When we took over at Ardington we decided we’d like to support a couple of charities. We wanted them to be involved with art therapy in some form and the two we chose were The Art Room (Oxford) who, using art as a therapeutic vehicle, help children and young people re-engage with learning and thrive in life. Our other chosen charity is Combat Stress, which helps veterans get their lives back.
We’re not a massive company with a huge budget so large cash donations are not really viable for us so we decided to offer some places on workshops via the Combat Stress Facebook and Twitter pages.
And that’s how we came across Mick. He contacted us after seeing the post and asked to join our Contemporary Furniture & Up-Cycling course run by local furniture restorer, Oliver Piepereit.
Obviously, Mick has been through a tough time and when talking to him it was clear he didn’t want to talk about the backstory that brought him to our door - and to be honest, I wasn’t going to ask about it because frankly it’s none of my business.
Mick also made it clear that to help him cope day to day he needs to focus on the ‘now’. One of the things that helps him is going on workshops and working with his hands. Along with his wife, he’s attended workshops all over the country on things like making Rustic Garden Furniture, Wood Carving, Pottery, Bookbinding, Making Porcelain Poppies and now our Furniture Up-cycling course where he’s restored a lovely antique seat.
Mick’s other focus in life is his involvement with the Royal British Legion Riders Branch. As an avid biker he speaks very proudly of the Riders’ charity events like being involved with the RTTW - Ride To The Wall which is a unique motorcycling fundraising ride with a dedicated service of remembrance that provides an opportunity for all motorcyclists to ride as an organised group to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to pay their respects and recognise the sacrifice made by the 16,000+ service men and women whose names are engraved on The Wall of the Armed Forces Memorial. Another event is the Allied Memorial Remembrance Ride where bikers from across the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, South Africa, France and New Zealand join forces. He lists lots of other charity rides like the Dapper Ride and various Poppy Appeal rides. He was even involved with the world record for the most amount of Triumphs in a single parade. You could sense the pride he felt in all these activities but you could also sense the sadness he feels at the prejudice the British Legion Riders Branch and bikers in general still suffer from. He remains hopeful and positive that things will change for the better.
We would be proud if we could make things seem a little better for our veteran guests, even if it’s just to provide the opportunity to escape from whatever they need to escape from for a few hours in a friendly, safe, learning environment surrounded by like-minded people.
We really liked Mick, he was genuine and a good contributor to the group dynamic over the two-day class. We all need to meet a Mick because, as clichéd as it sounds, it helps you ‘keep things real’…we wish him all the very best and hope he continues to find the focus he needs.
A tale of a teapot made with no tools…
Debbie Page came without her clay working tools today but that didn’t stop her. Debbie’s fabulous pots - particularly the 'tri-umph of teapots' – are famous in these parts. She starts to show me how she makes a teapot from two pinched pots shaped into half domes and then joins the two pieces together to make a sphere, or the body of the teapot.
Normally Debbie would use a wooden modelling tool to join the two sides with a little water, (slip takes up space, so Debbie prefers just a little plain water to join them), but today she uses only her hands and a hair chopstick to create the finished article.
Whilst letting the combined sphere dry, Debbie also crafts a shallow dish, as a prototype for a collaboration with Calligrapher, Simon Sonsino. Debbie will fire the shallow dishes and glaze some of them so that Simon can experiment with writing on them in various different media. He intends to sell the final Calligraphed dishes for use with inks and pigments, jewellery or just for decorative fun.
Back to the tools-free teapot construction! Debbie now turns her hand to the lid. She takes a smaller ball of clay and makes a little half dome (1). It gets rolled on its side on the table top to make into a pointed lid – like a conical Chinese rice hat. Then a small flange is added and it stands proudly waiting for its new home (2). How exciting – the pot is looking ready to fill with delicious tea. Debbie advises that she never lets a teapot out of her workshop without a guarantee of it being a ‘proper pourer’, so these vessels are not just for looking at but for serious tea drinking.
Next the spout. This is where Debbie cheekily removes the chopstick holding up her long auburn hair, to skewer a pouring hole through the little rolled sausage spout (3). The handle comes next, a towering tall one. For this Debbie rolls a piece of clay into a long sausage and then flattens it gently by hand – no rolling pin required! When these two appendages have dried slightly into their fine new shapes, Debbie moulds first the spout onto the side of the pot with a small extra coil of clay, to give it good contour and firm connection at the join.
