William Martin is a South African-born artist working in London. He uses his ceramics and textiles to create narrative installations. His practice combines personal experiences and art history to create site specific exhibitions. His current exhibition 'Liam' is on view at The Smallest Gallery in Soho, London throughout June. William is represented by Velorose Gallery, London.
I attended Wynberg Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a desperate imitation of a British public school struggling to stay relevant in a newly liberated, and liberal, political environment. Even at that young age I viewed it and institutions like it to be intrinsically misogynistic, homophobic and racist, with a barely concealed militarised agenda, still visible in the shooting range, the war memorials and the annual pressenations by the British Armed Forces looking for Commonwealth cannon-fodder. My father had received a rugby scholarship to the school and had almost played for the country before pneumonia stopped his tryouts. He joined the navy and represented the country in sailing instead. I started pottery because I didn’t want to play rugby.
By the time I was 16 I was doing art subjects at 3 different schools, 5 days a week. They couldn’t squeeze in a session of hand tennis if they tried. I got 95% (an impossible number in an english grading system) for my end of year art project; a nightmarish installation of giant half finished drawings surrounded by confused collages and empty lube packets. It was so big, sitting in the middle of the hall, that it disrupted assemblies. This was done under the clever auspices of Mandy Colman. Unlike the other art teachers, she hadn’t slept with the students or had a mental breakdown. She roared and fought back and got stuff done. Several high profile contemporary artists have come out of her classroom, including Hasan and Husain Essop. Mandy took us to blue-chip galleries like Michael Stevenson, the National Gallery where we saw Jane Alexander’s ‘Butcher Boys’, and contemporary productions of ‘Othello’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. While she was teaching she continued her own studies and showed a select few of us the work in progress. ‘Work into it’ was her mantra, and she was always right. Jennifer Frantisek was an antidote to the toxic masculinity of my environment.
I’d started pottery classes with her at 9 and left when I was 18 to continue my apprenticeship with John Bauer. Jenny taught me about permaculture, prehistoric Japan, William Morris, and glaze chemistry. Every year we studied and responded to the material culture of a different civilisation. She helped me with my science project (The Effect of Heat on Clay) which was displayed at the University Hall that I would eventually graduate in years later. Jenny took me to Tai Chi with her, talked me through the various heartbreaks of adolescence, and always counselled balance. She took me to ceramics workshops and guest lectures and even to my first wood firing weekend with Paul de Jongh. I stayed up all night with my back to the warm bricks, fire pouring out of the chimney as we threw logs in to raise the temperature above 1200 degrees C. Her kids went to a beautiful Waldorf school, and I received the afterglow of that education. Her son had built a giant Koi pond for his end-of-school self-motivated project. It sat in a large garden with an enormous, climbable pepper tree at its centre. There were rare breeds of chickens, an overly abundant plum tree, rampant dog roses, ginger, ginkgo, and several generations of pottery among the bushes. We did pit firings in the garden, with a bowl of vanilla essence on the lid so that the neighbours thought we were baking. Jenny made beautiful, refined, hand-built vessels with ropework like roils on the rims, taking inspiration from Jamon archeology. It’s a measure of her humbleness that I can’t find any pictures online.
Jenny past away a few years ago. Her family have kept her studio open to her students, and most importantly, kept her body of work intact. Jenny gave me my first exhibition in the public library down the road from her house, one day I’ll have to return the favour.
@williamandco_uk @thesmallestgalleryinsoho #waitingforliam