OPEN DOOR

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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.