As the light of the day begins to dwindle, Lucy Rutter completes her habitual walk in the Kent marshland surrounding her ceramics studio. For Lucy, this daily practice invites the landscape into her space and flows through each clay form she brings to life. Nell Card follows Lucy along the circular, rush-filled path to discuss how her background in literature and poetry turned to pottery.
There is a stillness and simplicity to Lucy Rutter's hand-thrown ceramics. Dipped in pale, faintly luminous glazes through which gritty specks of clay can still be seen, each piece is unequivocally functional. And yet perched on a table or draining board the taut, tapering lines and arched handles of her vessels look alert, as though the clay still holds some of the energy that went into its making.
Rutter's studio is in Faversham, a market town she has lived in for almost 25 years. Faversham is bisected by a creek that is fed by the Swale, a tidal estuary separating mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. The surrounding marshes are riddled with rushes and wild grasses. Flat, minimal and mercurial, this is the landscape Rutter immerses herself in each day. “My studio is a very inward space,” she says as we commence a circular walk of the marshes. “The views are quite limited, so I have to get out here every day. Somehow, the landscape comes back with me into the studio and into the work.”
Rutter learnt to throw in her twenties whilst studying for a degree in English Literature. For years, she collected affordable pieces of Leach Standard Ware and second-hand books on ceramics, practising at the wheel as and when she could. She later studied a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University before pursuing a career in education. “I loved my job but it was completely demanding,” she admits.
At the age of 43 Rutter took a sabbatical with the intention of writing a book of poetry. At the same time, she moved with her husband, Guy, to their current live-work space. “I really believe that, when you're trying to do something creative, it's not about squeezing in half an hour at the beginning or end of the day,” Rutter asserts. “You have to make space and time for things, physically and mentally.” Suddenly, Rutter had the time and the space to refocus her career.
The book of poetry became a range of pottery. For Rutter, the two are not dissimilar. “I've always been interested in form,” she explains as we walk along the edge of green-gold rape field that is ready to harvest. She references the American poet, William Carlos Williams, for whom a poem was comparable to a small (or large) machine made of words. In the same way that his poems are taut and functional, so too are Rutter's minimal vessels. “When I'm looking at the shape of a mug, or the way a lid works, it has to be beautiful and it has to be functional. It's really hard work,” she concedes. “Like writing, you have to sit down and push away at it every single day for a long time.”
Rutter expanded her knowledge of glazes at Morley College, but it was during an intensive course at the prestigious Leach Pottery in St Ives where it all came together. That said, she is a committed, life-long learner. “One of the things that's really lovely about clay,” she says as we pass a bank of rushes alive with croaking frogs, “is that it's incredibly generous. And repeat throwing is a very generous process in that you learn something every single time you make a piece. You start off with a form and, once you've made 400 of that form, you will have slightly refined it. That's what I find really fascinating about the process: the fact that you can never get to the end of it.”
Our walk ends at Rutter's studio, a Victorian building on a residential street that was once a bottling factory before becoming an electrical repair shop during the second world war. When Rutter moved in, it was being used by a carpenter who made conductors' batons. “There's a kind of magic in the history of the place,” she says. “It's as though there are these signals coming through in the water, the wireless, the music ...”
For Rutter who is quick to admit that her craft is first and foremost a science there is something in this idea of signal carrying. “I listen to audiobooks or the radio when I'm throwing,” she explains, “and I often have this profound feeling that, once the piece is finished, those words or sounds remain in the piece.”
Captured in the soft clay, vitrified in the kiln, the moment of the making stays with each object. “I hope that by the time I pass them on, those noises will have quietened down a little and that the piece will begin to take on the noises of the person who is using it.”
Words by Nell Card.
Images by Roo Lewis.