A passion for pottery
Twenty years after discovering her love for moulding clay, a talented artist and teacher is still developing her craft. Anna Seaman reports
Twenty years after discovering her love for moulding clay, a talented artist and teacher is still developing her craft.
Creating something beautiful from a lump of wet clay, shaping it with your fingers and watching its form emerge in front of you, is a tactile and deeply satisfying experience. But it is not a skill learned overnight. In fact, Homa Vafaie Farley believes, it makes similar demands to martial art.
“I have been studying pottery for more than 20 years and I still find it a challenge,” she said. “It requires patience, a steady hand and a huge amount of concentration. It is a lot more skilled than anyone can imagine.”
At Abu Dhabi Pottery, her workshop, classroom and gallery, Mrs Farley can be found teaching a class of amateurs or experimenting with new techniques and colours, which come from powders stored in the containers that line her floor-toceiling shelf units.
At her thrice-weekly classes in the city, novice potters can take a turn on the clay wheel and see the fruits of their labour emerge from the kiln.
Mrs Farley, who is Iranian but has lived in the UAE for 19 years, discovered the art of moulding clay during a visit to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
“ I was walking through a small village and a saw an elderly man working on an old-fashioned wheel powered by a foot pedal,” she said. “ I was intrigued. The first time I touched the clay I knew I wanted to work with it forever. It felt like it was a part of me.”
She moved from Iran to Britain as a teenager, and has been no stranger to travel. She lived in Liberia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain before moving to the UAE in 1990 with her British husband, Michael, whom she met while he was working for a shipping company in Tehran.
Although they constantly moved and resettled because of Michael’s job, Mrs Farley felt increasingly drawn to the art no matter where she lived.
“I read about it and searched for teachers wherever I was,” she said. When they moved to the UAE, she met a potter at the Malaysian embassy who told her there were no teachers practising in the Emirates.
“I came home and told Michael we had to buy a wheel and a kiln,” she said. “He was mortified. They weren’t exactly cheap and we had nowhere to put them. But I was determined. I had to pursue my hobby at all costs.”
She practised on the wheel at home and began travelling to Britain for short courses in the art. Eventually she became competent enough to teach.
“Anything I do I put my heart and soul into it,” she said. “When I was in Bahrain I became a teacher in a Japanese martial art called hap ki do hoi jeon and I saw many similarities between that and pottery. Patience, discipline and dedication were essential for both.”
For a while, Mrs Farley attempted to find time for both passions, but the constant work left her with numbness in her arms. She had to choose between sport and art.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision; I already knew I couldn’t give up pottery. Besides, Michael had invested so much I wasn’t about to throw all that away.”
In 1994 she opened a tiny studio in Khalidiya. Within a few years, she had three premises − a workshop, a gallery and a kiln room. She was taking on students and selling her wares. The business was a success.
Mrs Farley then began what she says will be a lifelong quest for knowledge. While juggling her family commitments to Michael and their children Neusha, 31, and Peter, 24, she spent one month in Japan learning pottery techniques. She also went back to her home country and was invited to tour the ancient pottery archives of the Tehran National Museum. She went to India, France and Britain to study and exhibit her work.
In 2003, two of her pieces were displayed in the Abgineh Museum of Tehran, famous for its glassware and ceramics. She is the only living potter to be displayed there. “ Of course I am proud of my achievements,” she said. “I come from a family of artists. My father was a poet and my brother was a painter so I feel I am continuing in their path.” Mrs Farley sees pottery as essential for all generations and cultures. “Pottery has been around for centuries. All civilisations use it, so it is such a big part of the human tradition. I quickly became fascinated with it,” she said. “You can learn so much about culture and history by just looking at the pots, the way they are made and their functions. I found myself yearning for more knowledge and the more I read the more I learned about my art.”
In 2004, Michael was posted to a job in Sharjah so the family moved north. She closed up two of the shops in Abu Dhabi and began teaching six times a week at the Dubai International Arts Centre and the Higher Colleges of Technology and hosted special events at Zayed University. She also presented at least one exhibition a year. Mrs Farley now commutes between Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, giving classes for half of the week and leaving the store in the hands of her staff at other times.
“Making a pot takes time. Sometimes just the process of firing can take a week,” she said. “It must go in the kiln for 10 hours and cool down over one or two days. Then it must be glazed and fired again and this is all after the time it took to actually design the piece.
“ I get pleasure now from watching others go through the process. Clay is such a marvellous medium, it brings out people’s characteristics. When I get to know my students I can tell whose pot is whose just by looking at them.
“For example, my daughter’s pots are always colourful and creative, showing the bubbly side of her personality.”
Mrs Farley uses her art as a form of therapy when she works with children with special needs.
“Clay responds to a person,” she said. “It is forgiving in your hands and it has a sensual texture. It can help people to express themselves if they struggle in conventional ways.
“ I also believe that every human responds to clay because ultimately that’s where we all came from. It has a soulful property. You forget everything when you touch it.”
The pottery teacher Homa Vafaie Farley shows how to make a raku pot.
Mrs Farley, left, with a student at Abu Dhabi Pottery.