In Focus: Turning Earth

| Apr 23, 2019

Words by: Eden Keane | Photos by: Carmel King

Tallie Maughan is founder and creative director of Turning Earth, London’s original open access pottery studio and pioneer in bringing democratic pottery to the city. In her own words, Tallie talks pottery for a sustainable world, the importance of place and the uplifting qualities of humble clay. Turning Earth forms part of an intimate 'Makers and Manufacturers' series by photographer, Carmel King who is documenting the changing nature of craft in London.

How I got into pottery… After working in the corporate world as a sustainability consultant, I wanted to try something new. I took a pottery course at Hackney Community College and remember on the first day feeling as if I’d found something so familiar that I could have been doing it my whole life. I immediately wanted to be a potter but it didn’t seem practical or even possible back then. I felt frustrated that in the UK you either had to quit your job and become a full-time potter. After moving to the US and exploring the open-access studios there I realised that London could do with something like this and that it could change the route into craft. When I returned, I wanted to make it less of a thin rut that only few people could pass through into something broader and more accessible.

The original studio in Hoxton… is beautiful and there’s a real sense of industry and craftsmanship before you even begin to make. We took great care in choosing the location of both of our studios. Our Hoxton studio – tucked away in the arches under the railway line – is rooted both in its industrial heritage and in the aesthetic world of the church; a cultural institution I think makerspaces may well be in line to replace. Our second studio in the Lea Valley is bathed in beautiful light from its saw-toothed roof. When I first walked in I felt like the sky was in reach. I read somewhere that a study had shown that people are more creative when the sky is in view. That vision has always stayed with me.

The process for each space… begins with a vision that contains a certain feeling. From there it’s easy – if something has that feeling then it’s right, if it doesn’t then it’s not. It’s the same feeling for the inherent possibility in things that you hone when you work with clay and learn what forms it can take in your hands. I’ve been watching Marie Kondo (the tidying guru) on Netflix and realise that she experiences space like I do. She even sits on the floor and talks to the house – radical stuff for mainstream television – and that helps me feel less shy about admitting that’s kind of what I do too. There’s also a lot of the Arts and Crafts movement ethos in our brand, where the beauty of everything – the space and the objects within it – come together as a coherent whole. So, a sense of place is everything to me. And of course, Turning Earth has grown into a family operation, so it does feel very much like home.

The revival in interest in pottery… is wonderful and the reason is perhaps that it has the same effect on people that it had on me when I first touched it. There’s a strange feeling of return, some primal feeling of simplicity when you work with clay. Working with clay is such an ancient occupation, being carried out since the earliest humans moulded it on the river bank, that I think it’s hardwired into our brains. We need simple, embodied activities more than ever in our complex world where we’re constantly bombarded with information. Working with your hands has been scientifically proven to improve mood: making something with clay creates dopamine and serotonin while engaging the prefrontal cortex.

In a typical day… our technicians arrive in the studio and open up and begin their tasks: maintaining equipment, processing clay, loading and unloading kilns and changing water buckets. Members trickle in to work on their projects. Some people chat while they work, others put their headphones in and quietly have time to themselves. Throwing, handbuilding, glazing – it all happens all day long. We have a class usually once or twice a day.

Turning Earth membership… is a bit like signing up to a gym, or membership of a nice spa: somewhere to go and invest time doing the things that make you well and happy. Very little specialist knowledge is needed to get started, and I think that’s quite liberating. There’s a real mix in the studio – beginners and qualified professionals. People tend to improve in their ability very quickly whatever level they are at when they join.

It’s a great time for makerspaces… but I think that’s on the back of the fact that it’s more widely a bad time to be an artist. The housing crisis and the change in zoning rules that have seen so many industrial buildings become residential are squeezing out affordable workspace, and so there’s more pressure to share effectively. This isn’t sustainable though, which is why I am working with the East End Trades Guild and the New Economics Foundation on formulating an Affordable Working Rent. It’s a bit like the London Living wage: a research based, clear formula that policy makers and developers can use to make sure people can afford to keep making in this city.

Turning Earth’s ethos… I think being actively interested in social change isn’t much of a differentiator these days; everyone wants to do their bit for the community and our planet. But we do talk about it quite a lot at Turning Earth so maybe our ethos comes across more strongly. I think it’s important to know what pushes your buttons and to talk about it; that way people know to steer clear of you if they don’t share the same vision, and those that do share it gather around like moths in the candlelight. That way you build a richer community and a stronger sense of home.

Turning Earth open access ceramics.

View Carmel King’s work here

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