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
I have always been fascinated by detail. I love to pore over old family photographs looking for hidden things; tiny clues to a way of life long gone. A brooch or a hint of a lace collar, a silver topped cane, a top hat or a pair of gloves with buttoned cuffs. The sadness is that most of these actual items are no longer with us but I think that we have a responsibility to try and keep important things safe for future generations if we can, and to make sure we remember to tell their stories so their history stays alive. Last summer two beautiful and elegant Leeds Cream-ware sauce boats came my way out of a clear blue sky. I didn’t know their history but I have since discovered that they had been in my grandmother’s family for many years and for some reason, around the time of the second world war, she gave them away to my godmother’s family. Perhaps they said they liked them, or maybe they were all that remained of a full dinner service and my grandmother didn’t want them anymore, but for whatever reason their story went with them, and when my godmother’s house was cleared and sold she left instructions to make sure they were returned to me. These sauce boats are so beautifully made that the skill and detail, especially around the handles is, quite honestly, astonishing. When my grandmother owned them they would probably have been kept in a cupboard in their kitchen and brought out once a week for Sunday lunch, filled to the brim with gravy, hollandaise sauce or custard. I don’t know what happened to them in the intervening years and I don't suppose I ever will, but they have come home again now and they sit in pride of place on our mantelpiece. I feel privileged to have them.
When I was in my late teens I was invited to spend a week with some distant cousins from the South I had never met before. I really didn’t want to go and I felt like a parcel being passed down the country from Yorkshire to Cornwall. I was collected from the train in Hampshire for the last bit of the journey by the dad; he was warm, kind and chatty, and in spite of my shyness and nervousness about the week ahead, I began to relax. I had never been further south than London and as Hampshire turned into Somerset, then Devon and finally Cornwall, the countryside changed in front of me. I saw hedgerows full of wind-blown trees all leaning in one direction as if the world had been tilted for a moment and they had stayed there. I saw ancient stone churches nestled into the curved landscape, their spires standing out against the blue sky like pairs of rabbit's ears, and then, as we drew closer, glimpses of sparkling water where the sky met the sea. Soon I would be warmly greeted by the rest of this huge family who poured out of the front door with dogs, smiles, hugs, tea and cake. As my cousin and I met for the first time that afternoon we felt an instant bond and later that evening we sat together on her bed laughing out loud and marvelling at our similarities … we were surname-sharing, diary-writing, guitar-playing, Laura Ashley-wearing, animal-loving, suntan-seeking 'cousins' …. suddenly the old saying ‘blood is thicker than water’ seemed full of joy and belonging to me. I didn't know it then but this was a family which, over the following years, would become as important to me as my own. That first magical summer in Cornwall was glorious and, because we were still young and free with no responsibilities, one week stretched to four; and lifelong friendships and memories were created across the generations that continue to this day. In their large farmhouse kitchen was an old Cornish pine dresser filled with the precious and the ordinary. It was the repository for notes, finds, pebbles, feathers, photographs, cards, reminders and of course china; this dresser was indisputably the hub of their family life, combining a sense of everyday casual with importance. I coveted this dresser and when my children were small and we lived in London I was lucky enough to get one of my own. I love it and it has been with us ever since, painted in different colours depending on where we have lived, but always packed with our 'stuff'. Mismatched glasses, china, jugs, mugs, plates and bowls that we use every day, and then the personal things ... at the moment there is an old Noddy eggcup, a postcard or two, hand-made flags on wooden skewers, a mosaic panel and a small metal fish. They don't mean anything to anyone else but we know their history and they are all part of our family story.
