The Clay Pit

As we gear up for the BCB 2019 festival, we’re looking back to one of the highlights from the 2017 festival, The Clay Pit. During six weeks, over 4,000 people visited the Clay Pit, using over 4 tonnes of clay. The Clay Pit also won the Best Family Event award from Fantastic For Families, recognising an outstanding contribution to arts and culture for families.
Back in 2017, artist Alice Thatcher gave us a stunning insight into her experience of working on the Pit:


“The Clay Pit was an interactive, large-scale clay playground, installed as part of the British Ceramics Biennial. The Clay Pitwas a place to play; a place for people to explore clay in its various states: liquid, wet, leather, hard, dry and fired. Using a person centred learning approach called Reggio Amelia, participants were invited to create anything that they liked, using as little or as much of the materials as they wished.

4000 participants visited the workshop space during the festival. Community and education groups, visitors and visiting artists used oversized clay tools, creative props and copious amounts of clay to let their imaginations run free.

The designers of the Clay Pit, Dena Bagi and Priska Falin are passionate about the use of clay, with its ability to stimulate learning, create unique tactile experiences and fire the visual senses and creativity.
The Clay Pit is supported by the Ceramics and its Dimensions project, which brings museums, universities and research institutes together to provide a view of ceramics past, present and future.

During the festival, I was one of the artists working on the Clay Pit.
Participants of all ages, backgrounds and abilities constructed, played, explored and manipulated the material in many different ways. Each of their pieces, were individual in process and unique in appearance. People joined, printed, stamped, built, shaped, modelled and painted with the various states of clay to create some fantastic work. They used the tools provided as well as their hands to create sculptures inspired by foliage, architecture and heritage. Participants created portraits, they made drawings using the liquid clay and built structures using fired ceramics, and created pots inspired by visits to local factories. Visitors combined the various states of clay to create work that had no boundaries. None of the work created was fired, this approach allowed space for freedom with the material. The Clay Pit encouraged communal hands-on play, exploration and construction.

The work created, connected participants to self, community and place. The way people experienced clay whilst meeting new people was wonderful to see. One participant said “I found it really difficult at first, but I worked with the people around me to figure it out! The different states of clay interested me. The clay is tactile and inviting!” Others spoke of their former connection to the potteries industry and how the skills they learned, automatically came back to them when touching clay again.

A local schoolteacher said, “I am surprised at the versatility of clay. I am very interested in how clay can be used in the curriculum for storytelling with clay and setting up landscapes for language!” We saw many visitors come with families, working together as a team! “My Dad created the bricks, and I built the structure!” said one youngster. Some participants took some clay home with them so that they could continue making. It was clear to me that every single person who experienced the Clay Pit found inspiration in some way, whether that was the comfort in working with their family and friends, or discovering clay for the first time as a new material, even though it is so close to our local heritage.

Liquid, wet, leather hard, dry and fired clay was laid out in large scale trenches, inviting participants to help themselves to as much of the material as they wanted. This was an exciting way for participants to have complete control over what they would create from the start, and how they would create it. Participants described the quality and texture of the materials ‘relaxing’, ‘therapeutic’ and ‘calming’. Partakers were surprised at the variance in the different states of the clay. “I found the clay really cold and squishy. I enjoyed the liquid clay as it was useful, yet fun at the same time!” said one younger participant. The slip was “messy and fun!” said another “I got really excited because I didn’t know what was going to happen! The wet clay is the most exciting to me.”

It was interesting to see the contrasting approaches from different age groups. Younger participants seemed much freer in their composition, some just playing for hours. “My son spent three hours in the clay pit. I have never seen him so engaged with a material.” said one parent.

It seemed that older participants were initially unsure of what to create; the free approach can be daunting, yet the outcomes were very interesting. Some participants used previous experiences of clay to help them create. “This experience has got me back in to working with clay.” said a local artist who visited the pit. “I love the free approach, it really is a fantastic way of exploring the material. My approach is really organic. I like going with the flow, and this is really therapeutic. A great way to be free!”

The Clay Pit has been an incredible and invaluable experience for me, as an artist. Seeing the participants enjoying the material that I work with was really inspiring, and has given me a better insight into the importance of projects like this. The drop-in approach has meant that more people could enjoy working with the clay, especially as the workshop space was free, and open all day and every day through the festival.
I saw a wide range of approaches to participants working in the clay pit and was surprised at how experimental people could be with very little instruction or guidance. Also, I saw many people unleash their creativity and imagination whilst making. I saw families connect through working together, and friendships form in communities. I am looking forward to seeing how the project develops in the future.”