Pottery: Earthen art

Pottery has the potential to transform not just the clay in your hands, but also something within you


Along with teaching art, my husband Garry and I had both held responsible positions as heads of faculty. For both of us the commitments had been all-consuming and often very stressful, not only dealing with the needs of pupils but having to deal with the ever more demanding changes affecting the education management. It was always interesting to note that if pupils were misbehaving in a particular class, they were often sent to the art room. One boy, I particularly remember, spent at least half of his weekly lessons in the art room due to his disruptive attitude in other classes. During the time that he spent there, he would be completely engrossed and calm, had no inclination to be disruptive and also managed to produce a huge ceramic wall panel. I realised that so much of this disruptive behaviour can be attributed to frustration, lack of understanding and therefore not achieving. Reverse this pattern and behaviour could improve.

The beginning of our love affair

In November 1995, at the age of 50, I retired from my position as the art teacher in a comprehensive school in the UK. My husband Garry had already retired from art teaching, and to celebrate my retirement we visited India for the first time, that was the start of a great ‘love affair’ with this country and her people. During our first visit to India, we were introduced to a totally new and stimulating environment, and we instantly knew that we wanted to explore and experience more. Three months later we made our second visit to South India and a year later to Rajasthan. During all our years of teaching art we never had the time, or energy, to develop our own work.

Suddenly, our visit to Rajasthan in 1997, provided just the spark we needed. I had a short previous career as a fashion designer in the 1970s and had specialised in highly decorative, individual garments. Now we began to see some wonderfully decorative, rich fabrics in the garments and tribal quilts, not precious in themselves but vibrant and inspiring. We began to see that we could take ideas from these and develop them into ceramic wall panels, by trying to use the hard fired clay to emulate the softer, folded fabric. Our wall panels would include impressing with clay blocks into the soft clay to give a textured surface, screen printing, mono printing, free painting, rich gold lustre and stitching.

Honing creativity in others

Using some or all of these techniques we began to conduct tile workshops, with full classes from 8-year-old children to senior citizen groups. Running workshops for people who have perhaps never handled clay before is a real delight and we focus very much on personal achievement. It is possible to spend many years perfecting particular techniques, but as our workshop groups have no intention of becoming professional potters, without exception, they find enormous enjoyment and wellbeing in producing two pieces of work waiting to be fired and glazed, all done in just one day. Because of the concentration it requires, it is very therapeutic to create something beautiful from an unprepossessing lump of clay. It becomes an ‘escape’ from a stressful or frustrating job or everyday life which in itself may not be so satisfying. It is wonderful to work with creative people and even more so to work with people who perhaps consider that they are in no way creative but nonetheless surprise themselves with what they manage to achieve… the need to be creative is inherent in everyone.

We continue to visit India on an annual basis and in 2009 we organised a three week tour for ourselves and 11 other potters, all were newcomers to India. We started in Delhi at the wonderful Sanskriti Kendra arts centre and we had arranged for three traditional terra cotta potters from Tamil Nadu to demonstrate their skills for us. In Delhi, we all sat in the shade of a neem tree watching three remarkably skilled men working on making two terra cotta elephants and moving seamlessly from one to the other. There was no sign of any ego in any of these men. None trying to be better than the other, just a dignified acceptance of their consummate skills, creating something with ease.

Seeking inspiration through travel

In the UK we are very fortunate in having several very good selling shows for ceramics which last for a period of 2 – 3 days. Many of the visitors to the show are potters themselves, some collectors and others simply enthusiasts. Working in isolation as we do in our studios, it is good to have the opportunity to meet other like minded people, hear their appreciation and discuss ideas behind their work and techniques. We enjoy confounding the eye by making life-size tribal blouses and children’s dresses complete with folds, stitching and sheesha glass. It once happened that a potential customer at a show came up to us and began discussing the finer details of a piece on display not realising that the dress was actually clay and not a fabric material. In a way it was very flattering to us.

Whenever we visit a place we like to search out local potters and craftsmen. We have done the same in Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand where we have seen a full range of craftsmen and women with the most basic equipment produce commercial pieces which still require the hand of the craftsman/artist before the work is complete. When we hold a finished piece in our hands we often take for granted all the work that has gone into it, but watching it as a work in progress is awe-inspiring. This search for further inspiration for our own ceramics, gives our travelling a whole new dimension!

Another benefit of making and creating work is in the receiving as well as the giving. Our niece has a very serious illness at the moment and her two sons aged 12 and 13 spent a day in our studio each making a very individual bowl for her. They found a very personal way of showing their love for her and, in turn, she received something that no amount of money could buy.

For those who need a new hobby to unwind and calm them, and also for those who simply enjoy getting dirty, pottery might just be the answer. As an enthusiast my answer is a resounding “Yes!” But even from any other person’s outlook I would say that the magic in clay has its creative as well as therapeutic sides. It will fulfil you on many levels because in the end you are most likely to make something useful and inspiring from your own hands. Any pottery enthusiast could mentor you to learn this art of facing challenges beautifully and being at peace even with your imperfections.

We consider ourselves immensely fortunate that at an age when many people are slowing down, that Garry, aged 70 and myself, aged 67 are feeling that life has so much to offer, and has purpose, and we are working at something we love. We are full of new ideas, constantly experimenting with new techniques, planning for new shows and of course, planning for more trips to India which we find endlessly fascinating.

So, in January we will once again be packing our rucksacks for our 15th visit.

This was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Pollie and Garry Uttley are artists based in Derbyshire. They love experimenting techniques on white earthenware. They find the decoration of Indian patchwork quilts and embroidered garments endlessly inspiring. They also run one day workshops in India for beginners and advanced students, where the emphasis is on producing finished decorative bowls and dishes, rather than just learning a technique.


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