My hands are nothing much to write home about. Small and workmanlike, with short nails that break easily, they are just like my grandmother's. She was tiny, adroit, nimble and economical in her movements, and I have inherited some of that. But now I am a potter, I seem to have seen my hands for the first time and I truly value them. Touch and our hands are woven into the stories of our lives and, looking at my hands afresh, I am struck by all that they have done and continue to do. Recently, as I said goodbye to my 92 year old father in Yorkshire where he lives, I had a strong desire to hold both of his hands in mine for a moment, imprinting the feel of them and taking his warm touch away with me. My hands have carried, lifted, cooked, baked, washed up and ironed, they have held my babies, brushed, stroked, comforted and tickled. They have waved and beckoned, twisted and turned, pushed and pulled, literally thousands of times. They have helped me to express my most complicated thoughts, written miles, typed millions of words, carefully positioned plasters on sore little knees, sewn and mended, drawn and painted, played hundreds of card games, wiped the kitchen table at least once every day and mopped up many tears, a lot of them my own. They have held hundreds of other hands all through my life, and I like to think, when I work with the clay, pressing it down into the heart of my palm to shape it, that a tiny little bit of everything my hands have ever done, all that love, nurture, experience and history, goes into every piece.
My involvement in The Contemporary Craft Festival really opened my eyes to the incredible standard of craft in this country. On the Saturday evening, after the festival had closed to the public, all of us makers were free to wander the site and see everyone else's stands, and I was blown away - honestly, I could have been walking around Liberty or Heals - two design-led businesses that champion craft - the standard of work was so high. What really struck me was the attention to detail and creativity - from jewellery to glassware, wood to metal, ceramics to textiles - it was astonishing. BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour recently ran a Craft Prize competition and if you haven't already, you can listen to the first of 12 finalists talk about her work. Between the ages of 11 and 18 Laura Ellen Bacon built tree houses in her garden out of pieces of wood her Dad brought home - one of these tree houses spanned 5 different trees as she let her creativity run riot. Today she weaves willow into huge nest-like installations and doesn't always know what will appear until it appears. I can relate to that with my porcelain and when I'm making I have no choice other than to feel the clay and see where it takes me. Not so long ago there was a time when anything 'home made' was slightly frowned upon as not really good enough in our fast-moving consumer world, but this is really changing. Craft is extremely desirable and as a movement it is having a huge resurgence; people want to know who the maker is and where they got their inspiration from and where they learned their skills, and more and more people are tapping into their innate creativity and using it to make really beautiful things. This is wonderful and heartening. Things made by the human hand and mind bring surprise, joy, individuality and imperfection ... which is just perfect.
I'm just landing back on earth after a fabulous few days exhibiting at The Contemporary Craft Festival. I met so many lovely people who bought my pieces and so many lovely makers selling their own beautiful things. Everyone was full of encouragement and Freya from The Great Pottery Throw down came on to my stand for a chat about making and lustres too! This world of makers is such a great community and this is such a special and fabulous event. I didn't want it to end but it did and now, on that field in Bovey, apart from the mud, you would never know it had happened. I loved it! Thanks to all my lovely friends who came to see me, bought me encouragement, water, tea and coffee and even a cream tea! And to everyone who bought something - whether it was gold or platinum I hope it brings you shine and light xxx
Because I hand build my pieces, no two are ever the same, they can have similarities in shape but each piece is truly unique in the same way that all of us are. I love the way that people seem drawn to a piece visually and then, when they hold it for the first time, they usually know immediately and instinctively if it's the one for them. Touch is an important part of the process and I have wondered if it is partly because every piece is made in my palm and I never make anything bigger than a size I can comfortably hold in my hand. As I'm selling more and more I have begun to think about what happens to my bowls as they land in their new homes. I know that some are used to hold jewellery, and others hold candles which makes the lustre dance. Recently I was told about a tiny bowl carefully placed on a bedroom windowsill in a house on Dartmoor, ready to capture the late afternoon sun. I love to hear these stories and it seems to me that the majority, just like these two sitting peacefully on a kitchen windowsill in a house in Devon, are enjoyed and celebrated just as they are, and that brings me much joy.
