Amberlea McNaught’s life has been a rollercoaster, with not a little serendipity at play
A series of chance connections have led this extraordinary young woman to produce some of the most exciting work currently on the ceramics scene
Amberlea describes 2017 as being her first good one since graduating from Cardiff School of Art & Design with a First in Ceramics, in 2013. “It still feels like yesterday! I came out with no idea how to start the journey, and made loads of mistakes. It takes years to truly learn it all.”
That journey was put on hold when, just after graduating from university, Amberlea moved home to Sheffield to then face the death of her best friend . “I was unplugged for a year, not making anything – just staring at the clay – my work changed a lot after that. It transformed from terracotta and gold lustre to heavily grogged black clay almost overnight. I made sporadically and it took me two years to really get back into making again.
“I started making shrines. Big pieces, that I couldn’t exhibit or talk about. No one would buy them and my confidence was shattered. I was broken. Adrian and Dylan, from Northern Kilns, were wonderful; they installed my kiln, and told me to just start. ‘Don’t think about anything else, just make pots and don’t give up’. They are amazing people. I have an incredible network of people who have been very supportive in helping me to heal through making.
“Then a year later, another close friend suffered a great tragedy and I needed to care for her, but I had to get away from the darkness; it was consuming my work – you can’t exhibit your art therapy!”
An email from a university friend set the next stage of Amberlea’s life in motion. It was details of a residency programme in Fes, Morocco with an organisation called ‘Culture Vultures’, run by Jessica Stephens. “I needed a new perspective on my work and my life, so I decided to go” says Amberlea. “For five weeks, I was exposed to lots of artisans and came back a totally new person. It was the best thing I ever did. I needed to be with people, immersed in a new culture and language.”
Starting in the ceramics room, Amberlea quickly realised that she’d only be taught very traditional patterns on repetitive forms. “They really liked my unique designs, and even offered me a job in a factory teaching it to their workers,” explains Amberlea. “They said I’d made contemporary Moroccan designs, and they had international clients who’d love to buy my pieces. Which was crazy!”
However, she wanted to do something different, and asked to move to the plaster room. “I’d never seen people carving plaster before until I went to Morocco. I’d seen Stucco at the Alhambra in Granada, and was desperate to do it myself, but I believed that all the craftsmen who made it were long dead.
I wondered how I could learn and it was only when I saw the masters in Morocco I realised that this craft was still alive! It’s just across the water, THAT’S where it came from. Having traced the craft back to its root, I wanted to explore further.”
In the plaster room, a master was teaching traditional carving skills, and Amberlea was hooked. “It was a busy room, with about 15 students, and the master was there, working alongside them, chiselling plaster plaques. At University I’d done a lot of intricate plasterwork – casting formers and carving moulds– using dental tools, but never a chisel.
“In Fes, I learnt to carve using chisels on plaster blocks on the wall. It was incredible. I only made three pieces in a week, but they were quite big! I was absorbed, not taking lunch, or breaks, I really didn’t want to stop. The College focuses on teaching traditional craft skills, but does not encourage innovative design. The students don’t need to design their own work; they are trained to follow the traditional patterns set by the master. I was the opposite – bursting with ideas but lacking in technical ability! There were a few students who would push the boundaries, and I really encouraged them.
“I’m the only female plaster carver in Morocco. I didn’t know that at the time. Other Stucco Mallam were travelling to see me in the college, they were intrigued and amazed to see me working with my master. It was because I’m a woman. It was amazing, upsetting, and daunting, that I was so unique.”
The culture is such that even if Amberlea were to set up a school for women, taught by women, girls just wouldn’t be allowed by their families to come and learn what are deemed to be ‘male’ crafts.
“I have a great relationship with my master, he respects me as an Artist but also treats me like a family member. He gave me my own ‘master’s jacket’ – which was a massive honour –so all the students recognise that I’m a guest. They call me ‘Mallama’, (female form of ‘master’), but I was just learning like they were! They were impressed with the way I picked up the techniques, and my master said I taught him a lot . He would never have thought that a woman could do it, and would now consider taking on female students.” Sadly, these are unlikely to be Moroccan girls.
“Leaving was really emotional, we’d become a family unit. I don’t feel like a visitor anymore; I feel I’ve become one of them. My master told me that when I come I have an open-ended invitation to just come, stay at his house, and work with him”.
“I went back for a couple of months this year in February, and he was very happy to see me. I took him some ceramic tiles, carved in a pattern he’d taught me, and he had never seen that before. I showed him pictures of what I’d been making and he was blown away – he’d never seen it applied to ceramics.
“I’ll continue to go back, but I have to juggle making time to travel – to feed my soul and my work – and finding time for making and selling my work – to feed my bank balance – which allows me to go back to Morocco. I’m trying to build in time to go for a couple of months each year, to further my training.
Once home, Amberlea continued working in plaster, but she had commitments to shows, and needed to make pots. “I realised that I can’t solely continue plaster; my pottery has started to become much more sought after, so I’m torn. Everyone wants me to make the pots, so I’m having to put down my chisels – for the moment.”
She applied her knowledge back onto her ceramics, working on curves, with a knife, not a chisel. “I changed the material and the tools, but it’s the same understanding of how to take a piece out, the angles, building the pattern, how to grid things. The transition just came; I didn’t need to be shown how to do it, it just happened. The basics were all there, I was just applying the knowledge in a different way.
