Recently I found myself sitting next to a delightful Dutchman at a lovely family wedding. We exchanged basic information on who we knew, how beautiful the bride looked (his niece), how handsome the groom was (my cousin), and what a touching, modern and uplifting exchange of vows we had just witnessed, then we turned to introduce ourselves to the people on our other sides. Later, as we tucked into homemade lasagne (made by the mother of the groom) I asked him a question I must have asked a thousand times, 'what do you do?' He looked momentarily confused as if his understanding of English had failed him, 'What do you mean?' he replied, 'do you mean, what do I like to do?' It suddenly struck me how rigid we are in our thinking in the UK, how we allow ourselves to be entirely defined by our work and our jobs and how this has become our narrow culture. Of course I was asking about his job, but he heard a different question. He was thinking about his life as a whole, his love of the outdoors, his hobbies and family time and he started with that and then he told me about his job which is only a part of his life, not the whole of it. There is such a lesson there and I made my own vow that day to look at my life and all the parts of myself with new eyes and greater value, I'm not defined by my work, I am so much more, we all are. And the next time someone asks me what I do I will talk about my life in a different way and try not to package myself into one little box labelled 'work'.
I went to Ceramic Art London in March. It was so exciting – a collection of some of the best makers on the planet all in one space at St Martin’s School of Art, Kings Cross. It was a really blustery day with blue skies and the fresh Spring weather matched my excitement at the prospect of being inspired. I wasn’t disappointed; the level of skill across all of the ceramics was so incredible it was almost impossible to imagine this work could have been made by hand. I didn’t intend to go to a talk but as I walked towards the exit, I passed the open door to the lecture theatre and they were calling for people to take a seat so, on a total whim, I slipped inside and sat at the back. It was a talk about architecture, how ceramics are used on the exterior of buildings, and I have to be honest, my energy didn’t exactly jump at the prospect. How wrong I was. The owner of Darwen Terracotta, John Wilson, told a story which amazed me. Only 4 years ago he had started the business and rescued a large number of very skilled crafts people who had been let go from another company with no prospect of finding similar work. He raised the money with another colleague to take them on and start Darwen Terracotta and now, not only are their skills saved for future generations but the company is thriving and doing wonderful artistic, uplifting, restorative work on buildings, and working with contemporary ceramicists and architects all over the world. John’s story moved me. I know from personal experience how simple it seemed in the 1990’s for aggressive buyout teams to storm into family businesses and discard all the workers, some of whom had been there all their lives as had their parents and grandparents, and try to replace them with machinery or other cheaper less skilled workers. It was so short-sighted. These skilled craftspeople WERE the business. Most of these businesses and with them, many of our famous and beautiful handmade British glassware and ceramics brands, simply didn’t survive. John has done a very good thing, not only for the people whose livelihoods and skills he saved but also for the next generation of young people who are learning from these ceramic and glazing experts. When the talk was finished I left the lecture hall and as I came out of St Martin’s into the bright sunlight I found myself looking up at the tops of buildings, the tiled exteriors of tube stations, the ceramic art on fountains and the amazing ceramic sculptures on old facades with new eyes, chances are they were made/repaired/designed by Darwen Terracotta’s team of skilled craftspeople, and I thought about how easy it would have been to walk past that open door. I’m so glad I didn’t.
The other day I was thinking about where creativity comes from and what makes some people naturals when it comes to making things with their hands. Having just got back from Made by Hand Cheltenham, where I was one of 100 lucky makers given the opportunity to show their work, the standard was quite astonishing. The best time at these events for me is first thing in the morning before the day gets going and people arrive. You can wander from stand to stand in the quiet as makers arrive with coffees and start to set up, looking closely at the work and considering the practice and skill and sheer imagination that has gone into such perfect pieces of hand-made joy. For anyone who hasn’t been to one of these events I urge you to go. You’ll never want to buy mass produced again and the pleasure of meeting and talking to makers, so happy to share their experience and skill, is such a privilege and the icing on the cake.
There is no doubt in my mind that some people just know what to do when they find their thing, be it clay or paint or glass, textiles, wood or jewellery … the list goes on. That’s not to say that hundreds of hours of practise haven’t gone into the work as these makers hone their skills, learn from their mistakes and perfect their craft, but if you are lucky enough to ‘find your thing’ it’s definitely a feeling that you have come home. I wonder if a leaning towards making in clay for example like I do could be carried in our DNA and passed down from generation to generation. There are no potters that I know of in my family but I like to think that perhaps some ancient ancestor of mine made pots in the way I make pots, with their hands and heart, pressing their fingers into the clay to form a vessel that can hold something beautiful or a simple treasure. And if so, perhaps the very first time I picked up the clay, which felt so familiar to me as soon as I touched it, their hands reached across the generations and took mine in theirs to show me what I already knew.
