Nothing in life is for free, or at least that is what I had come to believe. Well it turns out that when you’re a recently graduated art student unable to get a job the only thing that you have is the ability to give things away for free, but what I also came to learn is that doesn’t necessarily mean that you end up with nothing.
I came back from Dartington College of Art recently graduated in 2012, and the plan was to set up a studio. I think looking back, it turns out that that isn’t a particularly bad idea. A studio does a lot of things, and even thought you spend most of your spare cash in coffee shops, and very little time actually physically in the studio it doesn’t mean that the studio isn’t doing its job. When you leave art school the best thing that you can do is form something that is a symbol of identity and defiance. A studio is that symbol, the studio creates a physical and fixed measure of your success. It becomes more than anything else a sanctuary, so that after an 8 hour shift sorting post with five hundred other people in a warehouse in an industrial estate you can take stock.
Ideologically the studio is a shrine for work, inventiveness and productivity. Unsurprisingly the studio really isn’t this, in fact the studio really is just a reason for people to speak to you in the coffee shop you frequent because in reality you’re grinding away for the man; -and the man cannot be trusted.
I was back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, my native home ground. After toiling away trying to start up a business with my mate making wraps, and quickly realising that this was not a great idea as neither of us could cook we set about trying to agree on something that we could both do. Numerous days drinking coffee passed and we both agreed that some of the best work that we had produced was ceramics.
High Bridge Pottery was born and our third floor space in Baltic 39 became something far more akin to Francis Bacons studio as it began to fill up with glaze materials, clay, potters wheels and a 25 year kiln build by an unknown dutch ceramics technician. We were confident as the Dutch have a long history making hot boxes, and this unventilated kiln certainly produced some hallucinogenic vapours from its little chimney. Naturally it didn’t take long for our landlord Newcastle Council to shut us down until we did things correctly, and in all honesty this has probably added several years onto our life span.
We didn’t really know what we wanted to make at first, and we really didn’t know enough about ceramics to start producing things at a high level, nevertheless we made some work, put on a shirt and went down to a local market at 6am to set up our stall. We made £380 which really didn’t go very far. Okay, so making ceramics on a small level doesn’t really add up, and actually now that I am making 1000s of pieces it is still hard to make things add up but it is a labour of love after all. 7
I did a quick internet search on Newcastle upon Tyne to find out which were the best restaurants in the area, the idea being that I would approach one of them with my work and sell them their entire tableware for the restaurant. I found a local lad called Dave Coulson, a Master Chefs the Professionals finalist and head chef & owner of Peace and Loaf. This bearded chap seemed to make a name from himself by reinventing local classics and transforming them into a fine dining restaurant experience. He was dead keen to support local businesses and so I sent him and email. In the end my reputation did not proceed me as I hadn’t worked with anyone else, had hardly any work to show him and also pitched him a range that only really existed in my head.
Undeterred I decided that the best idea would be to give him whatever I could muster up at my potters wheel and to give him this for free! He graciously accepted, because rarely is it that things in life come for free.
Unbelievably several weeks later after I had completed some work for Peace and Loaf I received a phone call while on my way to work at the Royal Mail.
“Hello, my name is Paul Brown I am the Managing Director for Continental Chef Supplies we are responsible for selling some of the highest quality tableware in the country. I was at my mate Dave Coulsons restaurant a couple of nights ago and I saw some really fantastic plates, and I hear your the guy who made them. Would you be interested in having a meeting to produce some work for us?”
So as I put the phone down I had already written this guy off as a chancer trying to get me to do something for them for free, Continental Chef Supplies is probably some fictional company that that has been made up as a scam and this chap is probably ringing me from his shed in the back garden. Oh how wrong I was!
It turns out that if you’re willing to give some of your time and energy for free you often get something in return, but this often comes in the form of support and if you’re clever you’ll never look a gift horse in the mouth. I was very lucky that I had a number of great people support the next steps of the business, there was the inevitable failures, and there was a few people that gave up on us but there was some that through thick and thin always picked up the phone.
