David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter – The partner potters

“It is out of repetition and the volume and variety of work that sometimes the rare and special pieces emerge.”

(David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter, correspondence January 2011)

Art, said the aphorist Mason Cooley, begins in imitation and ends in innovation. To which must be added the comment of the British master potter Michael Cardew (1901 – 1983) that: “… the artist who is an innovator is also the only true traditional artist…”1 David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter are unashamedly just that… studio potters who honour the traditional precepts of high-fired reduction stoneware yet render and communicate their work in a contemporary language. Their Bukkenburg pottery studio in the historical town of Swellendam in Cape Province is where they give substance to the concept that “art is life and how you live it”… it is a living, working enterprise.

The Bukkenburg studio was founded in 1996 but is preceded by more than 20 years of work in Johannesburg where David and Felicity ran studios in Halfway House, Parkwood and Parkview.

Felicity, born on 2 August 1935 in Benoni, is a first generation South African from a British father and German mother. She attended the Johannesburg Technical College where she took a course in art and commercial art, which included fine art, textile design and sculpture. A few months before graduating, she met Ernst Ullman and abandoning her studies, she started work in his commercial art factory/studio. Earlier, while at college, she worked part-time for Helen de Leeuw in her craft.art shop, The Craftsman’s Market and some years later worked part-time for Penny Le Roy as a lino printer and cutter for her hand-printed fabrics and clothes. After leaving Ullman’s she worked as a commercial artist both in Johannesburg and in Britain.

David is a second generation South African born with both sets of grandparents arriving from Lithuania in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He was born in Johannesburg on 21 July 1953 and spent his early years in Swaziland. After his schooling at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland he worked with children in need of special care in Britain, returning to South Africa in 1972 and in that year met Felicity.

Their first studio came about very much by coincidence. Felicity’s son James was left severely handicapped after a car accident several years earlier and she and David with James and his brothers, moved to Cresset House, a Camphill School and Training Centre for children in need of special care in Halfway House during 1972, where they became house parents and very involved in the vegetable garden and bakery. They were asked by the management of the school to consider becoming involved in the establishment of a pottery workshop at the school which was being proposed as a therapeutic and training activity and even a source of income for the residents and possibly the school. David was enrolled for a few classes with Gordon Wales, a founder member of the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), at his teaching studio in Parktown North, Johannesburg.

When James’ brothers contracted German measles and to minimise the risk of infection of some pregnant members of staff, the family was asked to temporarily move out of the school. Free from her time-consuming responsibilities at the home, Felicity approached the studio potter Tim Morris (1941 – 1990) whom she met some years earlier and whose work she admired, to discuss with Morris the envisaged pottery studio at Cresset House. His response was enthusiastic and he promptly initiated an art exhibition at the school with contributions from himself and leading artists such as Cecil Skotness (1926 - 2009), Eduardo Villa, Tessa Fleisher, Digby Hoets and Mollie Fish to raise funds to equip a studio. The exhibition was displayed by Geoffrey Bradfield, the well-known interior designer now living and working in New York.

Morris’ generous spirit also extended to his liberal sharing of knowledge and that, says David, lay the sound foundation of all that followed: “He provided us with a wonderful introduction to the art and science of high-fired pottery, and so much of the history of pottery and ceramics around the world. His way of approaching subjects like form, function, design was again simply inspirational – everything mattered with him, and we covered it all; from the ancient work of the Far East, to the Middle East and early European art and craft as well as African art and craft. The industrial revolution. William Morris and the Arts and Craft movement, William de Morgan, Wedgewood and contemporary pottery and art. The Renaissance. That first visit showed us just what was possible and he spared no effort in helping us to get organised and productive at Cresset House, always insisting that even though we were going to be teaching, the studio and trainees would need to be directed towards being self-sustaining and freeing itself from being dependant on donor funding. At the same time he was insisting on us acquiring ‘real’ skill and experience so that we could become effective teachers. His emphasis as far as we can recall was on so much of the following: training, skill, discipline, tradition, practise, practise, practise… It was how he began to position us in that tradition espoused by Leach and his followers, of materials and process.”2 It was, says David, all about making pots that were practical, appealing and saleable and the emphasis on making a living from one’s work.

