Fired up females with feet (and hands) of clay

Commemorated in clay
Commemorated in clay
  • Men dominate the pages of history, which is why ceramicist Katch Skinner is commemorating brilliant British women in clay. Sharon Dale reports. Picture by Tony Johnson.
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The decorative plate depicting punk singer Vi Subversa in clashing red, green and orange looks suitably kick-ass, especially compared with her more serious neighbour Emmeline Pankhurst, also celebrated in ceramic alongside an elegant bust of Jane Austen. They are a mixed bunch, which is exactly what Katch Skinner wanted when she asked family, friends and Facebook followers which great British women she should commemorate in clay.

“I didn’t just want the famous women, I also wanted women who were less well known and there have been some really interesting suggestions, including Frances Sokolov, who I had never heard of before,” says Hebden Bridge-based ceramicist Katch.

Hebden Bridge ceramicist Katch Skinner in her studio

Hebden Bridge ceramicist Katch Skinner in her studio

Frances (1935-2016), AKA Vi, co-founded the punk quartet Poison Girls in 1976 when she was in her 40s. She used her music to convey anti-capitalist and feminist messages and was also a talented potter.

Olive Morris, now immortalised on an earthenware pot, was also a revelation. The Brixton community activist died at the age of 27 in 1979 after achieving a staggering amount for female, black and squatters’ rights.

Hull flying ace Amy Johnson and Morley cycling legend Beryl Burton have been painted on to plates for posterity along with biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the Lenin Peace Prize.

So far, 23 fabulous females have been moulded, painted, glazed and fired in what began as a small personal project and has morphed into a mammoth task. The first batch of Women in British History is set to go on display on March 3 to 5 at the Northlight Studios in Hebden Bridge. It’s where Katch teaches and has a workshop making her bestselling egg cups and mugs. The women project has been conducted in her spare time, often at the dead of night.

Mary Wollstonecraft sparked the Women in British History project

Mary Wollstonecraft sparked the Women in British History project

“I’m here six days a week, sometimes seven. There’s a joke that I sleep here. It’s not just the making, I’ve lost hours on the internet researching,” she says.

There are at least another 30 possibles on her to-do list, including speedway queen “flying” Fay Taylor, a champion motorcyclist in the 1920s. The deadline for completion is International Women’s Day in March 2018 and Katch is still open to suggestions.

Using traditional commemorative ware to celebrate remarkable women was an idea born five years ago after she saw Hidden, a photographic exhibition by Red Saunders, which recreated momentous but overlooked events and individuals who struggled for democracy and equality.

One of the images was of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), a radical writer, philosopher and early feminist. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman made the case for liberating and educating women.

The redoubtable MP Baroness Barbara Castle

The redoubtable MP Baroness Barbara Castle

“I was fascinated to read about her and I thought then that it would be lovely to make a series of plates featuring women in British history. I’d made commemorative plates during my degree and they’re something I’ve always been interested in,” says Katch, who finally began the project 18 months ago and became even more determined when she discovered how marginalised women were in the pages of history.

“Women are 50 per cent of the population and have been integral in shaping the course of history but they have a 0.5 per cent appearance in written documents. Their contribution to society is immense but it is often overshadowed,” she says.

Her muse, Wollstonecraft, proved one of the most difficult to capture on a commemorative plate. Only now, after her third incarnation, is Katch happy with the result. “I plan to remake quite a few pieces. I really want to do the women proud,” she says.

The processes she uses are lengthy and fraught with uncertainty. As viewers of TV’s The Great Pottery Throw Down will be aware, a lot can go wrong. She employs a variety of techniques, including hand building and designing moulds for slip casting. Then she paints, adds slips, glazes, engobes, lustres and the odd decal. Many of the pieces need at least four kiln firings. “Every time you put it in the kiln there’s a risk it can break,” she says.

Katch has created a variety of commemorative ware

Katch has created a variety of commemorative ware

An elaborate, shell-encrusted urn featuring fossil hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847), did just that. There were tears but Katch rallied and made a replica in praise of the working class Dorset woman who made major discoveries that changed our view of prehistory.

Labour’s Red Queen Baroness Barbara Castle (1910-2001) was very straightforward, which would no doubt delight the Blackburn-born MP who was a no-nonsense force to be reckoned with in the corridors of Whitehall.

Her plate is inscribed with her inspiring quote: “I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead, and that’s what keeps you alive.”

There are also jugs and vases. One of Katch’s favourites is a tribute to mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville (1780-1872). It shows Mary along with planets on a black background and was technically difficult to achieve.

“I’ve enjoyed trying new techniques and I have tried to make the piece right for the era, which is why I did a Roman water vase for Boudicca,” she says.

The Brontë sisters will be together as figurines on a Staffordshire-style flat back ornament, which Katch would like to donate to the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Boudicca, Mary Anning and Mary Somerville.

Boudicca, Mary Anning and Mary Somerville.

“I want to do another exhibition when the project is complete and then I’d like to give the pieces away, either to the families of the women or to museums if they want them,” says Katch. “It just feels like the right thing to do.”

• Women in British History – a work in progress exhibition is at Northlight Studios, Valley Road, Hebden Bridge, on Friday, March 3, 7pm to 9pm; Saturday and Sunday, March 4 and 5, 11am to 4pm. Northlightstudio.co.uk. Email Women in British history suggestions to katchskinner@gmail.com