Of the four elements – water, fire, air and earth - water is the vital force in Essex Tyler’s work. Not surprisingly, given that his identity as a surfer, sailor and fisherman bleeds in to his art. As a painter, Essex brings together big liquid skies, the irascible Atlantic Ocean and the copper-stained cliffs of West Cornwall in landscapes that move one step beyond his contemporaries in capturing a quiet intensity, a kind of brooding – but a celebratory brooding. Heron-blue skies weigh heavy on golden rocks that are bursting treasure chests – but this is not sweet earth. It spills out in rough coughs against the incessant forced medicine of the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes the bronze of fiery earth leaks into the sky and stains it. Essex first established himself as a potter, so he knows the clays and metals that stain his paintings intimately. It is this translation of the physicality of clay forms and their firing into painting that makes his canvases so unique and powerful. Raku pots, veined with cobalt, want to burst open like ripe fruit. The textures are smooth and burnished, with intricate cracks appearing by chance, a metaphor for life.
The techniques of Raku pottery are not dissimilar to those of Zen Buddhism – intense heat firing and then cooling outside the kiln. Zen takes you straight to the red-hot heart of an object or a perception, an idea or a feeling, and then reduces it through a swift switch to intense contemplation. This is caught in Zen koans – parables that burn with penetrating description and finish on a cool note of contemplation. Soyen Shaku, the Zen teacher who first brought Zen Buddhism to America, where Beat poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder eagerly adopted the teachings and practices, said My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes. In other words, an experience ignites but a subsequent contemplation creates reflective distance.
Essex brings beauty into everything he does. It was no surprise he was attracted to a Japanese artform, Raku pottery. There is a tradition of bringing beauty into everything in Japan, from building to making tea to social manners. Raku was the chosen pottery for the tea ceremony. Past and present blend seamlessly, so that even the Japanese factory workers making televisions talk of the spirits in the tube. Following a Shinto philosophy, whole temple complexes are completely rebuilt every 20 years in accordance with principles of purity and renewal. Many traditional habits pervade everyday Japanese life, from an emphasis on purification to an obsession with austere aesthetics and the celebration of the cherry blossom.
Raku Pottery (楽焼き Raku-Yaki) was developed in the early 1500’s. Raku (楽) literally means ‘felicity’, signifying enjoyment of freedom. It was the favoured ceremonial tea ware of the Zen Buddhist Masters because of its undecorated humility. Ironically, Raku is hardly water tight, only holding liquid for a short period. It is pottery without utility or function, fired with lead based glazes, producing unpredictable works of wonder. It is thrown with a wheel, which gives it a slightly uneven shape and style.The firing process is daring, a dramatic trial by fire. A once-fired (bisque), unglazed pot is first coated with glaze and placed into the kiln, then heated at a fast rate. This often causes the pot to explode. If the pot survives this shock, it is blessed, glowing like a hot coal in a rainstorm, the glaze melting into a sheet of liquid glass. The potter uses tongs to remove the glowing pot, the severe temperature change causing cracks in the glaze. These cracks are highly prized characteristics. The pot is placed directly into an airtight container filled with the artists’ secret recipe, which turn the naked clay foot black and highlight the cracks in the glaze. Sometimes the pot is plunged into cold water for greater effect. Imagine a flaming dawn burning your eyes, then jumping into an ice-cold sea with a new swell with an offshore wind fanning the flames.