Rob’s art is fired by nature
- Credit: Andrew Partridge
Ceramic artist Rob Rutterford takes much of his inspiration from the natural world. He told Sheena Grant about his work and a poignant journey he plans to make later this year
PENGUINS are a major feature of ceramic artist Rob Rutterford’s working life.
He’s got boxes of the little black and white clay figures in the workshop at his home in Halesworth, along with others – “rejects” that didn’t quite make the grade – on a nearby windowsill.
He’s even got the first penguin he ever made, more than 30 years ago, while he and his wife, Val, were living and working in the Falkland Islands.
“Its beak and wing got shot off when the Argentineans invaded,” he says. “I managed to stick the beak back on but the wing is still broken.”
The little clay penguin was among a number of possessions the couple managed to salvage from their home, which was all but destroyed during the invasion.
“We lived in the last house on the road between Port Stanley and the airport,” says Rob. “So it was right in the line of fire when the invasion happened. It was badly damaged but luckily we had got out before that happened.”
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A Royal Marine, one of only 40 based in the Falklands at the time of the 1982 invasion, knocked on their door just hours before the Argentineans landed and told the family it might be a good idea if they went somewhere else.
“He said they may want to take over our house to try and defend the area,” says Rob. “So we went into town and stayed with my boss.”
The couple and their young daughters left the islands three weeks later, when it was still under Argentinean control and just before the British Task Force arrived to re-take the territory by force. In November this year Rob and Val will return for the first time in three decades, staying with some friends who are farmers there.
“We always meant to go back because of the circumstances we left in,” says Rob.
“To me, it was like reading a book and putting it down before reaching the end,” says Val. “I feel there’s something unfinished.”
The couple had been working as teachers in the Falklands for three-and-a-half years. Their twin daughters had been born in Argentina only six months before the invasion.
“It all happened very quickly,” says Rob. “On the Thursday night we were told what was likely to happen – and advised to move out of our house, which we did – and on the Friday morning the Argentineans came in. The house we were living in was the first and last on the airport road in Port Stanley. The marines said they might use it for cover. It was destroyed really: hit by three mortars during the invasion. We lost a lot of stuff.
“Being civilians, we were pretty naive about things. There had been claims and counter-claims going on for some time before, but we never expected the Argentineans would decide to invade and take over.
“The Royal Marines who were there at the time mounted what they called a tactical withdrawal and I think the invasion only took about three hours. It started at about 6am and there was a ceasefire by lunchtime. Government House was taken over and the marines were rounded up by the Argentineans and flown out the next day.
“The islands were then administered by the Argentine Army. They were very efficient and not really hostile. I don’t think a lot of them really knew why they were there.
“I personally felt totally helpless, because you have no control over your own destiny. If you wanted a bottle of milk you couldn’t just go down the road and get one. It was pretty surreal. We left about three weeks later, flown out by the Argentinean Air Force with a group of British diplomats.”
Ironically, the invasion happened the day after Rob’s work contract ran out, although he had planned to stay on for another two years.
The couple initally went to the islands to run a boarding school together but moved house and jobs after the twins were born.
“I really enjoyed my job there,” says Rob. “I was teaching two-and-a-half days a week and designing educational materials for the other two-and-a-half days. I ran an art department and devised correspondence courses for children living in the ‘outback’, as it’s known. School can be hard to get to for children who live in the Falklands. It’s the size of Wales but there are no roads – only tracks – except in town, so there are ‘flying teachers’ and radio schools.”
Rob and Val had been married about a year when they decided to look for work abroad together.
They ended up in the South Atlantic by complete chance.
“The first ad we saw was for the Falklands,” says Rob. “I knew where it was but not much more at the time. But I really liked it there and but for the war would probably have stayed for another couple of years. It’s a bit like Mull – with penguins.”
There really is no escaping penguins. The little ceramic ones are among Rob’s best sellers. And they’re not the only penguins he has made. A few years ago he even placed some on Suffolk beaches as part of an eye-catching art installation.
But his avian creations don’t end there. In fact, birds of all shapes and sizes feature heavily in his ceramics repertoire. There are puffins, terns and owls to name but a few. Many are designed to be garden ornaments and come in all shapes and sizes, right down to a selection of tiny birds to go on the end of garden canes.
As well as bird life, Rob takes his inspiration from a variety of other subjects inspired by the natural world, the coast and history.
