Why is Norfolk going potty...for pottery?
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
During the lockdowns of the past year, many of us have rediscovered the joys of crafting and creating. And pottery is booming. We head to Fire and Flux in Norwich to find out why so many people are taking it up as a hobby.
“It should come with a health warning – this is addictive,” laughs Gwyn Durand-Grace.
The ceramicist and co-owner, along with Karen Kavanagh, of Fire and Flux in the Norwich Lanes, is talking about why she adores working with clay.
Wanting to pass on their passion through workshops, and to celebrate the talents of artists from Norfolk and beyond, showcasing the wide range of skills and artistry involved, the duo opened a gallery and studio in St Benedict’s Street in 2016.
Two years later they had outgrown the premises and moved to a Grade II listed, three-storey building perched on the corner of Lower Goat Lane and Bedford Street.
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The ground floor is a bright and beautiful gallery space, exhibiting an exquisitely curated range of contemporary studio pottery, while the upper two floors are fully equipped studio spaces, which can be rented out by makers and are also used for workshops.
“It’s easy to start [ceramics] and it develops into a way of life,” Gwyn continues.
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During the periods spent in lockdown in the last 14 months, many people have rediscovered the pleasure and benefits of creative, mindful hobbies.
And thanks to TV show The Great Pottery Throw Down, many of us have been inspired to have a go at working with clay, discovering its endless opportunities for expression.
It’s something which Gwyn and Karen have long been enthusiastic about – and they want to pass that passion on to others. Fire and Flux - a reference to the alchemy that happens when items are in the kiln - has allowed a creative and collaborative community to spring up and grow in the city.
“People can go from classes to hiring workspaces and working with other potters,” says Karen.
“Setting up a home studio is expensive, especially a kiln, so people can come here and have support with the firing.”
“It’s a good community, very supportive,” says Gwyn. “And it’s really handy to have that support.”
While it has been difficult not being able to meet up in person during the lockdowns, the community has been keeping in touch via Zoom.
The challenges of The Great Pottery Throw Down, which in the last series included everything from making tiles to sculpting busts of rock stars to making a fully plumbed in and functioning sink, have shown that there is much more to pottery than wheel throwing and has revealed its artistry to a wider audience.
“Lots of people want to have classes - I think because of The Great Pottery Throw Down,” says Karen.
“It’s really opened people’s eyes to different techniques,” adds Gwyn.
Working with clay is inherently mindful.
The process encourages you to slow down (and stop scrolling through social media on your phone) – you can’t rush and make a piece from start to finish in a day.
After you’ve thrown or hand-built your piece, it needs to be left to dry, followed by a first, bisque, firing, glazing and firing again.
Gwyn says a lot of people who come to their workshops and hire studio space work in high-stress professions, such as doctors, vets and solicitors, and that the opportunity to slow down and totally immerse themselves in a creative activity is a big part of its appeal.
“When they are working with clay, they completely switch off,” says Gwyn.
“Clay is a beautifully tactile material to work with,” adds Karen.
While The Great Pottery Throw Down is a cosy TV comfort blanket, it does have its moments of mild peril – especially when it comes to the results of firing, which can literally make or break a piece. It’s the stage where the magic happens.
And you feel the contestants’ tension as they wait to see how their creations have fared in the heat of the kiln, what colour effects have been created and whether cracks have begun to show.
“There is always to possibility of things going wrong,” says Karen. “We always say don’t get attached to a piece until it’s out of the kiln for the second time.”
“We don’t often cry,” laughs Gwyn – a reference to The Great Pottery Throw Down judge Keith Brymer-Jones, who is renowned for becoming emotional over particularly good pieces of work.
“But we do sometimes when we open the kiln”.
In that fiery microcosm there’s another life lesson that ceramics can teach us – what will be will be.
“It’s good for people to learn acceptance,” says Karen philosophically.
If you’re looking for inspiration, the gallery at Fire and Flux, one of the few galleries that exhibits solely ceramics, is a great place to start.
