Working with clay is a lifeline for Judith
Priest, potter and mum Judith Walker-Hutchinson, who now lives and works in Cotherstone, spent her early years in Spennymoor before qualifying as a chartered public accountant. She worked in local government, health and education becoming a senior examiner for her professional body, going on to run her own education and training business. Having been active as a church treasurer for many years life changed for Judith and her family when she answered a call to full time ministry – a possibility not open to women when she began her working life. She trained for the priesthood at Cranmer Hall, in Durham, served as a parish priest in Wensleydale and then Edinburgh until what had been a lifelong disability became life changing and her Lambeth PhD, her parish role and life as she had known it suddenly became impossible…
What first attracted you to clay as opposed to other forms of art?
Frankly, I was absolutely rubbish at art at school, at least the art that was taught formally. It was my woodwork teacher, Mr Gibson, who introduced me to clay, initially as extra-curricular activity, then when I took it up as a subject for study, the technicalities of clay, glaze chemistry and firing inspired me. The combination of creativity and science was intoxicating.
Can you remember the first piece you produced?
My first ever attempt was a pinch pot hedgehog, made with just my fingers and a pencil. He wasn’t refined but I remember that sense of amazement that something I had formed from a lump of dirt was now this cute little thing that was permanent and durable. In fact almost 50 years later he now sits next to my wheel, my good luck charm to the “kiln gods”.
How close did you come to pursuing ceramics as a career when you were younger?
It was Mr Gibson who first suggested I should think about taking up ceramics professionally. The trouble was my parents didn’t consider anything in the arts to be real work and insisted I got a “proper” job. My dad’s work saw us move to Merseyside where I completed my schooling and without artistic encouragement and support you might say I channelled my creativity somewhat differently and became a chartered public accountant.
Having chosen a different career path did you still manage to find time to work with clay?
I never completely abandoned playing with mud – having returned to Durham when my parents moved to Kenya I initially attended night classes at New College for further formal ceramics training and then classes wherever I could find them locally.
When I started a family I bought my own wheel and kiln so that I could fit clay in around the children and work. But ceramics is time critical and developing your work seriously requires being available as and when the process demands.
That was always a tough call with work and a young family but was especially difficult after I was ordained and parish work meant living away from Cotherstone. I would still make whenever I got the opportunity but much of it ended up being recycled for lack of opportunity to see a project through to completion.
Having led such as busy life, what brought you back to working with clay?
I am and always will be a priest, but I had to give up full time parish work when the surgery I had in the late 1970s for a spinal injury finally failed. Retirement is never straightforward but is really difficult when it is unexpected, way too early and unwelcome.
For a few years I struggled with a sense of loss and coming to terms with living with chronic intractable pain and disability. It was as I began to accept things and to wean myself off heavy duty opiates that I slowly started to adjust. Gradually, I found ways of working with clay that I could manage, even when necessary from a wheelchair, and slowly but surely it worked its magic on me.
Working with clay has also helped you cope with your chronic spinal condition. What are the therapeutic benefits of working with clay?
Clay is utterly absorbing. When I’m focussed on what is forming on the wheel or how I am developing a particular glaze application, pain is no longer the dominant voice in my head. I cannot dwell on what I have lost or how I might feel tomorrow, I am completely in that present moment. My reality is then all about the beauty of what I am doing and can do and not the things I can no longer do.
If I could put that on prescription for anyone else in constant pain or living with chronic ill-health I would, because it’s priceless.
What sort of pieces do you produce and are your designs influenced by your surroundings?
I have a real desire to make things that can not only be enjoyed visually but above all will be handled and used for pleasure. So I work in stoneware, which is strong and durable, producing mainly wheel-thrown functional pieces which can be enjoyed in daily use.
My influences are quite wide ranging. Like most potters who trained in the 70s, the great ceramicists of the British studio movement are foundational, particularly Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie, but a love of classical and modern fine art brings a painterly aspect to my decorative process and a more contemporary influence.
