Rachel Fooks is one of life’s perpetual students, never happier than when acquiring new skills, and it was this love of learning that led her first to pottery and then to the setting up of her studio, near Wareham, Dorset
Told from an early age that a career in the creative industry would never make her any money, Rachel was steered towards graphic design at school, and went on to have a very successful practice. However, it wasn’t fulfilling her, and she felt that she had to find a creative outlet in learning different crafts. By 2002, she’d tried pretty much everything, but hadn’t done pottery before so thought she’d give it a go and enrolled on a City and Guilds Ceramics course at a local college.
“What I immediately loved about pottery, was the fact that I wasn’t very good at it! I loved the challenge (and still do). Once I started getting a bit better at making, I realised that I could use my design skills to bring three-dimensional ideas to life which was very exciting – I’m still very much a designer at heart, with clay being my medium.
“On the course, I made every single mistake it’s possible to make, in fact I made hardly anything that turned out ok, but I really enjoyed working with clay and was determined to get better at it. At the same time, I realised that I didn’t want to do graphic design anymore, I’d just had my first child, and had naively imagined she would sit quietly beside me while I carried on with my business, but – I soon realised that wasn’t going to happen! I’d also changed in myself, and going back to graphic design didn’t sit well with who I wanted to be as a mother, and knew I needed to do something more creative.”
Rachel had three porcelain tealight holders – the only pottery she had made at college that hadn’t gone horribly wrong! They were slab-built with pressed textures, white on the outside, and coloured on the inside. Feeling brave, she took them to a gift shop in Corfe Castle and asked the owner if she could sell them. The owner very kindly said she would try, and amazingly they sold almost immediately, and she asked for more.
“At this point I realised that I needed a kiln, so bought one off eBay at a bargain price. Very quickly I went from three tealights to a few more, to a whole shelf of vases, decorated hearts and other homeware items, all in the same style, all made from my kitchen table. I called it the ‘Summertime’ collection because I took inspiration from the colourful meadows behind my cottage. Incredibly, the collection just kept selling and after a while I thought if this shop can sell my work, maybe others can too.”
She spent a few years successfully selling at shops and at craft events but then felt that she wanted to take her work to a new level. So, Rachel went back to the drawing board, revisited some ideas that she’d first had at college and brought out a new collection titled ‘Fanatasea’. The new work was a lot more sculptural and very different to what she was doing before. It sold really well and was the pivotal moment where galleries started to contact her and collectors travelled to buy her work. This gave her the confidence and contacts needed to launch another new collection a couple of years later, totally made up of fantastical sea-inspired sculptures made from a groggy clay which is left unglazed. This ‘Out of the Depths’ collection saw her featured in the press both locally and nationally and put her firmly on the makers’ map.
“I’m lucky that where I live there is an amazing art community where people are so supportive, helpful and friendly. I don’t think I could have achieved what I have if I lived somewhere else.”
In 2007, although sales were going well, Rachel needed to generate more income and had a desire to introduce other people to pottery, so she decided to run hand-building classes.
She laughed, “I’ve made ALL the mistakes possible and so thought I could show other people how not to do that! I love hand-building because I find it much more creative than throwing. Throwing is a discipline, and I’m not particularly disciplined!”
Rachel hired the local sports pavilion, which was very affordable because it’s a community space. “I couldn’t have started the classes without that space. I was running two weekly classes, everything was in boxes that I had to carry back and forth each time, taking people’s work home to be fired and then carrying it all back again – bubble wrap, bubble wrap!
“I promoted the classes with leaflets that I’d hand out at craft events and I put posters in galleries, shop windows, etc. Fortunately, I don’t advertise hardly at all now, I’m pretty well known and people come to me through word of mouth or find me on the internet.”
During this time Rachel had her second child, and it wasn’t until her daughter was due to start school that Rachel felt able to take on another class, and, after nine years in the sports hall, she began to look for more suitable premises. Once again, the local community proved to be a wonderful resource. In an amazing stroke of luck, one of Rachel’s students knew the chairman of the local NFU, and they arranged for all the local farmers and landowners to receive an email asking if they had any barns to convert and offered to help set her up with rural development grants.
