Licensed to Kiln: Del Hughes gets her hands dirty
Right, so being upfront from the get-go, I’m not remotely arty, crafty or creative. The highlight of my aesthetic abilities thus far in life is the donkey head I first drew in Junior school, and which I have spent the intervening forty-six years refining – see neck bow. And yes, I know it’s still not amazing, but you’ve got to admit that it’s quite startling in terms of likeness.
In secondary school, art continued to be a subject I couldn’t master, along with a new circle of hell known as Home Economics – which added to my misery and garnered similarly abysmal results.
My highest mark during three years of cooking (and my only edible outcome) was a ‘4 out of 10’ festive chocolate log; and when we did sewing, the baby doll pyjamas I made – and was forced to ‘model’ in the horrendous third year fashion show – were consigned to Mum’s duster pile as soon as we got home.
I’ve often wondered if my lack of prowess in the crafty arts might be partially genetic – Mum wasn’t particularly artsy but did have a way with counted cross-stitch which she encouraged me to try. I didn’t take to it – just sorting the skeins into various colour shades almost defeated me.
And when I did try my hand at a fat Christmas robin, the final result looked as if he’d had a run in a with a cat. Apparently, my ‘tension was all wrong, and dreadfully messy’ – an accurate and succinct commentary on, not only my stitching, but also my life. Sigh.
Over the years, I’ve tried many, many creative classes but my artisanal accomplishments have generally been met with familial incredulity, tears of hilarity and gentle encouragement from tutors to ‘Maybe try a different sort of craft, eh?‘
No longer do I hold any desire to learn how to arrange flowers, make rag rugs or dabble with découpage. Now I stick to Conversational French (C’est bien amusant) and Tai Chi, where my ‘parting the wild horse’s tail’ is truly a sight to behold. Yes, these days, I know my limits.
But, despite my lifelong hopelessness with handicrafts, there is one branch that I’m still tempted to explore. . . Pottery.
Only once have I ever worked with proper clay and that was also in Juniors when my teacher gave us each a lump and said ‘Make whatever you’d like.’ Hmm?
At the time, Mum was in hospital and Dad still enjoyed the occasional cheroot, so I decided to make a present both parents would enjoy. . . allow me to present the practical, if paradoxical, nurse-ashtray!
Through youthful, rose-tinted glasses, my finished piece was a triumph. And when I showed my parents what, in essence, was a squashed clod of earthenware, they were fulsome in their praise.
But with hindsight, I realise that Mum and Dad’s brimming eyes were not unshed tears of pride but rather their Herculean attempts at stifling incipient hysterics.
I can also understand why it rapidly disappeared, never to be seen again.
But tonight, I’m about to dive back into clay in a big way. And I’m actually quite excited.
See, some weeks back, Jen and I went to Craftsea in Mumbles to try pottery painting. Obviously, this was Jen’s idea since she can turn her hand to anything – painting, sewing, making, doing etc. She’s hugely skilled in all the crafty arts.
I wasn’t looking forward to it at all, but walking into the bright interior, I was pleasantly surprised. We were the only two there so I was relieved nobody would be looking over my shoulder and critiquing my creation. And the range of items we could buy, to then paint, was huge.
Eventually, I stumbled across an exemplar egg-tray (painted in a Cath Kidston’esque palette) which I loved and decided to emulate.
Unfortunately, Jen also decided to paint an egg-tray (Bugger!) so the pressure was on. I was determined I’d win this battle!
And, after a pleasant two hours, I honestly thought that I had.
Okay, mine was a bit darker than the original and my brushstrokes weren’t as fine, but it was eye-catching and vibrant. And I have to say that, in comparison, Jen’s seemed a smidge underwhelming. Tee hee!
We left them there for firing, assured by the obliging assistant that we could pick them up in around a week, and I took some photos before we headed off to Verdi’s for a celebratory milkshake and sundae.
Later, when I showed the pics to Tim, and forced him to choose between the two anonymous pieces – I didn’t say which was which – the one he thought was best was. . . drumroll please. . . mine! I was made up.
Made up, until it was time to collect them. Where Jen’s had been a tad insipid, now it looked simply stylish – the sort of egg-holder you’d see on a sleek counter top in Country Living.
And I certainly didn’t need Tim’s surprised interjection of ‘Oh, Jen’s is better than yours now’ to realise that firing had done me no favours. In comparison, mine could, at best, be termed rustic – with a large side of garish. And yes, it also appeared to have nipples. Humph!
Anyway, despite the disappointing outcome, those few hours had got me thinking. Maybe I should be a bit more adventurous and have a shot at making my own ceramic creation?
I dithered for a time, but after catching the 90s classic ‘Ghost’ on Film4, I gave Emma, owner of Cwtch Pottery and queen of clay, a call.
Fast forward two weeks and I’m in the (slightly damp) vestry of a local church, with a ball of clay squatting ominously in front of me and a mind devoid of ideas. I hadn’t considered what I might like to make in advance, but in my defence, I wasn’t fully au fait with the properties, or possibilities, of clay.
As other potters arrived and began collecting their, very impressive, fired pieces ready for glazing, Emma sat beside me and gave me a 1-2-1 lesson on the process of creating exquisite things from earthenware.
She was absolutely brilliant, a font of pottery knowledge and expertise and she put me at ease immediately. Within ten minutes I’d learned four methods of ‘building’, was ready for action and just needed to hit upon something to make – or, more importantly, something I’d be capable of making.
