Following her heart . . . at last

AS a teenager, Judith Battersby loved making things and dreamed of one day having her own pottery in north Wales.

Coming up fast is a date at Grand Designs Live, at the ExCeL in London from May 1-9. Judith is displaying her creations at a section of the show called Grand Designs Live Bursary, which will showcase up-and-coming talent. She still has to pay for the privilege, mind, and it’s quite expensive. Luckily, she’s sharing the cost with Essex artist friend Janette Lazell, a fellow graduate from Colchester School of Art and Design. The event attracts a lot of visitors, and the chance to exhibit might never come again, so Judith hardly thought she could let the opportunity pass.

Her creations are inspired by the natural world and by her own thoughts. She works mainly in slip-cast porcelain, though is moving into bronze casting as well, and initially produces a model made with a wire frame and casting plaster. Though her pieces could be labelled “sculptural”, Judith wouldn’t describe herself as an artist. “I would call myself a designer-maker, rather than an artist. I work very much on the borderline between art and craft.”

It’s important to her that the work expresses her views about life, the world and relationships, and says something about aspects of her personality. “Obviously people buying it probably won’t realise that!” she smiles. “But for me it’s important to have some sort of concept behind it. It doesn’t work for me for it just to be ‘pretty’, though obviously I hope they are nice!”

A common theme at the moment is strength and fragility, seen in a piece inspired by a friend with a son who was ill and spent a long time in Addenbrooke’s hospital. Thinking about the human propensity to automatically reply “I’m fine” when asked how we are – even if we’re in turmoil inside – Judith made a regular female torso to represent the facade we present to the world. Behind it was another female figure, made of metal that was bashed and distorted.

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Originally from the Wirral, Judith trained as a nurse in London, met husband-to-be John and came to East Anglia largely because of his work. They had a house in Norwich for a decade, then spent four years in Tunisia, on a primary health care-type development project. Their two oldest children were young then, while Judith was pregnant with their third.

“We made a lot of good friends and learned a huge amount about ourselves, and it was a fantastic way for our children to grow up. They had a huge amount of freedom; and Tunisians absolutely love children, so they were spoiled rotten.”

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The family returned to England about 11 years ago. Judith had home-schooled the kids in Tunisia and considered becoming a teacher here, but the shackled nature of the National Curriculum put her off.

“I thought that if I could teach the way I wanted to teach, I would do it tomorrow; but I didn’t want it to be so prescriptive, because I liked to use my imagination.” Instead, she worked as a community nurse.

John, a GP before the Tunisian adventure, had been inspired by the power of public health bodies to do huge amounts of good, and sought a role in that field. His work required him to be able to reach places such as Norwich, Cambridge and London, so they based themselves near Eye and it’s worked well.

Later, Judith had that moment of life reassessment and in 2005 headed for the classroom. It was a choice between studying art or human behaviour (she’d done a bit of psychology at night school and enjoyed it) and this time let her heart rule her head by opting for the art. She had long been interested in making things, and dug out some of her art O-level schoolwork to take to her interview at West Suffolk College!

Of course, following one’s dream often demands sacrifice; for Judith it meant a regular drive along the A140, A14 and A12 when she moved on to Colchester. To be reasonably sure of a parking space, she needed to be there between eight o’clock and 8.15am.

Was it difficult being a mature student-cum-mum?

“There was quite a lot of juggling, especially when I started, because they were that bit younger. But, since I’d been working, there were three families in the village and we’d always sort of shared each other’s childcare. One of them was a teacher, one did administrative-type work and I was a nurse. Somehow, between us, we managed for years to pick children up from school and drop them off. We had this fantastic system that just worked. We could phone each other up and say ‘I’m still on the A14’, and know they’d sort it out. So I did have good friends who supported me; and then I would have their children when they couldn’t.” The degree course developed technique and explored materials such as wood, metal and plastic, as well as ceramics. It went swimmingly, with Judith receiving the John Dan Award for Ceramics for her degree show. Mind you, she had her moments of rebellion, too . . .

There was the chance to work in bronze on one of her later college pieces and Judith pursued it a bit further than the authorities thought prudent. Inspired by the possibilities, she did some of her work at sculptor Laurence Edwards’ studio at Butley Mills, near Woodbridge, producing near-identical porcelain and bronze pieces from same mould. Shrinkage meant they were different in size – which, from an artistic point of view, is what she wanted.

“I did take quite a big risk, and my tutor wasn’t very pleased!” she smiles. “It cost me my ‘first’ by half a mark, which was very annoying, but for me it was far more important to have had that opportunity – and to get a good 2:1.

“Because I’d been working in porcelain, he wanted me to carry on. My argument was that I was using the same sort of system but just developing it that bit further. He thought I shouldn’t be doing that in my final semester. But it was either grab that opportunity and go with it, or miss it. And I thought ‘Hey, this is about me.’ I took a bit of a risk, but life’s about that, isn’t it?”

Anyway, she exhibited at the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s Designer Crafts at The Mall show in January and was awarded the Stephen Maer Prize as a promising designer-maker. She thinks she might have won it partly on the back of that bronze/porcelain method of working – “so it wasn’t so bad!”

So here she is now, taking the first steps as a professional craftsperson in the making.

John built a wall and ceiling to annex part of the double garage as a studio that will gradually be kitted out with the necessary (but expensive) equipment as finances allow. Judith has got a kiln and something called a blundger – a machine like a massive cake-mixer that swooshes around clay, water and a deflockulant. (It keeps the slurry in a form of suspension.)

A bit of quick thinking and good fortune has seen two unwanted old examination couches from a medical practice adapted to make work-benches!

Judith is now trying to balance her work as a nurse – maintaining accurate records to ensure she does enough hours to keep her registration active – with time in the studio. As well as Grand Designs Live, she’s got the Suffolk Craft Society exhibition/sale in Aldeburgh on the horizon and is exhibiting in a Southampton gallery. And then she needs to persuade other galleries that a piece or two of her work on the plinths are must-haves to tempt visitors through the doors.

She hopes to make a living from her new venture, eventually. Judith’s been accepted onto Suffolk Craft Society’s Making It programme that helps recent graduates make the jump between education and the market-place – which will prove useful.

Becoming a secondary-level teacher is still a vague possibility. “My daughter’s doing A-level art and I’ve really enjoyed seeing how she’s worked. She’s at a really creative school. Her knowledge has just rocketed and taken her out of her comfort zone, and I’ve found that really interesting.

“Art, if you take it further, isn’t about staying safe; it’s about stretching yourself. And she’s done that at A-level.”

Judith says John and their children – Daniel, 21, Abi, nearly 18, and Oli, 14 – have been incredibly supportive throughout.

“They’ve been wholeheartedly behind me. I couldn’t have done it without them. And it’s been a good example to them that ‘Hey, lifelong learning is there, so make the most of it. You can make things happen.’”

n Grand Designs Live: May 1-9, 10am–6pm; ExCeL London, Royal Victoria Dock. Box office 0844 581 0771.


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