To make the hole for the lid, Debbie marks the size first with her thumb nail, and then carves it out, also with the thumb nail tool (4). A bit of tweaking and shaping to ensure a good fit (5) and we are almost there. The lid will be taped into the teapot so during the drying time, they will dry (and shrink) at the same rate. Once fired, the clay should have shrunk by about 10%.
The handle goes on next(6), and needs a bit of help from Isaac Newton to stay in shape, upended on an empty yoghurt pot (the contents of which were eaten specially to make room for the teapot).
Debbie glazes her students pots and when they come back from the kiln, they are a total triumph (a new collective noun we invented today for teapots!). With this type of white earthenware clay, you can choose from stoneware or earthenware glazes. Stoneware fired clay is waterproof, but traditionally Chinese and Japanese teapots were made of earthenware and were actually porous. Not such a problem as you would think as it takes about 45 minutes before the tea starts to seep out, and it is usually drunk by then. Nevertheless, a porous teapot couldn't be re-purposed as a vase anytime soon. Debbie lets students choose their preferred glaze from a palette of tiled examples.
To see all our Ceramic & Clay courses click here
The results – we think they are a total teapot triumph. Ready for drinking all the tea in China!
Silver Clay Jewellery
I’ve been on this course myself three times and I still haven’t got it out of my system just yet! What is it with jewellery that’s so fascinating? Perhaps it’s something to do with how it makes you feel.
How do you make silver clay jewellery?
Silver clay is a lovely new material which is fully mouldable, just like clay. You can shape it free-hand, or use moulds and tools to texture and shape it, and then fire it into fine silver (99.9% pure silver). Firing is by specialist kiln or there are alternative firing techniques you can do yourself at home.
You can learn the techniques in a matter of hours, then go onto design and create jewellery in the same day. Silver clay moulds very much like Play-Doh, so if your design works there, it will look even better in fine silver. TIP: practice on Play-Doh first, not on your silver clay!
I made two pendants on my first day, and three rings the next. Give them a polish (by machine or by hand), add chains or fixings, jewels, pearls and a lovely box, and your indulgence is complete.
Silver clay comes in a lovely paste too, so you can paint it onto leaves and other treasures from nature to preserve them perfectly in this precious metal. BBC recently featured silver clay on Countryfile, turning ferns and twigs into fine silver gorgeousness. I cast a leaf pendant on my third day course and now wear it almost daily on a long chain. It feels wonderful, so very tactile.
See our range of Silver Clay Jewellery Workshops and come and try it for yourself!
Our Tutor Melanie Blaikie
How did you start teaching Silver Clay Jewellery?
Melanie teaches silver clay at Ardington together with her sister Karen Blake. She says “I was always in the field of jewellery, working first as a diamond valuer at De Beers in Hatton Garden, and then moved onto design for Asprey and Tiffany. I wanted to learn silver-smithing but you needed so much kit. Then I discovered silver clay, and as there were no workshops around then, I learned as much as I could and then started to teach others. I found Play-Doh after the first few expensive experiments!”
What is your favourite piece so far?
“I love the piece on the front cover of my book (see top right photo below). I made it as a pendant for my Mum. The lily motive is so special I decided it had to be included in my book. I still love it and know my Mum does too.”
What’s your advice to newcomers to silver clay jewellery making?
Try and find a class to learn the basics. Most of the techniques are quick and easy to learn but the little tricks and tips you’ll pick up in a class will save you money further on. After that, just give it a go and don’t compare yourself to others as this can affect your confidence and the joy you’ll feel from being creative. What you make will please you and give a great sense of satisfaction. A little practice is all it takes.”
Welcome to the results of the Ardington School of Crafts Wellbeing Study 2018 (as featured in Craft & Design Magazine March 2018)
We had over one hundred responses to the study from people aged 25 to over 75. The largest group of study respondents was aged between 55 and 64. Strikingly, there were very few men – just four out of a hundred were male. Why was this? The invitation to take the study was sent to a wide variety of people and aimed to achieve a good spread of age and gender. On social media, it reached an audience that was made up of 37 percent men. Perhaps one reason that we had such a small number of men respond is that not enough men yet realise how important it is to be creative and that, as we will see from the results, creativity has such a strong beneficial impact on health and mental wellbeing-being, evidenced by our respondents in a long list of positive outcomes. The student base here at Ardington School also reflects a much smaller percentage of men than women attending courses.
