The aim of Absolute Beginners is to help young people learn how to produce basic goods in radically sustainable ways. And as basic goods go, this as simple as it gets – something to drink with.
Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, with clay cups having been around since 18,000 BCE.
It’s also the most local of the products we made, as the material came from the ground beneath Park Royal itself – London Clay. Park Royal used to have many different clay pits and brick works, where London Clay was dug, worked and used in the same place.
(In truth our clay is from a little further away – it’s from the tunnels being dug for HS2 in the area – but the idea is the same.)
The workshops were led by the amazing Cam Biddell. The Beginners were Emmanuel, Herbie, Kairie, Nafisa and Zala.
Cam began by showing our Beginners how to process the raw clay into something usable. We’d had it soaking in buckets for a few days, in which time it had gone soft and squidgy. Cam showed us how to push this stuff through a sieve, to get pure liquid clay out of the other side.
This liquid clay is then poured onto plaster bats. This bit was pretty dramatic (and messy). It’s then left to dry for 3 or 4 days.
We started the next session with the clay looking like this:
Cam showed the youth how to ‘wedge’ the clay – kneading it to get rid of any air bubbles – and then form it into simple pinch pots, with the finger and thumb. An idea and a technology going back thousands of years. No potter’s wheels please, we’re low tech.
(It took a while to get this. Everyone went at a different pace. Cam Jarvis, who was leading on working with and taking care of the youth, kept reminding everyone: it’s not a test, it doesn’t have to be perfect.)
We experimented with different ways of decorating the cups (Herbie added a face to his), and different sizes.
After considering the giant cereal bowl option, the young people settled on two products: small and medium, both undecorated.
In the third workshop, we built a wood-fired brick kiln in the studio. This was something Cam herself had never done before, and the plan we were working from was pretty vague.
The young people were amazing – improvising, suggesting, marking, sawing and problem solving as we went along.
As with all of our products, the aim is to keep it as low-tech as possible. The kiln is made of bricks. The fuel is wooden off-cuts sourced from the streets. The bricks were special kiln bricks – as light as a feather. Would it work with with common or garden house bricks? Possibly.
(It would have been easier to use an electric kiln of course – there are plenty of kilns in Park Royal’s art studios – but the whole point is to do it in a way that might be possible in a local, low-tech, non-global economy. Where would you get the parts for an electric kiln if it breaks in this future? Amazon?)
Once we’d finished, it was time to get on the production line. And we had to brand them too.
For the final workshop, it was time to fire it. The good people at Queensrollahouse let us re-build the final thing in the alleyway next to their building (the risk assessment was off the charts).
We stacked the cups inside, and put the roof on.
And then we lit it.
We fired it over an entire day, trying to get to the mythical 1000 degrees celsius which would fire the cups, and make them hold water. We used an electric fan to increase air-flow, to get it hotter (hence only 99% off-grid) – but only after we’d destroyed a pair of bellows and used a lot of muscle power first.
By the end, flames were shooting out of the chimney and the thermometer gave up the ghost, somewhere around 900 degrees. It was dramatic.
We left the kiln to cool overnight. The next day, we opened it. We lost half the cups in the firing. These are the ones that made it.
Strange, rough, peachy-pink pots, ancient looking, out-of-time. They hold water, but aren’t ‘vitrified’ – we’d need an electric kiln for that, to get to higher temperatures – so over time the water will seep through.
These Bronze Age pots are as good as it gets with off-grid technology. We managed 40 in the end over two firings. True, they’re hardly a replacement for the £2 Ikea Mug. But they do hold water – and they’re extremely beautiful.
The Beginners have made drinking cups, using simple tools and off-grid power, from the clay in the ground beneath their feet.
BEGINNERS CUPS are
→ 100% LOCALLY SOURCED
→ 100% HANDMADE
→ 99% OFF-GRID
Use for: chai tea, very-high-end disposable cups, emergency beakers, or pen pots.
BEGINNERS CUPS were named by Kairie Woodstock-Case.
Workshop Leader → Camille Biddell.
Absolute Beginners → Emmanuel, Herbie, Kairie, Nafisa and Zala.
Youth Engagement → Cam Jarvis.
Date → July 2021