So, it’s here, my empty nest moment. I’ve known it was coming for a while since I realised that by a simple quirk of fate, both of my children, even though they are almost 5 years apart in age, would leave home within a month of each other. The thing that strikes me the most is how they have taken their very essence and energy with them. Our house feels very empty and I wasn’t expecting that! I know there will be many new and wonderful things to come out of this; opportunities, experiences and more happy days when they are once again sitting round our kitchen table, telling us about their lives, but right now it’s quite a challenge as I learn to accept the ending of my most important and creative job. My friends who are a bit ahead of me tell me how parenting is never over and they come back, and I know that, but what is over is the ‘knowing’ of how they feel in the day to day, the sharing of triumphs and disappointments as they happen, the casual, but important, conversations late at night just when you are desperate to go to bed! Those memories make me want to reach back in time and hold their hot little hands in mine once more. I have watched with wonder and pride as they have grown from babies to toddlers to children to young adults and now they are gone to start their adult lives which is the right order of things of course. It has been a privilege you know, and I loved every minute.
‘Making’ sounds so much less serious than ‘creating’ and because I could be ‘making’ a cake or ‘making’ a bed, it isn’t loaded with expectation about making something wonderful and perfect and all of us makers can live without that pressure! The clay feels cold and inanimate when you first pull it out of the bag but it soon warms up and comes alive in my hands; every clay is different and you become familiar with the feel of each one. The black porcelain is always wet and sticky but if you run your finger through it, it smooths out like silk. The white porcelain feels slightly dryer and harder to the touch but it ‘gives’ when you work it as if it’s capitulating in some way. I always start with a ball of clay in the palm of my hand and I never make anything bigger than I can comfortably create there because keeping an unbroken connection with the clay is very important to me. Sometimes, when people pick up my finished work they will place it in their own palm for a moment and this always thrills me; it’s where it started out and when they do that I feel that their hand slips into mine as the maker, just for a moment, and to me, that’s what ‘hand-made’ is all about.
Nourish is such a lovely rich, big, beautiful, all encompassing word. It’s about abundance, receiving and giving, nurture and care. It's about kindness, warmth, thoughtfulness and sharing. We can nourish others but we can also nourish ourselves with the things that make us feel better; flowers, a walk, a cup of coffee with friends, reading by a fire, cooking a lovely meal for friends or family. I know that working with clay nourishes the creative part of who I am and now I can't imagine my life without it. I was at The Nourish Festival in Bovey Tracey at the beginning of September and the town was filled with people from near and far. There was nourishment for everyone that day, the sun shone, the streets were packed with families encompassing all the generations, and the atmosphere was amazing; no one can ask for more than that! As summer turns to autumn it’s time to nourish ourselves and each other and so these flowers are for you.
I won an award! As my Yorkshire Dad used to say, 'Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather!' It was the Makers Choice Award presented by North Devon Ceramics Academy and Studio at Clay: A Festival of Ceramics in Barnstaple, North Devon. There were over 65 other ceramicists there and I was totally blown away to be chosen. When they came over saying they had something to tell me I thought I had done something wrong; taken up too much space with my stand, parked in the wrong place, forgotten to pay my stand fee ...I guess it's inevitable that old habits die hard but this was a wonderful unexpected surprise and I am thrilled to bits and very proud!
It's 12 months since I first showed my lustre and porcelain pieces at the Contemporary Craft Festival in Bovey Tracey, and what a lot has happened since then! This year I introduced my black clay pieces and I was also in the main tent which was so exciting. So many customers returned to add to their collections and it was lovely to see them again and talk about their pieces and where they had put them in their homes. Not for the first time did I think what a great world this is to be a part of. My stand was near two makers I have got to know over the last year, Helen Round Designs and Lucy Spink Jewellery and we had so much fun. This is definitely a big part of it all, the support and friendship and understanding of other makers who know when to offer you a bit of chocolate or get you a cup of tea when things are quiet on your stand for a moment and doubt creeps in (which it does regularly for everyone who makes things with their hands and hearts!) Almost the best bit of the whole thing is the setting up - we all spend hours creating our stands, having a laugh, sharing staple guns, steps, paint and spirit levels - until our stands are all perfect and ready to go. Then, as the show closes on the Sunday afternoon we start to dismantle and the whole site is empty within an hour as if it never happened and everyone is gone. Only it did happen, and it will again! Feeling lucky!