“All these pieces started off as lumps of mud,” says Gwyn, gesturing at the pieces exhibited in the gallery space. “The only limit is your imagination.”
Clay has so many possibilities it could be difficult to know where to start. “It always takes you down another road, another way of working. Most of us go off at tangents” says Karen, who is currently enjoying experimenting with smoke firing.
“Look around and you can see all the different processes, from something quite simple to something incredibly intricate. Clay is amazing.
“You can make a huge installation or a tiny little piece,” says Gwyn.
There are almost 60 ceramicists exhibiting at the moment – and the range of pieces is astonishing. From playful bird-shaped jugs to a dainty cup and saucer, to trompe l’oeil pieces crafted to look like rusty metal, driftwood and coral, it really does show the infinite possibilities of clay.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating discipline,” says Karen.
Emma Lee gets behind the wheel and throws her own pot
“Now it’s time for your Patrick Swayze moment,” laughs Karen Kavanagh.
Before the arrival of The Great Pottery Throw Down on our screens, if you were asked what cultural references you’d associate with pottery, most likely you’d think of the famous scene from the 90s rom-com Ghost.
Or perhaps you’d remember contestants on the Generation Game attempting to throw a pot and it ending messily.
But thanks to the TV show, especially the most recent series which aired during lockdown and provided some much-needed Sunday night comfort viewing, people have become reacquainted with the art – and it has inspired them to have a go themselves, including me.
At the start of the session Karen reassures me that a messy Generation Game-style clay catastrophe is highly unlikely, although I am kitted out with an apron. She describes pottery throwing as like taking to a different sort of wheel for the first time – starting driving lessons.
As when you’re learning to drive a car, during the first few sessions on the potter’s wheel it’s all about mastering the controls.Then once you’ve had some practice, throwing becomes more intuitive and you can concentrate on getting creative.
In my session the aim was to make a small bowl. It was many years since I’d last had a go on a potter’s wheel, when I was taking Saturday morning pottery classes at my local college.
I won’t say exactly how long ago that was, but to give you a clue, back then I was using an old-style foot-operated treadle wheel.
Now wheel throwing has gone electric and you use a foot pedal, much like one you’d get on a sewing machine, to control the speed.
The session started with a demonstration from Karen.
Watching her transform the ball of clay was rather hypnotic – I might write to the BBC and suggest that they bring back their potter’s wheel interlude film between programmes.
She talked me through each of the stages and then it was time for my turn. Unchained Melody wasn’t playing in the background, although it might have gone through my head, as Karen guided me through each of the steps – from a distance as, of course, Covid safety measures are in place, including wearing a mask.
First of all the ball of clay has to be centred on the wheel. Then comes the nervewracking part, where you start to manipulate the clay.
First you have to ‘cone’ the clay up and down to get rid of any air bubbles, which could be problematic later on and cause the piece to crack during firing in the kiln.
Next you make a hole in the middle of the clay and start to shape your pot.
There were a few moments where the clay started to go a bit wobbly, but thanks to Karen’s brilliant instructions disaster was averted.
After a few minutes, by some sort of magic, my lump of clay had become what was recognisably, nay undoubtedly, a bowl, ready for drying, firing and glazing and underneath my mask I was wearing a big grin at what I’d achieved.
It was such a good feeling, I totally understood what Karen and Gwyn meant about the addictiveness of working with clay.
Great Pottery Throw Down here I come?
Introduction to pottery taster sessions at Fire and Flux cost £55 per person and include the opportunity to make a small bowl on the potter’s wheel, hand build a piece and have a go at tile making. Bisque firing, glazing and re-firing of one small piece (to be collected at a later date) is included in the price.
Make and Decorate three-session workshops cost £210 per person. In the first session participants make a number of pieces using various
techniques, the second is spent decorating using slips, under glaze, paper resist and sgraffito and the third is spent glazing after the pieces have been bisque fired.
Plus half day and full day individual tuition sessions are available and, if you have some pottery experience, studio space can be rented by the
half or full day and a kiln firing service is available.