National Treasure 

Neil Brownsword : Spring 2014

Neil Brownsword is Professor of Clay & Ceramics, Department of Fine Art, Bergen Academy of Art and Design, and Senior Lecturer and Researcher at Bucks New University, UK. His PhD (2006) combined historical and archaeological research on ceramic production in North Staffordshire from the eighteenth century to the present. In 2009 Brownsword received the ‘one off’ award at the inaugural British Ceramic Biennial. Brownsword, is also one of the initiators and project leaders of the artistic research project ‘Topographies of The Obsolete’ coordinated by Bergen Academy of Art and Design.

Excerpts from an interview with Cecelia Gelin, Bergen Academy of Art and Design.

The work is an extension of my on-going fascination with place, people, skill and knowledge. It remains embedded in my practice. My preoccupation with the industrial histories of Stoke-on-Trent stem from I growing up and working in the city. When I left school in 1987, experiences from my employment in the ceramic industry continue to inform perspectives within my current artistic practice. Over the last 15-20 years I have witnessed the dramatic downsizing of this industry, mainly as a result of advances in production technologies and global outsourcing. When I worked at the Wedgwood factory in1987 there were over 2,500 people. Now I think there are roughly 150-200 people employed at the main site. Those displaced from the industry find it difficult to transfer their unique skills and knowledge to any other area of work. I have come to know some incredibly skilled people – hand painters, mould makers and modellers who now work in supermarkets, or other minimum wage enterprises. So from a personal perspective, it has been the under valuing of such people and the loss of indigenous skills that I continue to address.

Through the work I aim to raise a greater awareness, not in a sentimental or nostalgic way, of the extent of what has disappeared. North Staffordshire was one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution. By 1800 the towns which now make up Stoke-on-Trent paralleled China as a world centre for ceramics. But by the late 1990´s, failure to move with the times and address contemporary design, corporate mismanagement of factories, and decisions to outsource production to Asia have all led to the collapse of this industry. One in four are now unemployed in Stoke-on-Trent. The city council’s 2012 survey reports that wages are 30% below the national average with youth unemployment is officially at 22% and thousands of those in work are employed on low pay, minimal hours and short term contracts.