By 1974, Cresset House studio was producing work of a standard that earned it an invitation to mount an exhibition in the centre court of the newly built Sandton City. David and Felicity had been introduced to the fraternity of potters and artists of that time and Cresset House was accepted as a member of APSA and even exhibited at APSA’s first exhibition in Cape Town in 1975. Their commitment as house parents, overseeing the farm and bakery and guiding the pottery studio took its toll. By 1976 David and Felicity were reconsidering their lives and opting for a family environment for themselves and the children, moved first to Parkwood and a few months later to Parkview to set up a home and studio.

The studio with its 2.83 m3 gas-fired kiln set about to produce a wide range of high-temperature, reduction-fired stoneware and porcelain in the idiom of the Anglo-Oriental school. The same year saw their first participation in a group exhibition at the Helen de Leeuw Gallery in Hyde Park, Sandton. The work was well-received, the support base of customers grew, the pots were exhibited widely and David and Felicity were beginning to be noticed by galleries and landscape and interior designers as well as collectors of hand-made studio pottery. Numerous solo and group exhibitions and commissions followed.

By the early 1980s they were invited by Bill Ainslie of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, who was already aware of their commitment to change, and others in the art community in Johannesburg at the time, to become involved in the establishment of the Alexandra Art Centre. The centre was a community-based venture for the development of artistic talents and opportunities in that largely overpopulated and deprived part of Johannesburg. An early priority for this initiative was a major group exhibition of work by many prominent South African artists titled “Art for Alexandra” in the mid-1980s at Sotheby’s in Rosebank Johannesburg in association with Stephan Weltz, to raise awareness about and funds for the centre.

Encouraged by Morris who had by then initiated the very successful Crocodile River Arts and Crafts Ramble, David and Felicity in partnership with more than 20 other city artists and craftspeople, launched the equally successful Johannesburg Studio Route in1989.

A landmark venture in their careers was when they booked a large and prominent solo display stand at Decorex, the country’s premier interior décor and design expo at the time, in Midrand in August 1995. It gave David and Felicity a sense of exposure to a broader market and they achieved remarkable sales. The customers and commissions that were attracted would sustain their work schedule for all of the following year and beyond. That was also the time when they began to give a little more substance to their dreams and plans of living in the country, running an open working studio and selling their work to studio visitors as well as at galleries and trade exhibitions. A year earlier they had bought a property in Swellendam. David started giving evening pottery classes to pay the bond and with their confidence bolstered by the Decorex success and seeking a better quality of life and working conditions in a more secure, softer environment, David and Felicity, relocated there in 1996 with James and Felicity’s mother Ruth Wolff, a very prominent designer, architect and interior decorator, who for many years had played a significant role in the development of their work, using their pots in both corporate and private design projects.

The property is a Cape Victorian town house with a cottage and outbuildings dating from the 1860’s and was proclaimed as a National Monument during the 1980’s. It is set on 6 000 sq meters of ground adjacent to the Drostdy Museum in the historic heart of the town. With the approval of the National Monuments Council (now called the South African Heritage Resources Agency), the old barn was transformed into a studio and showroom and one year later, supported by the conservation architecture expert Gawie Fagan and his wife Gwen, extensive renovations and extensions to the old house were undertaken. By May 1997 the first pots were fired in the new studio’s second-hand bought 1.13 m3 gas-fired kiln, which David converted to fire with paraffin, and by the end of the year, they held their first “open day” at the studio, which would then become an annual event.

In April 1999, David and Felicity booked a large stand at the first Decorex Cape expo held at the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, followed by an exhibition in Westcliff, Johannesburg.
At the request of four other Cape studio potters, they shared the same stand at Decorex Cape in 2000 and had exhibitions in 2001 at the Dorp Street Gallery, Stellenbosch and another show in Johannesburg, this time in Melville.

