Interview: Pottery for Children with Gabrielle Kan Murphy

“That kind of pride, learning that they can build with their little hands... is truly one of a kind.” Content creator Lizzie speaks to ceramicist and educator, Gabrielle Kan Murphy from Columbia Clay, about pottery for children.

To start off with, tell us a little about yourself and the work you do with children.

My name is Gabrielle Kan Murphy, I’m a ceramic artist and educator. I’m also mum to three boys ages 6 years, 4 years and 20 months. Plus we’ve got a baby girl arriving in the new year! I’ve been working in ceramics for about fourteen years and teaching for ten. I’m the founder and studio director of Columbia Road Clay located in Shoreditch East London. 

Columbia Road Clay started in June 2021 with the vision of being a community studio providing free clay programmes to the local community surrounding Columbia Road. We support educational and fundraising activities for the local schools and community groups. We strive to be a creative clay haven where locals and visitors alike can learn a new skill, indulge in a hobby or simply relax and enjoy creating pottery that serves its community. 

Columbia Road Clay is working to allow more people from a variety of backgrounds and age groups to benefit from the many therapeutic and healing aspects of this craft. We aim to be that inclusive space where all are welcome to learn and make together. 

How did you first get into ceramics with children? 

Before relocating to London, I served as a ceramics department faculty lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During this time, I also worked with an arts organisation that created free arts programming for underserved communities in the Chicago area. Between these two organisations I had the opportunity to be part of and lead classes that focused on developing the knowledge and skills working with ceramics and pottery to children and young people who may not ordinarily have access to these kinds of activities.
Is there a history of using clay in schools/when working with children? If so, why has this seemingly died out?

Absolutely! There was a time when electric kilns were found in the art rooms of nearly every primary school for the purposes of an annual clay art project. In fact, for a while many of the second hand kilns found on ebay were those dusty basement remnants of arts programming that fell out of favor and knowledge of use. 

Just a couple generations ago, pottery was in many parts of the country still a prominent part of the local economy and a viable skill passed down from one generation to the next. However, over the past 20-25 years there has been a gradual but marked reduction in the exposure of children to working with clay and ceramics at any age. The reason for this decline can easily be correlated to school funding cuts over the decades, including the more recent austerity measures starting around 2010. This led to the elimination of arts programming, especially clay. 

While it is true that ceramics can be an expensive medium requiring specialised materials and equipment to maintain along with a knowledgeable teacher to educate young learners, what happened as generations passed through the education system without the experience of working with clay, the knowledge and interest in the craft declined as well. The legacy of this is a generation of adults who never had an opportunity to touch clay before sitting down in my studio for a weekend class. 

The upside is that there has been a surge of interest in the ceramic field, thanks to numerous ceramic artists celebrated in the fine arts world, alongside popular TV series such as The Great Pottery Throwdown that allows an international audience to see firsthand the incredible feats produced by talented makers, not to mention the proliferation of social media accounts sharing their craft processes. 

At my studio, students are inspired by what they’ve seen and already have an appreciation for the craft, which is absolutely amazing. I believe this enthusiasm naturally trickles down to the younger generation as adults experience the joys of working with clay and share it with their families. In just the three months of opening the studio, I’ve had multi-generation groups learning together, parents come with their adult children, aunts come in with their nephews, teenagers come in with their mums/dads and everyone is on even footing as first time throwers who are eager to get messy. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone tries again, everyone learns together. It’s incredible. 

If you can imagine the delight adults get from working with clay, imagine the sheer joy younger children would have in experiencing the same thing. 

How can working with clay benefit children? 

One of the best things about teaching ceramics is the wonder it evokes in people of any age. Because it is a material so closely bound to humanity (there’s a reason why in many mythological origin stories, people are made from clay!) when we touch it, feel it, work with it, we can’t help but return to a state of self similar to those early years when we are most responsive to tactile sensations. 

That said, my first hand experience is you can always tell when the kids have done a clay project at school. The excitement at home time is palpable. All the children clutch their little creations, running out to show what they’ve made to their carers with giant grins on their faces. That kind of pride, learning that they can build with their little hands a magnificent something from blobby clay, is truly one of a kind. Plus, it’s fun! 

At what age would you introduce clay/pottery making? 

By 5yrs+ they are ready for the real stuff. Children at this age are so sophisticated with their hands, tool use and mark making, they are absolutely ready to learn how to handbuild simple pinchpots or coilpots. Or, give them a hunk and see them go to town! No instruction necessary. It amazes me how naturally they take a blob of clay and immediately begin to pinch, roll, squish it into anything and everything that comes to mind. I learn important lessons from my boys about how to be more free with my own practice by just watching how they work with clay. Admittedly, I also get a little jealous, they are so good at it!

For throwing on the wheel, for now I recommend starting ~12yrs. They need a certain amount of physical strength, focus and coordination in order to control the clay. That said, I recently had an 11 year old at the studio for his birthday and he was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! If a young person shows interest, I’d say let them have a go. 

What kinds of early years activities would you recommend? 

For under-5s, I’d recommend holding off on natural clay. If you’re looking for a similar tactile experience for this age, it’s better to bust out the playdough once they’re safely over puts-everything-in-mouth stage. 

That said... is it ok if I admit that I hate playdough? 
As a mum with a house to maintain, I honestly despise those dried up coloured bits ground into my carpet. 

But mess aside, playdough is a great alternative to clay for under 5s. It has that tactile responsiveness similar to clay that is delightful to little fingers. And, if you have the time, there are excellent recipes for playdough you can make at home with your little one. My sister likes to add almond extract or some other lovely smelling oil to add to the sensory play for her little ones. 

What can a child and/or parent/carer expect in a session with you? 
When I’m in the studio with my boys I think it’s really important for them to see that it is a workplace, that mum is working on her pots while they’re working on theirs. We’re sharing the space but they have their own table area and tools. I show them a few basics otherwise they’re free to make whatever they please. They look over at what I’m doing and might try out techniques they see. Or not. They sometimes get so engrossed in what they’re doing, they completely ignore me. 

I think it’s important that the adult sincerely works on their own project as the child engages with theirs. When adults are engaged in a particular task, children are so keen to observe and try it themselves. They get inspired by just observing their adult at work. They see their adult learning and working and they develop pride in what they are doing because they are working and learning in the same way. 

This independence sets the stage for developing their own ability to problem solve and learn from the material. With clay there are no mistakes. The more you work with it, the more you learn how to work with it. That is what’s so special about clay. It is incredibly forgiving. 
It’s important too, as a big person, not to take it too seriously. 

Afterall when it comes to clay, what are we doing if not playing with mud?

Be sure to give Gabrielle a follow on Instagram, or check out her website!

And, to have a get working with clay yourself, you can email hello@columbiaroadclay.com to be added to their mailing list. They’ll be adding more workshops and programmes throughout the year!
next article