It turns out that the best place to make your business work is from a coffee shop, there are people all over the world that seem to exist in coffee shops and think its the most dynamic creative space that exists. I’m fairly certain that the likes of Van Gogh exchanged a few paintings in exchange for a glass of wine and I am no exception. To be honest however my on going patronage of certain coffee shops definitely made up a considerable amount of their turnover. I spent a long time in 9 Bar, a small Italian ran coffee shop in the Theatre Royal. In there after several weeks I sparked up a friendship with Gabriel Day, if you could get a chance to speak to him between friends dropping by, business meetings, website development, business ideas, social media work, phone calls, more phone calls, world renown DJs & producers passing by, or drinking coffee then often the conversation would be extremely helpful. I always thought that Gabe had an innate ability to see an opportunity, and to make the most of it. He seemed extremely talented in surrounding himself with the best people doing the best possible work. In his once right Gabe was an enigmatic individual who is hugely talented, and I would say hugely empathetic towards helping those around him. There was a time that without his help we wouldn’t be here making the work we are. I was exceptionally lucky to meet such a guy, it was his driving attitude that turned 1265 Degrees North from an idea into a brand.
The coffee shop is one of those spaces where everyone sits on a level playing field, in all honesty you never know who you might meet or what you might achieve with them. I was once in a coffee shop locally that has really contemporary furniture and I thought to myself this is a great place to photograph my ceramics, so I went up to the lad on the bar and asked if I could take some photos and he agreed. I was quickly busing myself with taking photos as a chap called Chris Erskine approached me, Chris was having a meeting with someone else and as I later discovered he has an unparalleled belief in the human spirit. Chris was one of the first people to offer me as an artist financial support, working on behalf of a philanthropist it was his help that allowed me to quit my job and focus solely on the work. It really wasn’t the money that was the most valuable thing that I got from Chris, his fundamental drive seemed to be to build networks of makers, artists & performers right across the country. Networks that in their essence are creative, and he always said to me that it doesn’t matter if you fail. It is better to believe in people and to support the inventiveness of the human endeavour.
Along the journey it was always the coffee shop that was the bedrock of opportunity, I have met hundreds of people all looking to work together interdisciplinary and collaboratively for the benefit of all.
Intermezzo was the last coffee shop that I frequented and of them all it was the one that I least enjoyed the coffee at, it wasn’t making the fruity acidic coffee that seemed to be trend. It made dark Italian style coffee that has for years been the traditional coffee of the coffee aficionado. Its where I found more of a grounding, where I would say that I made some real life long friends, some of which I am not inexplicably linked to today both in life and business. It was also the coffee shop that I found to have the greatest affinity with.
It wasn’t an easy journey at Intermezzo, between those who found me to be endearing and those who found me to be ‘a bit intense’ there was a great balance of dialogue that was encouraging and critical. Intermezzo was about the people, the people that frequented the place and those who worked there. They were a really eclectic bunch and most of them -as you find a lot in the service industry- hugely over qualified, genuinely talented and authentic. A Newcastle staple for 15 years Intermezzo closed its doors forever in 2016, and I found myself moving on from being a bar fly in the local coffee shops and beginning to think a lot bigger.
Rachel was the manager at Intermezzo, she was the daughter of a world renowned luthier and although I never actually found out what her mum did I knew from meeting her that she had a real spirit of endurance in a way that was supremely enlightening. It was rare to find Rachel or her mum without a huge smile even when they received the worst of news.
Rachel always seemed to have this oddly rigid belief in me, I think she saw something of herself & her fathers toil as luthiers in my own spirit and I think she found both a comfort and fear in that. At the time I was working out of a studio up in the middle of Northumberland it was incredibly beautiful place but it was also incredibly lonely. It was from this location that I managed to do a great deal of work that really has lead to the creation of what I have achieved today. It was also from that location that I had the biggest disasters.
I was approximately £36,000 in debt to restaurants right across the country that I had promised work to, through a series of bad luck, and lack of experience I found myself unable to find a path through. Paul Brown who I mentioned earlier on in the story had a steadfast attitude to this even when I sat in a room at Continental Chef Supplies and said its all gone to shit -there is no plan! Say what you want about Continental Chef Supplies being owned by a multi billion pound FTSE 100 company the people that drive this business have retained their footing in the neighbourhoods they grew up in. Paul and his team have never lost their faith and belief that this partnership would work, even when they were receiving daily phone calls from clients cancelling their orders of my product. It was in this dire moment that Rachel came into her own, I was kicked out of my studio in Northumberland to move way for another business and with £36,000 of work outstanding I found myself without a kiln, without a studio and with all of my equipment in a hired shipping container.
