We frequently hear stories about the therapeutic qualities of getting your hands on clay, but it’s usually from the clients’ perspective. Richard Hedges took the bold step of moving from a 20-year career in drugs and alcohol services, to become a sculptor and teacher. This is his story

It was the winter of 2002, and I was living in Queenstown, New Zealand. The ski season hadn’t been great, and I couldn’t afford the beer. I needed something to do, and one day I noticed a poster in a local shop, advertising ‘pottery lessons for all’. I enrolled, and after one lesson I was hooked. At the time, everyone was into bungee jumping… I joked that I’d found extreme pottery!

When I returned to the UK in 2004, I found that the local Community Arts Project, Hive (formally known as Kirkgate studios in Shipley) was offering weekly lessons, and the studios were open to students at any time. I tried to take full advantage of these. My tutor at this time, the late Christine Godfrey, was a character and she made my learning fun, enabling me to experiment with few constraints to hamper my creativity.

A two-hour night class proved just not enough ¬– I needed more! A potter friend and I decided to play and experiment with clay at each other’s homes, comparing techniques and glazes. It was also a chance to listen to each other’s favourite music, something that to this day influences my art like little else. It was around this time that I realised I needed to develop this passion into more than a hobby. All my life, I’ve had a love of animals, so I suppose it was natural that as soon as I’d mastered the basics of slab, pinch and coil, my efforts veered towards trying to build simple sculptures, rather than going on to throw pots.

There had been many, many, failures and dozens of hours spent trying out different construction techniques before I found the method I’d been looking for. I wrap the slabs around crunched-up newspaper, which is removed before the greenware dries. My pieces are often intentionally not anatomically correct. Instead, I attempt to emphasise the specific characteristics of the animals I create, and this works particularly well when I’m sculpting pets. I use various Scarva clays. I think it’s good to have a couple of favourites, and mine is their ES400. I finish most of my work with black and iron oxides, a range of underglazes and, occasionally, stains. I sometimes use Terracolor readymade glazes or my own simple mixed glazes. I then fire to 1,060°C earthenware, and occasionally to stoneware. But, to be honest, my kiln struggles past 1,100°C… note to self, I need a new kiln.

I really put the hours in and significantly refined my sculpting technique. My home began to resemble Noah’s Ark! I also gained a small following on social media, posting updates and images of my work. My studio was built on a budget and people have been very supportive and encouraging; my IT skills were pretty basic, so I avoided building a website, but with the guidance and support of some much-valued techy friends, I was eventually encouraged to give it a go. I now can update my work, and it no longer frightens me! Another helping hand came from a very kind lady whose husband had recently died, leaving glazes and some tools. She was happy to let me have this little lot for a donation to her favourite charity. I’d been lucky.

 

Change of direction

In the summer of 2016, I took a short course with James Ort, in Oxfordfordshire. His techniques for making animal sculptures were very different, but we had much in common and became firm friends. He was also a source of encouragement, suggesting teaching would be another way forward. By then, I was confident enough to contact some galleries. They were encouraging and displayed my work, and I even had a couple of sales, although they were limited. I’m now in more galleries across the north. Sales were a little slow early in the summer, as the footfall on the high streets was abysmal, possibly due to the Beast from the East. However, things are picking up. I had good news today and sold a Highland cow and a hare last week. Late last year I entered one of my sculptures (White Ram) into a peer competition run by the Northern Potters’ Association. Mine was categorised, and I won. That was a nice confidence boost; I’d found a style that people liked.

At this point in my life, I had dedicated 20 plus years of my life as a drug and alcohol practitioner, supporting some of the most difficult to reach and vulnerable people in society. My most recent role was that of a volunteer coordinator, and I loved the training aspect. Pottery was just a hobby, but maybe James was right, and I could teach others to sculpt. I began with friends and family, to test the water, and found that I enjoyed teaching, and could do it.

Employment with a monthly salary was all I had known – I’d trained and worked in a specialist field – but I needed a change and was beginning to believe that becoming a sculptor was a real possibility. This wasn’t an overnight decision, but something had shifted. Maybe it was some sort of midlife crisis, who knows, but I decided I was going to be brave and do it! I had a good job, with a great manager and team, but, as corny as it sounds, I needed to follow my dreams. So, one day I sat down and told my boss and, with her full support, was encouraged into the next stage of my life.