“When I took the work out for the first time, the feedback was amazing – people were buying it! They could see the Moroccan influence, straight away, so I continued to develop it, chasing the possibilities.”
Moving from Cardiff back home to Sheffield meant Amberlea lost all of her network, and had to rebuild it. “I’d had a busy few years developing and making a whole body of work, being completely rejected at most shows, selling absolutely nothing – and doing that repeatedly. It’s been a hard exercise! You learn at every show you go to, getting feedback – good and bad, and while the positive stuff is really great, you really absorb the negative comments. I’ve been really lucky to have met some very supportive, established potters, who have taken me under their wing and kept me making when I was slipping.
“The real key to success is never giving up. It’s a hard thing to tell someone, when they haven’t got the physical or mental strength, but you just need to keep making. I’m lucky to have a really supportive family, who want me to keep making – so I’m taking advantage of that!
“I’ve realised there’s no point in making hundreds of bad pieces, so I’ve had to sit and have a slow making year, making really intricate pieces, one at a time, and thinking about quality over quantity. I’ve made less, but better, work; condensing it down and thinking about how I could tighten up my practice – I stopped designing hundreds of different forms, i selected one and nailed it. I decided to use two clay bodies, on one form, varying the patterns and shapes of the carving, so this became the central focus of the work.”
Potter or artist?
Amberlea confesses that her throwing used to be ‘appalling, heavy enough to kill someone!’, so she began to explore carving, which helped reduce the weight. “There are functional aspects that I ignored, about the weight, thickness, and evenness. My throwing was lacking that, so now I’m spending time on the wheel and I’m still constantly progressing, slowly improving my technique. But, you need to pick your area of specialism – you can’t be a master of it all.
“I’ve had years of people telling me I’m not a potter, which was very hurtful. I went to university and did a ceramics degree! But the more I heard it, the more I thought, actually, they’re right. I’m an artist, not a potter. It hurts, but then it’s also a positive thing – it sets me apart from tableware potters. We’re all the same underneath; we all use clay, we just make different things.
“It is difficult, but if I concentrate on my throwing, and improve the weight and the form, I ’ll then be making domestic forms into art. I’ll be combining Moroccan artisanship with British studio pottery, in a unique fusion.
Amberlea feels under pressure to make more commercially, but she’s adamant that it’s not for her. “I put my fingers in my ears! They don’t understand me, my aesthetic choices, or my values as a maker. There are reasons I carve things, a reason why I resonate with this kind of work, and I’m not devaluing what I do for money. That’s been a conscious choice. It’s hard to listen to your own inner beat when people are telling you otherwise, which is why it’s so nice to have a maker you respect say, ‘no, you make what you want’. Of course, you listen to advice, take it on, but then pour it back out, don’t keep it in and beat yourself up. I just don’t make functional stuff!”
Amberlea has had several chance meetings that have led to extraordinary experiences.
The first came during her gap year when she went to Ghana. I fell into a job training at a pottery in Accra. “I learned to throw on a wheel (with an arm-turn handle) and make figurative work. The clay was full of sticks and stones, and I had someone facing me, turning the wheel while I was working! I came home knowing that I wanted to do pottery, so I changed university courses at the last minute, from Applied Arts in Nottingham to Ceramics at Cardiff. The Cardiff deadline was that day, so I dashed off to the computer, sent my application in and got an interview. The stuff I’d done abroad really enhanced my application.”
The second opportunity came after a lecture in her second year at Cardiff. “At the end, I went up to the lecturer Reyaz Badaruddin and asked, ‘If I come to India, will you help me find a job?’ He said, ‘yes, call me’, so I booked a flight to India, got there, and rang him! We met the next day, and he asked if I wanted to work with a traditional or contemporary maker? I told him traditional, and he drove me to Bhuvnesh’s pottery. Bhuvnesh Prasad is one of the most famous potters in India. I had no idea where I was going!
“Bhuvnesh was invited to the Potters Haat festival in Delhi, and wanted to take some of my work too. I was mortified – I’d only been there a couple of weeks – but he was adamant. OP Jain, the founder of Sanskriti Kendra, a cultural centre in Delhi, came over and picked up a terracotta piece of mine, and asked how much it was. I told him I was taking it home; it wasn’t for sale. Bhuvnesh was furious! OP Jain is the owner of an entire terracotta collection – like the Charles Saatchi of India – and I’d refused him! I wrapped it up and ran back to him. I told him I’d come to India to gain skills and knowledge, which had been given to me, and the least I could do was to give my pot to him. He took it for his collection!”
Then the chance email about Culture Vultures took her to Fes, from where her current work stems.
“I’ve been head down, working for three years and now suddenly it’s exploded,” says Amberlea, delighted but still – charmingly – surprised at the attention she’s receiving.
“Every day, when I sit in my studio, I look at photos of my masters from around the world. They are with me, reminding me of my lessons, even if I’m not physically with them. The most influential points in my career have been going out of the country and working with artisans abroad, where I can’t speak the language but we have an amazing connection through our hand and our tools. I don’t know how I found them, I’ve been very lucky.”
Yes, Amberlea has been lucky, but it’s more than that. Her thirst for knowledge, her courage to travel and discover new skills, and her undoubted talent and dedication to her craft, are just the beginning of this story.
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