I was one of those lucky people who were introduced to clay as an artistic medium at school. Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne was a brand new, state of the art school and even today has a reputation for having a good art department, when I attended it also had a dedicated ceramics department, which was run by the art teacher John Burley. John was very interested in ceramics and had a good but basic understanding of clay, but what he lacked in skill he made up for in his enthusiasm. At the time although I enjoyed the subject I never considered it as a career I was determined to be a zoologist and study whales. My education progressed towards this role until halfway through my A Levels it became clear to me that being a biologist often involved having a very callous attitude to animals, one that I would never be able to adopt. I finished my A Levels and simply jumped for the first course to accept me, a Pre- Foundation Art course in Thanet.

At Thanet College it soon became clear that I was never going to be able to draw and paint to the standard I would have wanted, I had always enjoyed art but frankly was only a middle of the road student.

I hated model making with a passion, so did extra pottery, after two lessons was asked to leave woodworking and told to see if there was anyone in the pottery.

After an incident in the fabrication room, where I set all the gas lines alight with a welding torch I was again sent for extra pottery lessons. In fact looking back at that year I seem to have been sent to the pottery room a lot! So at the end of the year it was no surprise I ended up applying to attend the BTEC at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, Rochester. Head of Centre at the time was Peter Phillips but the National Diploma was headed by Mike Spoor. It was Mike who took us for our first lesson, a two hour demonstration on how to push a stick into a lump of clay, luckily things got better after that.

Looking back at my four years at Medway I was more then lucky with the range and standard of teachers, in fact it was only much later I appreciated just how lucky I had been. My list of teacher reads like a who’s who of British pottery. Peter Phillips, Mike Spoor, Peter Beard, Colin Peterson, Mike Goddard, Dave White, David Barnes. After a very happy four years I was reluctant to quit learning about clay so moved on to a degree course at the Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe. The highlight of my two years, after gaining my degree of course, was having the wonderful John Colbeck as a teacher. In my humble opinion however, no degree could ever match the ceramic education I had gained at Medway. My Fellow students included , Marie Prett, Ashley Howard, Sue Halls and Martin Lungly.

At some point I had to leave college and start earning a living, I was really lucky that my college education was paid for through grants and I did not have a huge debt to pay off in later life. No wonder courses like the BTEC at Medway have disappeared! I set up my studio in a large porta cabin in the garden and looked for paying work. My first job was at The Sittingbourne Adult Education centre, teaching evening classes and one of my first students was my old art teacher John Burley. This small income allowed me to really start producing my artwork and also eat. At the time I was making small glazed animals and large incised elephant dishes and I stuck with this style of work for some time. The reality of trying to support yourself with artwork work is a difficult one and if not for the help and support of my parents I would have had to get real work!

My Ceramic work was small; I used a hand building white stoneware and glazed with a mixture of raku glazes and brush on glazes, often then finished with enamel or luster. As time progressed I felt the need to increase the size to give the work a more dramatic statement. I kept to the same making process, which is small slabs of clay attached to a central cylinder. I push and press the clay outwards to give the feeling of mass. I have never been interested in producing real and accurate copies of the animals I am making but rather in capturing the essence. Also I really dislike most mass produced ceramic animals as they are often arranged in unnatural static poses, the exception to that rule being the Beswick animals, which are full of movement and character. It is this I hope shows in my work, the angle of the head, the subtle positioning of the ears, all telling a story, allowing the viewer to see or feel what the animal is thinking.

It was during the process of enlarging my work it became clear that applying a glaze to the surface of the piece seemed to me to deaden this feeling and that all the subtlety of the surface was being destroyed. I experimented with coloured clays but this shortens the clay and again the size that I wanted was difficult to achieve. One afternoon I had a brainwave, I stuck an elephant in a wheel barrow and burned it in some of my horse’s bedding, eureka! To this day I have no idea why I did this mad thing but I really like the effect. I have learnt that I can achieve different effects using different grades of sawdust, different colours if I use white sprit to quicken the burn and patterns through applying masks ( wet clay) to the surface. I always fire in a wheel barrow or a dustbin (metal), a garden incinerator produces to fierce a flame and cracks thin legs, using a pit would take too long, I have no patience at all! My current clay is Earthstone original and I have had good results with mixing in 1/3 paper in to the mixture.

The animals that I produce are animals that interest me and are often animals that I have had a lot of contact with. I currently have three horses, as a child I had a goat. I always try to see the animals in the flesh and draw from life before I make them in clay. I remember getting up at silly o’clock to drive out to the woods in Wyoming to watch for moose. Never go to a circus or a zoo with me as I spend ages looking for the gaps in the fence or pen so I can touch. I stroked a rhino at Howletts, a giraffe through a broken window at London zoo and nearly went head first in to the capybara cage at Whipsnade, well I’d been stroking her back and she flopped over so I could do her belly and I was hanging over the fence trying to reach. I would like to point out I am not the only one, I had to rescue Marie Prett from some circus pigs once, she says it never happened, but it did! Of course there was also the time I was frisked by a circus elephant………….!? This happy period lasted for nearly ten years; my work was exhibited in a number of galleries, most sadly no longer open, Cranbrook Crafts, The Gibbs Gallery, Canterbury and a Craft centre as far away as Ashby De la Zouch. Overall I supported myself but it is difficult to get on to the housing market when you have an irregular income…..

Over the last few years I have been drawn in to teaching, mainly art based, teaching disaffected children, first at a prison in Rochester, where I was also on the senior management team. In fact it really took over my life for a while as I worked long hours and it can be really draining working with young people who will not or can not help them selves and whose only concern is how many drugs and crimes they have done. My artwork suffered until 2009 when I suddenly could not put up with it any longer and moved to a Pupil Referral Unit. Again I am dealing with special young people but in a less intense atmosphere then the prison. Although it still has its challenges it means that I now again have time to do artwork. In 2010 I joined the Kent Potters again and exhibited at the Sevenoaks exhibition and at Farnham and Hatfield. I have a small studio at my parent’s house and bought my new kiln in 2011. Since then my work has developed again as I have moved more towards horses and started to introduce areas of colour. My newest and largest work being my Shire Horses. I have recently exhibited at The Singing Soul Gallery in Cranbrook and at the Westend House Gallery in Smarden. Also look out for my new Facebook page!

Suki Stokes