The Reef Cup: A Project with Ceramicist and Surfer Jake Boex
15 . 12 . 19
Like most workshops, ours is fuelled by hot drinks and enthusiasm. Buying some new mugs for the workshop could have been a quick and easy task; we could have gone to a supermarket and picked up a matching set for a pound or so a piece; we could have assembled a collection by visiting a few charity shops; or we could have ordered a set of tin camping mugs and had our logo etched into the enamel. But we make things by hand and wanted to support a maker. There are some incredibly talented ceramicists in Cornwall, but the standout to us, who immediately sprang to mind is Jake Boex. Jake is a former professional surfer turned ceramicist from Porthleven, who now throws beakers and bowls full time. His series “A Cup By The Sea” features a spiral of ground up rock from his local surfing reef, one of (if not THE) best surf breaks in the UK. Could we order some for the workshop here, but could we also work with Jake to create wooden handles for them with the same reef dust mixed into the glue bonding the layers of home-made plywood (from surfboard offcuts) together? Buying some new mugs could have been a quick and easy task, but not when there’s a story this strong to be explored. We made the handles, and with some of the special reef-dust plywood left over, we cut out and foiled some fins. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes. We’ve now got a set of beautiful and totally unique mugs in the workshop, and a friendship with an amazing maker, and surfer.
Mid-way through the project, we sat down with Jake for a conversation about the importance of place, planet, materials and making, and how they all weave together in his work.
“My name is Jake Boex, and I’m a ceramic artist. I make cups, amongst other things, using clay and porcelain. It’s simple, but I think that in this simple form there can be this story about the environment. About, where did these materials come from? And I think that can then have a message of perception; how do we see our natural environment and how do we relate to the objects that we use in daily life.
The natural environment has been something for me that has been very real; it’s had a big impact on my life since I was very young – from walking the family dog down the valley, to getting in the ocean and surfing waves. I studied environmental science at school, college and university. I went on to do some PhD research on climate science and looking at different rocks and sediments in South America to understand a bit about how the ice mass changed in relation to climate shifts. These sediments tell a huge story about how the earth system works. And clay, likewise, has a story and a message within it.
I surfed from when I was quite little, growing up in Cornwall. I think I first started when I was about eight, on a bodyboard, and then got my first surfboard at ten. I did quite well in a local competition when I was about 14, beating some of the older surfers in the open division, and then I got some sponsors and was given some bits and bobs and a bit of money to support my surfing. I did go to university and get a degree but then I had the opportunity to surf professionally, so I did that through my twenties with O’Neill Europe who were a really great sponsor.
Right here in Porthleven, on the south coast, five minutes down the road from my house is one of Europe’s premier surf spots. Actually it rivals anywhere in the world, but the slight drawback is that Porthleven is fairly inconsistent. You’re probably talking about a handful of times a year when the conditions are that epic. But when it is on, it’s one of the best waves I’ve surfed anywhere in the world. Even if it’s only half good, it’s still very, very, good. I’m lucky to be able to surf here. A reef break is a place where waves break on top of rock and I find that rock quite interesting as well because how does that rock allow that to happen? What is the history behind that rock and why is it there? We get into some interesting local geology about 290 million years ago, when a mountain range pushed up, and within that there was this granite that we all know about as Cornish granite, and around it was metamorphic sediments. So right out here we’ve got this interface between the granite Cornubian batholith pushing up and then these meta-sediments, or Phyllites. It’s this dip of the rock that makes the reef gives this right hand wave. I got interested in that rock because I was thinking well, I’m surfing it, but maybe I can use it in some ceramics too. That’s what brought me on to using a piece of the reef in the ceramics.
Cornwall, geologically, is really interesting. There’s the tin mining, which has formed a big part of Cornish history, but there’s also the discovery of China clay – first in the west discovered here at Tregonning Hill, that’s used in loads of applications from porcelain right through to magazines and toothpaste and so-on. Historically Cornwall has been very significant from a geological stand point. I’m interested in that and also I’m interested in surfing, so weaving them together comes quite naturally.
I think that the hands are pretty fascinating because they allow us to do such amazing things. I’ve been quite involved with getting into yoga and Eastern understandings of mind and body, so the hands in yoga and meditation as having potential for much more than simple manual applications, shall we say. There’s this zone where we can get some depth, some window, beyond the mundane, and that interests me.
Using local rocks in ceramics can be done in several ways, but one of the ways that I’ve found to be quite effective is to use it as an inlay. You can use a small amount of rock, crushed up, and then inlay it into the piece. There’s a couple of stages to it – there’s before it’s been fired and glazed and the sediment’s been inlaid into the cup and scraped back to reveal it, and then once it’s been fired and glazed you can see that the sediment is tucked in behind the glaze but it gives you this underwater effect. It has the provenance of the reef, and then using the glaze to give it something of the feel of the ocean or the sea. The simple cup then has this story to it, which I really like.
We live on planet Earth, and there’s only one of those. The way that we’ve been going, if we look at humanity in the last hundred years, is a way of consuming material objects and so on, but that consumerism is impacting the environment. We all know about this. One way of working with this issue is to confront people about it and say: “we’ve got to stop this” and “look at these things dying because of what you’re doing”, and then people feel worried, guilty, and fearful. So what is that approach doing for people? Is it really a skilful way of changing the way that people are interacting with this planet Earth? Or, is there a way of shifting people’s perception of Earth so that people see it as precious and amazing, and as their home, and not as an infinite resource but as a finite resource that’s fragile. What I’m interested in is shifting perception rather than taking a fear-based approach.
Take something really, really, simple. Take a cup. It’s a functional object. And yet within that really simple object we can find a real depth of story, about what’s happening there. Where have these different parts come from? The clay’s come from the ground. Where has the clay come from? Some weathering of the surface rock over millions of years. The glaze, where has this come from? Different crushed up components of rocks, some copper oxide and other metal oxides. How do you bring it together? By throwing it on a wheel. And then there’s adding into this the crushed rock with a particular provenance and there’s a story about the environment and about the Earth. I think that story is most clearly highlighted if we use a really, really, simple everyday object such as a cup. Then somehow, in my mind, it makes it more vivid and more real. I think that message then caries across because it makes people think about the other cups they use when they’re having a cup of tea. Maybe when they’re having a cup of tea or coffee, wherever they are, whichever cups they’re drinking from, the same point is coming to mind, which is a shift towards appreciation of the natural environment.