Our view is that more people, (especially more men!), should take up a creative activity in order that they can benefit from better health and wellbeing, feel less anxiety but a stronger sense of purpose and achievement. The study results show conclusively that people feel much happier, have a stronger sense of purpose and are more relaxed because they are involved in arts and crafts activities. Most interestingly, almost half of the people in the study are now making an income from their crafts. This is becoming more important as we live longer, and need to finance that additional lifespan. Why not earn money by doing something you love and makes you happy?
You can see the full results of the study here, and read the commentary on the findings below.
What types of art and creativity do people enjoy?
The study results showed that most people enjoy more than one art or craft activity, on average almost 3.5 each. The top activities in our study included textiles and needlework (69%), painting, drawing and illustration (37%), and mixed media work (28%). Also, very popular were calligraphy (23%), ceramics, clay and mosaics (23%) as well as paper crafts (25%). Jewellery making and metalwork also scored highly (22%), as did photography (22%) and printmaking (21%). Garden design and glasswork were favoured by around 15% of respondents, and finally willow-work (12%), writing (10%), floral art (8%), stonework and woodwork (4%) and furniture (3%). There may be some gender related preferences in these results, as a deeper review of the individual answers for men shows a preference for painting and printmaking in this group, albeit a small sample.
What types of arts and crafts do people do?
The youngest study respondents (below age 45) showed, in order of preference, a higher uptake of textiles, ceramics and painting, and the oldest age group (over 75) preferred painting, then printmaking, followed by textile work.
How do people feel when they are doing arts and crafts?
The feel-good factors experienced by our study respondents include, overwhelmingly, a strong sense of purpose, achievement and satisfaction (100%), and happiness (100%). In fact, over three quarters (78%) feel a very strong sense of purpose, and almost 2/3 of people (66%) feel very happy when they are doing arts and crafts activities.
The need for a sense of purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Studies  show we crave purpose, and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life, and having it enhances our self-esteem. The sense of competence and achievement also provide an improved ability to deal with difficulties and challenges that life brings.
The study results also showed a high degree of feeling inspired (96%), learning and using the brain (95%), being energised (90%), and feeling relaxed (87%). Only very few, (7%), felt anxious or nervous, and there was some evidence of frustration at times too (14%). We will return to this point later.
Our study showed that 53% of respondents felt some physical health benefits from doing arts and craft activities too, with one respondent stating that ‘it increases resilience against depression’ and another saying ‘I worked for many years as an Occupational Therapist with people with severe and enduring health issues. We used a wide variety of art and craft activities as part of the treatment programme’.
How do you feel when you are doing arts & crafts?
How important will it be to your own personal sense of wellbeing to maintain creative activity as you get older?
Our results showed that this is a pretty important activity to future wellbeing. In fact, 97% of people want to continue being creative for many years to come and 75% told us that being creative is essential and they can’t imagine life without arts and crafts.
This was a particularly interesting finding, as according to Harvard Medical School research (2017) , pursuing a hobby or learning a new skill are some of the best activities to keep your mind sharp, at any age. The same study endorses using more of your senses, such as touch and smell, often associated with arts and creative activities (don't you love the smell of oil paint, fresh willow or the feel of clay!) as well as repetition and re-study over time - these being integral strategies to protecting and improving memory. Our study also shows that arts and crafts give us a strong sense of purpose and achievement, leading to self-belief, another of the recommended states necessary for improvements to brain health listed in the Harvard Medical School research.
Recently, doubt has been cast on the alternative so-called ‘brain-training’ computer games, as reported by Age UK . In 2016, a leading supplier of these games was fined by the US government Federal Trade Commission for making claims that weren’t supported by evidence and that, in the Commission’s words, 'preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline'. It’s interesting that traditional arts and crafts are therefore standing the test of time, over and above these new approaches.
What else can be improved through creative activity?