I panicked for a time before recollecting the witchy-ritual I’ve got pencilled in for next month – I do, occasionally, enjoy exploring the esoteric. So my nebulous notion was to create a ceramic jack-o’-lantern tea light holder which would be a cool addition to my makeshift ‘altar’ (aka coffee table).
Plus, something hollow was, apparently, more straightforward to make, involving basic ‘hand-moulding’ so. . . simples! Turns out, it wasn’t.
All the class were really friendly and more than happy to answer my numerous cries for help. My neighbour even let me borrow her ‘special tools’ but, despite such expert assistance, I found it nigh on impossible to get an even thickness throughout.
And then, attempting to form it into the rounded, pumpkin shape meant teasing in the top edges. It was impossible and I basically ended up with a clay version of a crumpled paper bag.
I kept fiddling, making it somewhat worse but when I began carving the eyes and mouth, I realised I had forgotten a nose hole, and I didn’t have any space left to put one in. Grrr!
So, I threw in the towel – and a horrified gasp rippled around the table when I rolled my clay back into a ball and decided to start afresh.
But it’s not quite that easy. If you’ve been working the clay for any length of time – and I’d been at it for around forty-five minutes – it automatically develops air bubbles which can make the finished piece explode when it’s being fired. Uh oh!
So, how to remove them? This was, without question, the most pleasurable part of the evening.
You simply throw your lump, from height, onto the floor where it lands like a cow pat with a satisfying splat. I admit, I kept going for far longer than the five or six times that Emma had advised.
(On her website Emma mentions the health benefits, physical and mental, that come from moulding clay, including regulated breathing, mindfulness, improved dexterity and lower blood pressure. And frankly, after my splatting stress reliever, when I got going again, my mind emptied, I was wholly ‘in the moment’ and I did feel myself relax.)
Once I had a smooth and airless ball, Emma gave me a few more pointers, obviously realising that when I’d emphasised my complete inexperience, I wasn’t being modest. She demonstrated the best way of moulding, and how to ‘hollow out the shape with your thumb, then use the other fingers to smooth the outside.’
And it worked way better than my original method of punching the clay into submission. I began to feel a slight buzz of belief – maybe I was capable of constructing something rather splendid after all?
When I got home, I was bubbling with enthusiasm, couldn’t wait to tell Tim all about it and, as always, he was delighted to listen to my excited chatter (Rolls eyes). But then, it was a nervy seven day wait, keeping everything crossed that when my pumpkin emerged from the kiln, it would be in one wonderful piece. And reader, it was! Phew.
All about the glaze
My second lesson was all about the glaze, and I didn’t make it easy for myself. See, I was aiming for a degree of realism, trying to avoid an all-orange and obviously fake, pumpkin. And achieving that meant several colours and layers.
Emma said to apply three layers for a good, professional finish and I took this to heart. I began with black, aiming to add, and emphasise, shading. But then the orange caused my black to run in places where it hadn’t dried sufficiently so I waited before adding a little more. And then a bit more. And thus, I ended up with many layers in some areas and only one or two in others.
When I finally put down my brushes. . . no, it didn’t look great. But the memory of the egg-tray transformations (for better, and worse) made me hopeful that my finished piece was going to look damned impressive.
Nope. I’d been on tenterhooks all week, giddy for the next class when I’d finally see my pumpkin revealed in all its spooky glory. I got there early and, despite Emma’s congratulations, it wasn’t – at all – what I’d been hoping for.
Maybe it would look better with a candle inside? And yes, it did – mainly because viewing it with the lights off hid the multitude of scumble sins and fat fingerprints that had been baked into it.
Candidly, anyone with eyes would think it the work of a talentless child, and clearly I was no Clarice Cliff. I felt blue.
I mucked about with my new ball of clay, but my heart wasn’t in it. So instead, I set about dreaming up believable excuses for why I wouldn’t be coming again.
One hour, and a full pack of wet wipes later, my hands, face, hair and shirt were free of earthenware residue – I’ve always been gung ho when launching into any endeavour – and Emma came to ask if I’d be coming along again next week.
And I was genuinely dumbfounded when I heard myself say yes.
Surprisingly, despite numerous problems with my moulding, despite inglorious glazing and despite having to park my perfectionist persona at the door, messing about with clay is actually bloody good fun. And at the end of the sessions, I came away feeling mentally refreshed.
I think I enjoyed it because, for those hours, I was a kid again, messing around with Plasticine, or fragrant Play-Doh, with no real world worries weighing me down.
Fears about the cost of living, the febrile political landscape and spiralling mortgage rates didn’t wholly disappear, but they definitely eased as I focused on the job in hand – literally.
So I’m going to keep on potting. And since money is tight, this Christmas I’ll be crafting ceramic gifts for all the family – and can’t you just envision the joy on their faces as they read this.
Obviously I’m not going to let slip exactly what I’ll be making since I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But what I will say is that, if they’re lucky, there might be a modern iteration of the legendary nurse-ashtray under the tree.
And, if they’re even luckier, they could even discover a donkey head ornament hanging on it. Ho ho ho!
Craftsea – Paint Your Own Pottery Studio is located at 622 Mumbles Road, Swansea. It’s a lovely venue for a few hours of gentle painting. And they have masses of pre-fired pottery – from plates and mugs through to animals, teapots and coasters.
If you’re interested in making your own pottery, you can find details about all services and classes offered by Cwtch Pottery on Facebook, Instagram or by visiting Emma’s website. The classes are welcoming, and can accommodate all skill levels, whether beginners or advanced.
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