Taken from blog at www.nicwinstanley.com posted 27/03/19

Today, the recipients of the 2019 a-n Bursary were publically announced, and I’m delighted to say that I am one of them.

Over the past ten years, my practice has developed into something that has become a little hard to describe; my main practice has recently involved observing, documenting, collecting thoughts and opinions, thinking, learning, reading and then writing documents for others to use to talk about work they have done. I’m proud to say that this work has been very well received by the people I’ve worked for, and publically, and I do class it as part of my art practice. But over the last couple of years, I have been lacking the element of ‘craft’ in my work- that element of self-determined creation that sets the artist apart from the analyst, the evaluator, the report writer, the commentator.

Rather than pitching in from the sidelines, I feel the need to find a way to illustrate the discourse I’m passionate about (which includes topics like post-industrial urban redevelopment, social and spatial justice, the effects of neoliberalism and the power of collective action) and to find a way to demonstrate how artistic modes of production can be simple, generative and radical. To help decide where to begin to find my own visual language again, I thought about my habits- what is it that I do naturally and often, that brings me joy and inspires me to think about the things that fascinate me? There was only one answer- shards.

The first profession I ever remember wanting to have as a child was ‘archeologist’- on holidays I was sure I would find treasure on the beach if just I looked hard enough, and at home I remember taking a spoon down to the farmers field at the bottom of my street- to ‘Dead Man’s Hill’ (pictured below) to try to find bones, coins and civil war ammunition by digging in the crater at the top (some said Dead Man’s Hill was an ancient burial mound, some said it was just a flood platform for cattle- I preferred to think it was the former). During my degree, My friend and I would come home from art college and dig up bits of slag (waste metal from smelting) in the back of the garden, which led us to the local archives to try and locate a historic ironworks or blacksmiths. Now as an adult I like to go on walks, but when everyone else is looking into the distance at the view, you’ll find me scouring the ground for finds- particularly when there are molehills to kick around in.

I grew up in Stoke, and this particular fascination with the buried, discarded and lost is more often rewarded than in most other cities. The city itself was founded on what lay in the ground beneath- clay and coal in particular. In the height of the city’s (industrial and economic) prosperity, f thousands of men spent most of their lives under the ground, and the ceramic products that didn’t make it out of the city to the world’s markets went back onto and into the ground, in huge quantities, shaping the landscape and leaving many millions of snippets of life, art, industry, failure, aspiration, narratives, fingerprints, toil, skills and tastes for me (us, everyone,) to find with incredible ease. I’ve been casually collecting these surface shards for many years, and I have amassed a vast collection. I’m sure there are many other local people that do this too. (small number of my collection pictured below).


So I have decided to try bringing this personal fascination together with my practice- there are a number of reasons why I think this is a relevant paring- not because I want to look doe-eyed into the past of the city, but to how the shards relate to the city we are left with. There are still many scars of industry on the physical landscape, in individuals and in the social ecology of the city, scars I can’t fail to see daily. With this project I’m interested in mining for qualities, examining value and barriers- both physical and social, and from that examination- ‘transformation’- not only into something beautiful but something instructive, productive and useful. Something that could teach us how to make something new from the old and broken.

Rather than use my current collection, I’m going to start from scratch. I’m going to treat every newly discovered shard as an archeological find, mapping its location, creating a taxonomy by which to categorise each shard and produce site-specific writing based on its location, surroundings, history (as far as I can discover it) and what it relates to in the present day (both from a personal and wider perspective). To help me with this, I’ll be working with Danny Callaghan of Ceramic City Stories, and we will host drop-in open conversations about the shards once a certain number have been collected. Then I will be working with Jessica Ayre of Red Fox Blue Monkey, to set the shards into silver mounts, in order to reimagine the shards as valuable objects in their own right- like precious jewels mined from the ground, polished not by physical processes, but by the insights wrought by the process of creative and collective examination and imagination.

The project (or new arm of practice) begins in May this year, and I’ll be blogging about it both here and on the a-n website.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank a-n for funding this new adventure in my practice. I’m very excited about how it could transform my work in the future.


As well as creating the taxonomy, finding and writing about the shards and sharing my process with others, there was one more process I was interested in exploring- working with a jeweller to turn the shards into wearable pieces. I took a selection of 5 shards to a day-long workshop with Jessica Ayre, who makes jewellery from her home in Stoke-on-Trent under the name of Red Fox Blue Monkey. After looking at all of the pieces, we decided to work on two of them- S21150-C4011-ST3/B5 and S41111-U2011-ST6/W3.


