Walter Keeler


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Potter Walter Keeler has been working in clay for over forty years and during that time his work has ranged from stoneware and raku to earthenware. His forms are equally various, with an early interest in sculptural pieces gradually being replaced by strictly functional pots and he now says, ‘If the pots could not be used I would not bother making them.’ However his functional pots are rarely straightforward and many have a strong ornamental element with often witty, unexpected details. They bridge the gap between practical domestic pottery and fine-art orientated ceramics – they are beautifully made studio pottery pieces but with highly innovative and contemporary forms.

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Why were you originally drawn to ceramics?

When I first went to Harrow School of Art aged 16 I had no intention of becoming a potter and was meant to be studying commercial art (now known as graphic design). However we all had an opportunity to do a craft and I chose pottery as it seemed to fit in with my interest in archaeology – I spent lots of my childhood mudlarking on the Thames, searching for pottery shards and looking at historical pots at the British Museum and other museums. My pottery teacher was Victor Margrie and I found his classes so compelling that after a couple of weeks I knew that that was what I really wanted to do.

What are your sources of inspiration?

I have always been interested in European – rather than Oriental – ceramics, particularly lead-glazed earthenware and salt-glazed ware. I have spent a lot of time in gallery 37 at the V&A looking at their collections of 18th- and 19th-century European ceramics and have also been lucky enough to handle some of their pots. I am particularly interested in early industrial ceramics, especially white salt-glazed stonewares, tortoiseshell Whieldon and Staffordshire ware. But I also look at objects in other materials like Roman glass vessels or metal containers such as tin oil cans and milk churns.

Why are you so interested in making functional pots?

Functional objects speak to me as vividly as any other man made object and I don’t agree with the notion that because a functional pot has a place in the domestic environment it can’t therefore have the same standing as an object made by a fine artist. I believe a functional pot can transcend its function. I make them as I enjoy the intimacy with which they engage with people’s lives – people pick them up, handle them, put them to their lips. It’s a privilege to make things that people respond to in this way. For me the satisfaction is in making objects that speak for themselves and engage directly with the user.

How important do you feel it is to keep your work fresh and how to you go about doing this?

I do feel it’s important to keep things fresh, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I turn my back on old ideas which I still think are valid or worthwhile – there are some shapes that I have been making for 20 years which still excite me. On the whole my new work evolves naturally. For example I might have an idea about a technique or a form and start to pursue it out of curiosity and end up making something completely new – it’s not really a self-conscious process. Occasionally it’s a bit more forced if, say for example, I’m making things for a new show and then I do consciously try to move things on a bit, but the danger is then that you end up making something too contrived.

What do you see are the main tensions in contemporary craft at the moment?

There is an on-going debate about the position of a fine artist as opposed to a craftsmen and whether art is better than craft. I personally think that this is irrelevant and what really matters is what you make – people make things of varying quality and whatever label the maker gives him or herself the objects have to be judged on their own merit. I get very frustrated by people making Art with a capital A rather than something that is inherently good. In the same way I find quite a lot of ceramics installations pretentious. They are just sad echoes of the fine art world and I don’t think potters need to snuggle up to the fine arts in order to get kudos – the reward should be the doing, whatever the audience size.

What advice would you give new makers start out?

Be determined, persistent and stick at it. The thing that matters most of all is your level of determination. During my teaching career I have met many students and the ones who are successful are the ones who are the most determined, not necessarily the ones who are most talented – although it is of course wonderful to be both. Also don’t be afraid to ask questions. The great thing about the British pottery world is that there is a great community of potters who are all happy to share their knowledge and offer encouragement. Enjoy the community and become part of it.