Barvas Ware and Incomers

The theme of incomer was prominent this week, both because the ridiculously talented Alex Boyd published my portrait with my husband online as part of his series on the contribution of incomers to the islands but also because I was working with the amazing Jana on the Barvas Ware Project this week. Jana is originally from Germany (as is Alex, coincidentally) and one of the themes from documents Euan, Development Officer for Museum Nan Eilean, shared with us was about Barvas Ware latterly being made for anthropology tourists.

Purvai has also been a big feature with the Colin Mackenzie link with India, and the wonderful arts festival at An Lanntair. Much of the past fortnight has involved sharing Kathak dance from Kanchan and Tabla drumming with Dal across care and day centres.

Many of the older people we have been working with are not native to the islands, having moved here for work or family support at some point. None of us this week, not even those born here, had seen or experienced Barvas Ware before this project and we have all been able to explore and learn about it together.

Two people from the Barvas area attending the day centre, were able to give information to Euan about the pottery during handling sessions three weeks ago, which was very exciting.

Jana has a beautiful approach to language, learning Gaelic words as we go along from older first-language Gaelic speakers. We talk about techniques, first trying a pinch pot and then moving on to coiling. ‘You sausage it’, she explains.

‘I love the way you use sausage as a verb’, I smile.

Jana laughs, ‘sausageing, yes!’, as she demonstrates how to smooth the coils together. ‘You don’t press it, that compresses the clay, you just go up and down with your fingers.’

‘I’m not artistic at all’, confesses Bella, who is ninety and sculpting a plate with her bare hands in Raku clay.

‘I think that everyone is artistic and creative,’ says Jana, ‘maybe somebody at school, maybe one teacher, told them they aren’t creative, or not so good at this or that but we are all creative in different ways.’ I completely agree. We all decorate our homes and choose what to wear and how to have our hair. And being ‘good’ at something can, I think, mean eagerness to explore and learn about the medium.

Jana talked about Raku clay with us, how it features tiny pieces of fired clay, which strengthen the object when exposed to extreme temperatures and stress in open fire firing. She explains that the Japanese Raku technique also includes shocking the fired clay in cold water, and that Barvas Ware technique involved milk glazing, for the fat to seal the porous, fired surface.

Jana talks about her failures with exploding pieces in her fire but that it can be avoided if there is no air or gaps in the piece and if all of the areas on a piece are approximately the same depth. ‘But I was able  to use the broken pieces for my own Raku clay so it wasn’t wasted.’ she laughs.

We came up with some authentic Barvas type shapes and some experimental sculptures as part of three sessions in two care homes and a day centre. All three settings had enjoyed a visit from Euan with the Museum Barvas Ware handling collection recently, so we had all experienced the authentic pieces in advance.

We tried out the distinctive, decorative patterns with cutting at the edges and made plates, bowls, milk jugs, cups and teapots. ‘Did you know,’ asks Jana, ‘that Barvas Ware teapots had no useful spout?’ as she creates a beautiful, usable spout on her own, creating a flower of toothpick holes through the clay, where she attaches her spout. ‘A teapot is one of the hardest things to make, getting the proportions right to pour liquid out of the spout neatly. Our tea sets and mugs are mostly made with plaster moulds and slip clay, a wet clay mixture, now. Then you can reproduce a good design over and over again. This is too hard with hand building. A good ceramicist can do quite a good job but it will never be quite the same.’

Jana also talks about the tourism aspect of the pottery. ‘You can tell it was made for tourists if it wasn’t usable as a teapot.’ This corroborates Euan’s thoughts on the sugar bowl being unlikely to be in general, crofting use on tables in homes at that time, and that it was more copied from English designs for the tourist trade, a far removed piece from the original croggans, used as practical vessels for holding and transporting food, perhaps soup for lunch.

The rest of the Barvas Ware project will involve a community making day or two at the museum, a library 3D printing session, digging some authentic local clay and remaking Barvas Ware pieces with that and firing the completed, air dried pieces in a peat fire on a beach.

Rachael Thomas and Helen Pickles, current and former staff at the Highland Folk Museum have written informative blogs about Barvas Ware and the re-making of it on their High Life Highland blog and are generously supporting us with their knowledge as we navigate our re-making.

Donald Angus, staff at Solas Day Centre, followed what the clay wanted to do and folded it on to itself, creating a Barvas Pasty, much to the amusement of the group. ‘I’ve learned so much about clay today!’, he says, grinning.

We had some fantastic sculptural explorations of the clay, too.

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