A tour of his workshop and garage reveals numerous treasures, including ceramic representations of the Sutton Hoo burial ship helmet, finely-crafted plant pots, soldier heads, a large dragon and an exquisite wall plaque of the Wild Man of Orford, a legendary merman caught by fishermen during the reign of Henry II.
Each piece comes with its own creative history, which the affable Rob is happy to reveal.
Many are made for specific exhibitions, such as the Sutton Hoo ones, but others have more humble, even slightly bizarre beginnings and are intended as nothing more than conversation pieces for some of the events he does.
Smaller items include a range of fish shapes with metallic, almost iridescent, glazes, but most of his pieces are stoneware for the garden: both functional and abstract forms.
He works directly in clay, perfecting his creations with the help of sketches, pictures and even found objects.
“A single firing achieves the toasted appearance for which I am now renowned,” he says.
Rob has honed his skills over many decades, first as a teacher and for the last few years solely as an artist.
He was born in Bury St Edmunds, went to art school, trained to be a teacher and took up his first teaching job in Lincolnshire in 1970. After the family came back from the Falklands, Rob returned to work in Lincolnshire for a couple of years before moving back to his native Suffolk with a job at Saxmundham Middle School, where he taught for the next 22 years.
His love of ceramics began when he himself was at school and became a passion he continued to indulge in his free time throughout his teaching career.
“I’ve always been making things, really,” he says.
It was, however, a post-graduate course he attended as a teacher that spurred him on to start making his own pieces to exhibit and sell.
“Eventually I got to the point where the children had grown up and it was possible for me to take the risk of giving up the day job to do this full-time,” he says. “That was nine years ago and I haven’t looked back since.”
He hasn’t completely turned his back on teaching, however, as he still runs a variety of workshops with adults and children in schools and at other venues across the region.
This summer, he will be one of a number of potters and other artists running workshops culminating in a big installation art piece at FolkEast, which will be held over the August bank holiday weekend in the grounds of Glemham Hall.
In fact, he is working on a piece featuring the FolkEast rising sun logo when I arrive at his home this morning.
Rob has such an effortlessly calm, relaxed manner that it’s hard to resist the idea that working with clay – shaping, moulding and teasing it into myriad different forms – must have strong therapeutic qualities.
His workshop, too, exudes a kind of tranquility. This is a place where ideas begin and evolve to become tangible things of beauty. That in itself is a satisfying thing.
But there’s more than just artistic creativity involved in the craft of ceramics. There’s a touch of chemistry, too, as even a cursory glance in the cupboard containing the glazes and powders Rob uses on many of his pieces reveals. Then there’s understanding how those glazes and the clay itself will react to the heat of the kiln.
Among the techniques he uses is raku, a rapid firing method that has its origins in 16th Century Japan.
Firing can take just minutes in a raku kiln before the still-hot pottery pieces are removed and put in a sawdust-filled container and allowed to “smoke”. The process gives the glazes and clay unique effects and surfaces, including crackle-glaze or matt-black finishes.
Getting the timing and finish right requires a depth of knowledge and expert judgment.
But Rob, of course, takes a relaxed view about the process, telling me that it’s not an exact science; more a bit of trial and error, really.
He has exhibitions coming up in the next few days and is also preparing for a show at Sutton Hoo in August. Past projects even include a display in a hairdressers’ window, for which he created something he called “highlights” – a series of giant clay heads with illuminated “hairdos”, along with a collection of hare figures.
“Being taken out of your comfort zone makes you think,” he says.
Among the many works in progress dotted around his workshop are a collection of remarkably life-like lizards: some on “tree stumps”, some free-standing, alone or in groups.
“The French like lizards,” he explains.
This month, Rob is off to southern France, where he will work in collaboration with local potter Corinne Faccendini, whom he met by chance during a previous visit to the area.
“We got talking and found out that her mother came from Grimsby. The next year we went to stay with her and are now returning again to work with her. I will exhibit and sell some of my stuff while I’m there,” he says.
Rob doesn’t speak much French but says he has muddled through on his previous visits to the region. And some people speak English anyway. In fact, on one occasion a Frenchman struck up a conversation with him, keen to tell him about the time he had spent working in England.
“I don’t expect you will have heard of the place I was working,” the man told him. “It’s only a small town, called Saxmundham.”
? To find out more about Rob Rutterford’s work, visit www.robrutterford.co.uk