Helen Evans: the Future of UK Ceramics

Paul Bailey Ceramics Art + Perception 108 2018 Art + Perception Home

The traditional ceramics studio has seen some fundamental innovations in the past five years. Globalisation and the influence of social media, together with a new interest in ceramics, have broken down the barriers of where a studio can be established. But all this comes with a background of high prices for property in the UK and the closure of many traditional centres for making ceramics.

As technology expands the world’s ability to communicate, what happens to hand-crafted items, such as ceramics, that used to be sold at galleries and fairs?
Helen Evans is one person who has bucked the trend. Trained in the UK at Bath and then Central Saint Martins Colleges, while still running a studio in Tobago, it begs the question: how did she do it?
Describing her working life she commented, “It was difficult. I basically didn’t have any holidays for about six to seven years, although one can argue that my working trips to Tobago where I had to produce enough stock in 4–6 weeks to restock the shop for the next six months, was the best holiday of all. Mostly, it was difficult keeping up with the orders in London, as well as working part-time for Kate Malone in her studio as a project manager.”

One of the things Evans learnt while working around other artists during her time in London was the level of dedication and focus needed to be successful in ceramics in London. Being surrounded by similarly motivated people also helped. Going to a studio was sociable and it was inspiring seeing how different artists work and what projects they are involved in. Evans found it hard work and tiring but being in that environment was so inspiring. Since returning to Tobago full time, where she has a gallery/shop as well as a studio, she is developing new work and glaze testing, which is an important part of her business.

The United Kingdom’s Craft Council’s most recent findings in their Studying Craft 16 report shows that higher education ceramics student numbers have declined by 75% between 2007/2008 and 2014/2015 ...

Two things that Evans highlighted in our interview – access to studio equipment and business support – are key to new makers’ development. This becomes problematic when coupled with the issue of a downturn in available craft education.
The United Kingdom’s Craft Council’s most recent findings in their ‘Studying Craft 16’ report shows that higher education ceramics student numbers have declined by 75% between 2007/2008 and 2014/2015, from 360 to 90 people and available courses declined by 47% in the same period, from 34 to 16. The findings present a picture of a craft sector at risk, facing an unsustainable model for educating and training our current and future makers. The following points stand out in particular:

  • Schools: the number of students studying craft GCSEs has fallen by 23% since 2007/2008, with those taking Design &
    Technology GCSEs falling at a much faster rate (41%) than those taking Art & Design.
  • The number of sixth formers studying craft continues to fall, although the Year 13 A Level cohort is slowly increasing again since 2012/2013, suggesting that there may be fewer students giving up craft subjects after AS Levels.
  • Further Education: there is significant growth over the period of the study in student numbers taking Entry Level and Level 1 courses. However, in comparison, there are only 8% of students going on to study advanced courses at Levels 3 and 4. And the increase in participation in the last two years is mostly in non-regulated courses.
  • Higher Education: Craft students and courses are declining rapidly. There is an increase in higher education courses in further
    education institutions, but the overall number of craft-related HE courses has, however, declined by 50% between 2007/2008 and 2014/2015.

Across the UK there are two trends which compensate for the downturn in public service providers. The first is established ceramics studios offering teaching and spare space to makers, and the second is new businesses following the American open access model, where you can become a member and attend for a set number of hours-per-week using the facilities with access to technical staff. Often there is a program of development.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the new open access studios is the use of social media marketing such as Pinterest, Instagram and various websites to promote and sell work. Added to this is the public sale of members’ work several times a year from the studio. The Kiln Rooms uses the open access model through membership. Opened in June 2015 in south London with approximately 60 members, it now has three studios with 120 members and 150 people taking part in regular classes.

If demand still grows with the waiting list to join continuing, then there could be a case to open another studio. They put their success down to having a fantastic team of experienced and enthusiastic ceramicists, plus great members, plus working hard to make it succeed, and South London being a perfect location.

Those attending are often young professional people with some ceramic experience, which is a reflection of the area. Living in apartments and the desire to work amongst other makers can make an open access studio ideal. Part of the support offered is lectures from visiting makers and regular sales of work that are enthusiastically attended by the public.

To the north of London are two other studios owned by Turning Earth. Membership is from beginners to professional makers. The original studio is two large glass-fronted railway arches in the centre of a residential and business area and started in December 2013.

Turning Earth E10, that opened in March 2017 in the 8,500 sq ft top floor of an old hardware factory, is the second centre for ceramics. There are 600 people attending over the two studio sites.
The second centre includes a large open-plan open-access membership studio where part- time professional makers, serious hobbyists and beginners work together in a community environment, with the benefit of shared facilities. The space also includes a classroom for those new to the craft, where 13 ceramics courses a week are taught by professional ceramicists.
In an adjoining Turning Earth studio, a cohort of 30 career makers is part of In Production, which is a full-time maker space and incubator programme for small ceramics businesses. There is also a strong use of social media to sell work directly.

This becomes problematic when coupled with the issue of a downturn in available craft education.

Launching a studio may still be beyond the reach of many, whether because of high London rents or a need to develop studio management skills. Turning Earth subsidises professional training in studio management skills and business skills with the aim of helping makers launch viable businesses. All of this presents some questions about the future of ceramics. After finishing a recognised university course, what will be the career path and opportunities in the future? How can the sector accommodate those makers who only want to work with clay part-time while holding- down a full-time job in another sector? On an international level, can makers working in remote areas like Helen Evans use technology to sell their work across the world and develop new markets?

It will be interesting to see how the open access model spreads and how small independent studios will have changed and developed five years from now. Who will be the makers of the future now that the open access system is bridging the gap left by a dwindling public-sector provider?

Image Captions

Work in London Gallery, Helen Evans. Image courtesy of the author.
Ash glaze over coloured slips. Image credit: Christoph Meurer.
Large Platter, Helen Evans. Image credit: Juliet Sheath.

by Paul Bailey

Paul Bailey is a writer on modern ceramic makers and produces the online magazine Emerging Potters".