Artist on File: Jo Atherton

This month we learn more about our Web Guru Jo Atherton, following Clare Kendal Bate's visit to her studio at Fairlands Valley Farmhouse.

Jo Atherton recently celebrated her 33rd birthday and in my eyes leads a utopian and enviable lifestyle; renovating a quaint cottage, throwing pots and belonging to a commune of artists working from an old farmhouse.  Jo has discovered her true passion in life in the creative art of ceramics.

On a sunny day in March, I visited Jo at her studio at Fairlands Valley Farmhouse, a collective of 12 artists in Stevenage.  The rambling building was once the farmhouse to the surrounding land, dating back to the Tudor period; it is now part of the Digswell Arts Trust, of which Jo is a Fellow.

Originally from Harpenden, Jo achieved a BA (Hons) in English Lit at King Alfred’s College, Winchester and graduated in the summer of 2001.  Jo then went on to take a Masters in Cultural and Critical Studies at the University of London, which she completed in 2004. This was the time when the internet was really taking off, and after considering her career path, Jo decided she would teach herself webpage design and editing.  ‘I learnt as I went along and as the internet developed, I qualified by experience’.

Over the next decade, it was in this capacity that she worked for BAFTA , UCL, The British Library, Girl Guiding and Cancer Research UK. ‘As much as I enjoyed web work, I wanted to use my hands and missed interacting with people.I found that the speed of the online world was increasing faster and faster, and before long, the rush of London became too tiring and not as satisfying.  I now volunteer as the Online Media Consultant for HVA, still keeping my hand in the web world, but sharing my experience and insights now from the point of view as an artist.’ 

Jo recently returned to Hertfordshire after a 3 year stint living in Kentish Town and working in the City. Her other half is a lecturer in Geography at UCL and this is where they met 8 years ago. With an increasing fascination for ceramics, Jo took the step of renting a studio in Ladbroke Grove near Portobello Road, where artists’ workshops had been created under the A40. ‘I would go up there after I’d finished work for the day. It was so noisy and with the sound of thousands of cars overhead; it was not a relaxing and creative environment for me.’  A more peaceful existence beckoned when they fell in love with a cottage built in 1600, in Harrold, North Bedfordshire, which they are now happily renovating.

Part of the jigsaw that led Jo to become a potter came about in 2006, when she travelled to China for six weeks to teach English. Based in Xian, she taught the tour guides at the Terracotta Army site and it was at this point she began to realise how much of an interest she had in ceramics.  ‘I was fascinated by a craft that people have being doing for thousands of years and wanted to have a go myself.’ 

Jo longed to learn how to use the potter’s wheel, so took an evening class at Oaklands College in St Albans, taught by Marlene Tanti.  Jo was a natural at throwing pots and decided to follow her heart and commit herself to becoming full time artist. She remained great friends with Marlene and it was through her that Jo discovered Digswell Arts Trust and is now a fellow artist with Marlene at the commune.  Jo also has a potter’s wheel at home on which she is dedicating her time to the practice of throwing tall cylinder pots.

I find it incredible that Jo has only been a full time potter since May last year. She has developed her skills and is bursting with ideas, producing some lovely work in such a short space of time.

I found the look of Jo’s ‘Barnacle Pots’ very alluring and immediately wanted to handle one. It felt quite delicious to the touch, seeming as if it had been lost at sea and washed ashore, colonised by the sea creatures. The pot is hand thrown on the wheel and then the barnacle shapes are intricately coiled and blended onto the surface. ‘The reason I’m so attracted to working with barnacles is their individuality, despite their apparent similarity at first glance. Each one is different, like the individuality of a snowflake. The little, living entities are each perfectly intricate, latching onto surfaces.’

‘The year of the plant’

Jo is busy pursuing a project this year using seasonal seeds and plants in her ceramic design.  By pressing the seed or leaf in to the clay and bisque firing them the plant matter vaporises, thus leaving a crisp and perfect impression of their form. Jo proposes to record the passing of the seasons in this way utilising flora specific to the area.  ‘I wanted to create a body of work that is tied to the season and place and love experimenting with hedgerow plants, poppy seed heads and ferns’.

I was fascinated to learn that Jo also uses local clays for her work, such as London clay.The recycling of clay also plays an important part of Jo’s ethos. ‘I like to keep an eye out for any earth works going on. I feel a great satisfaction when I can rescue and use perfectly good clay. Knowing it’s the same material the Romans used for their pottery gives me a particular thrill.  All it needs to bring it back to life is to leave it to soak in water to remove any impurities’.

Kilns and Courses and Events

Last summer, Jo took a course down in Devon learning how to construct a wood firing kiln, called an Anagama kiln. After the students built the kiln of brick, 4 metres in depth, they placed their pots on special heat-resistant shelving and they worked in pairs for 3 days on 4 hour shifts feeding the fire to maintain a 1300 degree temperature.  In the spirit of experimentation some dried lavender was thrown inside near the end the firing process. Where this came in contact with the pots, it melted and the colour fused into the surfaces, resulting in an alluring blue pigmentation.

At Fairlands Valley Farm, Jo and a group of potter friends regularly get together for a Raku firing day.  Raku ware is a type of Japanese pottery that is traditionally used in the tea ceremony in Japan, most often in the form of tea bowls. ‘The process isinfluenced by Zen Buddhist philosophy and I thoroughly enjoy the excitement and immediacy of the Raku firing process.’

At the end of September 2011, the collective had their own open studios. ‘It was a wonderful event, with such a diversity of artists working together in one building. We had around 200 people visiting us that day.’ 

Jo certainly commands an energy and commitment to the alchemy of creating beautiful pottery.