Making something beautiful from lives touched by horror

Radio producer-turned ceramic artist Hilary Mayo is staging her first solo exhibition in Suffolk. She tells Sheena Grant what inspired her work

Hilary Mayo is sitting in the bar at The Anchor in Walberswick, sipping tea. On the seat beside her is an ordinary looking cardboard box. But its contents are far from ordinary. They are some of her most prized possessions, which, in many ways, have been a lifetime in the making.

We’ve been chatting about these items and how they came into being for the best part of an hour - and now is the time to reveal them.

Hilary, who is married to Radio 2 Drivetime presenter Simon Mayo, reaches into the box and carefully removes the first delicate piece from its protective bubble-wrap casing.

It’s a fine porcelain paper clay vessel, irregularly shaped with a little imperfection on one thin edge, where the clay split as she shaped it. Its pristine, creamy white surface contrasts sharply with the rusty old nail skewered into the side, where the edges overlap.

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There are more pots inside the box, some textured, others smooth, along with oversized spoons with thin wire handles and cracked, dribbled glazes. All echo the theme of home. Not a cosy, loving home. A fractured, unsettling, distorted version of what home should be.

The pieces in the box, carried so carefully by Hilary from her home in the Walberswick area, were all inspired by the street children she met on two visits to Durban, South Africa, in 2007 and 2010. The lives of these children, some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and the shanty towns from which they ran away, could not contrast more with the coastal idyll of Walberswick, where Hilary’s ceramics are to go on show from today.

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All the highly distinctive pieces that make up what is her first solo exhibition – at Tinkers on the Green – are on the same theme. Some were made around the time of her graduation from a two-year ceramics course at London’s City Lit, in 2011. Others have been created specially for the Suffolk exhibition.

Her new life as a ceramics artist is a big departure from her earlier career as a radio producer but represents the fulfilment of an interest she has nurtured since childhood.

“I started doing pottery when I was 13,” she says. “It was the only way I could get out of needlework at school. I just seemed to take to it and I’ve been doing it off and on ever since. It’s been my passion for a long time.”

Hilary gave up her radio career to have a family – she has three children aged 12, 18 and 21 – and for years looked for something to replace it that she could fit around family life.

“I did go back to producing for a while but I just couldn’t juggle the demands of the job with being there for the children,” she says. “I realised the reasons I had to stop were never going to change – the hours were too long for family life. I tried a couple of other things but they were not me and then I found this degree level course at the City Lit.”

The course, which she describes as the most intensive two years of her life, helped unlock the artistic ambitions she had harboured for so long. And the fact that it coincided with the period of her visits to South Africa, which had a profound effect on her, has allowed her to produce a unique collection of beautiful work that conveys all the poignancy and emotion of street children’s lives.

“Sarah Lawrence (who runs Tinkers) approached me after my graduation show and asked me to do the exhibition,” she says. “The street children are close to her heart as well.”

The Mayo family went to Durban through Umthombo, an organisation which campaigns to change the way street children are perceived and help them get off the streets. Some of the profits from exhibition sales will go towards its work.

Hilary seems to be one of life’s good people. She’s smiley, engaging company and appears to be genuinely interested in others. But when the conversation turns to her experiences in South Africa she becomes more serious.

“We had supported the charity since its inception and felt that it would be good to go and see for ourselves what they did,” she says. “We also felt it was important for our own children to experience things like this so we went as a family with some other families. We were one of the first groups to go but now they do a lot of these visits.

“They also took us to the shanty towns the children had run away from. When you see these homes you understand a bit more about why they have run away. They live in such poverty, in shacks made out of rubbish, and they have few facilities.

“Some of the women there (in the shanty towns) are amazing and a lot of families are loving and caring. That was illustrated by the washing lines we saw hanging with beautifully white shirts. I would struggle to keep shirts that white. But there is also a big alcohol problem, drug problems and Aids. Many of the street children are Aids orphans or have run away from abuse or alcoholic parents.

“There were some awful stories. One of the girls I met was called Patience. A lot of the girls, when they move to the streets, end up being raped and get pregnant. She was found living in a park and was in a terrible state. She had had a baby and couldn’t look after it so ended up selling the baby to a couple in the park for 50 rand, which is the price of a cup of coffee and a muffin.

“When I met her she had been with the project for a few years and had discovered that singing was something she could do and through music therapy she had started to get her confidence back. She was desperate to find her baby. I don’t know if she ever did.”

Hilary returned to Durban in 2010 for the first Street Child World Cup, a global campaign for street children to receive the protection and opportunities that all children deserve.

“Among the children there were some from Ukraine who had been living in heating pipes under the city to keep warm,” she says. “They had never seen sea before. I did some art workshops and it was amazing to see the transformation in them.

“The Street Child World Cup will now take place before each World Cup. The next one will be in Brazil in 2014. It is lovely to see the children from different countries all bonding. The language of football is something they all understand. This is something that needs to be higher up the agenda everywhere. No child should have to live on the streets. As a mother I feel that very deeply.

“When I went to South Africa in 2010 I was in the middle of my ceramics course and when I came back I thought, I can’t just sit here and talk about pretty things with no reason, so I developed this strong narrative inspired by the street children. What I wanted to do was to make something beautiful out of the horrors of their experiences really; something beautiful and fragile to reflect their fragile, broken lives.”

Some of the early pieces she did have splashes of bright colour, to reflect the brilliant smiles of the people she met in South Africa.

Wire is used a lot throughout, and again, that is very symbolic.

“Children who live on the streets are forced to live adult lives,” she says. “But they would get hold of wire and make toys out of it. I’ve got a photo of two boys pulling along a car made out of wire. So wire has become a recurrent theme for me and is very poignant.”

Her work inspired by the street children has become more abstract over time but linking it all is the symbolism of the homes and family life they don’t have.

Hand-built stoneware vessels begin as domestic forms; jugs, pots and pans. The fineness of the rims and the remaining fragments of broken handles reflect fragile, broken lives. The thin slabs wrap around and overlap the way a mother’s arms embrace her child, suggesting longed for love and security.

Graffitied faces adorn walls, some clearly visible, others have to be searched for - like street children who are mostly invisible to the passer-by. Corrugations and dribbles of cracked, peeling glaze reflect the landscape of the streets and shanty towns these children have run away from.

Oversized teacups and spoons with delicate wire handles and cracked, dribbled glazes also echo the theme of home.

“The idea with the broken handles is that they are not strong enough to support the weight of the tea cup, representing the lack of love and security these children have,” she says.

The corrugated textures on the fine porcelain vessels represent the textures from the streets and shanty towns of Durban but the nails skewered through them actually come from closer to home: they were given to her by Walberswick resident Philip Kett.

“I like the juxtaposition of the nail with the porcelain,” she says.

Creating each piece inspired by the street children was a process of letting go for Hilary, whose natural inclinations are towards perfectionism in her work.

“Because of the nature of these pieces you’ve got to go with the flow of what happens as you work and that was quite difficult for me at first,” she says. “The street children’s lives are not about order and perfection.”

Although the opportunity to retrain as a ceramicist is the realisation of a lifetime’s ambition, she admits that for years she was nervous about taking the plunge and turning her hobby into something more serious.

“I suppose I thought that it might take the pleasure out of it and was worried about failing. I was scared to take that first step but it got to the point where I just thought, if you don’t try it you won’t know. You don’t want to get to the end of your life and never to have tried. Life is too short. In the end I thought, if I do it and fail at least I will have had a go.”

Her fears could not have been more ill-founded. She sold out her graduation show and came away with a commission to boot.

And she is delighted her first solo exhibition is in Suffolk, where she and her family have had a home for more than a decade.

Although the pieces she will be showing speak of lives and places far removed from this part of the world, there are similarities that are not lost on Hilary: the peeling paint on some of the old coastal huts and boats in Suffolk, for instance, could easily inspire the same finishes she has used on her South African work.

She is already developing new areas of work, away from the street children theme, for the future.

“You can’t change your style but a narrative for me seems to be important. I’ve got lots of ideas.”

n Hilary Mayo’s exhibition at Tinkers, the Green, Walberswick, runs from August 4 until August 18.

n For more information about her work visit To find out more about the Umthombo and the Street Child World Cup visit and

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