Pot Heads: Why Everyone’s So Hot for Ceramics | pottery

IIt’s Saturday morning and a group of women huddle nervously, waiting to see if the vases and bowls they tossed into the kiln last week have survived. “It turned out really nice,” says one student. “Oh wow!” another announces, holding up a small bowl. “I’m so proud of myself.”

Freya Bramble-Carter, her 30-year-old teacher, looks down at this studio at the Kingsgate Workshops in London like a mother watching her children paint fairy cakes for the first time. “It’s really fun to see their reactions,” she says. “Especially after they applied the frosting. Then the clay has gone through all its transformations.”

As an artist and teacher, Bramble-Carter recently exhibited her work at the Collect art fair in London. Channel 4 viewers may also remember her from the 2017 series The Great Pottery Throw Down, who left her after failing to flush the toilet successfully. She has more than 26,000 followers on Instagram and is highly admired in this class. Watching her at the wheel as she gracefully transforms a sphere of wet clay into the beginning of an elegant vessel, one of her students referred to her as “the goddess of pottery”.

She studied at Chelsea College of Arts but it was her father, Chris Bramble, who has been teaching ceramics for 30 years, who passed his craft on to his daughter and twin sister, also a ceramist and performance artist. At the moment it is difficult to get a place in Freya’s and Chris’ courses. “They’re always fully booked,” says Emily, one of today’s students. “You have to keep trying.”

“The Goddess of Pottery”… Freya Bramble-Carter works on her toilet in The Great Pottery Throw Down. Photo: BBC

That’s because the world has gone pot-crazy lately. Ceramic burns. The craft, until recently associated with clumsy 1970s seriousness and pushed to the back of the cabinet of embarrassments in the minimalist 1990s and 2000s, has resurfaced and is now considered hip.

The oddity of this modern appreciation for one of civilization’s oldest activities — just a short anthropological step from hunting and gathering — is perhaps best expressed in the number of mega-celebrities who have expressed a passion for getting their hands dirty close. Serena Williams admitted on social media, in 2019 that she’s “really getting into pottery.” Actor Seth Rogen was so obsessed with pots during lockdown that he built a studio in his garage and sold his own ceramic marijuana paraphernalia.

Brad Pitt doesn’t just sculpt clay, he uses other materials apparently while listening to Frank Ocean – he’s also sometimes joined by Leonardo DiCaprio. Spider-Man: Homecoming star Laura Harrier has her own pottery studio, while Josh O’Connor, who played Prince Charles in The Crown, regularly posts pottery tributes to Instagram and praises the late Lucie Rie. A celebrated British ceramic artist who was once known only to a niche audience, Rie’s name is now nodded wisely by anyone who bought a four-set of wobbly cereal bowls from a clay-splattered parent at the school fair.

Josh O'Connor regularly posts pottery reviews online.
A niche audience… Josh O’Connor regularly posts pottery appreciation online. Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

In fashion circles, you’ve come to the point of being nobody if you haven’t already launched a micro-collection of vessels in organic form. Last year, designer Jonathan Anderson, a ceramics collector and superfan, collaborated on a collection with both Kenyan-born, Surrey-based artist Dame Magdalene Odundo, known for her handcrafted, highly polished works, and young American ceramics star Shawanda Corbett of together blankets for the Fall/Winter 2021 collection by JW Anderson. French designer Isabel Marant has stopped working Mondays so she can pursue a ceramics practice in her own recently completed pottery studio. “I don’t want to make a business of it,” she says. “It’s a dream come true and very satisfying for me. Although I think my friends will be mad because they don’t get clothes anymore – they get ceramics.”

Henry Holland, the former London Fashion Week star who dressed Alexa Chung and Rita Ora, has shifted entirely to the fireproof side of fun. When his fashion brand House of Holland went bankrupt early in the pandemic, he sought creative solace in a clay bag. In the morning, after posting a few pictures of some striped bowls on social media, he woke up with 150 orders and is now at the helm of a new ceramic company, a collection of contrasting clay graphic tableware in the Japanese tradition, distributed by nerikomi others from Liberty and Soho Home.

“The ceramics industry is flying across the country,” he says. “When I ask my suppliers if they can create new colors for me, they say, ‘We don’t need new business.’ You are totally overwhelmed. There is a resurgence of household goods in general and of manual labor processes and crafts, a move away from mass production. People pay much more attention to what they buy and associate more emotions with objects. And I’m not going to lie: Throw Down definitely made it more relevant.”

Record breaker... Dame Magdalene Odundo, whose work sold for £240,000 in November 2020.
Record breaker… Dame Magdalene Odundo, whose work sold for £240,000 in November 2020. Photo: Cristian Barnett

Jovial, inclusive and chaotic, The Great Pottery Throw Down, which recently aired its fifth series on Channel 4 after launching on BBC Two in 2015, has done much to educate and empower Brits about pottery au fait with the dangers of sagging edges like bake-off’s damp soils. Helen Ritchie is curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has the country’s most important collection of European, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern ceramics and exhibits Odundo’s work and inspiration. She sees more interest in ceramics among visitors these days. “They’re asking more questions about how things are made,” Ritchie says. “They don’t just walk by and say, ‘Nice pot.’ Although I think it’s easier for people to have an opinion about ceramics than a painting because they’re such familiar objects. We all have pottery at home. Everyone uses ceramics every day.”

She names two prominent artists – and brilliant communicators – who have brought ceramics to the fore: Edmund de Waal and Grayson Perry. “De Waal writes books, Grayson is on TV, so you have these well-known people talking about pottery and popularizing it.” As a result, she says, traditional art galleries have started showing more ceramics, and collectors who would not have invested before are now buying. Ceramics are also increasingly being sold in art auctions. Odundo, whose work made it to this year’s Venice Biennale, continues to break her own record price for a single work by a living ceramic artist: her vessel Angled Mixed Colored fetched £240,000 in November 2020.

Henry Holland with one of his designs.
Now let’s switch to the oven-fired fun side…Henry Holland with one of his designs. Photo: Henry Holland

But away from lofty galleries and six-figure bombshells, there’s a sense that pottery has something more to offer to all of us, that its down-to-earthness reaches where other arts, crafts, and even professions cannot – even if the profession in question is the main one met Hollywood movies or winning the Grand Slam in tennis. “Honestly,” Rogen said of his pottery habit, “I was surprised at how much of it I got. It forces you to be very present.”

In a predominantly digital world, its tactility is becoming increasingly attractive. “The physicality and sense of accomplishment is so rewarding,” says Holland. “When I was a designer, I was so far removed from actually making clothes. I would work with my team in the studio to adjust the patterns, but then you just wait for factories to make them. Whereas now I go into the studio and a glob of mud is all I need for a finished piece.”

Back at Kingsgate Workshops, Maryam Pasha, a ‘storyteller’ and director of TEDxLondon and TEDxLondonWomen, is in the process of glazing a vase she made in late Owen Blue. “I like that you have to be patient and not always know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I find that as you get older you rarely do things you’re bad at, so it teaches you some patience.”

In her daily work, Pasha helps scientists and experts communicate about the climate crisis. “It’s pretty hard,” she says. “Here I have three hours when I don’t have to look at my phone. I can’t think of anything else because when you come into the studio and you’re distracted, it’s a disaster. You have to leave all of that outside. It’s a kind of active meditation. It lets you be in your hands instead of your head.”

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