Of Brad Pitt, fancy shoes and pottery
Ipicked the wrong time to wear a fancy pair of shoes and my favourite jeans. Elaine Fallon, founder of Brookwood Pottery, suggests I remove my shirt, or I’m bound to get that soiled too. Just as well I’m wearing a T-shirt underneath. It’s my first time to try pottery and it’s a messy business. “My shoes are getting ruined,” I squeal, in an unmanly fashion. Tea towels are urgently produced and I can go back to the business of trying to make my first bowl. It needs every nanosecond of concentration I’ve got. The jeans will be okay after a wash. Won’t they?
I did art as a seventh subject for the Leaving Cert and, arrogantly, assumed I’d have a flair for pottery. But the old cliché is true: It’s much harder then it looks. I observe Elaine sitting at the ‘wheel’, manipulating clay into perfect shapes and think, ‘How hard can that be?’ I’m glad I didn’t voice that opinion before I took my seat.
We’re at work in a small shed in the back garden of Elaine Fallon’s pretty home in Artane, Dublin. It’s from here that she and fellow-potter Marz Lawler make all manner of plates and mugs, but my efforts won’t be gracing the shelves of the Kilkenny Design Centre any time soon.
It’s a much more physical activity than I’d imagined. You throw the clay on to the spinning wheel with force and you really put your hands to work, holding and manipulating shape with your palms and fingers while also trying to scoop water on to your evolving creation to make sure it remains pliable.
NOTIONALLY CYLINDRICAL Elaine coos appreciatively as I fashion something — with a little help from her — that looks like an object that one might grow herbs out of. I’d hoped for something daintier, that you could conceivably eat cornflakes from, but this lumpy artefact that’s notionally cylindrical will do as a first attempt.
When she’s satisfied that I’ve made something worth going into the kiln, she produces a cutter — that, for all the world looks like a garrotte, last seen in The Godfather and encourages me to saw the bowl/herb receptacle off the wheel. I find myself panicking slightly — what if I do it with too much force and proceed to stab myself in the stomach? She assures me this hasn’t happened before. No doubt she’s wondering what she did in a previous life to be saddled with a hypochondriac, risk-adverse metrosexual on a weekday morning.
I may have only been at the wheel for a matter of minutes, but I immediately want to do more. There’s something special about learning a craft and this is one that requires skill, patience and concentration to get right. And it’s nice that both Elaine and Marz are smiling beatifically at my efforts.
Apparently, more men are at it — and Elaine reckons they like the fact that it’s skilful, physically engaging and, well, quite manly. Unlike, say, knitting. All those articles about the rise of knitting and crocheting clubs during the recession didn’t seem to feature a solitary bloke.
And while it would be great to be able to fashion my own scarf or repair a beloved knitted jumper, I’d rather not subject myself to an oestrogen-packed environment where the talk might revolve around Orange is the New Black. Be outraged if you want, but the potter’s wheel is a much more manly place to be.
And it’s a place where that Hollywood ideal of manhood, Brad Pitt, has apparently been spending much of his downtime. In an interview with GQ — the one where he was photographed in America’s national parks sporting outlandishly expensive clothes and pulling his best sad-face — he spoke about how he has coped with the end of his marriage to Angelina Jolie by learning to make stuff with his hands and mastering the art of ceramics.
As someone whose expertise in ‘making stuff ’ starts and ends with a Billy bookcase from Ikea, I too, like the idea of fashioning things myself. After all, I refuse to have coffee at home from anything other than the handmade mug I bought for €20 at Kenmare Farmer’s Market two summers ago, and I’ve an attraction to this object that one friend who’s swallowed too many self-help books, recently described as “weird neediness”.
“We live in such a throwaway culture,” Elaine says, “so when people spend that bit more on something that’s been handmade locally, they value it much more than something that was mass-produced cheaply.”
She says the recession helped make many of us treasure well-made things rather than hoovering up reams of stuff simply because it’s cheap. The recession encouraged Elaine to rethink her career. She had been a talented hobby potter but when the downturn led to her losing her job in a Dublin city gallery, she set about making pottery her full-time occupation.
She hasn’t looked back and, with the help of the crowd-sourcing FundIt, hopes to open a pottery school just up the road in Fairview by year end.
“It’s not just about making things,” Marz says, “it’s also about taking time out of your busy day to do something for yourself. When you’re practicing a craft like pottery, you really have to be in the moment and that can be very therapeutic.”
KEEPING FOCUS Elaine concurs. “Too often, our minds are dragged all over the place and our brains are trying to process this information overload, but when you’re making something at the wheel, you really have to concentrate because it can go badly wrong if your mind wanders. There’s something freeing about just focusing on one thing.”
Both Elaine and Marz are serious about mindfulness and one of the courses they run has yoga in the morning and pottery in the afternoon. The old me would have scoffed at such an idea, but I’ve come to learn how important it is to take time out for yourself and to be in the moment.
About five years ago I took up running in an effort to suppress the abdominal fat that had stolen up on me by stealth. From not being able to run a kilometre without stopping, I found myself doing the first of several Dublin marathons 18 months later.
But now, I know that the real gift running gives me is mental rather than physical. It allows me to recalibrate, to do something for me, and me alone. It means I can cross the road to the Phoenix Park and escape for an hour or two. The phone is always left behind. The emails can wait. The news notifications can be read later. The Twitter notifications can ping right off. Elaine, also a runner, nods knowingly as I share all this to her. “That’s exactly it,” she says. “It’s about finding those moments where you do something for yourself and where by doing it regularly, you can improve and you can see your improvement. Just as you can track how much fitter your getting, when you practice a craft like pottery you can see yourself improving and that really counts for something.
“I see the pleasure students get when they make something they’re proud of. They’re thinking, ‘I did that’, and it’s something they can cherish for a long time.”
At the wheel: John with Elaine Fallon in Brookwood Pottery, Artane.