Our study respondents believe that being involved in creative activities can help to improve many other things important to wellbeing. There was strong support that being creative keeps the brain active (99%) and improves concentration levels (92%).
In addition, being involved in arts and craft activities can help to improve social connectedness (87%) and the ability to communicate (72%). Substantial evidence  now indicates that individuals lacking social connections are at risk of early death, and indeed statistically, loneliness has now been found to be deadlier than obesity. The same US study shows that loneliness is not just an ‘old-age’ problem either, in fact older adults reported lower rates of loneliness than those who were younger, (43% of those aged 45-49 were lonely compared to 25% of those 70+). In the UK, a 2016 study  by the University of York found that lonely people are around 30 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart disease, two of the leading causes of death in Britain. Arts and crafts activities improve social connectedness, so there is a strong argument that they can prolong life.
Almost half of our study respondents (42%) believed that creative activities can help to improve the opportunity for continued employment income. Again, this aspect will become increasingly important in todays’ society, as people are living longer and finding that retirement, as a concept, is becoming ‘retired’ itself. People need more income to sustain longer life expectancy and many will have to continue working to earn this extra income. Evidence  shows that the value expected from pensions has reduced significantly. The most worrying group, as far as good pension levels are concerned, is women. On average, they are likely to receive up to 40% less pension than men, mainly due to career breaks and pay inequality. Women also live longer, and so the position is worsened over time. Being able to earn a continued income from arts and crafts not only makes people happier, but could also be partly or wholly financially sustaining too. Perhaps our study result of 42% will increase over time as more people return to artisan specialisms that are once again becoming so highly valued.
What else improves through creative activity?
Over 2/3rds (68%) of our study respondents provided evidence of these improvements to their lives, and a selection of individual quotes is provided below.
What other activities do people engage in to improve wellbeing?
The study results show that people also participate in other activities to improve their wellbeing. Physical activity and taking care of the body as well as good diet and nutrition were highest on the list of regular activities. The results also show that people enjoy socializing and laughter, and gardening and outdoor pursuits are very popular ways to improve wellbeing.
Giving and helping others is also regularly practiced by our study respondents, and research  published by the NHS suggests that acts of giving and kindness – small and large – are associated with positive mental wellbeing. Giving to others, through volunteering or charitable work, can stimulate the reward areas in the brain, creating positive feelings. The National Council for Volunteering Organisations latest research  shows that that the proportion of young people saying they volunteer has increased by more than half in recent years and is still on an upward trend.
Over half of our study respondents enjoy spas and treatments, at least sometimes, as ways to improve wellbeing. Perhaps we need to add massage and aromatherapy lessons to the Ardington curriculum! Watch this space.
Final comments and follow up
Over 40 of the 100 respondents volunteered to provide follow-up interviews and/or some deeper level of wellbeing study analysis and we will be following all of them up throughout the 2018 Ardington School year. We will report back on any additional findings. It would be interesting, for example, to measure the extent of the feeling of wellbeing levels on a persons’ ‘normal day’ and during a workshop, and to explore exactly what is making a difference.
One final comment made in the study, which cannot be ignored, was ‘I think many people don’t take up creative activities because they are worried they won’t be good enough’. This is interesting, and if true (I have heard people say this myself so I believe it is), is a distressing statement to hear. This is one of the reasons why we try to run such an open and warm environment at Ardington School, so that we can welcome everyone who wants to learn. A school is a place for learning – it’s where you can start on the journey to good enough. It is the DOING of arts and crafts that is good for everyone’s mental and physical health and wellbeing, regardless of ability, and we would encourage more people to try it and enjoy all the wellbeing benefits it can bring.
See the full results of the study here.
Yvonne and Simon Sonsino
Ardington School of Crafts, January 2018
 Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Chief for the Division of Cognitive Neurology and Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Non-invasive Brain Stimulation, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 2017.
 Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson. Department of Psychology and Department of Counseling Psychology, Brigham Young University. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol. 10(2) 227–237.
 Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Observational Studies. Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al. Heart 2016; 102:1009-1016. Heart is an official Journal of the British Cardiovascular Society.
 The New Rules of Living Longer – How to Survive your Longer Life, Yvonne Sonsino, 2015. MSL Publishing. Newrulesoflivinglonger.com