on my work, allowing me a creative freedom that I think is evident in my new work.”

Throwing in the Tobago studio. (Photo: Christoph Meurer)

Today she produces high-fired, hand-thrown stoneware ceramics, specialising in multiple-layered coloured glazes and textures, with glaze testing and research being a key element to the development of the work.

She explained, “I use Scarva earthstone original clay. I tested lots of different bodies during my time in the UK and found this had all the properties needed for my thrown work. It fires a quite light colour, throws well, with a silky, buttery texture, and can withstand very high temperatures with hardly any cracks or warping. All the tableware is thrown, although some decorative pieces are hand-built. I also use press moulds made from original models, especially when I have assistants helping with production.”

Helen’s glazes melt and merge into each other, allowing colours and effects to develop in the kiln, and she adjusts and tweaks the glazes to achieve exciting glaze surfaces.

The platters demonstrate a new direction, using the glazes in a more painterly and expressive manner, controlling and predicting where the glaze will flow, and firing at angles to encourage directional pull-through. The glazes behave in surprising ways.

 

Challenging times

For Helen, moving to a different country has been a very positive experience, and was partly achieved though a Tobago Trade and Investment programme, TIDCO. This was created to encourage foreign investment in appropriate businesses in Tobago. Everything was done though the correct channels, and involved producing a business plan and visiting and presenting the project to the many relevant ministers and government officials.

One of the major issues in running a business so far away from source materials, is ordering them in. Helen now uses a broker, who consolidates the delivery in the UK and organises the shipment. It’s expensive but, over the years, she has found that using professionals at both ends, to arrange all the transportation, including getting the goods from Trinidad to Tobago, is best. The last part of the journey, from Trinidad to Tobago, can sometimes be more tricky than getting the supplies from the UK to Trinidad!

Mango tree ash glaze samples over coloured slips, in the glaze room in the Tobago studio. (Photo: Christoph Meurer)

 

In Tobago, Helen has three main types of client

  • Hotels who order for their interiors, shops and even VIP gift packages
  • Private villa owners who commission pieces for their homes
  • Tourists who visit the shop and buy direct.

Looking back on the journey her career has taken, she commented, “It started with the unknown, setting up a little business in a distant, far away place, in a time before the internet. It was difficult to obtain information, and with little experience, I developed a problem-solving attitude that has stayed with me and actually fed into my work. A big part is testing glazes and developing colours, which I believe to be a direct result of having to experiment, and the joy felt when a successful result is discovered.”

While working in Tobago Helen had limited access to materials, with only one shipment of raw materials per year. She had to be methodical and organised so as not to forget anything in the materials order, and inventive if things ran out. It actually gave her confidence in the process, so when she returned to the UK after 10 years, she had access to new glazes, stains and materials that had been researched and applied while she was away.

Fruit bowls and tropical fruits on Pigeon Point beach, behind the gallery, Tobago. (Photo: Skene Howie)

This research proved vital while working with Kate Malone to research the glazes for a huge architectural project on Savile Row, London. This was a dream job, and introduced her to developing crystalline glazes and the process of research and development of glazes and tile production on a large scale for a commercial project. She had to research the recipes to understand what each component was doing, in order to tweak and develop the best results for the project. It is this theory of research and development that she now applies to her own glaze recipes.

With a business in Tobago, and her work being represented in Future Icons gallery in London and Room 212 in Bristol, the next stage is developing a portfolio of larger-scale pieces, using the new research, and exporting work to the islands and to America.

And the research? Using ash glazes with mango tree ash from her garden and combining it with slips and overlaying it with the usual high-fired coloured glazes. What else, in Tobago?

Soup bowl with merging glazes, 15cm x 8.5cm. (Photo: Juliet Sheath)

Large decorative platter, with multiple merging glazes. 37cm x 37cm. (Photo: Juliet Sheath)

 

 

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