Last month I decided to kick off the new year with a creative retreat – dabbling in the new-to-me art of hand building in clay.

Beyond the amorphous, leaden sculptures I’d bring home from school as a child, I’ve barely done anything with clay, so it felt long overdue to explore it a little more.  I persuaded my friend Jackie to join me in an immersive weekend course run by the wonderful ceramicist Sue Mundy, focused on making organic vessels and forms.  We had a blast, and I’ve since fallen hard into a heady love affair with ceramics…  Here’s a few pics and the flow of what we did – not least because it would be a lovely thing to try one wet, wintery weekend at home if you’re interested.

We used earthenware hand-building clay throughout the weekend; a gritty, grogged beginners’ clay that was malleable and forgiving.  Sue had us all build a stash of small pinch pots which we then used as the basis for our sculptures and forms.  Pinch pots are the the starting point for so much in pottery; created by rolling a smooth ball of clay and then pressing in with the thumb to gradually hollow out a cup-shaped pot.  ‘Don’t get too precious about these!’ urged Sue; ‘I’m going to ask you to throw them on the floor next to see what happens’…

We smashed and mashed our pots around before then beginning to combine them together to create the basis for vessels and vases.  Try as we might, Jackie and I seemed only able to create things that looked unerringly like, well – a pair of buttocks.  In my case, the kind of sagging bottom I spend hours in the gym trying to avoid.  In Jackie’s case, pert glutes worthy of Marilyn Monroe.  By contrast, I offer you the tutor’s examples (fig 1), my midlife efforts (fig 2), and Jackie’s gravity-defying orbs (fig 3).

By the time we moved on to the next exercise, I’d found my flow.  We joined pairs of pinch pots together to form egg-shapes and cylinders, and I spent a happy afternoon producing a shoreline of hollow pebbles of varying sizes; some with holes and others without.  Once leather-hard, I coated them with oxide and scraped patterns in the clay;

Sue had a copy of this beautiful book of Levon Biss’s close-ups of seeds and pods, and drawing inspiration I had a go at making my own collection of strange fruit; some identifiable and others as yet unknown to science… I love how they turned out!

With just an hour of the weekend left, I forced myself to return to my long-abandoned gluteal sculpture and added coils of clay to build height, before carving holes in the sides.  I had no plan, but I decided I liked the end result, which does indeed look organic (almost skull-like, in an abstract way), and definitely less like a rear-end;

I buffed the clay with the back of a spoon to smooth the surfaces and give it a subtle sheen – and then said a heartfelt prayer to the kiln gods as I offered up the weekend’s labours to its fiery will.

I’ll share how they turned out in next week’s post….though the top pic here reveals the fortune of this one!

If you fancy having a go at making any of these, here are some resources and tips to get started;

  • The clay we used is this one. If you’re investing in simple tools, I’d recommend an inexpensive kidney too (smooth ones for shaping and serrated ones for scraping out clay) – but don’t be tempted to spend a fortune on kit; household objects will do for most things.
  • Shape the clay when it’s wet, then leave it for a few hours until it’s leather hard; you can add pattern at this stage and smooth surfaces without worrying about the clay caving in.
  • We had the benefit of an on-site kiln to fire our pots; if you’re doing this at home, you can use air-dry clay or check in with your local pottery cafe or any nearby studios; many will give you shelf-space in their kiln for a few pounds when they are firing other work.
  • Pinterest and You Tube are filled with great tutorials on making pinch pots and simple vases – and also ideas on how to use pinch pots for other projects and creations
  • Rope in a friend or your family to have a go too; add in tea, hot chocolate or wine depending on the hour.  Have great music on in the background, nowhere you need to be and a laissez-faire attitude to mess.

Grand reveal to follow!

Have a lovely weekend wherever you are and whatever you’re upto.