Just sometimes a magical day comes along when the stars are aligned and things feel ‘right’! Literally about 20 yards from where I live there is a lovely but under-used square. The home owners and fabulous shop keepers who front the square raised a load of money a couple of years ago to turn it into a community space and it is still a rather well kept secret, but the recent arrival of Me and East, a glorious emporium of all things hand made is making a real impact on the area and turning it into a bit of a destination. This Saturday was the first Rotherfold Artisan Market, an intimate affair with a handful of local makers including lucky me, our wonderful local baker, The Almond Thief, organic food from The Kitchen Table and all curated by Me and East. Right from the off at 8am we all worked together, sweeping the square, putting up gazebos and umbrellas (rain was forecast but never really materialised until the very end when we were packing up and all got drenched!) and setting up our stalls. There was a steady stream of visitors; including many familiar faces, seen in the street, the shops, at the school gates, but perhaps never spoken to until now, as they visited our stands, asked questions, encouraged and enthused and bought, and, in many cases were amazed at the secret craft-based lives some of us have alongside our other jobs! There was music from local bands and buskers, delicious food and a lovely chilled party atmosphere. It felt like the coming together of a very special community, but then those of us who live here know that this is our very unique little town at its absolute best. I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait for the next one!
Recently I have had three commissions for wedding presents and one as a christening gift. It's always such a privilege to make pieces for people who are giving them as gifts and it made me think about the work I do and the bright lustres I use and how magical they are. Weddings and christenings are about new beginnings and families and friends; they are an excuse for us all to shine, to make the best of ourselves and celebrate together whole-heartedly. It's lovely to think that the pieces I've made by hand and with love will be a tiny part of these four special celebrations.
When I see something that has been mended but is still being used my heart does a joyful little dance. Sadly though, a piece of mended china, even if it looks almost exactly the same, will have little or no value except to its owner because we live in a world where perfection seems to be all that matters and this is a great shame. The challenging things that happen to us add value to us, change us, make us stronger, perhaps more empathetic, more resilient, transformed even, and with a story to tell and the same applies to objects we love. When my daughter was a toddler she dropped the lid of this pretty pot which had once belonged to her great grandmother, and it shattered. My immediate reaction was to chuck the whole thing away but instead my kind mother in law told us to carefully collect up all the pieces and she had it expertly mended for me. At 96, she comes from a generation which mended things when they broke; a habit we seem to have lost in only a couple of generations. This repair shows if you look closely but it's part of the history of this little pot and there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be used and enjoyed for many generations to come. How easy it would have been to gather it all up and throw it away because it was no longer perfect. But instead it sits there scarred, but still whole, like all of us.
My grandmother had a large collection of 'fairings' which fascinated me when I was a child. Fairings were given away as prizes at fairs in Victorian times; they were literally two a penny, little china models that told a story, some were cheeky, maybe with a newly married couple climbing into bed, many featured animals such as a family washing the dog in a bath tub, there were mothers with naughty children misbehaving and women with new babies. Some were coarse and very badly made, others were completely exquisite, beautifully painted and definitely special. As a child I loved these little china ‘stories’ and characters, spending hours looking at them as they stood in a row on a low bookshelf in my grandmother’s house, my childlike imagination flying about as I secretly touched them with the tip of my finger, even though I wasn’t allowed to. They are all long gone now sadly but when I recently spotted one in a junk shop in Lyme Regis I knew everything about this tiny model as if I had seen it yesterday, and for £2.50 it was mine. I realise that, over time, objects in our everyday lives become almost invisible, over familiar maybe, and I wonder … is this because we stop ‘seeing’ them or is it because we stop ‘looking’? This experience of seeing a fairing I knew so well made me look with fresh eyes at some of the most precious china I do have and by properly looking at these pieces I saw things I had never noticed before. What I appreciate most of all though is the incredible artistry, craftsmanship and skill that has gone into each and every one.