Before the project, I imagined myself being able to set up a small silversmithing workshop to complete the journey of the shard, but I soon discovered just how much time, equipment, knowledge and skills go into making custom jewellery from scratch. “It’s very much like working with ceramics actually,” said Jess, “You can spend a lot of time on a piece only for something to go wrong and it’s ruined.”. As we worked our way through dozens of processes of cutting, soldering, pickling, stamping polishing and burnishing, the pieces began to take shape. Having spent time finding, recording and writing about the shards, I felt very protective of them. When they were finally housed in their silver mounts- one as a necklace, one as a ring- complete with stamped-on taxonomical code, it felt like their preservation was assured.


Although I had been longing to try it for many years, turning shards into jewellery was an aspect of the project that I had developed misgivings about. On the one hand, there are symbolic, aesthetic resonances inferred by turning a shard into an item of jewellery; it redefines the shard as an object in its own right, a beautiful and precious object, dug from the earth like a diamond and polished with the story that accompanies it. However, like the diamond industry, sinister connotations plagued my mind- thoughts of exploitation. Is it ethically right to valourise and productise representations of the many troubled and downtrodden locations in Stoke-on-Trent? In many ways, the short answer is no. There are lots of examples in the western world of how easy it is for relational practices (especially artistic ones) to be commodified through neoliberal processes of growth-oriented regeneration, dispossessing people of their own stories and cultures in the process. Although a piece of shard jewellery is a small offering, I do not wish to play a part in such unjust processes when my intention is quite the opposite.

Making shards into jewellery is, no doubt, a beautiful way to display and preserve them; But it can only be justified ethically, in my mind, if the resulting piece is given to, made by or worn by the person who found it- the person who wrote about it, thought about it and gave it its story. This is something that I will continue to think about as the practice develops.


At the end of this short project, I have been able to reframe my love of collecting shards as a way of discussing the topics I’m interested in as an artist. I have met many other people who share this passion with me who I hope will help me to continue growing the practice. I now plan on completing a larger collection that is coded and accompanied with writing to be exhibited locally, then I would like to further explore ways that I can open the process up to others with the development of an online database that anyone can contribute to.

I would like to thank a-n for funding this period of research, without which this newfound direction in my practice would still be just an untested idea bubbling away at the bottom of my list. I would also like to thank Danny Callaghan, Brett Shah and Phil Rowley from Ceramic City Stories for their advice, knowledge and hospitality during the open conversation, and to Charlotte Foster who covered it on the Cultural Quater of an Hour Podcast. I’d like to thank Jessica Ayre for accommodating the many specific requirements I had during our jewellery session. Lastly, I would like to thank those who contacted me online and who came to the open conversation, shared their collections and gave me tips about where to search.

The journey of a shard through the process can be viewed on my website. As the practice is refined I will be adding many more, so watch this space.





To continue exploring my love of ceramic shards for this a-n bursary project I proposed a day-long conversation and research session with Danny Callaghan and other members of Ceramic City Stories, a group of local ceramics enthusiasts that seek to uncover hidden histories behind the industry that made Stoke-on-Trent what it is. It was Danny who suggested that we open this conversation up to the public, inviting other people to join in and bring their own shard collections, questions and stories to the table. I agreed that this would be a great idea, and arranged the date for the 20th June, hosted at Clayhead Secret Museum, Ceramic City Stories’ base and part working tile factory in the heart of Stoke.

I had been collecting shards for a month previous and had written about the discovery of some of them, as I had proposed to do from the start. I expected the day to be quiet, a long and winding discussion with Danny about the joy of collecting, refining the taxonomy, reading the stories and researching the shards and their find locations. Perhaps with one or two people popping in to join throughout the day. How wrong I was!

Before we had officially opened, our first shard lover walked through the door. There began 5 solid hours of visits, collections and conversations- 11 of us in total, crammed onto a tiny deck between shipping containers that housed the museum’s exhibits.


Conversation first landed on the topic of ownership. As sharders, are we allowed to manipulate, adorn or embellish shards- i.e. turn it into jewellery etc.- and sell them if they are found on private or public land? Technically, we are on shaky ground. According to the law, just because someone throws something away does not mean they don’t own it. So if it can be proven that the shard had a rightful owner, it would be illegal to take it. However, we also discussed how a shard alone has no monetary value, it is the attention and craft applied to it by the sharder that gives it value. This quandary brought to light the issue of who our cultural heritage belongs to, and who has the right to disseminate its meaning and benefit from it. If these remnants of culture are owned physically by landowners and (possibly) conceptually by brands, what are we left with that we can call ours?

In the extreme, sharding on private wasteland or brownfield could be framed as an action against irresponsible and antisocial land ownership, drawing attention to the many long-term disused, unproductive fragments of land scattered across the city; as worthless as the shard itself- broken off from the functioning object of the city, ownership status only contested when others act to give profile, function and meaning to these spaces.

