Jack Doherty is an Irish potter, based in Mousehole, a fishing village on the south western tip of Cornwall. Born into a family of fishermen, sailors and boat-builders, as a child 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. He explains that making things is equally important as catching fish in a fishing community and indeed depends on it. Some of his earliest memories are of sitting alongside his father and grandfather in the small steamy kitchen of his childhood home, knitting and mending nets, carving net needles, and weaving rough willow lobster pots by the wood fuelled stove.
While he has been an artist for more than 40 years, despite the prophecy, the Siren continues to call his name. Looking into the surfaces of his soda-fired pots, one sees the salt etched faces of the sailors, hears the groaning hulls of the Cornish luggers, and smells the briny turning tide. In my hand, a single tea bowl contains a dark heaving ocean within its fine porcelain walls. Grouped together, his conical forms with their barnacled russet surfaces, are a fleet returning with the morning’s catch.
Recently I was fortunate to meet Jack Doherty in China at the International Ceramic Magazine Editors Association (ICMEA) symposium held in Fuping and Beijing. Jack was there as artist in residence and recipient of the 2016 Janet Mansfield Memorial Award.
I meet him early on a cold morning, with a small group of potters and ceramics magazine editors, all stamping our feet, blowing into our hands, each of us full of anticipation, willing his latest soda firing to cool (as we do!). In Fuping, we’re a long way from the coast of Cornwall, and yet the hot pots we unload in the soft rain that morning with their foaming textured surfaces of smoky grey and turquoise, speak to me strongly about place, and I feel as if I am holding a landscape, and I see my own home, with its vast interior and wild open coastline in each battle worn surface.
Not surprisingly, Jack calls his pots ‘survivors’ and 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.
Over the coming days he presents at the symposium a number of times, and during each talk I imagine a small boy and his grandfather mending nets by the warmth of the kitchen range, and I hear the pots and pans and the shipping news on the radio. Outside this safe harbour, fishermen turn their collars against the wind and wait for tides to turn. Lives are lost, wives and children are left behind, and prayers are murmured along beads and knotted twine.
The conference days are long, I’m eating way too much, not exercising, and there’s a sleepy fog rolling in – it’s the sensation of being gently rocked to sleep in an old timber boat. Jack finishes his presentation and the room exhales. The brilliant and animated Professor Brian Snapp is up next and he appeals from across the conference table, ‘No! Please don’t make me go after Jack’.
We laugh and are jolted back into the room. It’s not the long days and over eating after all. Each one of us has been cast under some kind of mariner’s spell.
Jack Doherty is interested in how we live. He considers objects from prehistory and wonders who made them, who used them, and what was their purpose in this life when each of them is made long before we discover Art or Craft?
As a contemporary artist, he says, the vessel form in particular; ‘…with its roots so deeply embedded in human interaction, is not best served by the cold remoteness of the plinth. The white cube gallery designed to create thinking space around an object can become counterproductive when the object was made to ‘talk’ to its surroundings.’
Inspired also by the ideas and spaces created by the Modernist architect Le Corbusier and Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, Jack decides to exhibit outside the confines of the museum and begins to use his own home as a gallery that people visit to see his work.
Family photos are taken down from the mantelpiece and are replaced with pots, who, like guardians watch over us from their new position. From Jack’s bed we’re invited to lay and watch the steely blue horizon enter through the bedroom window just above his pillow, and see it continue around the room as a single shelf of pots. In this domestic setting we experience the intimate and secret life of pots.
Although he first trained as a studio painter, for Jack, ceramics has qualities that sculpture or painting doesn’t have. 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.
Similarly, his exhibition ‘Waypoint’ hosted by the New Craftsman Gallery last year, extends beyond the traditional gallery space to three sites in the harbour town of St Ives: in the chapels of St Nicolas and St Leonard, and a fishermen’s resting place, Rose Lodge.
According to Jack, in these spaces of rest, ritual and worship, visitors experience a range of emotions, some are surprised, even excited to happen upon the work, others are indifferent, even angry or they don’t see them at all. In this context the works themselves take on new layers of meaning; in the ancient chapel a deep vessel could become for us a baptismal font, or in the fishermen’s quarters, a bucket.
In a place of prayer a cup becomes loaded with meaning, and for the faithful they conjure up ancient scripture or a lifetime of ritual, from the very first watery submersion to the final anointing in oil, on which we pin our hopes of salvation. Communities who live by the tides and the moon are at once intimate with the ocean’s beauty and its terror, and faith is an important mooring.
Jack Doherty’s pots function on a deeply emotional level, and within these spaces his works are so fully charged with personal, spiritual, and cultural meanings that they are no longer purely utilitarian, but are powerful carriers and safe keepers of our most intimate and secret stories.
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.