“Everyone was so kind,” Rachel said. “Somebody came back to me and said, ‘I don’t have a barn to convert, but I do have a building that hasn’t been used for some time, part of it may be suitable for you’. You know when you get that feeling in your tummy? I had it. I came down the drive and thought ‘this is it!’ Initially, it was just supposed to be two rooms, but I asked if I could take on the whole building and sub-let, to create an art community. The owner agreed; she was so kind and helpful. This is my dream.”
The building didn’t need much work. It has amazing light, and a great outdoor space where Rachel does raku firing, and at the end of every term there’s an outdoor party.
“Since I’ve been here, there have been massive changes – people coming to the classes soon became more creative and it really started to feel like a little pottery community had been created, people can drop in as they pass, and I get people coming in and asking me about classes, or my work. The location is perfect too, being rural but still just off the only main road in and out of the area.”
As well as Rachel’s classrooms, kiln room and her studio, the building is home to a printer and fine artist, doing collagraph and running workshops; an art teacher; a company making miniature scenery for model makers; another potter, and a jeweller. The entrance to the building doubles up as a gallery space.
The move to new premises meant that Rachel could increase her classes to three days a week, on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
“It’s still hand-building in the weekly classes but if people know how to use the wheel or have had an introductory session on it, it’s there to be used. I find that most people want to socialise though, and throwing is quite a lone activity. Throw Down saw a massive surge in people wanting to use the wheel so I run one-off throwing experiences, for people who feel an urge to give it a go. That has taken off massively.”
Watching the class in progress, it was clear that Rachel’s friendly, flexible and informal approach works very well. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy, and the standard of work was amazing. The shelves of students’ work in various stages of completion were a treat to see, and not only because they included several ClayCraft projects that the students had adapted and made their own!
Rachel commented, “When I first started teaching, it was a way to make money, but what I didn’t appreciate was the incredible friendships that would form. People have left the class, but still meet and have their craft afternoons, and I still go out for dinner with them. It’s a massive support group, an incredible community, all with pottery in common.”
In her classes Rachel uses a standard buff school stoneware, but always has crank, sculpture clay, white stoneware, porcelain and paperclay in stock, which anyone can use.
“I like to make sure that if they come to me with a project that would be better suited to a clay other than the standard buff stoneware, I have the right clay for the job. People also like to buy clay from me and make things at home which they bring in to be fired. I love the idea that they’re carrying on potting at home, and it’s great that you don’t need any equipment really, just a solid surface and a serrated kidney! To colour the pottery we use brush-on underglazes, glazes, slips and oxides and experiment a lot with different glazing techniques.
When Rachel isn’t teaching, she spends her time working on commissions and stock for galleries and shops that sell her work. At the moment, she’s busy with orders resulting from the local Purbeck and Dorset Art Weeks. These provide an amazing platform to exhibit work to a huge audience, as they generate hundreds of visitors to her studio.
“After the Art Weeks I can have a list of commissions which can sometimes keep me going until the next year! I also get orders from people who come for one-off lessons, see my work on display in my studio and ask me to make things for them.”
Rachel is very happy teaching, and would never stop, but her vision for the future is changing.
“I’ve reached my full capacity working on my own and need to employ someone to deal with all the admin that takes up too much of my time, and an apprentice to make with me, who will learn from me and in turn develop the knowledge and skills needed to take their own ideas forward. I am also in the early stages of putting a totally new body of work together. This is a very exciting time for me as my new work will be experimental, research-based and will take me on a brand-new journey. Watch this space!”
Rachel’s new work also aims to show people that the local area has a great pottery heritage, with the local ball clay deposits – used by Josiah Wedgwood – still being processed by Imerys just a mile down the road from her studio, the history is on show at the wonderful mining museum just outside of Corfe Castle.
Finally, Rachel says, “I love learning, so this really is my perfect profession! You’ll never know everything. Ever. There’s always something new to learn and I’ve found something that’s a whole lifetime of learning. I’ll never get bored, and never finish learning. There’s always something new to do, and I will always try to instill that in my classes and introduce students to new things.”
52 Furzebrook Road
Dorset BH20 5AX
Tel: 07966 433165
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