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Potty for ceramics

Potty for ceramics

Why are so many London professionals being drawn to the messy world of clay?

Why are so many London professionals being drawn to the messy world of clay?

James Waddell | April 28th 2017

In a warehouse on an industrial estate in Leyton, an unpretty suburb six miles east of the city of London, a handful of people sit hunched over humming pottery wheels, gingerly shaping columns of wet clay. Nestled between a bread factory and an industrial launderer is the newly opened branch of Turning Earth, an open-access pottery studio, where trainee throwers can take part in Britain’s burgeoning ceramics boom.
 
The growing popularity of pottery has been seen as the latest expression of the craving for authenticy that resulted in craft beer, small-batch gin and artisan coffee. Potters like Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal have broken out of the art world, presenting TV programmes and writing bestselling books, while Emma Bridgewater’s quaintly decorated mugs are snapped up by middle-class people trying to add a touch of Cotswold cosiness to their kitchens. Earlier this spring, the BBC screened the second series of “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, in which budding potters are set a range of challenges, from designing a toilet to throwing pots blindfolded. According to a report on London’s maker spaces, by 2014 there were already eight dedicated exclusively to pottery, and at least as many mixed spaces offering ceramics resources. When Turning Earth opened its flagship studio, in Hackney, it was so oversubscribed that its waiting lists were nine months long and classes sold out in minutes.
 
When I visit the Leyton branch on a crisp Saturday morning, sunlight is streaming in through large windows onto white-washed walls. Dinky pot-plants hang from the high ceiling, and containers full of different glazes – manganese, lithium carbonate, mint-green copper carbonate, rusty-red iron oxide – are lined up like sweetie jars. It’s an Instagram-ready aesthetic, perfect for an industry that increasingly uses social media as a shopfront. The manager on duty rattles off how many tens of thousands of followers her favourite ceramicists have.
 
Looking at the colour-coded clay buckets neatly laid out, the aprons hung on pegs, the polite signs pointing out which sinks to use, and the members’ name-tagged shelves, you can’t help being reminded of a nursery school. Spending time in this closed ecosystem is calming, and I’m not surprised when Sarah, a long-time member of Turning Earth and a semi-professional potter, tells me she comes here “because I need to do it for my mental health”.
 
One of Turning Earth’s most illustrious alumni (44,000 Instagram followers) is Stine Dulong, who set up shop as a full-time ceramicist after quitting her job as a lawyer in the city. Most of the people I spoke to were thirty and forty-somethings seeking respite from their corporate careers. A solicitor told me that she comes here to live an alternative life as a “secret artist”, and to briefly “not think about work”. A corporate lawyer claims, “If I didn’t have a mortgage, this is the job I’d choose.” Turning Earth’s founder, Tallie Maughan, describes how she “emancipated myself from the world of nine-to-five work” for a series of big corporations before setting up the company. What is it about clay, bisque, kilns and glazes that attracts so many lawyers and bankers?
 
One member who had worked in the City told me that the circumscribed creativity of ceramics, its inventiveness bounded by the strict rules of the firing process, appealed to the methodical minds of professionals seeking an artistic outlet. The solicitor said that she found throwing “meditative”; watching the glistening metamorphosis of wet clay on wheel, it’s hard not to agree. Several people I speak to mention how satisfying it is to have ownership over a project from start to finish, something that’s missing from most modern jobs. As Maughan puts it, “At work, most of us are cogs in a bigger machine – we do part of the process, rarely the whole thing.”
 
Maughan hopes to promote a “participatory economy”, with consumers turned into makers. An admirable aim, but I wonder whether Turning Earth’s well-heeled members share her disdain for the consumer-based economy, having done rather well out of it so far. She bristles at my suggestion that the popularity of Turning Earth is driven by voguishness. She sees maker spaces as a welcome return to a time when London’s districts were defined by their light industry: when Clerkenwell was home to clock-makers, the south bank to glass-makers, and pretty much everywhere else to brickworks and potteries.
 
It’s no coincidence that Turning Earth has opened a branch in an area that’s gentrifying: Leyton still has the crucial mix of warehouse space and people with disposable incomes, and maker spaces prevent areas like this from becoming homogeneously residential. But just as vital as mixing up businesses and homes is mixing up people from different backgrounds. Maughan admits that ceramics is “unfortunately still something of a middle-class occupation” and would welcome more government support. For the moment, though, Turning Earth’s £175-a-month membership fee puts it out of reach for many Londoners.

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