Jack Doherty is an Irish potter based in Mousehole, a fishing village on the south western tip of Cornwall. And, although he was born into a family of fishermen, sailors and boat-builders, he vividly remembers his grandmother announce to the family that he would never go to sea.
His grandmother’s words proved prophetic and Jack became an artist – a maker of things instead. However, Jack explains that making things is equally as important in a fishing community as catching fish, and depends on it. Some of Jack’s earliest memories are of sitting in the small steamy kitchen of his childhood home knitting nets, carving net needles, and weaving rough willow lobster pots by the wood-fuelled stove.
Jack has been an artist for more than 40 years now, and despite his grandmother’s prophecy the Siren continues to call his name – looking into the textured and carved surfaces of his soda-fired pots, you can see the salt-etched faces of the sailors, hear the groaning hulls of the Cornish luggers, and smell the briny turning tide. A single tea bowl contains a dark heaving ocean, while a group of conical vessels with their barnacled russet surfaces are a fleet returning with the morning’s catch.
Recently, I was fortunate to meet Jack Doherty at the International Ceramic Magazine Editors Association (ICMEA) symposium in China, where Jack was artist in residence and recipient of the 2016 Janet Mansfield Memorial Award.
I met Jack early one morning with a small group of potters and magazine editors, all of us stamping our feet against the cold, blowing into our hands waiting for Jack’s soda-kiln to cool. We’re a long way from the coast of Cornwall, and yet the hot pots we unload that morning with their foaming turquoise surfaces speak strongly about that place – and on each battle-worn surface I can see my own home too, with its vast interior, big sky and wild coastline.
Jack’s pots have been called ‘survivors’ and it’s an apt description because in each firing he unleashes his own kind of storm within the kiln, saying that he treats his pots badly by spraying a mix of soda and caustic water onto their porcelain bellies, and the surfaces bubble and protest amidst the flames.
Later that day Jack makes his conference presentation, but it’s not a lecture, it’s a tale that transports us to his childhood on the north coast of Ireland. It’s not a family history lesson for the sake of it – place and time are integral to Jack’s work – and he conjures up before us a small boy sitting with his grandfather mending fishing nets by the warmth of the kitchen range. His mother is stirring a pot of something steaming on the stove, while his grandmother listens to the shipping news and rakes the glowing coals. Outside this safe harbour, fishermen turn their collars against the wind and wait for the tide to turn. In this community lives are lost, wives and children are left behind, and prayers are murmured along beads and knotted twine.
Jack Doherty is interested in how we live and where pots live. He considers objects from prehistory and wonders who made them, who used them, and what their purpose was when each of them is made long before Art or Craft.
Although Jack’s an award-winning international artist, he says the gallery can be counterproductive when showing his vessels, because the objects he makes are so deeply embedded in human interaction, and are made to talk to their surroundings.
Jack says, ‘We live with pots, and we understand them by holding or feeling them, we see them at different times of the day and night, in light and shadow, they surprise us and catch our eye when we don’t expect it or when we’re not really looking.’
In 2012 inspired by the ideas and spaces of Modernist architect Le Corbusier and Jim Ede, creator of Kettle’s Yard, Jack began creating site specific works with curator and creative collaborator Sarah Frangleton in his own home.
In these domestic settings we experience the intimate and secret life of pots. On the mantelpiece family photos are replaced with Guardian pots who watch over us from their new position. Or in a bedroom we’re invited to view the steely blue horizon through the window over Jack’s bed and see it continue around the room as a single shelf of pots.
In 2015 the New Craftsman Gallery hosted his exhibition ‘Waypoint’ across three sites in the chapels of St Nicolas and St Leonard, and Rose Lodge (a fishermen’s resting place) in the harbour town of St Ives.
In these spaces of rest, ritual and worship, Jack says visitors experience a range of emotions, and the works take on new meanings. In a place of prayer, a cup is a loaded thing conjuring up scripture and ritual on which the faithful pin their hopes of salvation. And for communities who live by the tides, faith is an important mooring – they are intimates of the ocean, its beauty and terror.
Jack Doherty’s pots are about function, but not necessarily usefulness, and within these spaces they are no longer purely utilitarian, but powerful carriers of our stories and safe-keepers of secrets.
Jack Doherty’s exhibition at Dao Artspace in Xi’an is open until February 2017, and features work made during his residency at the Fuping Pottery Art Village in China.
About Jack Doherty:
Jack Doherty was born in Co Derry and studied ceramics at the Ulster College of Art and Design, Belfast. From 2008-2013 he was the first Lead Potter and Creative Director at the refurbished Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. He was Chair of the Craft Potters Association for twelve years, a founding member of Ceramic Art London and guest editor of Ceramic Review. His work is exhibited internationally and is represented in many public collections. www.dohertyporcelain.com
He is the recipient of the 2016 Janet Mansfield Memorial Award.