Pottery is a slow art – from shaping the clay to firing a piece, novice potters may find themselves repeating the process and waiting weeks before walking away with their final work. But for many, such as Isabelle Parthiot, the slowness is part of its appeal.
A retail operation manager at a luxury company in Dubai, Parthiot picked up pottery during the pandemic and found a new creative pursuit. “I got completely hooked. It was almost a revelation,” she says.
Though she had tried her hand at pottery three years ago, the French citizen notes that something was different when she returned to it in 2020. With fewer options for socialising and travel last year, along with psychological malaise caused by the pandemic, pottery was like a balm, she explains.
“Being on the wheel is meditative … Nothing is important except for your clay while you’re working.”
The word “meditative” is repeated by many when referring to why they picked up this practice, among them Abdulla Beljafla, co-founder of Emirati fine jewelry brand Gafla.
“People were looking for something to calm their anxieties, to get busy and make use of their time. Pottery can be frustrating, but the process is meditative. There’s something soothing about it,” he says.
Since taking his first class, Beljafla has been eager to hone his skills by purchasing a pottery wheel and making his own designs. "I want to host a dinner party where all the table ware will be my pottery," he says. Beljafla is also considering producing ceramic jewellery boxes for his brand.
Parthiot and Beljafla are among a growing community of potters in Dubai who turned to the ceramic art and craft in the past year. At the same time, new pottery studios, including The Mud House in Al Quoz, which opened last week, are also on the rise.
Their teacher, Aneesha Rai, is co-founder of The Mud House and says she understands why pottery has drawn in many people over the course of the pandemic. “When I’m working with clay, I zone out and I’m in my own world. It really helps you centre,” she says.
For the fortunate, the pandemic-induced quarantine has given rise to many activities – gardening, baking, painting and pottery – that seem to share the same temporality and focus on the manual process. Rai says that students often arrive at the studio with stories about the stress of working from home and Zoom fatigue, as well as the need to find creative projects.
She co-founded The Mud House with owner Preeti Pawani, a businesswoman and artist whose family has been in the UAE for more than five decades. Pawani is also one of the founders of thejamjar, a community art space where adults and children can walk in, grab a canvas and start painting.
Though she is no longer involved in thejamjar, the everyone-is-welcome approach carries over to Pawani’s vision of The Mud House, where people can drop in, purchase some clay and work. At the same time, the space is also a production studio for the business, which caters to several clients in the UAE, and also offers memberships for potters, as well as workshops and classes.
Other newcomers in Dubai include Slo Ceramics, which operates on a membership basis, and Al Kass Ceramics, which opened last year, joining Yadawei Ceramic Studio, which has been around for five years, in the Al Quoz neighbourhood.
In the capital, there is Abu Dhabi Pottery in Khalidiya, which was founded by Homa Farley and has been in business since 1994. Ajman has Clay Corner Studio, founded by Emirati artist Hessa Al Ajmani, which opened in 2019.
At The Mud House, Rai heads up a team of three pottery teachers. She has worked with ceramics for more than a decade and, in 2019, took a sabbatical from her animation job to study pottery and glazing with ceramic artists in India. Over the past three years, she has devoted herself to developing her own practice for her brand Born Free Ceramics and with The Mud House.
For those new to the craft, she recommends to try various methods of creating, such as handbuilding, where potters produce the forms with their hands, allowing for a variety of shapes.
"Everyone thinks pottery means the wheel, but it's not as easy as it looks. Sometimes handbuilding is more satisfying for some people. I would say it's good to try both and you will realise what you're drawn to," she says.
Currently, Rai is experimenting with creating new glazes for Born Free Ceramics, which she uses for products and classes at The Mud House.
“We’re one of the first in the region to make glazes local and bottle them for the community to access off-the-shelf. So we don’t have to rely on imports,” she explains.
Materials, including certain types of clay and glazes, are not always easy to get in the UAE, but she hopes that the increased interest in pottery will bring in more supply and even lead to more local production and collaboration.
Rai says: “With more studios, we’re also building a community of ceramic artists. You’ll have more people exposed to it and be open to it, and with that, you get better work and people learning from each other. It’s a win-win for everyone.”