Featured Maker: Kathy Valks - Belly Fire Pottery
Posted on 07 September 2017
Hi, I'm Kathy Valks. I call myself a clay artist, preferring that phrase to the more formal term “ceramicist”.
My love of clay has me using the knowledge, ideas and skills attained over my lifetime. I am at a stage in my life where I am on an immense discovery tour with clay.
What inspires or influences you?
Ideas for my work constantly change. I am the ultimate daydreamer. Inspiration is drawn from memories that have evoked emotion from within, or from the forms and textures of natural, found objects I see in my present environment. I then set out to find ways to express these qualities in my clay creations.
I am fortunate to live near a beautiful beach where basalt rock is in abundance. Every day I go out into my garden or down to the beach to find timber, coral, sea forms, or whatever comes my way, and take it home to work from or, indeed, with.
I see the basalt as natures sculptures and I visualise their unique ocean-tumbled forms remoulded into bold yet soft round edged clay sculptures.
I see delicate broken shell pieces with the surviving interior spine giving strength and durability to its remains. I relate this to the human bone structure, where both are vulnerable and have intrinsic detailed construction.
Coral forms washed up on the beach provide wonderful inspiration as there are so many variations created by each and every tiny sea animal often using pieces of broken coral to create their homes.
I see amazing white sculptures I can replicate with clay. Brain coral and calcified sea worms are plentiful on my local beach so I am constantly spoilt for choice of inspiration.
The washed up sea forms provided the concept of a series of work I call ‘Sea and Believe’. I have created white clay forms of coral, shells and sea urchins.
What keeps you motivated?
Mixed in with these local finds and creations are reminders of my travels to different parts of Australia . Memories of a trip to Wilsons Promontory 2009 after a bush fire remain with me. Earlier this year I found myself reflecting on the darkness and stillness, the seemingly lack of life in the burnt out landscape. Imagine a black and white photograph with the colours of amber and red evident where life was heat affected though not charred.
"Everyday I live
to play with clay"
I have created a series of works I call my “OKA” range. This series consisted of wheel thrown forms in the shape of ceremonial urns and were based on the flight over central Australia and area I lived as a child , a place I recall where the soil and dust storms of the desert would totally alter the landscape in a moment, I call it my “heartland” the sand blown red colour of the earth, with the parched and cracked soils of a land waiting silently for the first drink bought by rare rains.
How did you find your niche?
I have never been formally trained but I do have a passion to explore historical techniques and traditional glazes.
My clay pieces are sinuous, organic-looking, tactile, and sometimes whimsical . There are teapots that I have produced with huge ceramic loops for handles, spoons that are oversized or look like fish, fig-shaped vases, large sculptures of coral forms, unusual bowl shapes based on turtle bones found on my many walks along Bargara Beach.
I am extremely influenced by the light and shadows that stream into my studio which quite often add to creative inspiration. I often reflect on past forms and return again and again to play with them in my work.
My style of work is freer these days. No longer do I strive for the perfectly symmetrical sculpture or vessel, more visual balance. I have developed a confidence with age to grant myself freedom to approach the works I’ve known to be within me and giving them permission to be born. My current work is all about creating ceramic pieces that appeal to me and not necessarily the rest of the universe.
Tell us about your technique - what materials do you use?
Constantly I am aware of nature and change and often reach for inspiration from other sources and other cultures. My work is at times quite textural in the surface treatment with inclusion of other materials such as leather, timber or other fibres.
Creating my ceramic work comprises a combination of using the pottery wheel and hand building to achieve a harmonious balance in the final piece. I am constantly experimenting with glaze and pigment materials to achieve the perfect finish for each piece. If something doesn’t work, I am not discouraged. I learn from it and pursue a better outcome.
Variable facets determine the techniques I use to produce ceramic pieces. Choices of clay types, wheel thrown or hand built forms or a combination of both are employed. Decorative slips, glazes and firing techniques all contribute to produce individuality.
The visualised end product determines my choices of technique to use, although my visualised outcome can also change as the vessel dictates. My specific choice of clay depends mostly on its versatility and application. For sculptured forms I lean toward open bodied clays for texture, strength and workability.
For instance, using Feenies Raku gold for its texture and warmth (depending on the firing). Raku clays for sculptural work have a quality and firing range like no other clays. They are very versatile when used for hand building sculptural forms. Walkers Superior white clay is also high on my selection of all available clays. I love its movement and strength, chosen mainly for wheel thrown work. The purity of its colour and its unique ability to create super fine walls give the appearance of a floating cloud yet at the same time exhibits amazing strength.
The appearance of the form is a visual contradiction. Magill terracotta is also high on my list of preference as it offers much flexibility whether applying as a slip or used as the principal material for hand built or wheel thrown creations.
Many a time I have dug my own red volcanic clay that is endemic to the Bundaberg region. The clay is sieved through several mesh screens depending on my intended use. This clay is used to make decorative slips or sculptures but not suitable for wheel thrown work. I add white river sand to open the clay body and be ready for use.
My ceremonial vessels involve using a process of white slips with sodium silicate and a burner over Magill terracotta clay to form a skin layer to my vessel. The vessel is then bisque fired, pigments are applied and then placed into a pit fire. Once the vessel has cooled from the firing process I apply a gas torch to the pot which closely reflects the parched earth with an ash and basalt rock texture.
Do you teach as well as make?
I am also passionate about sharing with others the knowledge and skills that allow them to express their own creativity with clay.
I run pottery classes Monday to Thursday each week. Some are beginners classes, some intermediate level classes and one quite special to me is a group of men I call my lifestyle class. These men require carers to be with them day and night due to various medical conditions. The challenges of their varying abilities and behavioural conditions leave me in awe of what they can produce.
Primitive pit firing is a method I like to use and involve students so they can participate in the entire process from the beginnings of a lump of clay to a fired piece of their own creativity. It also teaches the students how organic forms are reflected in the pottery when using organic combustible material in the firing.
Residing in a subtropical beachside location gives me access to materials such as Casuarina leaves, seaweed and the shells from macadamia nuts. These materials are used extensively in this firing process. The macadamia shells contain oil that permeates into the clay to create a gloss. The hardwood shell and the oil combine to also give a higher than normal pit fire range.
The students help to build the pit fire kiln and gather around to unload when cooled, usually with a wine or two. I like to keep the teaching environment casual, supportive, friendly and fun.
Over time, the whole studio and gallery have become both a creation and interpretation of the world I am surrounded by. The studio and gallery are filled with not only my pottery but also furniture and art installations made from discarded materials regarded by most to be long past their use by date.
You can find me online at: