Bruno Vinel, Ceramics Today editor, shares his childhood memories of making pottery.
My oldest memory of clay was when I was around 7 years old in my grandparents’ garden in the South-West of France. My sister and I were spending our summer holidays with my grandparents in a cottage in the middle of the Béarn region, surrounded by fields and forest. It was a break from a large city and the flat where we were living.
In the garden, I was having multiple experiences like planting vegetables, feeding and playing with a bunny, or building a small firing pit with bricks. I have vivid memories of playing with clay, fire and enjoying myself so much.
The clay was dug out of the garden ground and formed into small bowls using the pinching technique, as I learned to call it many years later. They were left to dry under the sunshine, then filled with herbs and water and heated on top of the fire. Not long after being exposed to the heat, the bowls were cracking and their content falling into the flames. Such an exciting experience!
A few years later, our parents signed up my sister and I for a weekly pottery class on Wednesday afternoons. This time, we were seated at small tables in a classroom, under the supervision of a teacher. It was a much more controlled environment to work with clay, compared to the freedom experienced in my grandad’s garden.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pleasure of handling clay, compressing it and forming vessels. The red clay was much more refined and plastic compared to the one I was digging in my grandad’s garden. I could easily pinch small bowls and form coils to build bigger pieces. On the first day, I remember making a bowl and a small pot with a lid. There was some progress compared to the experience in the garden!
It was explained to me that the pots will be fired in a big pottery kiln after the class. I gave a glance at the pottery kiln in the adjacent room where children were not allowed to enter and I was impressed by the size of the kiln. Such an upgrade compared to my small firing pit in the garden…
Returning to the classroom a week later, I found my pots fired and ready for decoration with what I remember as acrylic paint. I was pleased with the result and proud to show the pieces to my parents.
Several weeks later, after having the opportunity to develop our hand-building skills with clay, we were told that the kiln had set fire to and burnt down the building. The council decided to stop providing pottery classes and that was the end of my first experience with clay.
To learn how I rediscovered pottery 45 years after, read my article Pottery brings meditation to a joyful activity.