Refuge was found in the way of the Sunderland University National Glass Centre. I was trying to make hundreds and hundreds of plates, bowls and beakers as students & staff negotiated me in the most accommodating way possible. The amount of rules I broke to get the work out was incredible, and both the staff and students at the Glass Centre were exceptionally accommodating right until the final hour. Its fair to say that we had our ups and but we survived. Why did the put up with me? It certainly wasn’t my charm, they weren’t fooled by this at any point, in all honesty it was entirely Rachel. She was single handedly building real relationships with the people around me at the glass centre, while also making the work, managing the work, motivating me to work and making sure I ate! She is an unbeatably talented person and I can honestly say that it is Rachel who defines in the most honest way possible what it is about human beings that makes our species so remarkable.
The most talented hands in South Korea.
After driving around Newcastle for nights and nights on end looking for a new location set up in I saw a small sign on the bottom of a roller shutter door down a back lane in Ouseburn. I had all but give up the search for somewhere to set up shop and then this gift was handed to me. I rang up the landlord in the morning to have it confirmed that the unit was empty and that he was looking for a tenant. This building was from the outside incredibly run down but for me it had all the makings of a diamond in the rough, outside walls contained a certain intangible quality that got me fixated on the building.
A spark of indifference and a signature later I had a space, an old car garage in a building built in 1926 as the first apprentices school in Newcastle. The building was very much a diamond in the rough as it contained so many tales, rumours and sentences beginning with ‘did yee nah…’
Did yee nah that the steel that forms the super structure of the building was manufactured in Middlesborough around 1926, the steel is so over specification that there is very little chance it was brought all the way from Middlesborough for a building like it is. As the rumour has it, the steel is actually off cuts from the Tyne Bridge which was also build around the same time, now we can’t be certain but if I was a betting man I would say there is a fair chance its true.
Nostalgia is great, but it really does not pay the bills and the looming problem was that there was still a lot of work to make and all I had was an empty and exceptionally damp car garage with a handful of lights and sockets.
Rachel wasn’t the only friendship I had struck up at Intermezzo, I had surprisingly found myself dating a girl called Geffen, oddly I had already met her brother months before as he gave me a hug and missed his bus home. I also knew far more of her family than I had previously anticipated as nearly all of them were patrons to Intermezzo, anyway Geffen wasn’t exactly known for her charity when it comes to offers of dates but this time and after a tense 3 day wait she agreed to a date. Possibly she found my approach eccentric enough to probe her curiosity as I was dragged down Black Friars Lane pulled by a Bernese Mountain Dog called Barnaby immediately after having given her my number.
Me, Rachel, Geffen & Mike set out with our mission statement. Dilapidated warehouse to Intermezzo style coffee shop & ceramic studio!
I was working with the Crafts Council at the time as I had been accepted onto their Hot House Programme for up and coming makers, this meant a lot of different things but crucially to the tale it meant that my senses were primed for grabbing an opportunity if it came my way. The opportunity that did come my way was from the most unlikely of origins, a message on instagram from a South Korean lad called Jun Rhee. If any of you have ever received a message out of the blue on instagram or on any other social media format you know that the chances of it coming off are pretty low. The chances of you being one of those social media success stories is about as likely and depressing as A MILLION TO ONE by Jimmy Charles & The Revelletts (1960).
At first I ignored the message from this South Korean lad, I thought as I did with Paul Brown that it was more likely to be something that would lead to nothing rather than a defining moment in my practice, or my business. After a couple of weeks trying my hardest to get an order completed, I found myself procrastinating in the most mundane way, updating my Instagram account, I decided to take a closer look at Juns Instagram to find that I had been approached by probably one of the most talented ceramicists that was out there.
Jun and I exchanged some messages in broken english, and it seemed like this lad was exceptionally determined and focused with his work. Jun happened to be in Ireland studying English as part of a trip he had organised post university to see different parts of the world and he had taken an especially close interest in Europe. Asai has a very particular take on ceramics, each crafts person will specialise in one particular style or form and they will repetitively learn that form. They don’t believe in blind creativity without bounds, they believe that craft has been refined over thousands of years and to be contemporary is to make subtle marks that are none traditional. These marks are part of a puzzle that span generations of crafts people and it is histories job to innovate as part of the whole rather than a single individual. Craft is fundamentally linked to purpose, utility and a constant refinement of process. Ceramics is a very special process, unlike most other materials you are dealing with something changes state from earth to rock. You are giving permanence to a material that is malleable and ephemeral. You are making something more like a ghost of its former self, and to do that is to make an unchangeable mark on history.
