It’s easy to miss the narrow alleyway that leads to Troy Town Art Pottery, running along the wall of Hoxton Street community garden in east London. The low building, which is filled with light that pours through a glass vaulted ceiling, used to be a potting shed. Its horticultural history is about to be revived. Artists have used this ceramics studio to produce work shown at Tate Britain, the Turner Prize and in the Arts Council collection, but now it is also a school where young local people learn to throw garden pots.
Troy Town was founded by the artist Aaron Angell in 2014 as a resource for artists wanting to experiment with clay as a material for sculpture – rather than as something to make teapots with. Names such as Anthea Hamilton and Steven Claydon have been resident at Troy Town. Angell is part of the growing generation of artists fascinated by clay and his work has been shown all over the world in recent years as collectors and museum curators have woken up to the pleasure of pottery.
But Angell wanted to involve the local population as well as the wider artistic community in his pottery. The result is the Hoxton Gardenware scheme, a not-for-profit social enterprise scheme for Hackney residents aged 18-24 who want to learn to throw a pot. “We’ve tried to appeal to people who might not feel that this industry is for them,” says Angell.
Using a wheel in the studio. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Observer
The scheme launched five months ago and has six trainees taught by ceramicist Ned Davies. “We started with a series of workshops, but decided we wanted to do something more commercial,” says Angell. “Ceramics is a craft which you can learn relatively quickly and then, in a few years, set up a self-sustaining enterprise.”
“I’ve learned so much,” says Elliot Anderson, a 23-year-old who is one of the trainees at Troy Town “I arrived a beginner and I’m slowly getting there. I’ve learned to be patient with the process and to enjoy the mistakes.”
Clay planters, imprinted with the shapes of leaves or flowers, and pots are produced on the wheel in small batches. Natural imperfections – random wobbles, the drip of a fugitive glaze – are encouraged. “We take a studio approach to the work, which makes it different from mass-produced garden pots.”
The scheme is co-founded with Create London, an organisation that works with artists on projects that benefit local communities through charities, social enterprise and cultural spaces.
“I think that supporting young people to learn practical skills and work together is pretty much the most important thing I can think of right now,” says Hadrian Garrard, chief executive of Create. “There’s an amazing spirit of collective endeavour at the pottery.”
Tools of the trade. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Observer
Hoxton Gardenware already has commissions – for the British Council’s new HQ in Stratford and the conservatory at the Barbican. Plans for pots to go on sale in local shops and at Broadway Market have been put on hold, like pretty much all of life during the coronavirus pandemic. But existing and online orders are being delivered.
“We hope that by arranging contact-free delivery and collection we can help people get on with their gardening at home during this strange spring,” says Angell. “That’s a nice transfer from the work of people making pots to something that can entertain people at home.”
As Garrard points out, the pots do more than please their new owners. “Our priority is to get some money into the hands of the young people who have been working on the project and to support the pottery at this really uncertain time. We have to keep going where we can because we all want to look forward to the future with hope and positivity. There’s nothing quite as hopeful as a young plant growing in a beautiful new pot on a sunny day, is there?”