Last weekend I went on a writers retreat in Sussex. We were 'dream writing', an astonishingly effective way of accessing the deep stuff very quickly and it's amazing what comes out. I was part of a small group of dream writers and it was an incredible privilege to listen to other people's writing and beautiful stories that appeared, as if by magic. I had arrived on Friday night after a long journey, quite jangled up and tired and with no preconceived idea about what might happen over the weekend, but after our first exercise on Saturday morning, as we all wandered off to find a quiet corner to write for a few hours, a character from a novel for children I wrote ten years ago that was never published took the opportunity to nudge her way back into my mind. I thought I was looking for new inspiration and I tried, very politely, to push her away but, like an unexpected guest at a party, she just wouldn't leave me alone. It was very clear she had a lot to say and by the time we broke for lunch I had written over 1,500 words about her, but she was no longer the young teenage girl in my original story, she was now a grandmother with children and grandchildren of her own. Sadly we had to leave our dream writers cocoon on Sunday afternoon and return to our normal lives, but I came away with so much; memories of a wonderful experience, renewed confidence in my writing, inspiration, energy, 7 new friends ... and one old friend who came to remind me she was still there ... it made me think about the power of writing and how the characters we conjure up in our minds are made of more than just pure imagination.
I've been incredibly busy getting ready for The Contemporary Craft Festival at Bovey Tracey, June 9 - 11. Do come along if you can - it's a brilliant day out with so many fabulous makers to meet, talk to and buy from, and I will be there too! It's even easier if you buy your tickets now in advance from www.craftsatboveytracey.co.uk - you can swan straight in, bypassing the queues! I have completely loved being in such an active making process and seeing what shapes emerge - the kiln is on almost constantly as my pieces transform from raw porcelain into gold and platinum, and a body of work is appearing that I'm very excited about. With many years of marketing expertise under my belt, I really shouldn't be at all surprised at the amount of things I have had to consider for the festival, but there are so many decisions to make! Apart from 'making' I have had to design my stand and think about my display, then there's posters, post cards, business cards, packaging, boxes, tissue, ribbon and photography ... the list goes on. Rather handily, my brother came for Easter and, as a photographer - he is never without with his camera - we had fun creating some new product pictures for postcards and posters and then, when I wasn't paying proper attention, he took some shots of me working. I like this picture because this sums up the joy of making for me - just a bright warm space, a chunk of porcelain and a pair of hands. Find my brother here at: www.jonathanlittle.co.uk
My godmother is a larger than life character, kind, generous and always smiling. Once, when I was very young, she asked me what sort of tea service I would like if I had my own; "Would you choose a pattern with birds or flowers, or insects or butterflies" she asked, "or maybe a pattern that tells a story?" She had me there, stories were my thing, but not great at making decisions in those days, I said I liked everything she suggested. The first brown box arrived for Christmas. I ripped it open and inside was ... a teacup and saucer. I was only six and I'm ashamed to say that I didn't want it and I didn't really look at it. From then on, every birthday and Christmas, a disappointing brown cardboard box would arrive with yet another teacup and saucer, or a couple of tea plates, or a teapot or a milk jug. I was far more interested in Lego and Sindy, and a less interesting gift was almost impossible to imagine - but luckily these precious boxes were kept in a safe place for me. When I finally had my first home many years later, I opened them all and was entranced and delighted by their contents. She had given me a complete tea service from Herend, the world-renowned Hungarian porcelain manufacturer - what a wonderful gift - and when it came to the design, she had taken me at my six year old word. Created in 1860, the Rothschild pattern tells the magical story of a lost necklace and is exquisitely painted with everything I had asked for all those years before. I knew nothing about Hungary then but as so often happens in life, this 'unwanted' gift which had seemed so dull to me as a child, was the first piece in a bigger jigsaw that no one could have foreseen or imagined. The first time I made a cup of tea for my Hungarian mother-in-law I was able to use my beautiful porcelain, all the way from her precious homeland.