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Hackney Wick: How Potters Thumb gives people the chance to play with clay

Potter Mark Ciavola talks ceramics, education and creating a new kind of porcelain out of waste glass

Pottery classes and services are offered by Potters Thumb -
Pottery classes and services are offered by Potters Thumb – image Matt Grayson

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I don’t immediately realise it, but as I raise the cup of tea to my lips at zero waste restaurant Silo in Hackney Wick, they’re touching an object conceived and created by the man sitting beside me.

Mark Ciavola is the ceramicist behind Potters Thumb, which offers clay-based classes and memberships at its studio space above the zero waste venue.

He also supplies it with its hand-thrown cups, from which we’re drinking and that’s not the only reciprocity, but more of that later.

Lamenting the shrinking presence of pottery in schools, he is determined to pass on the knowledge he’s accrued from a lifetime spent around ceramics.

“At a very early age I showed signs of interest and my parents saw that and guided me,” said Mark. In fact, it was his mother, Anna, who sadly died last year, who had the biggest influence on Mark.

“She forged a career as a potter at a time when the craft was dominated by men, teaching, nurturing and inspiring numerous others in their native Malta and seeing her work enter the island’s National Collection.

“I was fortunate to travel a lot with her, visiting potteries across the world, but mostly in Europe,” he said.

“So I had the pleasure of meeting all these potters in Greece, the UK and Italy.

“That included Phil Rogers in Wales who, along with my mother, took me under his wing. He’s been hugely influential in the contemporary ceramics world and has pieces in the British Museum and collections all over the world. 

“He suggested courses for me, so I went to Harrogate College where I did my national diploma, and then to Cardiff to do my degree.

“I’ve been so lucky to be able to learn new techniques and skills from potters such as Michael Casson and Terry and Beverly Bell-Hughes.”

Mark Ciavola of Potters Thumb in Hackney Wick
Mark Ciavola of Potters Thumb in Hackney Wick- image Matt Grayson

Having originally set up shop in Brighton, a lack of empathy from his landlord during the pandemic saw him return to Malta rather than take up the Government’s generous invitation to re-train in cyber.

His relocation to Hackney Wick came via a message from Silo owner Douglas McMaster, who he’d met and supplied when the restaurant was also based in Brighton. 

Offered the chance to create a new material in partnership with the restaurant (look left for more on this), he moved back to the UK, plugged the potters wheels and opened the doors.

“When I was working in Brighton I didn’t want to make pottery that was exclusive and unattainable for the general public,” said Mark.

“I wanted to get my work out to the people as quickly as possible and in abundance. 

“I was thinking of who would use crockery like that and that’s how I met Doug, through creating ceramics for Silo.

“I’ve been doing that ever since and for other restaurants and it’s snowballed from there. 

“Giving lessons is very important for me. It is part of the structure of pottery and keeps us sustainable as well so we can keep doing what we’re doing.

“Obviously we have a responsibility to spread this craft around – it’s a dying trade unless it is encouraged and there’s not much of that coming from the state at the moment, so it’s an uphill struggle. Nevertheless, I am determined to pursue it.” 

Mark works some clay on a wheel at Potters Thumb
Mark works some clay on a wheel at Potters Thumb – image Matt Grayson

Part of Mark’s drive to get more people handling clay is down to his belief in its wider benefits.

These, he said, extended beyond the creation of ceramics and spoke to fundamental things about what it means to be human.

“Personally it’s been doing me the world of good for about 37 years,” said Mark.

“I believe that in contrast to the fast-paced world that we live in now and, because we are more aware of our mental health and other sensitive topics which affect us, ceramics, clay, pottery is art therapy.

“It transports you, because working with clay involves so many of your senses – with your hand-eye coordination you’ve got this vision of the future, imagining your finished item while you’re still making it, the clay catching up with the line you’re seeing in the air, and all the while you’re touching and manipulating the material.

“It cuts you off and gives you that space that we all need. Today, humanity deliberately and consciously deprives itself of mental states that preserve our mental health.

“Crafts and art are slowly being cut from the curriculum of our schools, colleges and universities and there are cuts in funding because the Government doesn’t have any faith in the creative industries.

Cups ready for firing with Mark's mark
Cups ready for firing with Mark’s mark – image Matt Grayson

“Cooking, for example, used to involve 30 or 40 minutes of preparation and then the savouring of the food you’d made.

“Now it’s two and a half minutes in the microwave and a plate in front of the laptop.

“With pottery, people feel they’ve missed out and they want to come and experience it and practise it.

“As children, no-one teaches us how to play with playdough – it’s just given to us and instinctively we know what to do. It’s something in our DNA and, even as adults, our primal instincts are alive and kicking. 

“Pottery gives us a sense of satisfaction that we’re able to do something and this gives us energy to pursue other goals.

“That’s why we’re giving lessons here with heart, in a creative comfortable spot where you don’t need to invest heavily in machinery in kilns or materials.

“You can come here and use them. I really want to share my experiences, help develop other people’s creativity and pass on this dying craft to others.

“Thankfully ceramics is getting more publicity with TV shows like The Great Pottery Throw Down and an increasing number of people are getting interested in it as it becomes more mainstream.

“But the best thing about it is that it’s a great way to escape the madness we’re living in today.”

Potters Thumb offers a variety of classes and workshops at its studio, based in the White Building at Hackney Wick. These include sessions on hand building techniques (from £35) and wheel throwing (from £55).

Memberships to use the studio are also available (from £150), with kiln firing services also available.

Silo's Doug McMaster with Mark of Potters Thumb
Silo’s Doug McMaster with Mark of Potters Thumb – image Matt Grayson

Finding a greener way to deal with glass

Douglas founded Silo with the premise that the restaurant would operate without a bin, producing no waste.

So he’s enlisted Mark’s help in a project to create a new material from the single-use glass that flows through the venue to improve its environmental impact.

He said: “From day one that was always the headache.

Even when recycling it you need pure silica to make new bottles and that’s the best case scenario. 

“The other problem is that systemically used glass doesn’t end up where it should – getting into parks, canals and landfill, where it takes thousands of years to break down and does a whole lot of environmental damage.

But there isn’t really a better way to get all these wonderful liquids here, so I approached Mark about using it as a raw material.”

Mark said: “No good potter would ever throw away decent material – clay is a gift from Mother Nature so we treat it with respect.

I looked at this problem with a ceramacist’s hat on, rather than as a glassmaker.

There’s silica in both glass and clay and that was the catalyst to find a solution and marry up these two materials. 

“We crush the bottles, pound them until the particles are the size we can manipulate and then mould it as glass porcelain.

There’s lots of experimenting, but we can turn this into something useful. We’re working on flat objects at the moment like tiles and plates.”

Watch this space.

A piece made in the new material by Mark – image Matt Grayson

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