The elemental quality of pottery is never more fully appreciated than when you are sat at a potter's wheel and discovering, for the first time, this most ancient yet essential of crafts. Such was my experience when our founder (and my neighbour) Kate Dewmartin and I recently visited CraftCourses maker Yoka Kilkelly at Siramik Pottery in Carmarthenshire. The recognition of earth, water, air and fire and their most tangibly connected form is profound: the everyday made exceptional; the ordinary made extraordinary but, to really understand it, you have to witness and feel it first hand.
Arrival at Yoka's pottery studio is rural to say the least! Her instructions tell you that you will think you're "in the middle of nowhere" and so it seems as you drive up a long track through forestry and countryside strangely reminiscent of the Netherlands with tidy, open fields and windmills. As you enter the yard, the beautiful stone barn, formerly a milking parlour and farmhand lodgings, is directly ahead and already there is a sense of being in another world. Creativity of any kind is a form of escapism, and this stunning place truly feels like an escape from the ordinary concerns of the everyday, and the entrance to somewhere very far removed from that.
Our eyes roamed hungrily over this veritable treasure trove of arts and crafts memorabilia. The earthy smell of clay was all around along with the sweet aroma of hay and wild flowers, the sound of bees and the sense of the purposeful history in the building.
By anyone's standards, Yoka is an accomplished artist. Notwithstanding the current societal debate on whether craft can be considered art, she is an artisan who makes practical objects that are functional and useful but that are also beautiful, wonderful to hold, and undoubtedly worthy of the term 'art.'
"I am a very practical person and therefore my major wish is to make beautiful ceramic pieces that people can use, hold & enjoy." - Yoka Kilkelly
Yoka has created a studio with accessibility in mind so that all feel welcome, and no-one need feel excluded or unwelcome in any way. If you think you are too big to sit comfortably behind a wheel or you have back or knee problems, Yoka will help you to adapt and adjust so that you can enjoy and fully engage in the session. Mindful of my own slightly dodgy back, I eagerly eyed up the bags of damp clay stacked up like sentries on duty, and tried to contain my enthusiasm as we donned aprons and prepared to get started.
The first task was to prepare the clay. This involves a process known as 'wedging' where the clay is manipulated in a repetitive turning, pushing and rolling action the purpose of which is to expel any air pockets, compress and align the particles within the clay more closely, and to make the clay more flexible, malleable and conditioned ready for use. Sounds straight forward enough right? An experienced potter like Yoka makes it look easy but, for a newbie it is surprisingly tricky. The result (with a little assistance) is a piece of clay shaped a bit like a shell. A wire cutter is then used to slice through to make several, similarly-sized pieces of clay which we slapped and patted into balls ready for the wheel.
“Connect your two hands so both brains are working.“ - Yoka
“You definitely have a feel for this, this is poetry in motion.“ - Yoka
I feel Yoka was a little generous in her assessment of my bowl-throwing talents, but the sense and feeling of accomplishment was powerful. You tend to meander through life with fairly solid expectations of how easily you think you'll achieve new skills, but the reality is often surprisingly off-kilter. I'm mindful of my first attempt at skiing a million years ago when I arrived full of confidence but simply couldn't find my courage or coordination; or the first time I took my dog to an agility competition after a year of training, and watched helplessly as she ignored my directions and set off on an adventure of her own.
I came to the potter's wheel similarly, with a creative person's positivity, and left it with renewed respect. Respect for the skill involved, for the reverence of the process, for the honing of techniques that take years to master, and for the potter who can take earth and water and create magic!
This is however, the perfect point at which decoration can be added by hand painting or scoring into the clay with a variety of tools and techniques and which has given much of Yoka's pottery its particular style. Slips (watered down clay that contains additives which can produce a variety of colours on firing, but have the earthy tones of clay in its raw form) can then be applied before the pots are left to fully dry for six weeks at which point they are made ready for the last of the four elements - fire!
First firing complete, and the pots can now be glazed in preparation for the second firing. The kiln is heated to 1,100°C at which temperature the iron and other minerals within the clay reach optimum maturity. During this firing, the glaze attains its glassy finish, protecting the clay within and providing a surface that is safe to eat and drink from. Throughout the firing processes, each pot shrinks by about 10% as water is removed from the clay by the heat, something to be aware of when planning the finished article.
“That’s your breakfast bowl .. but you’re on a diet from now on as the bowl shrinkage in the kiln is 10%!“ - Yoka
In completing my part in the making of this little bowl, I'm left with the positive feeling of trying something that is a completely new experience. The overriding impression in my case, is a better understanding of the beauty of pottery throughout its creation using the four elements, where each piece has its own unique qualities. Therein lies the appeal of handcrafted pottery over mass-produced, factory-manufactured ceramics. It is the individuality of every piece that you hold: you can sense the hands of the craftsperson who has made it; you can feel its heart and soul.
As we drove away with Yoka and Siramik in the rear-view mirror, I was buzzing with the thrill of a fledgling skill, eager to see how my little bowl will turn out, and keen to have another go as soon as I can. While the possibility of having my own pottery studio and wheel is remote, I have fulfilled a long-held ambition and it didn't disappoint. I can imagine how others are bitten by the pottery bug and how, once bitten, are taken in a completely new direction creatively, emotionally and practically. It's the stuff sea changes are made of.
Why I teach - Yoka Kilkelly
You may be a craftsperson who has thought about sharing your skills with others but not sure if you're ready to take that step. Yoka is the perfect example of someone who has taken their passion, knowledge and joy of making, and created a winning formula of teaching students alongside creating pottery for exhibitions and for sale to a public who are reacquainting themselves with quality craftsmanship and artisan crafts. Neither has lessened her joy or dampened her enthusiasm for her craft. For Yoka, pottery is;
“...everything. I’m in the zone. I do something of my own. It’s the connection you have with the clay. You are the creator.” Yoka
For Yoka, the joy she feels is multi-faceted: it's as much to do with seeing the sense of accomplishment in her student's faces as they grasp the techniques, as it is about her success in maintaining her integrity in an increasingly commercial and cynical world. She has found her niche in this special place and wants to continue giving others the opportunity to experience the same.
"I have decided that I don't want to be 93, sitting on my chair with my stick in my hand and feeling that my head will explode with all the knowledge I have built up. It is the reason why I teach and want to share this knowledge and see people's stars in their eyes when they have made their pots. Teaching is not work for me, it is sharing what I know and I thoroughly enjoy it." - Yoka
Thank you Yoka for a truly special experience. You have taken the elemental, the fundamental four components of Mother Earth, and metamorphosed them into wondrous, colourful works of art that are functional as well as beautiful. Your enthusiasm and love of your craft are inspirational.
If you would like to experience the beautiful craft of pottery with Yoka, you can book a place on one of her courses here: Pottery on the Potter's Wheel - Half Day at Siramik or if you'd love to have one of Yoka's beautiful pieces in your home or as a special gift for a loved one, you can browse Yoka's handcrafted gifts here: Siramik handcrafted gifts.
CraftCourses is privileged to have a fabulous community of potters teaching a variety of pottery and ceramics techniques. If you would like to find a course a little closer to home, you can browse our comprehensive range here: Ceramics and Pottery.