I remember when I first started to use social media about 18 months ago, my friend and 'online expert' Katie, said to me that, over time, I would probably lean towards one platform in particular, and she was right. I have come to terms with Facebook, the point of Twitter still eludes me, but I'm unashamedly in love with Instagram. I think it might partly be because it’s so neat; everything is square, and anyone who knows me will know I love squares, but it’s also surprising, quick and bright with a light touch. I like the way you can see everyone’s story at once on a feed too – it only takes a second to get a real sense of a business or a person. I know everyone is showing their best selves but what’s wrong with that – I think it’s great because there’s something marvellous and uplifting about putting on your glad rags for a moment to say hello to the world. There is so much cleverness, creativity, style, design and personality involved in the lovely Instagrammers that I follow, and one thing's for sure, I'm never bored! I love getting a glimpse into people's lives and stories and what makes them tick - it's truly inspirational, warm and friendly. #iloveinstagram
At the end of December I spent two days participating in a Christmas Fair close to home at a tiny village called Landscove. For me it was particularly poignant because my children went to Landscove Primary School, so every twist and turn of the the journey up there, almost to the edge of the moor, is full of memories and totally ingrained in me and it was an unexpected joy to drive through those lovely familiar lanes again. As I unpacked my car and got ready to set up I thought, not for the first time, that there is something really special about other makers; they are all so lovely, friendly and supportive and this is partly what makes this such a rare world to inhabit. It has been a busy year for me and I found myself looking back over it as I laid out my pieces in a way that has become second nature; it struck me that I've only been showing my ceramics in public for a year and I've only been making for three, so I guess I've come a long way. But it's still very hard to sell my own work confidently and there's a real knack to it. Deciding whether or not to make eye contact, start up a conversation or just be cool and say nothing because I don't want to be irritating but then risk looking like I don't care if they buy or not, makes the whole thing so unbelievably hard to judge! Now when I visit lovely events like this I have so much more understanding for the makers who have laid their hearts and souls out on a table for all to see. I always say hello, chat and ask questions and compliment their work and stand even if I don't buy. So I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has been interested and friendly and encouraging and stopped to chat whether they have bought or not, I really appreciate it. I've had a great year and I've been very lucky to meet so many fabulous new people, and reconnect with old friends too, not least meeting up with my potter school-friend Louie who featured in a journal entry earlier this year. To everyone who bought from me, my heartfelt thanks for choosing a lustre-filled bowl that will hopefully bring you light. To my little band of journal followers, thank you for reading my thoughts and musings, feeding back to me and liking them. As a writer, this has been an important way for me to express my feelings about this new world of ceramics, and an important part of my whole creative expression, so it means a lot; writing and potting will always go hand in hand for me. Our world is full of challenges but hidden in there are surprises, magic and hope; I wish you all a wonderful shiny 2018!
My daughter and her old school friend Verity were chatting in the garden. It was early September and they had dashed outside between showers with their mugs of steaming tea to sit on the damp garden chairs. Life is moving quickly now and these young women pass like ships in the night grabbing any precious time they can together as they set off on their individual journeys in different directions. I was on my way to my little garden studio and I stopped to ask Verity how her university course was going. I expected to hear about her final year ahead and her future plans as a speech therapist, but instead she said with undisguised excitement in her voice, 'I've decided I'm going to be a potter'. Like so many people she had picked up the clay almost by accident and instantly knew it was her thing. She is only 21 and I felt a spark of joy for her. It may not be a smooth journey but art is a gift and if you can include it in your life from the very beginning then you are more than lucky. I am a great believer in things working out for the best even if the patchwork of pieces seems fragmented at the time and nothing looks like it will fit; speech therapy and pottery might seem an unlikely duo on paper but to be honest, I'm not sure I can think of a better combination - both for herself and the people she will work with once she is qualified - I hope she manages to find a way to combine them both as she steps into her future.
There is a theory that if you do something for 10,000 hours you will become completely proficient at it. I like this idea, even though it's a very daunting concept, but it also makes me think about how much we have allowed technology to do things for us and how little we have to 'do' anything these days. I have always been envious of people who have the discipline to learn a new language or skill and of course practice makes, if not 'perfect', then definitely 'progress'. I have been potting for three years now and I've kept quite a few of my early pieces; I like to look at them, partly because I am quite fond of them and their shapes but they also remind me of how far I've come. I was like a kid in a sweet shop with the clay at the beginning and I just couldn't get enough of the stuff; I pulled it, coiled it, flattened it, slabbed it, curved it and played with it for hours. Then just as I'd create a shape I half-liked I'd inevitably chip it or break it or a hole would appear in it and I'd have to recycle it, but all the time I was learning what worked and what didn't, what looked good and what looked, quite frankly, terrible! Even now when I pull a piece of sticky wet clay out of the bag it seems impossible that it might become a gold or platinum lined bowl, but I have practised and practised, experimented with form and shape and glazes and lustres until I have made something, out of nothing. I didn't set out to do this, it was more that my discovery and love of working with clay overtook me, but it has made me think; anyone could do this, anyone could learn something completely new at any point in their life from a standing start and I wish I had tried more things earlier in my life. Wouldn't it be great if everyone could step out of their comfort zone, try something new and just keep going, getting better and better until they can see the magic unfold.
