I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Core, renowned ceramic artist & educator who’s work and passion embraces the mindfulness of the repetitive and physical nature of working with clay. She is based in East Barnet, London … @sarahcorearts
Sarah how did you first come to work with clay ?
I came to work with clay following a major accident. The accident was in 2004 and clay found me in 2008 when I started my way on the Foundation in Art and Design at Central St Martins.
It was the part time track and meant I could really build my stamina gradually in terms of travelling on the tube and negotiating escalators. But it also gave me the opportunity to absorb and develop my direction.
Previous to your accident, had you worked at all with clay or other crafts, or was this a total change of direction for you ?
Mine is a family of musicians and although I had toyed with the idea of studying art when I was a teenager I had put that firmly away as I ‘got sensible’ and ended up working for a medical charity. I lived on a wooden boat for around 8 years though so I was always wielding a paint brush somewhere along the line.
You throw on the spinning wheel in the same way a wood turner uses a lathe is there a natural impetus to end up with something very round, symmetrical, smooth and uniform – is the way you bring mindfulness into the work how you explore your art ?
My introduction to throwing on the wheel was with an international artist called Sandy Brown, who works on a Japanese kick wheel. They are very immediate in the way they transfer energy from the maker to the pot.
All of the energy needed to turn the wheel is generated by the maker directly and although a huge amount of control is possible, the flexibility of this tool together with the plasticity of clay means a really wide voice is possible in this process.
Kick wheels are rare outside of Japan and they are built around the potter, so I work on a Leach Wheel, which is a step removed since it is an indirect treadle, but still requires the maker to generate all the energy needed for the wheel to turn.
The circle is a universal image in many cultures. The variation in every piece of clay makes it an endless discussion between the maker and the material. Mindfulness is the closest word I have found to describe that process.
You describe working with clay as a physical, mindful and repetitive process – your finished work looks like the results of a very physical handmade process almost like you have battled the wheel into submission – is that how you see the process as a outpouring of energy, as a contemplative mindful process or a mix of both ?
The wildness and exuberance in the work is reflection of the creative impulse and I definitely am attached to the physicality of making. In the early days it was vital for me to feel physically empowered as I had lost lots of physical strength as a result of my injuries; there was a sense of ‘I am here’ in everything I made, probably because I was very close to nearly not being here.
One of the consequences of the accident is a permanent fatigue condition and when I am throwing, it remains important that I am generating the energy needed to rotate the wheel. But it is easy to get lost in that and the process of ceramics is also about lift, requiring a reflective capacity.
My tableware does look unconventional, but it functions very well and is lived with in modern daily life. It is also very robust. It’s aesthetic could be challenging for some people but buying a handmade item reflects a degree of individual investment that is mirrored by the level of investment I put into my work.
You have worked on a wide range of educational projects, how did you first get interested in the idea of education through clay ?
It is no mistake my path back into society after the major trauma was through a second journey through university. It represented the culmination of a journey of transformation.
Working with community projects started when I was in my second year at CSM. They are famous for giving students industry experience and one of the clients we worked with as part of this process was Clayground Collective. Clayground were on a ten year mission to bring clays of the world together and I learned a lot from working with them post-grad as well.
It really resonated with me; my graduation project was a series of workshops in a community setting that worked to support and celebrate family carers in Coventry. Clay can be very powerful in building a sense of shared place as it is instantly accessible to a wide range of people.
Directly responding to the current Coronavirus crisis you have created #Stayathome clay parcels and streaming mindful making classes online – how did that come about and how are people adapting to zoom classes ?
#Stayathome parcels are a collaboration as well. I worked with fellow potter/teacher and we sat down before lockdown actually happened and had a sort of crisis meeting.
We asked the question, ‘What can we do to help ourselves and our communities get through this paralyzing time?’ It was a way of coping and of reaching out simultaneously.
Learning new skills in moving online has been a real pleasure. There is a lot of passive viewing online at the moment, which is good as far as it goes but the demand for activities has always been there.
People have migrated well and although teaching some skills like throwing is a little challenging, working with clay remotely has a lot of potential and I am reaching new audiences through it.
It really feels like it could be something to take forward after lockdown is over.
Now you have developed more into social responsible projects for a while and across a broad age range – have the workshops evolved as you’ve had more feedback or have you found there is a universality of working with clay that transcends age and backgrounds ?
