‘Getting Started’ by Sylph Baier
Growing up on a small industrial estate in a village in Southern Germany near the Black Forest meant that our toys consisted of a vast selection of wood off cuts from the joinery next door, large polystyrene slabs from a packaging company and access to my father’s factory which had a room full of hundreds of drawers filled with washers, nuts and bolts, screws, drill bits and other obscure goodies. Baden Wuerttemberg is the county of poets and thinkers and also the county of precision engineering, the finest un-exported wines, strip farming and the base for the best car manufacturers. The balance of logistics and leisure seems to be at home there in the lush fertile valleys of the river Neckar.
My friends and I would spend our days finding, inventing and making, from dandelion salads, dressed with mechanical hacksaw lubrication fluid to polystyrene floats for excursions on the river behind our small metal fabrication factory. Our favourite play-den was the boiler room in the cellar of the house which was filled with hundreds of wood-offcuts from the joinery, which got transformed into highways and buildings and whatever else caught our imagination.
When I was about eight, dad offered me to earn some pocket money by being his assistant in the office, typing out bank transfers and more importantly in his wonderful small factory, where he would build me special jigs and put me on an old wooden box so I could reach the pillar drill where with a little acquired skill I would drill assembly holes for beds and chairs. I was paid a few pence per item and had my first brush with piece work. The mesmerising effect of the drill piece protruding metal and shaving of spirals was a sensuous experience and the rhythm of the job was my first encounter with meditation, something I feel when throwing batches of pots now and what gives me continuous pleasure and a feeling of being grounded.
My first encounter with clay came when I was twelve and I just got myself a sack of clay from the local pottery and started to model my grandfather’s head and make very suggestive pre-adolescent objects for burning incense.
The sensual qualities of the material seduced me into wanting to do an apprenticeship as a potter. My ancestors were a colourful mix of glass blowers from Austria, gardeners, farmers, seamstresses, coopers and distillers and my father had trained as a mill builder in the 1930s, so it followed that I would do an apprenticeship too, widening the pallet of family skills, as a potter.
I left school at fifteen, having taken my O levels a year early and when my father’s business got caught up in the recession of the 1970s, there was little choice for further studies, apart from taking up an offer of doing an apprenticeship in window dressing in the next town, which would pay me a small wage, as well as giving me training.
This was in a beautiful porcelain and glass shop called “Kachel”, where for three years, I displayed the finest European glass and ceramics, from Waterford, Wedgwood to Rosenthal and Deruta.
The burning question of how ceramics was made and wanting to be part of that magical, transformative process had to be quenched, and a big world out there opened her doors after finishing my exams with a distinction, turning down a scholarship to study advertising and packing my bags for England to spend a year as an au pair with auctioneers at Layer Marney tower in Essex where I was exposed to the most beautiful objects, from small items to furniture.
By then my mind was set to be a potter and a chance meeting at a party stopped me from moving to La Borne in Southern France. I moved to Wales instead and took up an offer to start an apprenticeship with Pru Green at Gwili Pottery in Carmarthenshire.
Pru has trained dozens of people and about half a dozen of them are still earning their living from making pots. She herself is still potting now and lives in Kelvedon in Essex, specializing in finely painted high fired earthenware with sgraffito decorations.
With her encouragement, I chose a vocational course in Carmarthen and benefited from numerous professionals who came in for three-day lectures. I always felt and still do, that a dual education system of workshop practice and college is the best preparation for being out in a competitive market and becoming a professional.
College was such a treat after working forty-hour weeks from the age of fifteen onwards. It felt like an incredible privilege being able to indulge in all the wonderful equipment there and I got into high fire reduction glazes, mainly copper reduction and chun glazes.
It took a couple of years to get my first gas kiln through a loan and it was still hard to decide what to make. I wanted to earn a living and the work to appeal to a wide market and all age groups. The work was supposed to be accessible and humorous, tactile and easily understood and so in collaboration with my then partner Graham Evans ‘The Storm in a teacup range’ was born. Many other ranges followed during the next fifteen years and life was just a blur, working many hours, fulfilling orders and enjoying being part of an artists’ co-operative in the centre of Brighton, my new home.
It was an exciting period, as the variety of fellow makers and artists from blacksmiths to printmakers provided a rich and stimulating home to grow in. Somehow though the treadmill led, like in so many cases, to burn out and mid-life crisis struck. After a short stint in Paris and travels in Australia, getting stuck in an opal mine in the middle of the desert in Queensland, I gave it some thought were the second part of my life should lead to, and after a few months of doing food styling on film sets, driving vans and moving my workshop into my back garden, I decided that my marriage to clay had survived mid-life crisis and that we should continue our relationship until death would us part.
It was then, that the phoenix rose from the ashes and ‘The Storm in a teacup’ got transformed into the ‘LIFT’ range.
These days life has calmed down a lot and so have the pots. The search for balance is ever present but never easy as the passionate racehorse of wants has to be harnessed and guided by living life more consciously and having a family late in life meant that a different pallet of wonderful experiences has entered into every day routines.
Being custodian of an ancient ex-mill and 4 hectares of land and animals as well as developing this place according to permaculture principles, creating new ranges and offering training and a place to recharge is an exciting and rewarding continuation of working as a potter in the 21st century.
It is with gratitude of all that is happening at any given moment, one continues to be part of this amazing planet whirling us in and out of season.