Celebrating more than 30 years of their partnership, David and Felicity exhibited in November 2004 in Parkwood, Johannesburg at the house of very good friends Eve and Barry Jammy, and the exhibition was considered their most successful to date. Much of that work originated in the new oil-fired kiln converted during 2002 from an old, disused 2.83 m3 electric rolling hood kiln. The kiln has a fixed base at a convenient height onto which David’s very large thrown pots could be loaded relatively easily from their trolleys, with a fibre-lined hood rolling over the stack up to and against a fixed wall that includes the flue and chimney. The firing system comprises two oil burners firing lengthwise into the kiln, through very substantial burner blocks, one on each side of the chimney. For a glaze firing to cone 12 (around 1 320°C) over a period of about ten hours, about 140 litres of paraffin are used.

What is pottery about? “It’s a process of change and development.”
How does one know a pot is perfect? “It sings to you. Every kiln load gives you different songs.”
(David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter, interviewed in 1980)3

Theirs is a partnership of perfect equilibrium, commented the ceramist Brian Ubsdell4; he throwing and slabbing an extensive and diverse range of utilitarian and decorative lines in stoneware and porcelain and she doing the fluid, confident and unrestrained brushwork decorating “… all finely crafted, [with] an honesty and finesse through a process of evolution - a cycle of progress gained from discussing shapes and decoration together, working ideas through on paper and being ever mindful of the needs of their customers.”5 In this they echo a principle that Cardew proclaimed, that “… a good design in pottery is the product of a tension or ‘dialectic” between the demands of pure utility and those of pure beauty, and only long experience and continual struggle enables you to achieve a successful fusion of the two.”6

Their work, which is largely utilitarian, is made in the tradition of high temperature studio pottery, more particularly that of the second half of the 20th Century. The intention is that the work will find a meaningful and relevant place and context in their eventual environments. Their work can therefore not be self-indulgent but must be orientated towards buyers and collectors. Even so, there remains via the work which speaks of the potter’s complete commitment, a direct link between the studio and the buyer: “Our output cannot be regarded as in any way approaching the volume of mass-produced tableware… there is simply no comparison between cheaper, mass-produced ware and our style of hand-made, high temperature stoneware and porcelain. We have never considered ourselves to be in competition with industry. Our role is to add good art and craft, and usefulness to daily life because people seem still have a desire for that in their lives, more especially if they have something of the background and an understanding of the work. People who take the time to stop for a while and perhaps take a longer look at the work and process and ask questions are very likely to develop a new awareness and even become customers at some point in the future, if not in our own studio then somewhere else perhaps.”

Only through repetitive throwing has David achieved mastery of form. This is a discipline instilled in him by Morris: “…make mugs till you can do them with your eyes closed… throw the rubbish ones in the recycle bin and go again and again!”7 And of which Bernard Leach wrote: “I have always said that by making a lot of similar pots by hand (of a shape you like), an expansion of the true spirit at the expense of the lesser ego is bound to take place… although one is doing repeat work it is not really deadly repetition; nothing is ever quite the same; never, cannot be. That is where the pleasure lies.”8 David’s shapes are based largely on traditional forms, being practical, functional and aesthetically pleasing, basic and pure in their simplicity with a fine sense of line and proportion which engage the eye.

The stoneware clay is based on Western Province Ball Clay, blended with small amounts of Feldspar and Silica, a little red clay for colour and a large percentage of grog for strength and “tooth”. The grog is a critical factor in view of the enormous size of a lot of the work. The porcelain body is based on Kaolin G1 with additions of Feldspar, Silica and Bentonite. Though David experiments with other clay bodies, and often introduce them into the work cycle, the ball clay and kaolin types have been constant for many years.

After bisque-firing, the pots are glazed with a basic feldspathic glaze, a celadon or a cobalt glaze. The preferred glazes are mostly high in Feldspar and are applied either by dipping, pouring, spraying or brushing. The decorating oxides applied over dry, unfired glazes, are primarily red iron, cobalt oxide and carbonate, copper oxide and carbonate and rutile, used as a wash, a pigment or slip as well as pouring and layering.

