August 12th, 2013
Escaping from the ceaseless rain-drenched valley with a very wet tent, and a stove that felt too damp to co-operate for a morning brew, Eleanor and I made our way into the sunshine and breakfast, and the open possibilities of a Sunday.
Driving towards Penrith, we noticed a sign for Potfest, an internationally renowned festival of potters who come with their wares from all over the world to enjoy a weekend gathering of creative minds in beautiful surroundings. We’d both always wanted to go to it, so we seized the opportunity.
There are two Potfests over two weekends: Potfest in the Pens was the original open-to-all event, and still takes place in an old cattle market in Penrith. Potfest in the Park at Hutton-in-the-Forest is a more selective event, with some of the world’s best talent chosen from potters’ fairs internationally, by founder Geoff Cox.
Geoff Cox – Potfest Founder
It didn’t take long for me to find Geoff, or rather for him to find me, as he saw I was particularly interested in the ‘Journey’ concept they were showcasing this year to celebrate Potfest’s 20th anniversary. Both the journey of rock becoming clay, and the journeys that people make from all over the world to come here, year on year, to exchange news and begin new stories elsewhere.
Clay – The First Journey
Clay begins its journey as feldspathic rock, pushed up from the earth to form mountains. Over millions of years, ice, wind and water erode the rock and it falls to the valleys. As it continues to erode, smaller particles find their way into rivers and are transported sometimes great distances, eventually settling out into thick seams. Throughout their journey they are continually ground finer, sometimes picking up organic matter and other minerals along the way. This gives the resulting clay its particular character. Often those things it picks up will help it fire at lower temperatures; it’s become earthenware clay. Clay that is purer and found nearer to its original mountain source fires at higher temperatures, called stoneware. The clay most studio potters use are mixtures from various places, blended to achieve different working qualities and specific effects.
(Excerpt from Journeys In Clay catalogue)
Geoff comes from a place called Holme on Spalding Moor, near Hull. There, he told me, farmers used to make pots in winter for their own use, until a Roman garrison was established just across the River Humber, which created a ready made market for the pots. It is then that the ceramic industry took off, and some pots that originate from there have allegedly been found in Egypt, identifiable by their style. In those times the River Humber was “like a motorway” – a major transport channel. Roman settlements were often built near rivers, and it is across waters that these pots would travel.
Potfest in the Park is a focal point for a selection of the best potters in Europe. Now they travel here with their wares by car, and out of this gathering and sharing of new work, opportunities emerge to attend other fairs, and meet other potters. On the Friday night, all the potters have a meal together, and each country is asked to bring a ‘liquid prize’. Each country then chooses its favourite potter, and awards the prize. Geoff said with a glint in his eye, that he used to throw the lid away so that it would have to be consumed, and shared, there and then!
You may remember, from my stay at The Quiet Site that there was a particular ceramic lady who caught my eye as my friend and I had a drink in the bar. She had such presence that I had to ask the manager what he knew of her origins:
So much had happened since then, and Daniel had never told me the maker’s name, so she had slipped from the foreground of my memory. As I talked to Geoff I suddenly remembered her again. I pulled up the photograph and asked, “You don’t by any chance know who made this do you?”. “Sally MacDonell” he said, instantly. “She’s over there.” I felt as if I’d entered a nexus of stories and pathways, and was surrounded by precious biographical objects. The longer I stay in this area, I begin to notice certain characters, stories, or themes coming up and tapping me on the shoulder once again.
I went to find Sally and she was very pleased to see her old friend (though she said it could do with a polish if I’d tell her where to find it)! She said she made it about ten years ago, during an “armchair phase” when all her figures were seated. She asked me to email her the photo, responded saying that receiving it was “like seeing a family member again after years of separation”.
She admitted, “I don’t do arty farty bollocks but I am an optimist. That’s what my work is about really. All my ladies wear different hats but they’re all the same. We’re all the same deep down. We all bleed.”
I can imagine, if you have spent many hours holding and forming a piece in your hands, it becomes forever a part of you; just as I may hold a certain swathe of earth beneath my feet as I walk across it, becoming familiar with it until I and the memory of it are inseparable – especially true when walking barefoot.
I met another magical French potter by the name of Hélène Sellier- Duplessis, who had made a stunning collection of otherworldly creatures, shamanesses and dream stupas in earthy tones – intricately glazed in tiny detailed parts with Tibetan reds, blues and turquoises.
Hélène Sellier- Duplessis
“The matter in your hands connects with the matter in you”, she said.
Hélène had travelled for much of her life. Then, aged thirty, she asked herself what was the most important thing that she wanted to do. The answer was to play with clay. She came from a family of potters but had no formal training. Her work is some of the most beautiful and intriguing I have ever seen.
I was particularly drawn in (irrevocably in fact), by a character in the series that she referred to as The Mountain Women. Even though other pieces were equally beautiful in their own way, this one totally had me. “She has her arm outstretched, ready to give, or receive”.
My Mountain Woman
A sizeable ceramic sculpture is not something your average Wayfarer would consider acquiring en route. Less still, parting with a chunk of cash. But I had no choice in this one, you see. Sometimes, you know a thing is yours to look after. Hélène kindly offered to let me pay later as I am not carrying a cheque book (travelling light!) but to solve it all there and then, the organiser of the festival actually lent me the money and said I could pay him back when I’m done Wayfaring. I am so heartened to find a concentration of good souls around and it was the perfect end to one story and the beginning of another. This piece embodies so much about what this journey has been for me. It, and my walking stick, will forever be my mementos of the ways I have fared this summer.
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Sarah Thomas is Penguin's Wayfarer and she'll be walking and writing for us all summer. Follow her journey here!