Artisanal brickmaking with Clare Elizabeth Kennedy

Artisanal brickmaking with Clare Elizabeth Kennedy

Our upcoming exhibition, The Apprenticeship, explores the acquisition and continuity of the traditional hand skills of crafts and trades that have been affected by the advent of mass production. From blacksmiths to shoemakers, sign writers to knife makers, this exhibition features the works and stories of 13 Australian artisans who have revived and preserved traditional crafts and trades. Despite the dominance of mass-production in the contemporary marketplace and the decline of the skills required and availability of learning pathways for the traditional means of production, these artisans have developed successful full-time or part-time businesses in their chosen field. On display from 19 April to 25 June, The Apprenticeship exhibition will focus on unique and inspiring stories of how each artisan learned the traditional skills behind their craft and trade against all odds.

As part of The Apprenticeship conversation, Curators Richard Stride and Aaron Barton will be asking each artisan to share their thoughts on the apprenticeship today and how traditional crafts are being revived in Australia as an alternative to mass-produced. Each week we will be sharing these conversations with you through our blog.

To kick off the conversation, we’d like to introduce The Apprenticeship artist, Clare Elizabeth Kennedy. Clare is an architectural designer who experiments with handcrafting bricks and other earth construction techniques. Driven by the belief that building materials should be made from resources local to the building site, as opposed to imported and mass-produced materials, Clare decided to expand her architectural practice into brickmaking as a means to achieve this in her designs. Clare uses clay found on the sites of her architectural projects to craft her bricks using hand techniques learned during her travels around India and through her own research and experimentation. Clare has also launched Five Mile Radius, an outlet for her that experiments with natural building techniques and means of encouraging and enabling people to build using their own local resources.

The Apprenticeship Curators, Richard Stride and Aaron Barton, recently spoke to Clare in her Brisbane-based studio to hear more behind her fascinating journey into artisan brickmaking.

 


How long have you been making bricks, and what drew you to it initially?

I’ve been working as an architectural designer for a number or years, however, I only begun creating my own building materials a year and a half ago. I was frustrated that almost all building materials are mass-produced and transported long distances so that final building is assembled using imported component’s that have no relationship to their final resting place. I want be able to create building materials using resources available close to the building site, and bricks are a good place to start.  Bricks are beautiful, modular and, most importantly, they are made out of dirt, something which is almost universally available.

 

Clare Elizabeth Kennedy drawing inspiration from her surrounding environment. Image courtesy of the artist.

Clare Elizabeth Kennedy drawing inspiration from her surrounding environment. Photo by Shravanthi Naidu.

 

What has been your favourite project or product and why?

I’m working with another architect on a house he is designing near Mt Warning in northern NSW.  The site is in a secluded rainforest clearing and the ground is formed of beautiful rich pink clay. We needed to move some clay to make way for the building and I’m now trying to develop a brick for the building from this clay. I’m excited to see where it goes. To me this makes sense for the client practically as a construction process, and emotionally.

 

Image courtesy of the artist.

INSPIRATION | Varied landscapes and their natural resources. Fallen bark, 2016, Mt Coo-tha, Brisbane. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 

What does a normal work day look like for you?

I have a workshop at the Foundry in Red Hill where I store my dirt and brickmaking tools. It’s a great shared space with like-minded artisans, and we’re very supportive of each other’s efforts. The energy at the workshop generates enthusiasm. Every project I undertake involves considerable research. I spend quite a lot of time visiting brickmaking factories and travelling around sourcing my materials. It’s been wonderful connecting with local brick makers here in Queensland and hearing their stories and learning from them.

WORK | Brickmaking process. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

WORK | Brickmaking process. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

WORK | Brickmaking process. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

WORK | Brickmaking process. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

Image courtesy of the artist.

WORK | Five Mile Radius workshop in the Foundry Studios. Red Hill, QLD. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

WORK | Roman concrete tests using materials from Minjerribah / North Stradbroke Island. Photo by Clare Kennedy

WORK | Roman concrete tests using materials from Minjerribah / North Stradbroke Island. Photo by Clare Kennedy

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WORK | Mud, Sand and Lime bricks made from varied local resources. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 

How was brickmaking traditionally learnt in the past, and does this path still exist?

Traditionally, bricks were locally made by the community. The clay was dug, formed and fired close to the building site. It was a laborious but relatively simple process, and unskilled members of the community were able to assist because brickmaking techniques were handed down within a community.

It was largely the development of kiln technologies that caused brickmaking to become more specialised and centralised, and today clay is often transported long distances to brickworks where it is industrially processed and fired. The day of the site-made brick is certainly threatened, however, there are still places, particularly in poorer countries, where it continues and its worth is appreciated.

 

How did you learn the techniques and theory behind your craft?

