Living the Dream
Mark Judson creates a new life in the Vienne, France.
It was the first of August 2005, the car was crammed full of my possessions from school, essential supplies, and precious items that wouldn’t fit in the removal van. My wife Caroline and I had said ‘au revoir’ to our family, our friends, our well-paid jobs, and our comfortable home in a pleasant Cambridgeshire village. That was it – our old life in England was gone and a new life in France was about to begin.
Later that day we arrived at our new home, Chenevaux, a run-down arrangement of habitable, derelict, and absolutely beyond repair farmstead buildings set in seven acres of land in midwest France. Our dream was to renovate the old farmhouse as our home, to convert one outbuilding into a pottery and art studio and another into a gîte or holiday cottage. Even though we knew we had set ourselves a tough task, when we finally arrived, not knowing a soul and looking at the enormity of the project, we both secretly wondered, ‘Oh my word, what have we done!’
|The front of the studio - late summer|
THE PROJECT The first big job was to renovate the gîte and to install a swimming pool, as self-catering holidays were to be our initial source of income. This was to be followed by the conversion of the stables into my pottery and art studio, followed by the various projects that we needed to carry out in the farmhouse. We gave ourselves a target of five years to have the gîte and art businesses fully up and running and to get as far as we could with the landscaping. Needless to say, we hadn’t foreseen many of the jobs that we had to tackle in reality, but we found a gem of a builder who gave us invaluable advice as well as being a superb craftsman.
September arrived, baking hot, and so did the pool. It was then that we discovered to my delight that there was a seam of pure clay on our land. As none of the studio equipment had even been ordered, let alone installed, I set out to find a friendly fellow potter locally. I visited a few people in the area, but I found that not only were they not receptive, they were, in fact, rather suspicious. I finally met a very knowledgeable and interested chap, Michel, in the nearby village of Angles sur l’Anglin. He had a small kiln and agreed to fire a small test piece of our own clay. We discovered that the Chenevaux clay fires to a warm brown and is optimum at 1150ºC. I now use this to decorate stoneware pieces… ‘Ewan Henderson’ style.
|A successful glaze firing - students and Mark's work|
GETTING SET UP My next quest was to find a kiln, wheel, and pugmill. The price of new equipment was far beyond my means, as prices here are substantially higher than in England and sources of second hand equipment seem to be few and far between. So I decided to order a Cromartie front-loading kiln. Delivery of the kiln having been arranged, I sat back and thought about all the projects that I had been keeping on hold for what seemed like a lifetime, and luxuriated in a dream world for a day or so – until we had a panicky phone call from the courier asking if I knew how much the kiln weighed! He and his co-driver practically had to go on a jockey’s pre-race diet to go over the weighbridge, and, he asked, how were we going to unload it at this end?! I think the Chenevaux bar must have been opened rather early that day as we brushed his comments aside and were convinced that four strong men could lift it off the van! When he arrived the reality hit me, and after a few minutes I asked Caroline to phone our local farmer for help. Luck was on our side as within ten minutes he arrived on his tractor and lifted it off using the forks.
EXHIBITING One of the disadvantages of living in such a rural area is that the appreciation of art is patchy. I have been exhibiting at a local ‘gallery’ in our village for just over a year now, but sales are not great. The mix of items is eclectic and includes everything from artisan food products to clothes to ceramic items, so from my perspective it acts more as a prompt to encourage visitors to my studio. When this happens I invariably do a small demonstration, and the interest and sales are encouraging. We have also hosted a couple of groups, organised through the local tourist office, offering refreshments, a demonstration, and the opportunity to ‘have a go’, which was well received. Craft fairs are an entirely hit-or-miss exercise, and whilst they are generally not expensive to participate in, time and distance do become an issue. One of our local villages has a beautiful exhibition space in the middle of the small shopping area, and I am currently waiting to hear from the Mayor as to whether I can rent this space next summer for a week. If the response is positive, I will be focusing on sending out personal invitations to the vernissage (private view), as experience shows that people respond to these events. I am also in the process of registering with an association called the Pole Regionale du Poitou Charentes, which has four staffed selling galleries. I was very impressed when I visited one of them, and if sales are good, their very reasonable commission rate is worth it.
My studio and gallery are housed in our old stables where the feeding troughs are used as damp cupboards. The ground floor has been converted into my pottery studio and kiln room, and upstairs there is a beautiful light, airy painting studio. As well as doing my own work, we now offer bespoke residential pottery and art holidays as well as daytime courses.
|Upstairs in the painting studio - a student at work|
GETTING DOWN TO WORK With the luxury of my own studio I have found it easier to produce more expressive work. This combines the ideas, techniques, and materials I have developed over the thirty years I have worked with ceramics. I often use different clays as a foundation, into which I may impress a variety of found objects to create a richly textured surface pattern. This may be decorated by spraying, pouring, painting, and/or flicking on glazes, oxides, wax resist, sand, and glass before being fired to stoneware temperatures. Most of this work is slab-built. I continue to throw more traditional pottery on the wheel for a more functional market, and I enjoy slip-casting small vessels and sculptures that add to the variety of pieces that I sell. My work is influenced by the local landscape here, from my time in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, and by the work of Peter Voulkos and Ewan Henderson, and it has undertones of the wabi-sabi theology of Japanese ceramics.
It is a fantastic feeling to be free to live and work as a practising artist at long last.
Mark Judson taught ceramics in British schools for twenty-four years, ten as Director of Art at the Perse School in Cambridge. He now runs bespoke residential art holidays in ceramics and painting, and self-catering holidays in the beautiful Vienne, France.
Telephone 0033 549913096
Suppliers Ceradel (www.ceradel.com) is the sister of and equivalent to Potterycrafts in England where you can get similar goods although prices tend to be higher in France.
Associations Collectif National des Ceramistes (www.collectif-ceramistes.org); Ateliers d’Art de France (www.ateliersdart.com); Pole Regional Des Metiers D’Art.
Publication La revue de la ceramique et du verre is a magazine very similar to Ceramic Review and has some very good articles (www.revue-ceramique-verre.com).
I use Ceradel clay St Amand en Puisaye GT100P for wheel-work and GT100X and local porcelain for slab-work. Fired to 1250-1280°C in an electric kiln. I also use Potterycrafts P3103 Porcelain slip fired to the above for slip-casting and P3201 for slip-casting white earthenware to 1050°C, again in an electric kiln.
I use a variety of glazes, some of which are old favourites purchased from Potclays and Potterycrafts (or Ceradel here), with my own additions to create a unique effect.
Article written by Caroline Judson, printed in the Ceramic Review 2011
Article written by Caroline Judson, printed in the Ceramic Review 2011