The House of Clay - Ashbourne's The Clayrooms pottery studio
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 July 2019
When Ashbourne neighbours Sarah Heaton and Helen Cammiss discovered a shared passion for ceramics it sparked a new creative venture. Viv Micklefield visits The Clayrooms
Picture the scene: a sea of 5,000 terracotta figures, most no more than 20 centimetres high, crammed alongside the High Altar of Ashbourne's St Oswald's Church. Each one individually hand-made by everybody from school children to septuagenarians and all inspired by the town's famous Shrovetide football match.
For many of those involved, this astonishing sight left a lasting impression that's still talked of. As not only was 'Our Game' the centrepiece of last summer's Ashbourne Festival, it also signalled an unleashing of creative energy, credit for which is largely down to a fledgling pottery studio and the two talented local artists who started it.
Some might say that Sarah Heaton and Helen Cammiss were thrown together by fate, meeting as they did almost six years ago thanks to the sale of an historic property called Walton Bank on Derby Road. Intriguingly, this is listed as a building of special and architectural interest having been used in the early 19th century as the jailhouse for several hundred captured Napoleonic army officers (and their servants!) under General Rochambeau. Today, however, it is budding makers who are trooping through the doors. Sarah, Walton Bank's previous owner and a ceramics specialist responsible for best-selling ranges at Denby and Burleigh, has remained a near neighbour. Since Helen, the latest occupant, is a former art and design teacher, thoughts turned to collaborating on new eye-catching ranges of pottery and to sharing their professional expertise.
'We still wanted to continue with our own work and started with a business plan which we pitched to our husbands,' recalls Sarah. 'Back then we only had two potting wheels and a little kiln. The idea was to hold pottery workshops which would encourage people to join our courses and then to become members of a community of fellow artists and practitioners.'
She goes on: 'So we held an open day in October 2017, thinking visitors would just call in for a piece of cake. However, people signed-up for courses straightaway and we got our first member there and then.'
'We wondered, if having come to a six-week course that people might say "thank you and goodbye,"' Helen continues, 'But over a year later, many have continued to sign-up for more courses and at the Saturday children's club for eight- to thirteen-year-olds the progress made is astonishing. Learning many of the skills that the adults do, such as hand building, sculpting and going on the wheels, they've become their own little social group with the shy ones really coming out of their shells.
'We've also done hen parties, family groups and bespoke events. And we do get quite a few people with additional needs.'
The Clayrooms itself is based in a warren of rooms below Helen's home. Where once the PoWs pondered their fate, today the main area has been transformed as a creative hub. Bags of different types of clay are stacked ready for use, the large table surrounded by stools encouraging relaxed conviviality. From here, steps lead down to another workshop, where all the potting and firing action happens, its brick floor revealing the well that once provided the property's water source, whilst through another door shelves laden with myriads of completed artworks display the talents of the duo and their more seasoned makers.
Undeniably, this is a space that inspires you to want to roll up your sleeves and, whatever your previous experience, to get stuck in. All the tools of the trade provided - according to Sarah there are few studios to rival them - which results in some regulars travelling from as far afield as Burton and Uttoxeter.
In addition to the 15 members they currently have, there are around 45 attendees on the weekly courses, and several hundred more have come along to one-off sessions and masterclasses in specialist techniques such as raku firing and bone china. So, she says, there's been further investment in equipment with two additional wheels bought after filming for the BBC Two series The Great Pottery Throwdown in Stoke-on-Trent ended.
'We've recently got another kiln to handle the increased volume as people tend to 'go large' as they get more confident. Our growth though is limited by the space. We can only have ten at a time on a course and bigger premises would mean we could take at least double that. It would also mean the members wouldn't need to clear their work away, and we could have a proper gallery for work to be displayed. However, we live in Ashbourne and it is here we want to stay.'
That is understandable, because having put down roots in the town the rapid popularity of The Clayrooms owes much to 2018's Our Game project; the Arts Council funding received enabling Sarah and Helen to reach out to Ashbourne's schools and community groups. With five tonnes of clay to get through and a huge space to fill they needed to turn on the heat by producing more figures ahead of the unveiling. The answer was pop-up workshops in a high street coffee shop and at the studio, where plans to take the figures to Stoke for firing were scrapped having realised 'it wasn't practical and we could save money by doing it ourselves'. This meant that even Mondays, usually their one day off each week, were forfeited.
Indeed, riding high on the local and national publicity generated by the project, Helen says they remained hands-on until the very end. The week devoted to the painstaking task of setting up the final installation was, unsurprisingly, physically and emotionally draining - yet hugely rewarding.
'It was lovely being in the church when people came in to see it for the first time, particularly watching the children who would often kneel at the front and look really closely at the figures.'
Whilst The Clayrooms continue to promote traditional ceramic techniques, as a click on their Instagram pages demonstrates, social media is fully embraced. An Etsy online shop provides another sales outlet for members, some of whom are showcasing their work with a newly-found confidence, alongside Sarah and Helen's at this month's Ashbourne Festival Art Exhibition - an achievement Sarah believes to be a significant outcome for a business that while it still needs to make money, remains well in tune with the needs of those supporting it.
'I can definitely see the interest in making things continuing because two hours sitting at the potting wheel delivers so much satisfaction. Hopefully, by nurturing people they'll have found their niche as makers and we'll also get better known as a result of this.'
'It's a balancing act,' says Helen 'But if we can do a bit more corporate working with bigger groups, this allows us to continue working with the smaller groups too, and you do meet such lovely people.'
As both of them are often in the studio together, in the eyes of many they've almost become joined at the hip. So much so, the first question Sarah's frequently asked when out and about on her own is: 'Where's Helen?'
'It's certainly helped to be able to bounce ideas off each other. We probably wouldn't have achieved half as much going it alone. However, it would be nice to have a technician to clean up sometimes!' she laughs.
For details of events, workshops, courses and masterclasses, visit theclayrooms.co.uk