This week I’m talking to potter and storyteller extraordinaire Amanda Banham. Amanda makes stunning ceramics including mugs, bowls and houses, often applying her own whimsical illustrations to her pieces. She also teaches and runs Clay Club, offering classes, workshops and parties at her Essex studio. She has four children aged between 8 and 22, two dogs, one husband, and loves horse riding and beaches. As you’ll see from the interview, Amanda’s journey towards her creative life has not been straightforward. Luckily, her unconventional route into pottery and her insight and experiences along the way make for a great read…
So, Amanda, can you start by telling us what led you to become a potter?
At primary school I can remember enjoying making things out of clay ad in the1970’s clay was very much a part of the curriculum. I then went to a very academic secondary school where the art room was geared to drawing and painting - all of it very literal and not my cup of tea. I would have loved to do DT or 3D art but they weren’t available. We had sewing on the curriculum, but it didn’t grab me.
When I left school I went to college to become a florist. I had done art and photography GCSEs, but didn’t really know how to take that further as my parents were very keen for me to “get a trade” and do something I could study with a job at the end.
I worked in London for two years as a florist in a very high end florists but it was very expensive to live in London on a florists wage. Eventually I moved to Cornwall and studied for a year for my AI teaching horse riding. I did a little pottery in Cornwall at some day courses and enjoyed it. I had my first son aged 23 and was by then living on a dairy farm and milking cows and teaching horse riding and bringing up my son, but feeling very unfulfilled and lonely.
Age 26 and with two very small boys and a dog, I moved back up country to Essex and in with my 98 year old Grandma. I began to find my creativity again whilst still working with horses, but being back around friends and family so feeling more secure. I was doing a lot of printmaking and drawing at this time, things I could do with small boys around. I then met my (now) husband and within a few months we set up home together. I began going to pottery evening classes which I loved. I then had my third son and so my wheel throwing skills were on the back burner as I got further away from the wheel with my bump!
Fast forward to when my daughter was born 7 years later and I decided to do a degree. With a 15 year old, a 13 year old, an 8 year old and a 1 year old I went to university to studying illustration and indulge myself in printmaking, taking my degree part time over 6 years. I am so glad I did as in my third year we had a talk by Laura Carlin who is one of my favourite illustrators and she talked about how she had combined her illustrations with ceramics. And that was it…from the very next day I spent all my time in the 3D art room learning all things clay. I got a part time job at a studio in Cambridge called Rachel Dormor Ceramics where I learnt so much about how to run a studio and make glazes and all about different clays, all the time making my own stuff and teaching myself about printing on clay.
My clay and illustration combination was coming together and I took the plunge and started selling some pieces on line. I then began doing markets three years ago this October and haven’t looked back since. I know stock work in five galleries and do a regular string of markets.
Looking back on your amazing story, how do you feel about the route you took to becoming a potter? Do you wish it was something you'd done it from the outset or do you feel your other experiences feed into what you're doing now, maybe resulting in your own unique take on things?
I am a Taurean and so a plodder by nature. I am the tortoise in the hare and the tortoise….. slow and steady. I get there in the end, it just often takes me years and years. I absolutely believe that my life experiences, of which there are many, feed into every inch of my work and I couldn’t really have done this any sooner than I did. I do wish I had had more self-belief about my own creativity sooner BUT, I always knew that I wanted to have children. I’m really glad I had my older two when I was younger and so have just always had to fit in around them rather than starting something and having to stop or changing my working pattern when I had them.
My children have always been my priority and so I knew I needed to get the majority of them to an age where they could be fairly self-sufficient before I could concentrate on what I wanted to do. We used to have a sandwich factory and I worked for many years with my husband driving sandwich vans etc so it would not have been possible to do my own thing as well as look after the children. We folded that business when my daughter Anna was 1 which was the catalyst for my husband Matt and I to do our own things. Anna being a girl, 7 years younger than the next child and the fourth one was much easier to fit in around.
You obviously dabbled with clay over the years and it's interesting that it's something that you kept coming back to. What is it about it as a medium that appeals so much? It always seems incredibly visceral, but I'm guessing there's actually a lot of thought and precision involved?
