Review: Earth & Fire – Rufford Park – 21-23 June 2013

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It was more a case of sun and rain at this year’s Earth & Fire festival at Rufford Park (21 – 23 June 2013). The weather was resoundingly bipolar to the extent that in addition to an appreciation of the ceramic arts the visitor required both sunglasses and an umbrella- the better to enjoy the UK’s premier free clay and pottery festival under highly changeable north Nottinghamshire skies. The talents of over a hundred potters from all over the world were showcased here in a series of stalls, demonstrations, exhibitions, and events, with the intention of capturing and maintaining the public’s interest in ceramics and the diverse disciplines and skills which underwrite the finished work.

Of all the arts, pottery (and, by extension, sculpture in general) has the most elemental quality, literally a thing of earth and fire, and the artist who is able to alchemize a raw clod of matter into a thing of beauty and/or practicality will always have my admiration. Those of a Creationist inclination will recall the legend which says that God made Adam from red clay (“Adamah” is Hebrew for earth), and watching the potters at work in the exhibition tents convinced me that the religious analogy is not entirely overblown: Every piece of pottery is a unique encounter with creation, a Promethean event- life passing from the fingertips to the clay, the hands of the artist incorporated into the work itself, which work becomes a meeting point between the utile and the aesthetic. Drinking a morning cuppa from a mug hand-fashioned by an artist communicates a warmth and vivacity which can only be attributed to some mysterious quality in the clay itself, the craftsmanship lingering about the piece like an echo. True, the mugs on sale here might set you back £20- but that’s no more than a week’s worth of skinny lattes (drunk from a cardboard cylinder) at Starbucks.

There was so much skill on display here it would be invidious to select a personal favourite- but my eye was drawn in particular to the ceramic arthropods of Ross de Wayne Campbell, who fashions insects from clay with an intricacy and delicacy that wouldn’t be out of place in the average clinical neurosurgery unit, and the textured, expressive vessels of Rachel Wood, which to my mind evoke Neolithic and archaeological motifs (in a spirit of openness, I must register a personal interest here- my other half and I once looked after Rachel’s cat). The centrepiece was a major exhibition in the main gallery by Peter Beard, whose clean, elegant, shimmering glazes convey the living spirit at the heart of pottery.

Overall, this year’s Earth & Fire was a huge success and more than achieved its aim to promote and support all aspects of the ceramic arts. The sheer breadth of material was impressive, and the ways in which clay is interpreted by artists never ceases to amaze me. The event was also a credit to all the staff in the arts department of Nottinghamshire County Council who made it happen: Helen Ackroyd, Sue Cullen, Dawn Taylor, Diana Pasek-Atkinson, and many, many others. A big thank you to the Council for sharing so much quality from across Europe and beyond with the people of Nottinghamshire in an idyllic rural setting. Everyone who attended and enjoyed this year’s event should be proud that they demonstrated that even in these cash-driven times of austerity the arts continue to matter, locally and nationally.

Review by Phillip Mark McGough

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