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The surprising benefits of an evening course

Enrolling in a class is not just a post-work stress reliever, says Isabelle O'Carroll. It can be a real eye-opener, too 

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By Isabelle O'Carroll on

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About two and a half years ago, still smarting from a break-up and determined not to wallow, I enrolled in some evening classes, one of which was a pottery class a few minutes from my house. I made little mountain-shaped ring holders with snowy peaks and colourful, lumpy plant pots to give to too-polite-to-refuse family and friends. Fresh from a very conclusive chat with my ex, I remember arriving late one evening, tears pricking in my eyes, wiring off a lump of clay and totally losing myself in the physicality of this piece of earth. I was hooked, even if it was mostly a pigheaded resolve to conquer this age-old skill.

Ceramics is enjoyable, but it's also incredibly temperamental. Things go wrong really easily and the unpredictable nature of glazes and firing means that you have to let go of any vanity – having a pot ruined because you didn’t dry it out properly, or your fingers were greasy from eating biscuits, quickly whips you into shape. It’s very humbling to be a novice when you're an adult and something I would recommend to anyone. When you're a child, you're comfortable with the fact that everything is new and there to be learnt, but as a grown-up, you spend so much time pretending to be in control it feels almost embarrassing to learn something from scratch, in public.

Making pots on a wheel has been my latest challenge; it’s really difficult, but the thrill of being able to create a pot, plate or vase in minutes is immense. A happy side effect of "throwing" is that I’ve (eventually) found it really calming. I suffer from anxiety, to the point that it can disrupt my day-to-day life; throwing pots on the wheel is the one thing that quiets my brain. Being forced to completely focus and block everything else out takes some practice, but it's a wonderfully serene feeling and this process is so cathartic. All the fractured, fractious chatter quiets for a moment – nothing but spinning clay and the hum of the wheel, calmly drawing up the clay from a solid lump.

When you're a child, you're comfortable with the fact that everything is new, but as a grown-up, it feels almost embarrassing to learn something from scratch, in public

On the last day of my second term, a handful of us went to the pub, having not spoken to anyone for the duration – pottery is not the kind of thing where you can easily chatter! We immediately bonded – over clay, dating and other stupid nonsense that now fills up our buzzing WhatsApp group. It feels like a delightfully grown-up thing, to have “hobby friends”; we’ll visit ceramics exhibitions and go to the student graduation shows together, as well as evenings in the pub. I teamed up with one of my pottery pals and we now share a studio space; it’s freezing cold, but two jumpers, a cup of tea and some salacious gossip go a long way towards keeping you warm. We share this space with talented people who have been making ceramics for 10, 15 or 20 years. It reminds me that two years is a very short time and that humans are impatient.

Doing something that is completely different from your day job really helps you switch off and gives you perspective on trivial work worries and politics. Not only that, it has reflected my own patterns of behaviour back on to me, in that I’m my own harshest critic. The fact that I’m nearly never happy with what I’ve made has been a good lesson to try to be more forgiving in other areas of my life. The simple action of being away from a computer and using a separate part of your brain is so refreshing – you’re learning something new. It also adds another dimension to your day – you could be doing something really mundane, but your brain is whirring with ideas and plans. In day-to-day life, you can feel so much pressure to be successful in everything you do; having a hobby gets you out of your comfort zone, but it also means having the freedom to fail, which to me is much more precious than a perfect pot.


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