Saturday, 18 June 2011

The business of educating potters

One of the college modules I completed this year is called "Work-based learning" (AD207).  The purpose of this module is to encourage students to try and attain some real-life experience of working in the ceramics 'industry'.  Most of my fellow students have undertaken placements with local potters but I've found it difficult to do that as I'm already working.  I've therefore had to be a bit creative in order to accumulate the necessary number of hours of work experience.  I've done a lot of visiting of galleries and studios and I've spoken to people in many areas of ‘potting life’. 

One of the areas I decided to look at was education. I wanted to try and find out what kind of a person you need to be to make a success of teaching and supporting ceramics students.  Who better to ask about this than Andrew Pentland, our top-notch instructor and technician?  So, during quiet spell at our College Open Day, I decided I'd interview Andrew and find out a bit more about him and discover how he came to be a Ceramics Instructor at Newcastle College. What follows is an account of my interview, a few of my own observations from working with Andrew this past 4 years and well... really just an opportunity to say thank you to him for all of his hard work and support.

Andrew in action. Checking on a firing.
To work as a ceramics instructor, you need to have a great deal of experience in the field but you also need to have the right kind of temperament and attitude in order to deal with the rather varied mix of students to be found on all ceramics courses.

When it comes to experience in the field, Andrew knows quite a lot about most things.  If he doesn't, he'll know someone who does! And if he doesn't know someone who does, he'll come up with a damn good solution himself! He told me that this continues to be one of the most rewarding parts of his job: taking on technical challenges and researching answers and solutions.

Andrew is a wonderful potter in his own right.  His throwing technique is just a pleasure to watch;  he makes beautiful, robust, earthy and yet fine pieces in a flash - and he can throw anything:  lovely domestic-wares, huge decorative pots, bowls and platters, teapots, massive garden pots, bottles, clay fruit(!), sculptural forms, you name it.  He can throw anything.


Andrew's name reverberates around the ceramic studio day in, day out:  "Andrew, can I have this, that or the other...?", "Andrew, how do I do this, that or the other...?", "Andrew, can you dry this work, fire it and have it ready for my hand-in.... tomorrow!" , "Oh, and Andrew, it needs to be fired on its own, in this weird position, with these weird props around it, and can I add this weird substance into the clay to see what happens...?", "Andrew, have you got a sky-blue-pink-with-yellow-spots glaze?", "Andrew, are you feeling strong today?  Good.  Can you lift this 10 tonne weight for me?", "Andrew, I'm having a crisis over my wife/husband/cat/dog/child/workmates/course deadlines... can you listen patiently whilst I have a tantrum about it?" I sometimes wonder why he doesn't change his name.  But the thing is, I've never ever seen Andrew get even slightly ruffled or the least bit impatient with anyone or anything in the 4 years I've known him.

He is the most easy-going, laid-back and even-tempered guy you could ever hope to meet and the perfect teacher: never cross, always patient, constantly encouraging. His motto seems to be 'Give it a go'.

Showing Ash how to wedge a huge lump of clay....
(some serious mathematical logic comes into it apparently...)
So how did he end up working at Ceramics Instructor at Newcastle College?

Andrew did his HND in 3D Craft Design at Barnsley College (http://www.barnsley.ac.uk/) - where his end of course project was in furniture design!  He completed his Degree in Glass and Ceramics at Sunderland University (http://www.sunderland.ac.uk)- graduating in 2000.

Early days - learning the skills needed to teach!
Andrew told me that he really enjoyed the degree course at Sunderland because there was a great deal of freedom to follow your own direction with it.  He went there thinking he'd prefer working with glass to clay but then ended up finding he could throw pretty well and developed something of a passion for it.  It was during the degree course that he built his first salt kiln; a major technical project, the kiln was built at the back of the University buildings on Ashburn Road, in Sunderland.

This isn't that particular kiln but this is Andrew stoking a wood kiln
over in the States at his Uncle's pottery.
When he left Sunderland University, he decided that he would like to become a production potter, selling to galleries - he decided that the place to do this was in the Big Smoke - London beckoned. Then, as he puts it, "he got real"... and got a job delivering OCN Ceramics courses at Houghall College in Stockton.  As it was Outreach work, it took him all over the place teaching ceramics to different groups:  including various Women’s Groups, WI, various day centres, etc.  He and another potter would do 2 hour sessions of throwing and hand-building, loading the Shimpo and all the other accessories into a van and going from centre to centre.  Pottery on tour is how Andrew describes it.

During this time, Andrew was also offered a free studio inside of the building that was to become the National Glass Centre.  So, during the Summer of 2000, he and a handful of other artists were the sole occupants of this wonderful huge glass building: http://c0456571.cdn.cloudfiles.rackspacecloud.com/IMG_0968_cb1.html

When the work with Houghall came to an end, Andrew got work as a Day Centre Officer in the Ceramics Department at Fullwell Day Centre.  At that time, the day centre saw 150 people a day pass through its doors.  Andrew was key worker for a group of 17 people with learning disabilities, teaching them art and ceramics.  This was a rewarding job and I suggested it might have been a little daunting as well, but, typically, Andrew didn't find it all daunting - he said he thoroughly enjoyed working with the students there, and learnt a lot about people:  and especially that there are good ones and bad ones in all types of folk.  One of the major - and most enjoyable - achievements of the group was to create a huge frieze made up of individually-decorated ceramic tiles.   Everyone had a hand in making the frieze - which was incredibly heavy when finished and was eventually mounted on to the wall of one of the Day Centre buildings.

As the work at Fullwell was only part-time, Andrew ran a ceramics studio at Byker, with 3 other graduates, on the days when he wasn't teaching at the Centre.  He did this for a year and a half until the studio rents became too high to manage.

Eventually, in 2006 he was approached by Jane Hufton to help out with the night classes she was running at Newcastle College (see my first ever blog post).  The College was looking for a permanent technician at the time, and Jane had heard about Andrew through various sources as being an all-round good bloke with a lot of experience of working in the field of ceramics and teaching.  When the college eventually advertised the permanent technician post, Andrew applied for the job and was offered an interview.  Unfortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it!) he missed the offer as he was away on his honeymoon when the letter came through his letter box and was still away during the time the interviews took place...  It was lucky for him (and us!) that the college didn't appoint anyone during that round of interviews and he got a second chance.  The rest is, as they say, history.

In the glazing studio...

...happy in his work!

"I need to look at the filter in this spray booth"
Despite being asked to cast a student's entire foot on his first day - which might have put anyone else off the job completely - Andrew has been at Newcastle College for 6 years now and is loving every minute of it.  He likes the fact that he's been able to get his own work 'back on track', meaning that he is constantly inspired to improve his own skills because of the endless flow of talent and interest generated by people coming into the Ceramics department.
I asked him what advice he’d give to anyone considering taking on a job as a ceramics instructor and this is what he said:
Have an open mind to people’s creative direction and don’t allow personal preferences to take lead. Be proactive in developing your own skills and practice, try and keep in touch with current trends and practitioners. Keep the enthusiasm and excitement alive whilst at work; I don’t have a problem with this as I'm still as thrilled to open a kiln and see results (even if the pots are not mine!) as I was when I first started over 12 years ago.

Andrew also said that he loves being around creative people – because every day there is something new to see.  I totally agree with him that, sometimes, it is just mind-blowing to see the quality of the work of some of the students who come through the hands of the college. But do you know what?  You can guarantee that every single one of those people will, at some time during their studies, have benefitted from Andrew's patient and knowledgeable assistance with some aspect of their work and owe him a great big
THANK YOU!

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