Organic FormA visit to the studio of sculptor Peter Hayes
‘We often put pieces in the river,’ Peter says, showing us a piece finished in iron and copper, left in the river for about six weeks, which has developed an earthy, iridescent patina. ‘I like working that way, making something then letting nature take over.’
Peter Hayes is a prolific artist, who pursues his natural affinity for ceramics with gusto, and employs a life’s worth of skill inventively. His Bath studio is in one of four, grade II listed Georgian toll houses on Cleveland Bridge, over the River Avon. At street level, passers by can peer through the windows’ cloudy glass to discern the rounded forms of his sculptures. Down in a small courtyard by the river, Peter is sometimes visible, headphones on, lump of clay in hand, lost in his work.
Inside, the studio is light-filled, with a deceptive number of sculptures huddling around the edges. Peter is an archaeology enthusiast, and creates surfaces which reference time and erosion. He works in shapes which evoke standing stones, totems, blades and arrow heads, as well as circles, which he describes as ‘a happy shape’. He grew up knowing the work of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, recognising them as inherent influences, but most admires Isamu Noguchi. ‘I think it’s the combination of Japanese philosophy and American brashness’, he says. ‘He had a wonderful sensibility, and a brave, can do attitude’.
Peter works with his son Justin, which he finds ‘remarkable,’ laughing that he must be a difficult man to work with. He jokes that Justin is still an apprentice, although they have worked together since 1995. When we arrive, Justin is setting up the kiln. Peter explains they are doing a raku firing, and that we can expect lots of smoke.
Represented by galleries in India, Dubai, Netherlands, the United States and the UK, Peter has travelled and worked all over the world, including in Japan, Korea, Africa and India. ‘For me, travel is an essential part of being an artist’, he says. ‘I’ve learned techniques from other artisans all over the world’. At the moment, his love is India, where collectors set up a studio for him in Udaipur, Rajasthan, six years ago. During the British winter, when the cold soon seeps into the riverside studio, this is where Peter escapes to work for eight to ten weeks at a time.
His love of travel took hold when he visited Africa. Intending to visit for 18 months, he stayed for 10 years, and worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat, coordinating craft development. ‘They gave me a Land Rover and two horses, and I travelled through the mountains, working with the local people’, he says. ‘It was wonderful, a job of jobs. The women make huge tswala pots, and dance around them with great coils of clay over their shoulders. It was a humbling experience, and I did more learning than teaching. To make a pot, they go to the river, pick up a pebble and scrape some clay from the bank. I loved the simplicity of it. When I returned to the UK I ripped up my reference books and recipes; now I work very simply’.
‘Now, I work in complete mayhem’, he warns, as he leads us downstairs to the rest of the studio. ‘I never work on one thing at a time.’ On the next floor, tools hang from every inch of wall space. When asked about their purpose, Peter replies good naturedly that they’re for doing stuff. ‘Whatever stuff I’m doing, in theory, I have a tool for it’, he says. ‘Sometimes I spend half an hour searching and I end up using a bent nail. I love making tools myself, which is part of being a sculptor, I suppose.’
The window is wedged wide open with a broom handle, overlooking the smooth, green water of the Avon. ‘We often put pieces in the river,’ Peter says, showing us a piece finished in iron and copper, left in the river for about six weeks, which has developed an earthy, iridescent patina. ‘I like working that way, making something then letting nature take over.’ He goes out in a friend’s boat, hiding pieces along the three mile stretch of river, and estimates there are currently about 10 pieces in the water. ‘When I first started I had maps and I thought I knew where everything was, but you always forget! The boatmen sometimes find my pieces for me, which is quite funny. If you’re not careful, you make a piece and it just goes into a gallery to be sold. But it’s important to enjoy it for itself and to have fun in the process.’
Peter attended art school in Birmingham in 1961, but not to study ceramics. ‘I did graphics,’ he explains. ‘I hated graphics, loathed it. Instead I used to sneak into the ceramics department. Nobody knew I was there, so I had complete freedom.’ This unimpeded initiation into the medium aligns with Peter’s instinctive way of working, which leaves no room for hesitation or doubt: ‘I’m a great believer in making mistakes and learning in a direct way. The art of making is doing, and the joy of making with clay is it’s a fundamental, inexpensive material. I’m not a perfectionist at all. In fact, I’m anti perfectionist’.
On the lowest level of the studio, Justin has been preparing for the raku firing. They are using the broken pieces of a pre-fired totem form, which will eventually be pieced back together, like an archaeological find. Justin plunges each piece from the kiln into a wheelbarrow of sawdust in the courtyard, producing billows of thick smoke, as promised. The process of local reduction starves the copper of oxygen. Next, they will throw on water to lower the temperature in jolts, causing different colours to occur. Later, the charred surfaces will be ground down to reveal the colours trapped in the clay.
Peter uses clays from all over the world for their different properties, and digs his own from Bath’s canal paths. ‘Navvies in the 1790s used to dump tonnes of puddle clay every third of a mile in case the bank collapsed,’ he tells us. ‘It’s still on the surface, so every so often I dig up a couple of bucketfuls. It’s over 200 years old, so it’s weathered and full of grass, but I don’t clean it, I use it as it is.’ He picks up a small, unfinished piece from a bench and turns it over in his hands, continuing, ‘It’s very rough but it’s nice to handle, like a pebble. Its tactile qualities are very important. I work in opposites, so if I use crude canal clay, I might put smooth, translucent porcelain alongside it. It’s the ying and yang thing’.
Not wanting to divulge Peter’s supply without permission, I ask if I can share the story about the canal clay. ‘Anybody that’s stupid enough to work the way I do, I would encourage it!’ he laughs. ‘Anybody that wants to copy me, they’re very, very welcome.’ He appears somewhat bashful entertaining this possibility. Peter is a little ying and yang himself – exuberant yet modest, earnest but full of humour.