Ann McNulty Throws Pots Around the World

Jenny Cathcart talks to the Enniskillen artist about her work and inspiration

In her studio in the Buttermarket Crafts centre in Enniskillen, Ann McNulty is packing one of her raku pots, a black and white piece with a pattern inspired by a heron which used to stand on the riverbank just behind the studio.

It is being sent to Senegal in West Africa, a corporate commission made by a firm in Strabane for a customer in Dakar. Not so extraordinary these days for a lady who receives orders from as far away as America, Australia or Chile. Though she has never lived anywhere else but Enniskillen, Ann has developed a taste for art from around the world.

On her desk is a New Year card from a Chinese artist friend, a brush painting illustrating the Year of the Dog. At an International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth in July 2005 she admired a series of black and white photographs of Sudanese style mosques in Mali, which reminded her of the work of the Spanish architect Gaudi and which inspired a new series of black and white extruded pots that began with a pair, ‘Journey 1, Day’ and ‘Journey 2, Night’.

Even when she was a pupil at Mount Lourdes convent school, her art teacher, Kathleen Bridle, referred to Ann as her ‘modern one’. Ann went on to study at the Ulster College of Art and Design in Belfast.

‘The minute I smelled the clay in the ceramics class I was hooked’, she says. A fellow student was David Maybin who now runs Scarva Pottery Supplies in Banbridge and who supplies her with specially mixed clay.

Back in Fermanagh Ann began making tableware with distinctive bold colours and patterns.

‘I love the challenge of making a pot that works well and feels comfortable and balanced to lift and use and which enhances people's lives when they share a meal. Each piece is made with care, and has its own little painting on it inspired by Fermanagh landscapes, bright red sunsets or harvest moons, reflections in the water or the black posts which hold marker buoys in the lake.’

Stacked on wooden racks around the studio are rows of newly fired pots, chalky white, perfect in their nakedness. Big shapes, little shapes, stout dresser jugs, and small smooth egg cups, lamps, plates, saucers and bowls, all round, some squat, some deep. Ann will use her own recipe for the glaze which has a satin finish and can be used in the oven, microwave, dishwasher and freezer.

Apart from the kitchenware Ann has gained a growing reputation for her raku work. Raku is a traditional Japanese method of firing which involves a special kiln that she heats up to 1050 degrees centigrade.

‘The pot is either hand built or thrown from heavily grogged rough clay and when it dries it is fired to a biscuit temperature, a soft firing. I draw patterns with a resist technique using masking tape to mark out the areas I want unglazed. I drop the pot into glaze usually four times, glazing the inside, the top, the bottom and the middle.

'This means a lot of lifting especially when some pots are heavy, and then it is fired in the raku kiln. When the pot has reached optimum temperature I don protective clothing and lift the pot out with tongs placing it in a bin of wood shavings which immediately ignite. I put the lid on the bin so that a process which I call 'painting the pot by fire' can take place. Because the flame needs oxygen, it gets it from the pot and this creates a turquoise to copper coloured glaze. When raw clay carbonises it turns black.’

‘I am especially sensitive to smell. When I am cooking I will know if the cake is baked by the smell, and the smell of burnt wood shavings or the aftersmell of fired pots reminds me of the smell Ken (a former firefighter) had on him when he came back from fighting a fire, not exactly pleasant but reassuring.'

Then came the Millennium and a commission to produce a work for permanent display at the Higher Bridges project in Enniskillen.

‘I walked around the buildings feeling the curves of the Clinton centre built on the spot where the bomb went off on 8th November 1987. I watched the river and noted the apse on the Intec centre, once the Orange Hall and decided to call the piece 'From the Flame.' It seemed a fitting title for it reminded me of the sudden whoosh of flames which is part of the raku process and also of the day the bomb killed eleven people.

Ann`s partner Ken Ramsay habitually attended the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph but on that day in 1987 he was suffering from an ankle injury and decided not to go. He and Ann were sitting in their front room in Derrychara on the opposite side of the river when the bomb went off, lighting up the room with a blast of light.

‘We went straight down there and the scene was surreal. Old men, completely stunned, wearing bowler hats, blood coming out of their ears. Ken spent the entire day at the cenotaph forgetting all about his sore ankle but really one felt so helpless in the midst of that pain and loss. So when I made the pot it seemed like something positive.’

Among the most striking of Ann's recent pots is a black and white tall raku bowl, the pattern inspired by the wings of starlings gathered in so-called ‘screaming parties’ preparing to migrate. ‘Isocheim’, a perfectly formed amphora, which has the simplicity of a biblical water pitcher, featured on the cover of the magazine ‘Contemporary Irish Ceramics’ spring/summer 2005.

Five pots including two from a series Ann calls ‘Oriency’ are currently on display at the Limerick City Art Gallery. These lustrous pieces were made around the time of the invasion of Iraq. to celebrate the vibrancy of Eastern culture.

Four brightly glazed, red, yellow and turquoise companion pots entitled ‘Rhythm’ were part of the Piece Exhibition organised by Craft and Mark as a cross-border Peace initiative for counties Down and Louth. They were displayed at the Crafts Council of Ireland gallery in Kilkenny from December 2005 to the end of January 2006.

‘The four together have a rhythm like dancers,’ commented Ann.

Ann is a sole trader, working six days a week. She makes pots, markets them, packages them and sends them on their way. Once when she was suffering from back pain she employed someone to throw pots, but she knew they were not her pots.

‘It is like writing. Everyone has his or her own signature.’