The last time I saw Rachel make pots would be at least 25 years ago, and there’s a lot I didn’t see and can’t remember.
She would take the clay from one of the big sodden sacks and I couldn’t see her hands inside, but when I had a go my fingers and nails would scrape against the deadweight clay. It was always cold and damp and gritty and resistant. In spite of that and because of it it was also really nice. Rachel would have found a better way to coax it out, and perhaps she didn’t feel that way.
She would work with the clay a bit to warm it up and then cut a flat round slab to use as a base. Her movements were quite quick and beautiful, practiced and precise. I never saw Rachel lose her patience with clay (she was often impatient otherwise) or fail at something she was trying to do, or fudge something on purpose. Maybe because when I was there she was teaching me.
She would roll coils like you make breadsticks from dough. She’d judge roughly how much she’d need for the first coil and use her fingers and not her palms. Her hands were small, round and pale and very soft and whenever I hear the word “dexterous”, I see footage of them in my mind. Vermeer hands. They were extremely capable with their own intelligence, but they seemed designed for making coils of clay. Her coils would be platonic smooth cylinders – an end in themselves, while mine were bumpy, showing the uneven pressure of my fingers. I used to think (never say) “Fuck it” or whatever 10 year-olds say because of what happened next.
This was to line the first coil neatly round the top outer edge of the base and then smooth the join between the two pieces of clay until they were one. Scraping small, even bits of clay from the coil to the base all the way around. If you scraped too much the structure would be unstable and if you didn’t scrape uniformly it would be uneven.
Then she repeated this according to her design (fat, tall, thin, squat or wavy) all the way up to the top.
Rachel had all kinds of tools in her workshop, some of them purpose-bought, some of them improvised but I only remember two properly. One was a credit card to scrape and shape the pot once she’d done the coils and built the structure. She’d hold the belly of the pot with her left hand the way I hold my toddler children now, occasionally using the fingertips of her right hand to turn it, and scrape in big, firm movements from bottom to top. The other tool was a measuring tape to check dimensions. There was never anything unintentional about the size, form or symmetry of her pots.
I never saw the rest. They had to rest to dry for a while, and then she’d fire them in the kiln. Sometimes accidents would happen in the fire, which could be happy surprises or regrets.
She rarely used coloured glazes so if they survived the kiln the pots would arrive in the world as finished products looking like sun-burnished skin. Toasted raw clay, reddy-golden-brown, with a texture that was sandy and rough (because she loved the clay) but also completely smooth in form (because she’d tamed it enough). Raw and civilised. I loved them and her for that.
No-one asked her about her inspiration or the style, which was something between a classical form and an ultra-modern Japanese sensibility. There were other talented people around and this was only one of many things she did, but in retrospect she was a superpower.”