Felicity’s brushwork techniques and patterns come from her background in watercolour painting and fabric design. The decorative motifs are drawn from a diversity of sources that are combined to very striking effect and reflect her preoccupation with forms drawn from the natural environment of the African landscape including flowers, birds and fish and those inspired by local and ethnic art. She also decorates in abstract forms. In the finished work they show that the brush decoration and the colour tones, both glazed and unglazed and brought out by the firing “…have captured something of the vibrancy and harshness of the African landscape, the richness in its minerals and the fire in its light.”

The work is fired in a reduction atmosphere to cone 12 (1 320 oC). The switch from gas to the oil-firing, says David, introduced the dramatic effects of fire in their work at Bukkenburg: “Those effects that have taken us beyond our own limitations and where the results begin to exceed our wildest dreams… [and brought about] a greater appreciation of reduction fired pots not only as far as we are concerned, but to a much wider audience.”9 It has all gelled “… into a rhythm of life and work where the pots emerging from the kilns have a quality that we have not experienced before - colour, texture, decoration, scale, form and volume.”

Throughout their working lives, they have been constantly inspired by the work of their predecessors and contemporaries in the Anglo-Oriental tradition of high-temperature, reduction-fired pottery. They hold special reverence for the work of Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Michael Casson, David Frith and Robin Hopper and amongst South African potters, hail the work of Morris, Sammy Liebermann, Esias Bosch (1923 – 2010), Hyme Rabinowitz (1920 – 2009) and Andrew Walford.

They have published and continue to maintain memorial pages on Facebook to Morris, Rabinowitz and Bosch. “The tradition of the pioneer potters”, maintains David: “… is flourishing in an African context where the link between function and aesthetics retains its harmony and integrity, and takes on a new meaning from the physical landscape of Africa as well as local and ethnic art and craft. The making of pottery is a timeless occupation and the best of pots through the ages have a quality of timelessness about them that transcends chronological and cultural boundaries.”

Over the years they have continued to work in much the same way, remaining true to the ethics of tradition even whilst exploring new aesthetics but never faltering in the belief that process and expression are both dictated by materials and that the one nourishes the other. The learning process is a continuous one, demanded on the one hand by having to meet consumer expectations and on the other hand, to reveal, as Cardew encouraged: “… new things, which will awaken and satisfy new and hitherto unrecognized needs. The potter must lead the public to what he wants, then they will come to him because in his workshop the potter’s art is alive.”10 Key to keeping that art alive, say David and Felicity, is their constant revision and assessment of their creative impulse, goals and objectives: “The sophisticated global context into which we are all moving and the African environment in which we live and work tell us that the door to the future is wide open and that studio pottery, and ceramics in its broadest sense and diversity, as a way of life and livelihood has much to offer, the challenge being to remain productive in the face of the requirements of aesthetic relevance and economic viability. We remain mindful of the road travelled, those who have been and remain part of the process, the journey ahead and the necessity for constant growth and development in all areas of our joint pursuit.”11

As for their pottery legacy, David and Felicity hold the view that craftspeople and artists are only really as good as the work that survives them and their willingness to pass on from their experience to the next generation. In their case, it would also include their volume and diversity of high-fired, reduction stoneware and porcelain, produced over a period of some 40 years. Their work “…still makes sense for us today, perhaps more now than in the past. The inspiration was one of an integrated lifestyle where the ‘why’ has always been as important as the ‘how’”.

Central to their way of life has been the care of Felicity’s son James. Their spirit of caregiving extends beyond their home to their local community. The rhythm of James’ needs, of the making and firing of their pots, of tending to their small flock of sheep and growing much of their fresh produce… these are all part of the commitments to a cycle of life which in turn is reflected in their work.

Exhibitions were and remain important opportunities to introduce work to the market. David and Felicity have exhibited frequently and widely. Their first solo gallery exhibition was in 1980 at the Ernst de Jong Studio Gallery in Hatfield, Pretoria. Other major galleries featuring David and Felicity and now occasionally the name Bukkenburg also, include: The Potters Gallery, Helen de Leeuw Gallery, Ernst de Jong Studio Gallery, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Akis Gallery, Everard Reid’s Sanderling Gallery, Quadri, the Laura Collection, Schweikert’s Gallery, Gallery S, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Dorp Street Gallery, Museum Africa and Strydom Gallery. Outside of Johannesburg and Pretoria, work was on exhibition in all of the major cities and towns and was also on show in Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland. In 1988, David and Felicity shared a joint exhibition with Coral Stephens’ textiles at The Mall Gallery in London and were again on show in that city in 1993 in a group exhibition presented by the Craft Council of South Africa.

