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Creativity Inspiring Industry: The British Ceramics Biennial Celebrates a Bright Future for Stoke-on-Trent – by Emma Bell, Curator (Bulatov Rowe)

In 2008, when the call out came for a ‘Ceramics and Design Festival’ celebrating Stoke-on-Trent’s rich ceramics heritage, British Ceramics Biennial Artistic Director Barney Hare Duke saw something more. More than a trade show or an industry event, Barney had a vision for a world-class festival, showcasing the controversial yet fascinating overlap between ceramic art and the creative leading edges of industry.

What better way to put Stoke on the map than by drawing artists of the highest calibre to the city, engaging industry leaders and cementing the festival on the UK arts calendar.

The inaugural British Ceramics Biennial in 2009 launched in Stoke at a tipping point. The city’s iconic ceramics brands Wedgwood and Royal Doulton had closed their doors and the grand halls of the Spode factory were left empty. How could this be a time for celebration; wasn’t it a time to mourn the demise of what was once a thriving industrial city?

Given the context, Barney and the team proceeded with sensitivity and thoughtfulness: the first Biennials paid tribute to Stoke’s industrial past via direct artistic response to, and preservation of, the Spode factory and other key sites in the city.

Now in its fourth iteration, the BCB has taken bold strides as it looks to the future. This year, the gutsy move away from more literal artistic interpretation of the industrial spaces of the ‘Stoke that once was’ has lifted the festival beyond mere tribute. The pared back, clean lines of the display, coupled with the considerate restoration of the Spode factory interior invite the audience to explore the more subtle nuances of the interplay between art and industry.

Amongst the incredible variety of ceramic genius on display at the festival this year are two striking examples of true celebration and respect for Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramic industry: the work of artists Ian McIntyre and Amy Hughes.

Ian McIntyre’s Icon is a culmination of his residency at AirSpace gallery, centred around collaboration with Cauldon Ceramics, manufacturers of Stoke-on-Trent’s famed ‘Brown Betty’ teapot. This project has seen McIntyre trace the evolution of the Brown Betty since its creation in the early 1900s, pinpointing the design innovations which helped achieve its market-leader status.

Through respectful attention to the minute detail of the manufacturing process, Icon explores how further design innovation and artistic creativity can enhance the future commercial success of classic designs such as the Brown Betty. McIntyre’s thoughtful work invites audiences to question the role of the artist in catalysing industrial advancement and commercial viability.

With the same respect for Stoke-on-Trent’s finest industry, Amy Hughes’ Tryst sees artist and manufacturer rub shoulders in the pursuit of perfection and beauty. Tryst forms part of the inaugural ‘Ceramics and Industry’ residency at the V&A, through which Stoke-on-Trent’s 1882 ltd has partnered with Hughes to champion inventively designed ceramics.

A studio maker at heart, Hughes has pushed the boundaries of her own creative practice to explore how stages and conditions of manufacture can be controlled to create variety in the final product. The resulting work perfectly balances the creativity and individuality of the artist with the perfection and refinement of industry. Perhaps more importantly, harnessing the manufacturing process has aided Hughes in her quest to make ceramic art more accessible: undoubtedly a cause close to every artist’s heart.

McIntyre and Hughes represent a growing number of artists currently working alongside manufacturers to both preserve and challenge industrial practices and the BCB has been instrumental in brokering such relationships. BCB Executive Director Iain Cartwright can see the creativity and skill ‘embedded in the workforce’ of Stoke and so takes pride in these positive, collaborative relationships.

The British Ceramics Biennial team has always shown respect for the skills and the objects produced through industry and this year they invite us to look boldly at its future. In providing a world-class platform for art and industry to inspire and to challenge each other, the festival has now begun to truly celebrate a city of creativity.