Micro-Commissions: Amy Benzie

Artist Amy Benzie leaning over kiln while working

Earlier this year, we introduced you to our Round 3 Micro-commission winners - Clive Ramage, Amy Benzie and Helen Scaife. We are delighted to say that their micro-commission artworks will be added to our museum collection!

In today’s blog, local ceramicist and Round 3 Micro-commission awardee, Amy Benzie shares the creative process and inspiration behind her pieces; 'Nettle & Docken', 'Magnesium', 'Sea Air', 'Borax' and 'Riverbed Clay.

My 2023 got off to an exciting start when I discovered I was successful in my application for this round of Micro-Commissions with Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums, supported by Friends of AAGM. I have always been fascinated by the exchanges between Art and Science which greatly inspire my clay creations in its various forms and textures. I find great value in lifting others up by using clay as a tool for fuelling curiosity in both creativity and science – which is why I was particularly drawn to the Medical Collections, and how ceramics could transcend craft, fine art and functional sterile ware such as the Leech Jar.

white earthenware jar with curved handles and a lid with 'LEECHES' printed on the side

White Earthenware Leech Jar, 1850-1880, associated with Davidson & Kay

Getting to visit the collections housed in the Aberdeen Treasure Hub first hand was an absolute joy. Staff were incredibly generous with their time as they patiently brought out all manner of jars, receptacles and vessels from the pharmacy collections. From the elaborate and extremely ornate to the practical and innovative. Even the labels which were placed on these items were fascinating. I was curious to see materials known to me from the ceramics glaze lab were common in many pharmacies decades ago such as Magnesium and Borax – and was keen to get into the studio to test them out.

I had proposed to throw 5 lidded jars which would each reflect a North East ‘remedy’ based on local knowledge and ‘auld wives tales’ of my childhood growing up in the area – such as ‘sea air’ for ailments, or ‘dock leaves’ for nettle stings. After chats with the team, we were excited to see what would happen if we used an ingredient from each of the remedies in the glazes. I set out to source: Calcium carbonate from ground sea shells; dock and nettle leaves; and riverbed clay to use alongside magnesium and borax.

After a lot of processing – such as drying and burning the organic materials in order to create ash that would mix into my glazes, and drying and grinding the clay into a powder - I created a total of 45 test tiles to work on formulating 5 successful glaze recipes that would enliven the jars, and to see what colours and effects I could get if I really pushed my materials.

I chose a white clay body to throw with in order to get the most out of the glaze. I got into a rhythm of throwing with it and was sure to make spares . I got great satisfaction out of throwing the lids to fit. I experimented with decals inspired by the labels we had dug out in the archives – similar to transfers that could be fired onto the pots. Unfortunately, with the experimental glazes, some decals were more successful than others and the readability was discussed with the team.

This led to more testing in the glaze lab. I tested decals with larger writing, and painting lustre onto the test tiles at different thicknesses and firing these again – inspired by the guilt trims on the jars in the collection. This was my first-time using lustres, but the team were incredibly supportive, and the tests were a success.

5 lidded jars of various colours with  'Nettle & Docken', 'Magnesium', 'Sea Air', 'Borax' and 'Riverbed Clay' inscibed on each

'Nettle & Docken', 'Magnesium', 'Sea Air', 'Borax' and 'Riverbed Clay', 2023, Amy Benzie © the artist

The final five jars now have each remedial ingredient carved into them, glazed with 5 new recipes that each include a variation on: Borax, Magnesium, North East riverbed clay, nettle and dock ash and ground seashells. In some, I have added in oxides such as tin to bring out the iron and therefore pinks of the riverbed clay.

Bringing the jars to the Treasure Hub was an equally nerve-wracking and fulfilling day. I had been so absorbed and close to a project. I was worried about how I would feel about the jars when I saw them out of the studio and in their new home, alongside such an awe-inspiring collection. As I sat with the curator, and we quietly unwrapped each jar, we looked at all the delicate intricacies and variations of the glazes in the light. And as we chatted, I found my energy and creativity swell again as we discussed the chemistry I had discovered, and the historical and local tales that accompanied each ingredient, and I left with a whole new drive ready to delve further into my material.

Artist Amy Benzie standing beside her final pieces at Aberdeen Treasure Hub