The fourteenth International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth comes at a fascinating time for makers. The festival has been consistent in its celebration of craft and skill – a characteristic synonymous with ceramics and yet marginalised within wider creative communities for over forty years. Now, however, in a new climate that embraces making, what was once perceived as unfashionable suddenly seems very current.

Taking place over three days and across multiple venues, this biennial event has grown in scale and prominence since it was established in 1987 by the north and south Wales potters’ associations, in collaboration with Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Beginning life as a potters’ camp to share skills and establish a supportive network for makers in Wales, it has gone on to achieve world-renowned status, attracting audiences and participants from across the globe.

Sophie Bennett, festival co-ordinator, says: “The festival offers teachers, students, ceramic artists, collectors, working potters and amateurs the chance to meet and study the work of distinguished, internationally-known potters and ceramicists from Wales, the UK and around the world… The focus is both practical and inspirational.”

The festival incorporates the breadth of contemporary ceramic practice, and while the emphasis remains on traditional forms of ceramic making, more conceptual and alternative approaches to the material have become evident within recent programmes. Yet skill and craft still lie at the core of the festival’s identity, with demonstrations of outstanding expertise throughout the three days.

Ceramicist Ingrid Murphy is an MC for the event, facilitating discussion between demonstrators as they work. “These ceramicists are sharing their hard-earned expertise and knowledge,” she says. “Frequently on stage you will see skills that are breathtaking. Watching a ten-foot vessel thrown on a wheel, or seeing the speed and dexterity with which a hand-built form is constructed, you sometimes feel spellbound; you know you have witnessed pure mastery.”

Uniting practice and discourse

The event encompasses more than just display of technique and craft prowess, however. Its distinctive format of varied presentation styles unites practice with discourse – unlike many other platforms for cultural debate that are removed from the material. Lectures, demonstrations, symposia, forums, exhibitions, studio workshops and kiln firings converge to offer a potent space for the exchange of ideas. This multi-faceted, performative approach appears to bridge a gap – one so often apparent in creative academic forums – between making and ideas.

Murphy emphasises this dichotomy: “Seeing someone demonstrate and then hearing them theoretically underpin their work is a unique thing; I can’t think of that happening elsewhere. Understanding the physical helps access the work at deeper levels. Many practitioners are incredibly eloquent and can offer great insights through the act of making.”

This correlation between thinking and making resonates with the work of Conor Wilson. While his practice is not traditional, he is nevertheless concerned with notions of skill, making and the material, which underpin his research. Wilson is examining the relationship between writing and making, using writing techniques to inform methods of working while simultaneously searching for a new voice with which to write about material.

“I am interested in exploring the different thought processes involved here,” says Wilson, “whether thought that isn’t word-based can be classed as such, and whether a sustained enquiry into making and embodied knowledge can tell us anything about thought.”

While championing an inter-disciplinary approach to ceramic practice and education, for Wilson, learning through material enquiry is key. “It is ceramics’ specialism that makes it so rich,” he says. “Gaining knowledge through material investigation is worth celebrating and holding on to.”

Extreme positions

Wilson joins the festival line-up of leading international practitioners including Richard Notkin, Beth Cavener Stichter, and Takeshi Yasuda, alongside whom Wilson will demonstrate. Coming from extreme positions within ceramic practice, this interesting pairing of master-thrower with conceptual maker promises to elicit engaging dialogues, with the potential of highlighting the subliminal interconnectedness between making and ideas. “Having two demonstrators on stage provides the perfect opportunity for collaboration, comparison and contrast,” says Bennett.

Wilson likens his participation to a ‘clash of worlds’. Murphy agrees. “The festival is a classic example of meta-modernity; it’s an event that oscillates between past, present and future,” she says. “Ceramics is in a very interesting place. You could say a festival of making is absolutely passé, but there is a revolution happening in making and I think it has become the vanguard. That clash, the swing to the past, the acknowledgement of the present and the striving towards the future will be very evident throughout the festival.”

Wilson is less positive about the future of ceramics; a lack of specialist infrastructure and closure of ceramics’ courses signals concern for him. However, both he and Murphy agree that the festival is an impressive event. “It’s a real celebration of what we know,” says Murphy. “Of how far we’ve come and what we value.”

The International Ceramics Festival 2013, Aberystwyth, 28-30 June 2013.