Decades may have passed since your school ceramics classes, but there is still great enjoyment to be had from working with clay. Stuart Anderson meets a group of amateur artists to find out more.
As she sits at the pottery wheel, Ginny Topp is lost in her work.
Her hands glide deftly around a lump of earthy clay, guiding, pushing and levelling off.
‘You get totally absorbed in it and just forget about everything else,’ says Ginny, 55, who runs community ceramics workshops at Portsmouth’s Omega Centre.
Just watching her morph the mass gradually into a rudimentary clay pot is almost mesmerising in itself.
Ginny, who lives in Southsea, says the therapeutic benefits of working with ceramics are a major attraction of the craft.
‘Seeing the mental benefits are immensely satisfying,’ she says.
‘When people come in here, they might be totally miserable but they leave with a smile on their faces and I just love that.’
Ginny remembers one sufferer of Asperger’s who joined one of her ceramics courses.
‘She came to me wearing gloves. She couldn’t touch clay or even water and she couldn’t talk to people.
‘She was very isolated.
‘But within three weeks the gloves were off and she was using clay, using water, talking to people and she’s now making fantastic stuff.
‘Just to see the progress that people make, the well-being that it brings them, is absolutely amazing.
‘It’s kind of my pay, really.’
Ginny teaches pot-making and sculpting skills as part of the Workers’ Education Association.
She also runs Clay Station – a ceramics workshop where subscribers work on their own projects under the guidance of more experienced crafters.
‘Members who join Clay Station pay an annual fee,’ Ginny explains.
‘Then they have open access four times a week where they can come and work on their own projects.
‘It’s a lovely group, and everyone’s very supportive of each other.’
During the workshops the ceramics room is a hive of activity – packed to the gills with glazing solutions, brushes and wooden rolling pins. Most of the crafters are working on a central table, chatting as they roll clay into shapes and carefully shape it with their fingers.
Everywhere are crafted testaments to their interests - a clay dog, a row of miniature beach huts, an almost Grecian-style pot.
Despite the busy scene, Ginny says she feels the ceramics room is still underused.
She says: ‘We’ve found it slow going because still a lot of people don’t know where we are, but we want more people to come because we’ve got such fantastic equipment.’
Getting the ceramics room up and running is a story in itself.
It began when Ginny was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2010.
She was forced to take a break from her master’s degree in fine art, where she was specialising in ceramics.
Ginny returned to study 18 months later after a long course of treatment and a major operation.
It was then she learned that the University of Portsmouth planned to shut down its ceramics courses.
‘It was disappointing,’ Ginny says.
‘I think there was a lot of feeling that it was a backwards step.
‘They also closed the glass and small metals department and are moving more into the digital age.’
Imbued with a boldness that only a brush with mortality can bring, Ginny asked the university to donate the pottery wheels, kilns, pug mills and other equipment for community use.
To her delight, the university administration said yes, and also agreed to pay for the kit to be moved to its new home.
‘They told me at the time that the replacement value of it all was £50,000,’ she says.
Ginny had sought permission to set up in a room at the Omega Centre, a former Victorian school in Omega Street, tucked away away between the train line and Winston Churchill Avenue.
She says the move was a day to remember, and involved a team of movers, lorries and cranes.
‘It was an amazing operation,’ she says.
‘I remember standing in an empty room which was quickly being filled with boxes of equipment, tools, raw materials, etcetera and found it hard to believe what was being achieved.
‘It was also pretty scary. So many people said I was mad but I’d had a mad time.
‘I’m convinced I would not have gone ahead had I not had breast cancer in 2010.’
One of the first projects Ginny did when she returned from her treatment was a huge collection of ‘turned-away’ pots to symbolise her experience with breast cancer.
She says: ‘When you throw a pot, after it’s finished you turn it upside down to level it all off.
‘I used this technique to “turn away” the pots and deconstruct them because that’s how I felt after my operation.
‘They took a lump off my back and put it on to my front to reconstruct me, but I felt deconstructed.’
Ginny says she made a pot for each of the 165 minutes the operation took.
She also made a film about the project and the pots then went on show at an exhibition.
Another concept Ginny and her team are working on is something called the 1,000 pot project.
