To get a true sense of what Jason Wason is about, you probably have to see where he lives and works. There is no more dramatic location I know of for a potter's studio, a crow's nest high on a hillside in Cornwall with a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, and, between him and sea, a broad coastal landscape punctuated by old, broken down, mine workings. Behind him a tall radio mast attracts lightening on an alarmingly regular basis, and the wind and rain buffets this wild place. It is difficult to think of anywhere more elemental, on Britain's western-most coast, "a land suspended between sea and sky", between earth and oblivion. Wason's austere ceramics seem imbued with this bony terrain, as they are by his wider travels and his appreciation of the art, pottery and landscapes of far-flung cultures too - from Africa to the Mediterranean to New Mexico.
This remote base is perhaps symbolic in other ways. Wason has always struck me as something of a loner, an outsider in British ceramics, never really part of the 'pottery scene', but one who shows more with fine art galleries, a reflection of the sculptural nature of his work. While he has made his fair share of more conventional functional pieces, by the late 80's he was concentrating increasingly on bigger, more ambitious, vessel shapes. They were objects which drew in part on the great ceremonial wares of the past and his absorption of nature to explore containment in powerful new ways, forms that he has been developing to this day - broad deep bowls, jars (some like tall amphorae), pouring vessels, disk-like containers, lidded jars and big dishes. They suffuse elements of form taken from the disparate places he has seen and his appreciation of the long history of ceramic art, as well as the direct, ever-present, light, colour and texture of his Cornish home.
Wason's nomadic independence, the sense that he works away from the main creative limb of clay, is perhaps due to an in-born separateness. He is essentially self-taught, not a product of the art college system, and had a good deal of experience at the wheel before he went to a workshop. He learnt the basics at a crafts co-operative he helped to establish in Scotland in the early 1970's. But before this time he had already travelled extensively, in North Africa, Asia and Europe. By buying jewellery and other ethnic objects from some of the places he visited, exporting them home to raise finance for further travel, he was developing that keen visual sensibility, a potter probably more indebted to other artistic traditions than our own - though there is clearly an innate feeling for our earliest native pots and relics and their primordial landscapes.
In 1976 he and his young family settled in Cornwall and Wason joined the team at the Leach Pottery in St Ives. He had found and begun to renovate an old farmhouse in the country around St Just near Penzance, once a great mining area and a place he had fallen in love with several years before and was determined to return to. Following the rules of the Leach workshop, he again began to make pots from scratch and consolidated his technical knowledge through batch production for the pottery and his own work in the evenings. Yet, despite his admiration for Bernard Leach's aesthetic, and his indebtedness, in part, to Eastern form (and Wason now has a close working relationship with Japan), it was clear when he left the pottery in 1981 that he would move in a radically different direction.
Soon he would be developing structures, which, with their signature black finish, were primarily concerned with the architecture of form, incising, turning, carving and using applied clay decoration, integral to surface. He did not paint or glaze in the Leachian manner. Wall pieces made in the mid 80's resembled little else being made in Britain at that time, recalling the spirit of 11th and 12th century Mimbres bowls but with a minimal and effective abstract design of Wason's conception, clearly showing how he was able to absorb and transform his influences into modern objects for modern life. Yet, despite his economy, what is also evident is the precision and attentiveness of his time - consuming craftsmanship and finish. These objects are beautifully wrought. Yet they are not, with their abraded and textured contours, pieces of easy ornamentation. They challenge the viewer. They have a presence that will sculpturally shape a room, that centre and define space.
Layers of oxide create surfaces of great variation, some drier and revealing of the underlying clay (Wason also uses a white body, creating rich silvery greys), others are more metallic and lustrous. More recently he has been given to throwing scraps of metal into the kiln to compound these effects. The echoes of history are various. One may be reminded of Chinese bronzes or burnished African pots, the clay sometimes braided or scored like the designs of tribal jewellery or the geometric patterns found on shields and textiles (think of his zigzag dishes and scaled forms, or the black and white wall pieces). Wason's inventive, playful eclecticism reminds one a little of the late Ian Godfrey, but Wason makes bolder statements, and is not concerned with Godfrey's more intimate whimsy. His work is more succinct. Yet, for all its brevity, there is still a great sense of treasure and discovery. Look for example at his Presentation Boxes, solidly constructed, made to contain all manner of offerings - fossils, skulls and crystals for instance. Here, in Wason's rich archaeology, his ritualistic world, we sense a potter raiding some ancient burial chamber, imaginatively drawing on forgotten ceremonial languages and the land around him to say new things about the vessel and the lessons of time.
Wason's work makes no concession to popular taste. His deep investment in the clay is about his dialogue across the centuries, to civilisations where man made art for very functional purposes, and where he was in far more accord - in step - with the earth and its cycles. This work, aside from its celebration of clay, has an underlying political and ecological message too, one that comes out of its equilibrium, its balance and poise, the fact that it makes us pause and think about the world in which we live now. Out of its clear sense of history and its stillness, we realise how much this potter has to say beyond the flux of contemporary life.
David Whiting is a writer and curator. He is a member of the International Association of Art Critics.