I first studied brickmaking in India, travelling and visiting local factories and doing various short courses in earth construction techniques. The brickmaking process varies throughout India, however, most factories are much smaller and less mechanised than those here. I also visited rural areas where people were making bricks using their own soil. Indians are wonderfully frugal and understand the social and economic advantages of using their own clay.

I then returned to Australia where I continue to learn as much as I can. I read and research online brickmaking techniques, but it has largely been through the generous support and encouragement of the brickmaking community here that I have made headway. There are two factories close to Brisbane that I regularly visit for advice, materials and to use any special equipment required.

 

Photos by Clare of her visit to the Dharmalaya Institute in northern India - a place on top of a hill built almost entirely out of its site (mud).

Photos by Clare of her visit to the Dharmalaya Institute in northern India – a place on top of a hill built almost entirely out of its site (mud).

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Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

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Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 

Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of brickmaking dissipated and needed to be relearnt?

I have had and continue to have a number of wonderfully generous mentors, including brick makers, bricklayers and architects both at home and abroad. However, there is no one stop shop. I glean information from all over, and I have loved getting to know people in the industry along the way.

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INSPIRATION | Series of sculptures using materials found in on site |Marr Grounds and Paul Pholeros, Sculpture from the top end, 1977. Location: Maningrida, NT. Image soure: http://www.marrgrounds.com.au.

Are there any speciality tools required for handcrafting bricks, and if so has it been challenging to find and learn to use them?

I try to keep it basic. One of my goals is to teach communities how to make bricks themselves out of their own clay using simple tools and techniques because I think brickmaking techniques should be widely accessible.

There are many ways to make a brick– from very basic to very technical. I use traditional timber moulds, and I generally mix my clay with my feet – a remarkably effective technique I learnt in India. If I should need more mechanised equipment it is available to me, but for now I’m content with the outcome and the significance of the simple scale I’m working at.

 

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WORK | Blue shale brick drying before firing. Photo by Clare Kennedy.

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WORK | Minibricks from various clays. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

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WORK | Clay weights smoke fired in single use mud kiln. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

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WORK | Clay tile finishes tests. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 

Obviously, bricks are also produced on a large scale by mass-production. Has that meant for the design and quality of bricks?

When you make bricks in a factory you need to be able to produce 20,000+ of them each day. You can’t be experimental. Consistency is the key. Soils are combined en masse in order to deliver a certain colour and finish with regularity. Bricks come in standard reproducible, predictable shapes and sizes.

My approach is entirely different. I work with whatever soil is on site, and that’s essentially the colour of the bricks produced. You can tweak the final product with some natural additives, but really you let the site dictate the outcome. This approach allows me to be experimental with my moulds and firing processes resulting in a product possibly less robust than its commercial counterpart, but far richer in character.

INSPIRATION | Finishes using Natural Materials - floor made from egg white, oil, riverstone, jaggery, charcoal and coconut Water. Built 1601, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

INSPIRATION | Finishes using Natural Materials – floor made from egg white, oil, riverstone, jaggery, charcoal and coconut Water. Built 1601, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

Artisan bricks. Image courtesy of the artist.

INSPIRATION | Australian Brick industry. Warwick Brick Factory Kiln built in 1900, Warwick, QLD. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

Artisan bricks. Image courtesy of the artist.

WORK | Unloading tiles from kiln. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

Artisan bricks. Image courtesy of the artist.

WORK | Firing tests. Clay dug from site for new house by Buro Two Architecture. Burringbar, NSW. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 

Is there a revival of the traditional means of production in traditional brickmaking today and if so why do you think that is? Are makers creating new value in traditional production methods or are consumers now simply perceiving value in it?

People, certainly in the western middle class, are becoming more concerned with the origin of things. Locally sourced, DIY, and organic are now commonplace terms used everywhere from the fashion to the food industry. The use of alternative, natural construction materials and techniques is certainly on the rise, but there is still a long way to go. Building with materials already on site is something many consider is just not feasible any more.  I believe there is definitely value in it–not just from the sustainability viewpoint, but also from a social, economic and aesthetic perspective.

 

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INSPIRATION | Efficient brick screen. Centre for Development Studies by architect, Laurie Baker. Built in 1971, Trivandrum, Kerala. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

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INSPIRATION | Innovative use of Australian brick. C. B. Alexander Presbyterian Agricultural College by Architects Ian McKay & Philip Cox. Built in 1964, Tocal, NSW. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

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INSPIRATION | A white cliffs dugout – Dwellings dug into rock to combat extreme heat. White Cliffs, NSW. Photo by Allan Coker.


 

You can see Clare’s work at Gallery artisan from 19 April to 18 June. You can keep up-to-date with Clare’s projects by visiting  www.clareelizabethkennedy.com and Five Mile Radius. Or you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook for more beautiful photos!

Feature image: Traditional mud construction in Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living , Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by Clare Elizabeth Kennedy.

 


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