Clay Station volunteers are making 1,000 plain ceramic pots which will be placed in random locations across the city. The idea behind it is to get more people to try ceramics.
She says: ‘We’re going to put them all over Portsmouth for people to find. Hopefully, they’ll bring them back for them to be glazed.’
For more on Ginny’s work, visit ginnytopp.co.uk/.
‘I have a knack for doing heads’
Fern MacKay, 65, of Southsea, started going to Clay Station about 18 months ago after she finished her career.
She says: ‘I came as part of Portsmouth’s 60+. I wanted to give it a try because I’d just retired and it was difficult to settle after I’d worked for 47 years.
‘I’d only done ceramics at school before, but I found that I had a knack for doing heads - getting the different parts of the face in the right place. It just came naturally, so I decided to join the head course.
‘The challenge is getting the dimensions correct. You might think a head is round, but it’s not, it’s an oval.
‘You don’t realise until you start making a head in clay how difficult it is. It’s really unpredictable.
‘I used to think it was taking clay away but it’s not, it’s adding clay.’
Fern says she enjoys the social aspect of Clay Station.
‘We’re learning and we teach each other,’ she says.
‘We really enjoy it and have a great time.’
‘This is a lifeline for me’
Juliette Skeenes is 49 and lives in Eastney.
She says: ‘I did O-Level ceramics at college but I was awful at it. I was banned from throwing pots because I was so bad. It just ended up on the wall.
‘But here, Ginny told me I was a natural. It’s just taken 32 years for my talent to be created.
‘At the moment I’m ill, so this is a lifeline for me.’
Juliette says she has problems with discs pressing on her spine, which forced her to give up her job. She says getting creative with ceramics is one way she copes with her condition.
‘I used to be a holistic therapist,’ she says.
‘I worked at the naval base. It’s been really important for me to be able to have this creative outlet.
‘I don’t feel the symptoms
as badly. We all have a good rapport with each other and we’re always swapping ideas.’
Juliette’s current project is making a ceramic dog called Violet.
She says: ‘It started with scrunching up newspaper for legs and then putting a slab around and then moulding it together and then just making markings for paws.
‘It’s been about 12 hours’ work so far, but I’ve done other things in that time as well.’
‘This is really therapeutic and it’s helped me a lot.’
Zara Baines, 27, of Fratton, volunteers to manage Clay Station’s e-mails, website and marketing.
She says the workshops have also helped her through tough times.
‘I’m medically signed off at the moment because I suffer from anxiety and depression,’ Zara says.
‘This is really therapeutic and it’s helped me a lot.
‘You can be very mindful with it and just get lost in it.
You can just put all your attention on it and just forget about everything else.
‘It give you a chance to be creative.
‘You don’t have to be good to create something worthwhile.’
Zara says she has been doing ceramics for about five years and prefers ‘hand-building’ to working with the pottery wheel.
‘All my stuff is hand-built.
I’ve made a birdhouse that I quite like. I’ve also made a life-sized rose and things like that.
‘When I first started I used to give them to my mum because they weren’t very good, but now I just make them for myself.’
‘It’s a permanent thing’
Kevin Jones, 52, of Southsea, is a volunteer and committee member at Clay Station. He says clay is an excellent material to work with and has a timeless quality.
‘It’s easy to work with and it responds to anything that you want to do with it.
‘It’s quite therapeutic and that’s what draws a lot of people to it.
‘It’s quite a good escape from the everyday drudgery. It offers that creative outlet for people that they enjoy. At least that’s how I got into it.’
Kevin says he started doing ceramics more than 15 years ago at the old Lion Gate building, when the University of Portsmouth was a polytechnic.
‘I’ve got quite a broad range of experience now that I can draw on for whatever I choose to put my hand to.
‘If you’ve got a concept, this is probably one of the best materials that you can work with.
‘It’s a permanent thing that will last the ages. We have stoneware from the ancient Greeks, Egypt, China, and they go back thousands of years.
‘When you make something with clay it’s pretty permanent, and because it can last forever it’s a real legacy that you can leave.’
He adds: ‘This is a really small group and there is a good social aspect as well.’