The first time that I met Jun was at Newcastle Airport, I got him a flight to come across from Ireland and see what we were up to. At the time Jun had a razor sharp fine hair cut, a military jacket from when he did his national service in South Korea and he had a black military style rucksack that he kept all of his belongings in. We drove across Newcastle to the Industrial unit that I had taken on which later became our HQ. At the time the completely derelict space was exceptionally damp and had no natural light, there was my old 25 year potters wheel and the boxed up contents of my pottery in the corner. I said to Jun, this is my pottery welcome! At this point even Jun -who is famed for his optimism- looked around with a hesitant look on his face and gingerly said “okay”.
Jun sat down at the potters wheel and started to throw with the little clay that I had left, he wasn’t very good to start with, and he continued to be not very good. He couldn’t really understand what was going on, and I thought that my fears had come true and this guy wasn’t all that he said he was. After an hour he had started to improve dramatically, and then he looked at me and said “does this wheel turn the opposite way”? Turns out that the vast majority of potters throw the opposite way in South Korea. More interestingly they throw in one direction and turn in the opposite direction, this is not something that I’ve ever seen western potters do.
After a couple of hours on the wheel Jun and completely accustomed himself to throwing in the opposite direction to the way that he was used to. This in terms you will readily understand is like someone who is a right handed writer learning how to write to the same speed and degree of accuracy as a left handed writer. The speed at which Jun had managed to completely change his working method was the indicator that I needed to know that he was exceptionally talented. It only took another hour for Jun to have demonstrated his skill further by throwing 120 identical sugar bowls.
At the time as I mentioned a little while ago I had a great deal of work outstanding and no idea what to do about it, in a period of 2 weeks we managed to throw 2700 peices, and make 2500 porcelain feathers for another commission that I had taken.
Everyone joined in at some point down the line, most of the guys who had worked at Intermezzo came and helped rolling porcelain and cutting out feathers. It was a mad dash where we worked from 8am-10pm on the potters wheel every day. the amount of work that we had produced in such a small space of time was incredibly.
I had managed to get some scrap kilns from a website of a salvage company, they only fired up to 1000°c which is all I needed. We fired up all of the work to bisque, hired and a van and reversed it into the unit. It took 3 days to pack the van properly, and it was a shock that we actually managed to get everything to fit in. We actually ended up building our own wooden frames into the back of this hire van. Once all of the ceramics was in the van we then started to load of the glaze materials, most glaze materials are white, most glaze materials are a fine powder, and most glaze materials come in clear plastic wraps with brown tape around them. So here in this derelict industrial unit in the middle of the night with blue tinted strip lights lighting up the concrete floor there was 4 unemployed people surrounding a transit van with all the doors open with 100kg of white powder bags all divided up into nice 5kg wraps. It was certain to say that I was fairly thankful that the police infrequently visited the area, as it would have taken a little bit of explaining.
The ferry to Amsterdam, we had timed everything perfectly apart from the small fact that when you have a transit van full of only partially fired ceramics the speed in which you can drive is limited! In fact on the way to North Shields to catch a quickly departing ferry we had been driving so slowly that we had created so much traffic that it actually appeared on google maps as a red area -avoid at all costs- right down the coast road. We arrived at the Ferry, gingerly drove the van into its final resting position and breathed a momentary sigh of relief. At this point we all agreed to meet at the top of the ferry at the ‘mermaid bar’! This was the point in which a series of unfortunate events started to befall me, and something that would continue for the next 10 days. A combination of tiredness and bad fortune resulted in some silly incidents, of which Geffen used as her core motivating force for continuing the 15 hour shifts.
