Until fairly recently, I found it almost impossible to spend time alone. My attention span is short, and my concentration will lapse with even the slightest distraction, be that a call, an email, a text, a passing cloud, a thought or the second hand moving on a clock. The only way to quieten my mind was to spend time with other people. Socialising became my coping mechanism, particularly when acute anxiety and panic attacks came knocking.
My mother would regularly air her concerns about my hyperactive social life, which tended to leave me in a near-permanent state of exhaustion. During particularly stressful periods of my life, her advice to me was always to carve out space in my diary to have some quiet time alone. “And do what, though?” I would retort. “I don’t know, don’t you have any hobbies?”
When I was a child, my parents encouraged me find pursuits that I enjoyed and do them regularly. Over my childhood I tried many different things, from tap dancing to painting, football to sewing, singing to baking, you name it, I had a go. One of my favourite hobbies was pottery. I loved being completely immersed in a creative process and the satisfaction of creating something with my own hands.
In adulthood, free time becomes more of a precious commodity. It stands to reason that the way in which we choose to spend it is often viewed through the prism of cost versus benefit. Rather than assess activities based on the joy that they will add to our lives, we begin to consider their value in relation to their contribution to a specific goal or ambition. Will this make me richer? Fitter? Healthier? More successful? More loved?
I decided to revisit pottery to see if it could unlock the same stillness of mind I’d experienced as a child. I wanted to reach the promised land of “flow” – that is to say, a state of absorption, in which your awareness of the world around you ceases to exist. Lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of south London’s busiest pottery studio, the Kiln Rooms, I signed up to a one-day taster session.
When I arrived at the studio on a Sunday afternoon, I was tired, stressed and unconvinced that the session would provide an adequate antidote to my malaise. In the class, we split into two groups and were given the opportunity to explore the two principle methods of ceramics making: throwing and handbuilding. Everybody was given the freedom to make whatever they desired, from plates to pots or, in my case, a vase and something vaguely resembling a cat bowl.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the next five hours flew past, and I left having looked at my phone only to feed my pride by taking photos of my creations. In my child-like glee, I sent one to my mum, who replied with a deadpan retort: “that actually looks quite good, I’m surprised.” So removed had I been from my usual negative thought-loops and worries that when I finally emerged from the studio at the end of the class, I felt like I had just woken up. I arrived home feeling unwound, relaxed and peaceful, and decided to switch my phone off for the rest of the evening. This is completely unheard of.
Demand for pottery courses in London has surged over the past few years. This means that the average waiting list to join a course at the Kiln Rooms is around six months, and within four years of beginning the company, they have already opened a further two studios. Stuart, the co-founder, agrees that the stresses of modern life, and in particular, screen addiction, are what have led people to engage in more traditional hobbies, such as pottery. Many people come to the studio in search of a safe space to set their creativity free without fear of failure or embarrassment. “In pottery, you can make mistakes and muck things up and not be too precious about it. You just start again. The pressures and expectations of modern life don’t allow for that sort of freedom.”
There’s a strong sense of community at the studio, which, in a big and sometimes isolating city like London, has a very positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of members. Most of the people in my class expressed a desire to escape from their busy routines and be part of something. Some had suffered from mental illness in the past – one of the teachers had even been “prescribed” pottery by a GP for her depression. She has since given up her job to teach pottery full time.
Are creative hobbies the solution to the mental-health crisis? Not quite. But so convinced was I of the benefits of pottery to my mental wellbeing that I have joined a waiting list for a beginners’ course this autumn. I don’t think I’ll be quitting my job to pursue a career in pottery any time soon, but any activity that unsticks me from my phone – and helps me feel happy in my own company – is worth pursuing.