 

On the road

It has only been a few months since my new life started and so far, so good. This summer helped. I could get up and be in the studio and do a full day’s sculpting without interruption… I love it! A lot of my time, however, is spent out of the studio, planning, marketing and up-dating my workshops.

I’ve set myself up as a mobile sculptor and have found new and exciting venues for my workshops. I’ve negotiated rents and other arrangements to make the whole thing work for everyone. I mainly work with charities within an hour’s radius and with groups of around eight budding sculptors. Currently, they are at the South Square Centre in Bradford; SCRAP recycling arts emporium in Leeds; Leeds Donkey Sanctuary; Potteric Carr Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in Doncaster; The Manor House, Ilkley Arts; Puffin Clay and from my friend’s arts bar, The Triangle in Saltaire/Shipley. Most of the venues have their own communities, a following who are looking for things to do, and that’s where I fit in. It works really well and keeps things fresh and exciting.

I offer a range of animal workshops that are taught step-by-step but still allow enough space for the participants to be creative, and their sculptures are all different. I travel to these places with my clay and kit. Everyone tells me that the one-day workshops are really great value for money (currently £59). I get to meet some fantastic folk, who enjoy their day of creativity. Many arrive in the morning slightly anxious that they won’t be able to achieve the set brief, but with my support, they always go away with something they can be proud of. I find it very rewarding to watch complete beginners create something they didn’t believe they could. It’s really lovely to know that the sculptures made during these workshops are in homes across the region and beyond. A reminder of a great day out! I also offer private parties and workshops for beginners, one-to-one sessions and demonstrate what I do when I have the chance, to generate interest from the general public. My work with the Leeds Donkey Sanctuary is very rewarding, and I’m keen to expand this to other animal charities in the north.

 

Diversification

As well as workshops, I’ve undertaken a number of pet commissions. It’s one thing sculpting a generic animal and quite another capturing the unique personality of someone’s best friend from a block of clay. Luckily, I like a challenge. In fact, the sculpting is only a small part of it, and it’s the glazing that I’ve found to be the trickiest thing. It’s tough getting a colour-match of a hound’s coat or cat’s fur, but I do my best. Test tiles are the only way forward… and I’m on it!

The future looks great. I’m exploring new workshop ideas with diverse community groups, charities, children’s sculpture, corporate development and the occasional residential weekend away in really nice locations. I’m sharing responsibilities with someone else, offering more than just sculpture. In fact, the most recent venture provides yoga too. People want a fun and memorable experience. I aim to offer that, and they get to keep a beautiful sculpture that they have created… it really is a win, win.

My life has changed so much in these few short months, but it feels right. I find that I’m now working pretty much every day without any real structure. But that’s okay for now. As soon as I wake up, I’m thinking about it. Being a one-man operation can be pretty tough and to be honest, I do miss having a team to bounce ideas off but having the freedom to do what I love has been so liberating. I am learning to be dynamic and creative; I need personal motivation and drive. Without targets set by a boss, it’s up to me! However, I’m also fully aware of the threat of burn-out and anxiety. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to go back.

It is a roller coaster, and I’ve been advised to get used to that. In fact, I’m never sure what’s around the corner, and I can see how this leads to an uncomfortable degree of anxiety. I think the secret is to work hard, and look for opportunities, but try and relax and then see what comes.

I’m trying to improve my style and techniques all the time, it’s not just about practice, and putting the hours in, but being open to learning from others. I continue to make mistakes, but I think I’m learning more from those more than I do from my successes. I’m pushing my boundaries, and I guess that will always be the case. Life remains stressful, as always, but it’s a different kind of stress. I’m not sure if I’ll earn enough to keep the lights on, but this change in my life has given me a new focus. I’m passionate again and optimistic about the future. They say if you can find a job you love, then you never have to work another day in your life…

Find Richard on Facebook and Instagram: Twisted Earth Ceramics

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