Like any form of art, people fall into two camps with the clay. There are those who can't wait to get stuck in and make something and those who won't even touch it. They will say that they can't do it, that they can't make anything, that they are rubbish at it and I really get this because, many years ago, I was that person! I went on a creative workshop day and I was horrified to be given a chunk of clay - even just holding it felt too much - I simply didn't know what to do with it but the wise teacher told us all to close our eyes and let it do what it wanted to do and, to my amazement, something truly unexpected appeared. It is true that working with clay can be exposing and take us to a vulnerable space where, by its 3D nature, we are going to make a shape which will be an expression or statement or a beginning of something so, if someone is really reticent, I would just give them a chunk to hold and tell them not to work it but just to feel it in their hands. But they can't do nothing of course, because it simply isn't possible to 'just hold' a piece of clay, it won't let you - eventually you have to pinch it or indent it with your finger or squeeze it; it makes you work it and perhaps that's why it's scary stuff. I wonder if sometimes the clay knows our secrets and the moment we let go and relax, then just what we need to express will appear, and it's often an accurate reflection of who we are at that moment in time, often surprising, sometimes moving, but always beautiful.
So much has happened in the last year! The first time I sold a piece of my work to someone I didn't know was completely thrilling and, quite honestly, it still is. Showing at The Contemporary Craft Festival at Bovey in June was another first and opened up a whole new world for me. I met other lovely 'makers' for the first time and their encouragement, enthusiasm, creativity, integrity and beautiful work blew me away. Since then we have all continued to support each other and share ideas and inspiration on Instagram, and many of us will meet up again at Made by Hand Wales in Cardiff on November 3 - 5. Today has been another first, after a whole weekend of photography, caption writing, measuring and pricing, you can now find me on madebyhandonline.com, possibly the most prestigious on-line shop for makers there is. What I love about this site is the way they champion the designer makers, giving them a brilliant platform and a voice and this really brings their exciting and unique work to life. I feel privileged beyond measure to be a tiny part of this fabulous world of completely beautiful hand-made things and I'm loving every minute of it!
There is currently an installation at Tate Modern where anyone can have a go at 'slip casting', pouring liquid clay into a mould and leaving it to dry before moving on to the next stage. You are definitely on a bit of a conveyor belt, zipping through the process, but it's so exciting to experience making something in clay from start to finish; even if the final piece you take home isn't the one you started to make ... someone else will eventually have yours further down the line. At times like this I wish I lived closer to London and could pop along to have a go myself because I've never done slip casting, but for now I'll have to make do with my usual hand-building. Three things in particular struck me about this brilliant idea; the first is that two of the of the main potters and contributors are in their 80's and still potting, still making and creating. This is so wonderful! How many people can still do what they love in their 80's? The second is the row of 'potters' of all ages experiencing something creative and new for the first time individually, but also, strangely, as part of a team, and thirdly, the 'slowing down' you experience as you tap into the world of making.. This is what creativity does to you, it takes you to a calm place and hours can pass without you even realising. Bliss.
"Ah, you've chosen one of my 'dancing mugs" said potter Ema Ramanskaite, putting her hand over the top of it and gently rocking it round and round, "when I pour someone a cup of coffee in one of these. they just naturally roll it around under their hand, it's not even a conscious gesture really, but everyone does it!" I was in Margarites Village high up in the mountains of Northern Crete, the hub of this Greek island's pottery-making industry, and I had fallen in love with a mug. Ema and I got talking and she explained her influences and inspiration; Eastern European by birth she had come to Crete as an au pair and then became a potter. It sounds a bit random but it doesn't surprise me, I hear stories like this all the time, if you are meant to be a potter it will get you in the end! The beautiful mugs and bowls she makes with their curved bottoms are influenced by the Minoans, and she told me she had spent months in the museum at Heraklion gazing at the wonderful shapes there and then going home to practice and practice until she perfected this difficult design. I had never really thought about my bowls and their own curved bottoms before because that's just the way I naturally make them in my hands, but looking at Ema's work, and her inspiration I couldn't help but feel a connection. When I'm working on my own pieces, feeling my way and smoothing their underneaths, their balance point will suddenly appear and then I know I'm there. Looking at these beautiful contemporary shapes with their ancient heritage, it struck me that nothing is new, everything returns to something that came before, and I find that fascinating and deeply reassuring.
See Ema's beautiful work here: www.eaceramicstudio.com