It is, they say, an indescribable thrill to be working on commissions and selling work to the second and even third generations of families who first came to see them way back in their early studio days and equally exciting to be approached for new corporate work by those who have had their work in business environments for many years. Major corporate commissions have been achieved and the client list includes Goldfields, Gencor, Anglovaal & Grinaker and Shell. For the Conservation Corporation’s exclusive game lodges in South Africa and Zimbabwe, they have produced various ranges of hand washbasins, tableware, planters and other décor pieces. They have also worked on commission for several leading interior decorators and designers as well as landscape designers and architects. In 2008 and in collaboration with the studio potter Paul de Jongh, an edition of tea jars was produced for Nigiro Tea Merchants in Cape Town and recently for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, they created a series of large, thrown stoneware amphorae for the maturing of wine, each with a capacity of about 160 litres. More recently, they were commissioned to create very large garden and indoor containers for the Koopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel and Spa in Stellenbosch.

Their work is represented in the national Corobrik Collection housed at the Pretoria Art Museum and at the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley. The work is also in private collections in Britain, the U.S.A., Spain, Canada and the Middle East.

They are in constant contact with younger potters making their way in the world and much of what they have gained from the years of experience is finding its way into the practise of the next generation. They teach on a small scale and continue to present workshops at the studio in Swellendam and further afield. Their website and a presence on Facebook also help to keep them in touch with a growing network of friends, colleagues and customers worldwide.

The studio and gallery area in the old barn at Bukkenburg carries a changing but representative display of their work: delicate porcelain bottles, vases and bowls, cups and saucers and mugs, dinnerware, serving dishes, robust stoneware casseroles, giant platters, huge bowls, storage jars, planters, indoor and outdoor containers, floor jars, urns, water features, tiles and washbasins.

And the song of the kiln knows no end: “The unique smell of mature clay in the studio during a lengthy throwing cycle, the meditative time with clay on the wheel, experiencing the numerous pieces as they move through our process, from wheel to kiln to glaze, then decoration and back to the kiln. Then the smell of the kiln as the firing progresses and as we approach the reduction phase of the cycle. The excitement of opening a warm kiln and handling the new work after a successful reduction firing… all of this is an experience beyond words.

Contact details:
E-mail: bukkenburg@sdm.dorea.co.za
Website: www.pottery.co.za
Telephone: +27 (0)28 514 1644

Where David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter are quoted in the text, the sources would be the correspondence between them and the author during December 2010 and January 2011.
1. Michael Cardew – a Portrait, Garth Clark, Faber and Faber, 1978
2. Correspondence with David Schlapobersky, Ronnie Watt, 19 December 21010
3 Felicity and David, Hellouise Truswell, Living, 1980
4. Portrait of a Potter – The Magic of Fire, Brian Ubsdell, 1996
5. David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter - A Partnership that Works, Gail de Klerk, National Ceramics Quarterly, Number 18, December 1991
6. Michael Cardew – a Portrait, Garth Clark, Faber and Faber, 1978
7. Correspondence with David Schlapobersky, Ronnie Watt, 19 December 21010
8. The Potter’s Challenge, Bernard Leach (Edited by David Outerbridge), Souvenir, 1975
9. David Schlapobersky, Felicity Potter and the Bukkenburg Pottery: Johannesburg to Swellendam – 8 years on, Gail de Klerk, National Ceramics, Number 71, Autumn (April/May) 2005)
10. Michael Cardew – a Portrait, Garth Clark, Faber and Faber, 1978
11. David Schlapobersky, Felicity Potter and the Bukkenburg Pottery: Johannesburg to Swellendam – 8 years on, Gail de Klerk, National Ceramics, Number 71, Autumn (April/May) 2005)