Community Through CraftA Conversation with Studio Pottery London
"Clay is humble, it’s of the earth. Working in clay grounds the individual and the community through the craft."
Winter sunlight trickles through the glass walls of the Studio Pottery London workshop. The ceramic studio, which opened in August 2019, provides workshop space for members and teaching by experienced potters. This morning, the wheels and electric kilns are at rest, but through an internal glass partition, I see one technician apportioning fistfuls of wet clay and another mixing a glaze. The open shelves which divide the rooms are stacked with white, dusty works-in-progress. I sit down in the central reception with founders Lucy Attwood, a former art consultant, and Gregory Tingay, a potter and teacher who apprenticed with Mary Boys-Adam, a pupil of Bernard Leach. We drink coffee from Tingay’s own Leach-esque mugs, speckled and tactile as eggs.
As a student of Tingay’s herself, Attwood approached the tutor with a new business venture when he closed his studio in North London. Together, they developed an idea to establish a community of potters in central London through one-to-one classes, foundation courses, corporate events and memberships. They took their plan to Grosvenor Estate – a privately owned property company who aim to deliver projects with social benefits – and with the help of another of Tingay’s former students, Vesna Aksentijevic of FLINT Interior Design, they converted the shell of a brick building in Ecclestone Yards into a bright, inviting studio. Tingay tells me Edmund de Waal described the workshop as ‘Bauhaus’ when he visited on its opening night. The description fits the purpose as well as the aesthetic: both elements reflect the Bauhaus ethos of combining fine art and functional design, and bringing art into meaningful contact with everyday life.
Cereal: How did you decide on your studio’s location?
Lucy Atwood: We wanted the studio to be based in west London, as artists’ studios have often been located here historically, and to bring art back into the centre of London where, at present, it is most absent. Urban life can be so arid, and we sensed a real thirst to create amongst city workers. Here, we are accessible to all Londoners and people coming from further away, too. We want to be completely inclusive, and we are the first such studio for pottery in central London.
Gregory Tingay: We are very public here, exposed even, but that’s deliberate. The emphasis is on building a community of people who want to work with clay; it’s not the same as a single artist isolated up in their garret. Our aim is not to hark back to a romanticised age, but rather to draw on the past in order to communicate the ancient skills of wheel-thrown pottery within a living tradition, shaped by the demands of contemporary urban life. To operate in an urban setting is to form part of a legacy of potters such as Edmund de Waal and Lucie Rie, whose electric kiln and wheel was not far from here, in her studio in Bayswater.
Why do you feel now is the right time for this venture?
GT: So many people are stuck behind computers, unable to release their dormant creativity. Once you start on the wheel you lose yourself in the process. A great deal of patience goes into learning just the basic skill. It rewires your brain in a way, reconnecting you with a creative side of yourself. And it’s an egalitarian craft that anyone can learn with good teaching.
LA: There is a real ‘zeitgeist’ for pottery right now, and we realised it would be the perfect time to establish a teaching studio with a focus on throwing on the wheel. Like Gregory says, it’s a craft that anyone can learn with the right attitude, and we really want to focus on the teaching element here: passing on the skills of a lineage going back to Bernard Leach. Something we have worked hard at is recruiting the right teachers who will contribute to that lineage.
What makes a good pottery teacher?
GT: It’s an interesting question. Some people can be wonderful artist-potters, without being gifted teachers. A good teacher communicates the fundamental skills and nurtures the pupils in the process. I want our teachers to display a certain rigour, as well as warmth and human empathy, because they are dealing with people and their needs. Our goal is to extract the best from our students and to help them do better than they thought they could.
LA: You need patience and empathy on both sides. When I was lucky enough to be taught by Gregory at his former studio, I didn’t fire a thing for the first six months!
Was that deliberate?
GT: It is absolutely deliberate. I am of the opinion that the craft needs to be established first. It’s quite old fashioned, but I think you need to learn the fundamental grammar before you can move away from it and onto higher levels of creativity. You can’t have a badly thrown pot, no matter how artistic; it doesn’t gel. Diligence, devotion and calm repetition are all key to learning. A good potter and a good teacher both derive their gifts from the humility of sound practice.
What are your hopes for your students, and what developments have you seen in their practices so far?
LA: The perfect scenario is that someone comes for a one-to-one class with Gregory – an hour and a half, learning the basics – before progressing to membership. We really want a mixed bag of people and we curate the classes so no one is out of their depth.
GT: We work with people at all levels with a high teacher-pupil ratio so that no one feels abandoned. We want our students to have as much support as we can manage and really, where they take it from there is their decision.
LA: We have already seen improvements in our members’ work – and in their confidence. Every individual member has their own method, but they can also draw on our skills and each other’s.
How does clay bond a community?
GT: Clay is humble, it’s of the earth. Working in clay grounds the individual and the community through the craft. Out of something formless and basic, an object of use and beauty comes into being through careful hands and sound intent. Throwing in clay links the maker to an ancient human history of ceramic creation.