Working with clay is brilliant at bringing all groups together. It is universally lived with and although many people might be a little hesitant before they start, working with clay is easily accessible and crosses boundaries very well.
The projects are all motivated by improving wellbeing, but the emphasis can be customised to the need of the project or client; craft, meditation, design, individual or group outcomes.
I am excited to see how participants respond and they often have a unique experience that I might not be able to anticipate but that I have facilitated by bringing them to clay. It’s very enriching and I build on that with every project.
Mental health issues have become much more recognised and openly discussed in the last couple of years. In the midst of the current Covid-19 lockdown – it is starting to touch more people who have previously not considered their mental health – are the benefits of mindfulness and working with clay an effective preventative measure as well as a therapy ?
The Covid-19 lockdown has had been paralysing for lots of people, which sounds obvious but it affects all of us personally as well as on a wider level. Many artists have found it difficult to make any work during this time. My own experience recovering from enforced stillness in ITU, starting with the very basics of life like learning to breathe without a ventilator, has made me very aware that encouraging movement of any type after that is a very delicate process.
During my online lockdown mindfulness workshops we work in a very uncomplicated and gentle way, working with small amounts of clay and completing projects that move us just enough to notice what it feels like. This approach allows participants a sense of agency and a space that informs reflections about their feelings.
I am not a health professional but I do think mental health is still very misunderstood. We can move in and out of mental stability many times a day and any activity which helps us check in with how we are feeling is key to developing and sustaining healthy mental processes. There is definitely a value to working with clay.
The connection between mindfulness and arts & crafts generally is becoming more recognised – what is it about working with clay that makes it so much more effective for mindfulness and for people to become more grounded?
I have realised recently that I was working in this way long before it became popular. I came to clay in a very specific set of circumstances, and for others mindfulness making might mean something different but it is wonderful that this connection has been made as it means I am more able to have the conversation about what I do!
It seems to me that touch is a big factor in the attractiveness of clay; it gives a texture to life that is missing in an age of smooth tech.
Clay also has a memory; it remembers what you do it. If it is knocked ‘out of shape’ when workable but ‘put back’, it will likely as not go to the first position when it fires.
Of course, we are also using a very real natural resource and knowledge of our impact on the environment is becoming more and more acute; working with such an immediate reminder of our environment connects us with our foundation. So, it teaches us to be careful with our gestures and consider our impact when we work with it.
You talk about a “preoccupation with the immanence of the feminine and the results and lessons of those experiences”. Is each piece always a result of meditation and resolution on these experiences or do you find some of your work develops as a part of a work in progress ?
I am trying to convey notion that the continuum of life appears in my work: we play many roles in life but the main lens through which I see is as a woman. I have a conversation with this through the free making of figurative sculpture.
In this approach I sit with a piece of clay and begin to make without aim. The clay will present itself in such a way so that quite often the results figurative and are very distinctly male or female sculptures.
It may be that I come back to continue the work another day so there is a period of reflection between each session of making, but the whole process becomes a meditation.
This concludes when the firing cycle is complete, which itself allows me to step back from the work and reflect on it.
We haven’t talked too much about your personal work – your work is available directly from you online and your work is also represented by Emerge Contemporary in Highgate, how do you find those two different ways of selling your work differ for you as an artist ?
It is a precious thing to be represented by a gallery and I am very lucky to be able to show my work through Emerge Contemporary.
They work with my hand-held ceramics in the main and whilst the possibilities for exhibitions have had to be revised by the lockdown it is great to be connected with a very resilient and passionate gallery with high standards of curation.
Selling direct to buyers is a great way to meet and talk to collectors.
It means I have the potential to influence my revenue stream more directly and I tend to concentrate on my figurative work in this respect as it can need more explanation than other aspects of my work.
What advice would you have for aspiring artists hoping to make a career out of their work ?
Keep making! Believe in your creative voice. It can take a long time to make a living out of selling artwork, especially if, like me, your work is not ‘commercial’: keep your financial bases covered by taking control of your practice as a business.
Sarah thanks for your time and we really appreciate the opportunity to have an inspirational glimpse into your creative world … Thanks again.
Sarah’s work can be viewed on her website SarahCoreArts.com