Throwing clay relies on a lot of precision and I do throw but most of my work is hand built so that I can print onto it and you can often salvage or cover up most things that are hand built. Clay is very forgiving. I also love the fact there are so many different clays to choose from and then there are all the glazes and underglazes and oxides to play with.
Another aspect I love is that it’s not something everyone can take up, there is an awful lot of equipment involved and that retains some mystery which detracts from those “I could do that at home” comments you often overhear at craft fairs. There is also a surprising amount of maths and science which I find is a challenge I enjoy now as I am convinced it is keeping my brain working!!
I love the softness of clay, I love the fact I can print onto it, mould it, sculpt it. I am a practical person and I love the fact I can make objects of use. It’s only recently that I have ‘allowed’ myself to make the houses as I couldn’t have dreamt before that people would buy things that weren’t useful ….. I am so glad I did though as they are now my favourite things to make.
I also really love your houses....they have a huge amount of character and there's something very special about them. Anyone who follows you on Instagram will also know that you have some wonderful stories to tell about the people who live in them! Can you tell us a bit more about how the storytelling came about? Do you carefully plan what you're going to say or are they just totally off the cuff?
For as long as I can remember my Dad told us stories, whether it was reading me and my sister Just William or Alice in Wonderland or stories he made up himself about creatures living in trees or fairies at the bottom of the garden. I was always making up stories and telling them to my sister and we still have characters we devised when we were little that we refer to now as adults as if they still exist.
I always wrote stories at school, getting completely lost in creative writing for hours on end. My husband and I have always told our children made up stories - he is also a big storyteller – and we rarely watch TV (except the pottery throw down of course!) We also spend as much time as possible outside, I think there is more scope for stories in the open air. A lot of mine are formed on my dog walks…… I also love talking to people and am famous among my friends for ending up with complete strangers pouring out their entire life story to me when all we have said is hello.
My Mum has always thought I would be a famous writer and is gritting her teeth and biding her time through this “pottery phase” much like the “child rearing stage” waiting, waiting, waiting for me to write a book. I can’t imagine having the patience to sit down and write a book especially as you need peace and quiet to write so I would miss Radio 4.
When a story springs to mind I feel a sort of calm, like breathing out, wash over me and they usually just flow out like something that has actually happened. My friend Kathy Hutton (print maker on Instagram) coined the phrase “nod along wisdom” which I think describes them beautifully, I am not setting out to be wise but I do LOVE common sense. I also love small acts of kindness rather than grand gestures and try and include those in my stories. Usually they start with a phrase or an overheard sentence or a life event and I never write them down first, I think then they would seem like work. I was quite surprised by the reaction on Instagram - that people actually like them - for years I had kept them to myself or my family but now they are creeping out there.
The stories are definitely integral to the small houses, I can’t look at them without imaging who lives in them and how their lives would play out. I also love the idea of villages having huge rainbows and factories that look very serious but actually have very irreverent jobs such as putting the crunch into crisps. I was born in the 1970’s and grew up with the Small Films programmes such as Bagpuss and The Clangers and everything was very homemade. I still aim for that aesthetic now with my ceramics, anything too precise or refined leaves me a bit cold…. I have a morbid fear of bone china.
Any words of wisdom to pass on to other people who might be wanting to do something similar?
GET A DOG - Dogs are good for the soul….
One of the biggest things I learned at university was not looking too much at other illustrators or ceramicist work but to look at lots of other influences that are not directly related to your area of work. For example, on Instagram I follow several cowboys…. I also like looking at factories and the coast. It’s important to try not to be too influenced by other people’s work or what’s in fashion now.
One of the biggest things my Dad taught me was about networking, talk to people, ask them about themselves, you never know where a seemingly unrelated invitation might take you with your work or travels, think outside the box.
Try new things. Don’t worry if your friends aren’t into it but if you want to see a film or a band and have no one to go with then go on your own, if you want to try salsa dancing or cooking lessons then go and try. Don’t limit yourself to being ‘an illustrator’, ‘a potter’ or ‘a mum’ you are a person and you can have many strings to your bow.
Finally, in the words of my daughters school motto (which I do try and follow everyday!!) "Be Yourself, Aim High, Be Kind." What more do you need? (except Woman’s Hour in the morning, The Archers at lunchtime and a Kit Kat and a cup of tea at 3pm…..)