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Blog - Letty McHugh

Bonus Content: The Centre of The Known Universe

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I finished glazing my tea set last Thursday. It’s weird to think now, but when I applied for the Emergence bursary I didn’t include any money for ceramics in the budget. I was just asking for money to work on Seaworthy Vessel, I was only interested in working in print and origami. I had a bunch of money in the budget for print experiments though, so when I had the idea to do some experiments with ceramics because I’d secretly convinced myself working in ceramics could somehow magically cure my fear of failure I sent a very sheepish email along the lines of “Excuse me sir do you think I could maybe experiment with a slightly different thing please? No worries, if not, I’ll just wait for your response in this shame cupboard.” And the person in charge of signing off my budget replied with what was basically the email equivalent of a benevolent shrug.

a hand made tea set consisting of one teapot, four cups, two jugs and a sugar basin are covered in white glaze ahead of firing. We also see some glazing samples and 3 unfinished lids.

This is the culmination of ten months of work waiting to get fired. Let’s all hope it doesn’t explode in the kiln.

It’s difficult to imagine now how unconfident I felt at the start of 2019. I hadn’t really been working for three years because MS and that had affected me much more than I realised at the time. Sending that email to ask for a minor adjustment to my budget felt like a huge deal. I was so nervous about it I could barely bring myself to ask. It’s a bloody good job I did though because those ceramics experiments have evolved into this whole wonderful side-project that might never have existed, it’s bursary bonus content.

Here’s how it happened. At the start of the year, I reread this Tumblr post about how learning to throw is the perfect cure for a fear of failure I suspected was at the root of my writer’s block. (This story might feel familiar to you. I wrote about it before). So I set out to learn to throw with the aim of making three teapots in a 10 month period and seeing how they improved. I spent the first half of the year still largely unable to write but now also unable to throw. It did not feel like an improvement at the time. Somehow I did finish three teapots though with time left over to make a whole set to accompany the last one. Sonje (my ceramics tutor) said “What are you going to do with the tea set when it’s done, are you showing it anywhere?” and I said “Well, what I’d really like to do is have an event where I make people cups of tea in it and chat with them about emotional resilience but I’d have to find a venue that would let me.” And Sonje said, “Why don’t you just do it here in my gallery?” So that’s what I’m doing. (On the 27th of October 3:30 – 5:00 PM if you fancy coming.)

Once I had an event booked I needed a title. I spent a few days trying to think of something good. Nothing came. So I did what I always do when I’m stuck for a title and started reading loads of poetry. I wanted something that would encapsulate the practical journey I had been on learning a skill and the emotional journey I had been on while I was learning it. I wanted something that could sum up everything that attracted me to make a teapot in the first place, the mundanity of it, the spirituality, the ability to soothe and heal and conjure loved ones. Nothing worked. It was, in fairness, quite a tall order. Then I read Kenny Knight’s beautiful poem Lessons in Tea-Making which contains the line ‘and the teapot was the centre of the known universe’. And the project was christened Centre of the Known Universe.

A blue, white, and grey wonky hand made teapot is held up by a white persons hands. The whole image is slightly out of focus and the hands are blurred

When this projects done I’m putting on a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ where the spectators of three teapots visit Scrooge in the course of one night.

Normally when I work on a project the title is the first thing I know, I find it frames everything, it’s what makes all my ideas come together. Even though I did things a bit backwards this time the same thing happened here. Once I had a title everything started to happen. I sat down and wrote just shy of 3,000 words with ease. I was only partway done. I wanted to say so much I could fill a book. I decided to just make an artist’s book and started work on these ghostly images of my teapots to go in it that I am just so excited about. I love those images more than I loved anything I’ve made for a very long time. I am fully ready to have a physical fight with anybody who says a bad word about them (I’m obviously not ready to do this, I have no upper body strength and the coordination of a drunk clam but you take the point).

Then after talking with Sonje about claiming power in the art world I decided to rebrand my ‘ceramics experiments’ as my ‘10-month-throwing residency at a ceramics studio in Haworth’. Sounds pretty good right? I am starting to learn that everything in the art world is made up, as artists we don’t need to wait for permission and we can define our work however we like. There aren’t any art police waiting to kick in your door and say ‘WE HAVE EVIDENCE THAT THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED RESIDENCY’ and even if they do you are allowed to reply ‘Whatever guy I define my own life’ and then sue them for damages to your door.

Sorry, this post got away from me a bit, I’m very giddy about all this. It’s possible my prose style is tighter when I’m racked with self-doubt than when I’m drunk with confidence. I think what I’m trying to say in this post is: I started this year feeling lost and in a large part through the work, I’ve been doing for the Emergence Bursary I’ve come to a place where I feel found. I’m grateful to the people who’ve been on that journey with me through these blog posts and I’m proud of the work I’ve made that got me here.

More information about when the event at the weekend is here and more information about my forthcoming artist’s book will be all over my social media like a rash the second I have it.

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Lisette Auton
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I love this post! Everything about it! I identify with it so much, especially the art police. Oh my goodness, YES. I love how your confidence has grown. I wish I could have been with you to take tea. I hope you continue to blog so I can keep up with whatever comes next….

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