During the day many other conversations were had, about the origins of the shards, the potential age, what items they were once part of, where they were found and the reaction others had when they see you searching. Many stories were exchanged, as well as shards themselves, gifted from Margate beach to a sharder in Stoke.

The taxonomy was fully tested by the visitors on their own collections, which led to minor adjustments in the formula. I read one of my pieces of writing aloud to the assembled group, which people found both funny and moving.

At the end of the day, exhausted and hoarse from constant talking, I had barely touched my own shard collection. But I was content- bringing others together with this shared passion for shards, and having the opportunity to fully test the taxonomy was more than I ever expected, and I think it is something that could certainly be repeated in the future.

As my first visitor left after about 3 hours, we said our goodbyes at the door. “We should go out sharding together some time,” she said, “I’ll show you my sites if you show me yours.”

‘For the Love of Shards’ public conversation was recorded for the Cultural Quater of an Hour Podcast and should be available to listen to soon.


In true Archimedes style, my eureka moment occurred in the bath. I was listening to the BBC podcast ‘The Boring Talks’, episode 24, which was entitled ‘The Taxonomy Of Cornflakes’ and was delivered by artist Anne Griffiths. As Griffiths described the process of meticulously cataloguing what others would reasonably disregard, amid the satisfying sounds of crunching and sifting, I got very excited indeed. I totally got it.

Being an analytical and meticulous person myself, and an artist, the idea of bringing order to disorder gives me a gratifying sense of clarity, of honesty (reality even!) in a frighteningly complex and incomprehensible world. Noticing my exhilaration, I realised that ordering, sorting, cataloguing and creating rules has repeated in my art practice over the years without me really noticing.

As a participatory artist, various permutations of this practice have allowed me to let others into the process; In 2010 during a residency at Elsewhere– a former thrift store-come-museum in North Carolina, I designed ‘The Curator Creator’ a device by which visitors could categorise and curate collections of ‘sub-objects’- broken bits of plastic, dust, pieces of string, bottle tops etc.- based on how they felt about them, what memories or feelings they evoked. In this way, everyone could be a curator, bringing their own experiences and intuition into a systematic process. In 2013, I designed ‘The Drifters Guide to Urban Wandering’ a pack of cards detailing arbitrary rules by which to navigate urban spaces. I had just discovered The Situationist International, and so Psychogeography’s simple games and rules designed to penetrate ‘The Spectacle’. These have influenced my participatory work ever since.


As my bathwater grew upsettingly cold, my brain was making links between what I was hearing and my work in the public realm, my interest Stoke-on-Trent’s regeneration, my love of categorising and analysing, my belief in simple participatory processes and my huge collection of ceramic shards. A project was born right there in the suds; I would start a new collection of shards, creatively document each one’s discovery, and create a taxonomy to catalogue them. By this process, a story of modern-day Stoke-on-Trent could be developed over time and in many voices. A broken story- pieced back together by many hands.


Before I begin hunting for new shards, I decided to start designing the taxonomy using my existing collection. I soon realised that Griffiths’ neat 8-digit system could not adequately describe the shards. As I noted down each variant and ran my shards through the process, the code grew from 7 to 9 to 11 digits until I was satisfied that every possible feature of any given shard was accounted for.

In addition to these digits, there was the question of the location. Including this data in taxonomy is pretty unconventional, however, because I am making each shard a figurehead for a story of the location in which it was found, I felt it had to be included as a defining feature. Therefore, I added an extra 5-6 digits to describe the location, bringing the total code length to 16-17 digits.


Once I was happy with the taxonomical system I was like a woman possessed, scrabbling around for any shards that I had secreted around my flat- in plant pots, Tupperware boxes and pockets. The process was addictive. When my partner emerged from his studio in the evening I immediately enrolled him in a highly irregular game of Guess Who; I asked him to choose one of the codes I had written down and try to identify the corresponding shard from a pile on the dining table, using the Key I had scrawled over 6 pages of A4 paper. Amazingly, he identified the correct shard within 7 digits. I was delighted.

The process of creating each taxonomy code necessitated complete sensory engagement with the object. How did it feel? What did it look like? What materials is it made from? What are the details? This level of connection and observation is rare in modern life and was highly engrossing and meditative. The objects I had picked up were not the objects I put down- in the interim they had been fully felt, fully observed, taken to heart. Always at the back of my mind was how another person could engage with this process independently as part of a wider local, national or international project, and ideas have begun to form about how this might be possible in the future.


With a testable draft taxonomy devised, I now plan to go out and find a small collection of shards to apply it to. Then begins the next phase of the project- where I will write about the discovery of each shard and experiment with setting them into silver mounts.