In the hands of the master
Rhodia Mann interviews Waithira Chege
I watch mesmerized as a lump of clay is placed upon the wheel, and expertly worked by the potter. The primordial lump is skillfully manipulated until a shape evolves. The shape is improved upon: a handle is attached. Voila! We have a pot. The entire process has taken three minutes. This is the work of a master.
Waithira has been working with clay since childhood, but her original ambition was to become a nurse. She went to Greenacres School, where, over weekends, she had access to the pottery studio. Gradually, her ambition changed.
In 1981 she took a short course at Loughborough University (UK). Three years later, she was given a bursary by the British Council to take a one-year course in pottery at Goldsmith College in London. In 1985, she was awarded a second scholarship to specialize in glazes and raw materials.
Waithira traveled to Japan to meet the most revered potters of the times. She was introduced to tiered “climbing kilns” constructed up a hillside. In these, heat rises from bottom to top, firing all pots in each chamber. She was also introduced to “raku”, a technique in which pots are put into sawdust-filled kilns, fired at 1,000 degrees, and removed with tongs whilst red-hot. They are then cooled in water, which causes the glaze to crackle, producing astonishing effects. Japanese influence is clearly visible in her work: refined, cool, simple and austere. Waithira is not interested in frills and flowers.
A form has to be created before glazing it, but it is the glazing that fascinates Waithira most. Here, art and science blend perfectly, presenting room for new discoveries. Currently, she experiments with ash or powder from seaweed, pumice, jacaranda wood and assorted local stones. She also makes pots combining clay with metal mesh, and others which are burnished to a high sheen. Results depend upon the type of clay. Waithira has her personal recipe.
A form has to be created before glazing it, but it is the glazing that fascinates Waithira most. Here, art and science blend perfectly, presenting room for new discoveries.
She sees pottery as an ongoing learning process, and will never describe herself as a master. Yet her skill is consummate and her knowledge vast. She is not interested in mass-production, and each piece is a one-off. Her creative process is supremely logical. The form is seen in her mind’s eye (or sketched) before she moves to the wheel. Colours are foreseen, often coming to her in dreams.
Her spacious studio, on the premises of the Weaverbird factory behind the American International School, is well organized, the walls lined with shelves of both raw materials and finished pieces. She has to be neat: the studio is also used as a teaching venue. She conducts adult courses and children’s summer courses. These include a technical introduction to the materials, hand building (coil or slab-work), using the wheel, firing and glazing. Classes are limited in size to six, so each student receives personal attention. Waithira loves teaching children, and is always looking for more. Her one stipulation is that all students must take working with clay as seriously as she does.
She came to Weaverbird six years ago, and sees this as the next step in her career. That career will never end: Waithira (like the climbing kilns) will always move upwards. What keeps her involved, apart from passion, is her dedication and the ability to become totally absorbed in the process.
For external stimulus, Waithira travels every two years to Aberystwyth University in Wales for an annually-held International Potters’ Camp. This is her opportunity to share, exchange, teach and learn from experts who gather from all over the world. The atmosphere is – as she describes it -electric.
Waithira traveled to Japan to meet the most revered potters of the times…Japanese influence is clearly visible in her work: refined, cool, simple and austere.
She has had five solo exhibitions in Kenya. Her work is known by collectors from England, Japan and Switzerland. She planned for an exhibition later in 2007. She has become a perfect fusion of Kikuyu and English cultures. Yet, in her heart, she is still a Kenyan, and stays here for emotional reasons, eschewing a more international reputation.
At Greenacres, Waithira used a walk-in kiln made of bricks, in which 2,000 pieces could be fired at one time. Everything is on a far smaller scale now. Her dream is to one day have a “life-time set-up”: her own brick kiln on her very own land. She is totally confident that her dream will reach fruition. Each day brings her one step closer.
Broad based, catering for all levels Groups of between four and six people. Ten Sessions.
The course includes:
- Introduction to different types of clay
- Wheels skills
- Firing and glazing
Publication: Travel News Magazine – August 2007 – page 50
Writer: Rhodia Mann