Geffen once took a taxi journey in the dead of night from an airpot in Tel Aviv to her uncles house in the suburbs. After this long 5 hour flight Geffen, Esti, Guada & Nettah packed themselves into the back of her uncles car to make the relatively short 30 minute journey. A short journey is sometimes all that is needed for a crescendo of tiredness to then start to affect our limbs in ways that could be predictable as a feeling but less predictable as a resulting moment. Being crushed in the back of this car Nettah started to feel a numbing in his left leg, not an unordinary feeling when pushed into a small space. The car pulled up to its destination and everyone started to get out, as Nettah opened the door he took one step outside of the taxi, stood up to his full length and immediately took a swift and rigid felling from vertical to horizontal, not a single muscle or bone adjusted in his body to break his fall instead like a giant redwood unceremoniously being chainsawed to the ground he fell with all gravity and force to the concrete pavement. As he regained a small sense of self, and possibly hoping for someone to at least attempt to rush to his aid, he was instead faced with his sister curled up on the ground only a few feet away. One might think that possibly Geffen had suffered the same fate, but no Geffen had found the event so hysterically funny that she was unable to control her body instead choosing to lye on the ground and roll around in a fit of insatiable laughter. Therefore when I found myself also being the victim of various moments of personal injury I was also faced with the same sympathetic caring person helping me to regain my feet.
Although Jun was unable to actually help us with the outstanding work due to visa restrictions there wasn’t anything stopping him from being part of the entire experience with us from start to finish. This position as an observer allowed him to see the real pressingly stressful result of starting up a craft business, oddly he didn’t seem at all deterred, instead quietly enthusiastic. I was making my way up to the top deck of the ship to meet Geffen and Jun the weather was grey and overcast -like every time I have used a ferry- I was walking up the final steps when I felt the oddest feeling on the back of my neck. I went to feel what it was and found myself clutching onto an unknown squishy object that was only the size of a pea. As I moved the object around to my view I realised that I had a hold of a wasp that seemed to have been recently deprived of its stinger, something which it had graciously left in the back of my neck. I wasn’t really thinking all that much as I threw the wasp over deck, especially I had completely forgotten that there were several decks below me and I had rather terribly thrown this disoriented little creature straight into the face of a passenger below! I had become so confused by what to do next that I went to furiously look for Jun and Geffen. Several things happened at this point that involved 5 different members of the crew, 3 different areas of the ship and Geffen of course in hysterical laughter, but I digress!
Our trip to Amsterdam was incredibly exhausting, frustrating and rewarding. We worked alongside a Dutchman in a tiny village that really exemplified the phrase ‘cottage industry’ as each house in had some sort of large warehouse style shed bolted onto its backside, and permanently filled with a hive of activity. We worked from 6am through until 11pm for 10 days consecutively, we found a real kinship with Rob and his wife who really kept us going for the trip. I found the Dutch pragmatism and sense of humour to be one of the most uplifting spirits I had encountered in a culture. With Rob and his state of the art Blaauw kilns there was never a problem, simply a conversation, a resulting solution and then consistent results. His knowledge, along with his friend Anton in my mind represents a certain authority on both firing techniques and glaze chemistry. Their help was invaluable!
We returned to the North East and we had a full van of ceramics, a complete order book that we were now going to deliver. As the van was on hire we sent no time at all making sure that our clients were finally going to get their ceramics. As the ferry docked in North Shields we drove immediately off the ferry and hit the road, aiming to deliver to all of our customers in one go. Our ceramics fully hardened we were now able to drive at speed. I put my foot to floor to go straight across to the Lake District, we made it across to the Lake district in a couple of hours and through hell fire and fury we dropped off the ceramics and hit the road again heading across to Sheffield. Dropping off in Sheffield we spent no delay in then getting back in the van and heading back up the country towards Newcastle, we dropped off to another 5 restaurants on the way and arrived back in the North East with a remaining order for our distributor Continental Chef Supplies and 2,500 porcelain feathers for our final customer. We had set out to succeed in the face of real challenge and with a few hiccups along the way we found ourselves just about above water.
There was no real celebration, often you find that these stories end with everyone having a raving celebration, but in all honesty we were just thankful to get to sleep. I think after that we all slept for days, in truth it was really just the beginning of the hard challenge.
We now were faced with an empty industrial unit in Newcastle of which we had to somehow turn into a pottery, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar …in truth we didn’t have a plan, we just had the rent to pay for and we just to hold onto our seats and come up with a plan as quickly as we possibly could.