"The Chase" by Miranda Thomas
The following autobiographical story explains why Miranda Thomas is so inspired by nature and why she continues to paint animals and birds on her pottery.
Whilst I was in my early twenties, I was training to become a professional production potter. I had left Australia to train in an art college in England, just south of London at Farnham in Surrey. It was known for excellence in the crafts. In 1979 I had the incredible opportunity to take a year off from college to work intensively in a small country pottery in Cornwall, down in the deep south west, with Michael Cardew, one of the most famous potters of that time (which is another story).
Whilst learning to make pots in the Cardew tradition (traditional “west country” shaped pots with often , birds, fish and simple plant motifs that emulating the pots Michael had been making since the 1920’s and his year in Africa). I hadn’t had a day off for 4 months when I fell for a handsome talented local farmer, Piers Throssell. He was gorgeous. Any spare time after that was spent romancing up on the wilds of Bodmin Moor.
The Moor was a huge, barren, open, treeless, rocky windswept land, which carried on it the history and early adventures of King Arthur at Dozemary Pool, or Daphne du Maurier’s, Jamaica Inn. It was an incredibly romantic, dramatic place, incredible scenery, and changeable weather. It was such a contrast to the deeply hedged pastoral pottery down the hill in the Camel River Valley at Wenford Bridge. Yet both were equally romantic. During the day I would make pots. Then, whenever my chores were done, I would get up the road somehow (pushing a bike, walking or being picked up in a Landover) up to the moor to help Piers check his hundreds of ewes that were allowed to free roam on their moorland. On horseback, or running on foot, I would help shepherd or lamb his vast flock of black-faced sheep. He taught me to observe; the land, the weather, the dangers of being caught out in it, the animals and the different characters in the sheep. He showed me the cycles, how to coax them through life, from tupping, lambing, good pasturing and butchering. We would fly fish in the streams for tiny trout, taught me how to sneak upstream and tickle sea trout, and hunt pesky starlings or rabbits. Sometimes he would bring in a bunch of starlings he had shot that morning for pie. We would bake it up in the clome oven or on an open spit.
I was swept away by the hard work, sheer magic and romance of it all. My learning curve from being a suburban surf girl from Australia was enormous! I spent the next 6 months torn between potting and farming.
Trying to keep my head, after a year, I had to leave Cornwall and complete my 3rdyear at college, a promise I had made my father. To get my degree, I had to complete a thesis. I decided to return to the Moor to write about the art of the Aboriginals of Australia. As I had grown up in Sydney, I became fascinated by the art I would come across in the bush. I decided to do this whilst spending 3 weeks up on the Moor living as best I could self sufficiently from the food I baked and hunted. This was more a financial decision more than a philosophical one.
Pier’s family, allowed me kindly, to use one of their small stone ancient cottages, in the middle of the moor, on Garrow Tor. Accessible only on foot, about 2 miles deep into the moor, Garrow Cottage, was tucked into the side of the hill. It was built 100’s of years before, out of grey granite just like the surrounding crumbling stonewalls of the smallholding. It looked like it grew out of the earth. It had tiny windows to protect the inhabitants from the relentless wind and driving rains. Inside the cottage it divided in two rooms. The upper room had a huge central stone fireplace with a clome oven, and, the other half was for, as Piers explained, for the animals. The moor farmers would live in one half and in the other half keep their animals. This helped both keep them warm, protected their food, and no doubt they became their companions and entertainment in such a stark place. They would have had cows, chickens sheep and perhaps a goat in the other half of the cottage.
By living in such close proximity to the animals, the simple country farmers “knew“ them closely. They “knew” their animals literally inside and out, their characters especially. They were observing them daily, hourly, living with them, shepherding, butchering, eating, and respecting them. They depicted or talked of the animals in their stories, used their antics to communicate power, lineage, or their own special traits. Just as the Aboriginals of Australia did that I was writing about! When the aboriginals drew a fish, or a roo, they drew the outsides as well as the insides. They used them, and their characteristics to help describe their ancestors, just as in many of the Cornish tales.
This living in the cottage gave me an insight into the medieval potters wares that enraptured me at that time. The pots I admired were simple in directness showing great vitality of form and honest utility. I was struck by the uncomplicated drawing of animals, fish and other symbols that often decorated these pots. The medieval potters often celebrated a good harvest (symbolized by wheat and rabbits) or wished a couple well on a bowl (with lovebirds), or a good hunt (with running stags, rabbits or foxes) on chargers. Those characters, animals they drew, observed, most they probably lived with, hunted and ate. They were not beautiful drawings on the pots, like a Durer print, but bold, quick drawn lines that captured the essence of their character. Often they were running as if in a chase, the animals wily and cunning in their ability to escape. They were depicted in their environment, mating, courting, being hunted down, and surrounded by the trees or flowers in the fields. The rabbits I saw were not cute, they were more like the rabbits I “knew”, that I was hunting, with their wry smiles and great-clawed feet, constantly, smelling out for danger, ready to flee. They drew their horses with overly pronounced muscular hindquarters, as with the stags leaping holding their heads high, or the cunning of the wily foxed sniffing out a hare….
This was a feeling I decided I wanted to capture on my pots. I was tired of seeing other art students busy copying Japanese, Korean motifs, such as bamboo, as it was in fashion at the time copied out of books. I wanted to draw the fish I was pulling from the streams, and the rabbits I was giving chase to. I would take directly what was around me in my OWN environment, to learn more about nature and observation. It would become my own chase.
I started drawing directly onto the pots, no sketching before hand, to capture that essence I felt. I needed to make a lot of pots to practice on, to get fluidity of line, to get that strength of character.
So I made hundreds of pots with swirling trout, starlings, rabbit’s running. I drew endlessly the chase. Foxes and rabbits, horses and trout… I tried trying desperately to capture a feeling of awe when something just stops you in your tracks, to capture its essence, its beauty. . It could be as simple as an open flower, a bird on a branch, or a rabbit hunching down under bracken. I noticed whilst drawing, how the curve in the back of a rabbit fit perfectly within the curve of a jug or vase. That if you changed the direction of it’s glanced it would lead ones eye around a pot. The possibilities became endless! I became so excited! And then I thought, perhaps by using these pots in their daily lives, my customers will in part connect with these small characters, say on a mug, with a black rabbit running, away, or hiding from an imaginary fox, as they drink their coffee…Or marvel at a bird in the tree of life sitting, singing on their plate whilst they ate their meal. Or putting some gorgeous peony in a summer vase, that might have alighting butterflies on it... or a bowl of swirling fish… I began to branch out by drawing the elements; the sun, the moon, the seasons, and how they affect our lives, our observation. Flowers turning to fruit and berries, birds eating them, rabbits and deer running, peonies exploding, sun ripened wheat, snow on pines. So by combining the right shapes, clays, slips, colored glazes and decoration to evoke that special moment has been my quest since those early years in Cornwall. I was on a quest that has fed me for years and still does, to get the feeling right.
Now in Vermont, I sense the same feelings. Although I no longer hunt, I use those skills to observe, watch closely…. the deer, the foxes, the bears, the ermines and snow hares around our home. I feel the 4 seasons strongly and live for the flowers in the garden, meadows and woods. I am getting to know the trees and their growing habits, watch the birds, fly fish, grow perennials cook from the garden and try to make good pots. I am still on my chase.