As to my surroundings, living and working in wonderful Teesdale I am endlessly inspired by the colours of the changing seasons and landscape, sometimes directly as with my “Teesdale-in-the-Mist” range and sometimes indirectly as when I make ash glaze from the wood of the beautiful willow tree in our garden.
However, inspiration can strike in unexpected ways, even in a pandemic. During second lockdown, I began a creative collaboration with slam poetry champion Harry Baker (@harrybakerpoet), using words from his work “When this is over…” on my work. I haven’t made many of these pieces and I hope I won’t need to make more, but the connections with those who’ve bought mugs either in memory of a departed loved one or in order to reach out to much missed friends have been really heartwarming.
When you set out on each new piece, do you know exactly how it will end up – or is part of the beauty of working with clay never quite knowing how the firing process will go?
Years of practice means that I can now be quite precise about basic form, shape and size of a piece but the real magic is in the decorating and that is far less predictable. I decorate my work treating the clay almost as a canvass, often slowly building up layers of oxides and glaze using a variety of techniques and sometimes involving multiple glaze firings.
But potters often speak of the “kiln gods” with very good reason as you can fire using what might seem to be exactly the same elements, to exactly the same schedule, and never get exactly the same result twice. Even in the same glaze firing, positioning things differently in the kiln can change the final result.
To me this is what makes handmade ceramics so appealing, whether it’s a mug I’ve made a hundred times or a unique one-off piece, no one else will ever have one quite like that particular one.
Is ceramics a business, pleasure or a bit of both?
That’s a surprisingly tricky question for me to answer! In generic terms the accountant in me would have to admit that I can see where my dad was coming from – it is undeniably difficult to get rich in the arts. Sadly all too often that’s the only measure of success we dwell on.
If this pandemic has taught us all anything it is surely that there is more to life than that. Earning a living doing what you have a gift for, enjoying what you do and bringing pleasure and beauty to others is to me a far better measure of enrichment, for the artist and for wider society.
If my ability to function physically was predictable I would still be a vicar and clay would still be pure pleasure, so in that sense, for me, ceramics is neither simply business nor pleasure, it transcends both, it’s my lifeline.
Do you take commissions – and if so what are some of the more unusual projects, or those that stick in the mind?
I do sometimes take commissions but the unpredictability of the process means people need to be aware that this is about as far from “production” as you can get. That said, that is often what excites people about asking for a bespoke piece. My most unusual commission so far was for a large planter – in the shape of an (how to put this discreetly?) unclothed lower female torso. It was very far out of my comfort zone but in the end (pardon the pun) I was delighted with it and so was the client.
You are a member of Teesdale Artnet – what are the benefits of being part of the group?
For those who don’t know Teesdale Artnet (TAN) is a group of artists working across a range of media, all living and working in Teesdale. We work together to organise joint projects, workshops and exhibitions enabling us to bring our art to a wider range of people than we could each do individually.
As an artist not only is this great for me and for art in Teesdale, but the wider, unseen benefits of the mutual support, encouragement, professional development and camaraderie are invaluable.
It’s been especially true during the pandemic when for all of us our traditional ways for bringing our work to the public have not been possible. TAN is for artists at all stages of their development and who knows, maybe there is a talented teenager out there who just needs the supportive network in order to flourish?
Are visitors welcome to you studio and where can people find out more about your work?
I work from home in Cotherstone and have previously opened my studio as part of the TAN Open Studios or by appointment as well as exhibiting in local galleries and exhibitions.
Obviously Covid has made all of that difficult especially as we are a CEV (clinically extremely vulnerable) household and have hardly ventured beyond the village for over a year. However, things are more positive now and TAN is planning a large scale exhibition in The Witham throughout August where a wide range of work including mine will be on display (details will be made available on both The Witham and TAN websites).
Hopefully, restrictions permitting, we will run a concurrent open studios event. As things open up I will also be looking at new gallery opportunities and exhibition events, I will post details on Facebook and my website.
In the meantime you can find out more about my work directly from my website www.ceramicsbyjudithwalker.co.uk or through TAN at www.teesdaleartnet.org.uk.
You can follow me and Greebo the studio cat through our successes and failures on FaceBook and Instagram @ceramicsby judithwalker.