Meet Carolyn Tripp
It was an email from photographer Yeshen Venema that led me to ceramicist Carolyn Tripp’s work. Yeshen is the go-to photographer for UK makers and I always like to catch up with his news. Among the lovely new images he shared were some spectacularly beautiful ceramic vessels, with impossibly long, slim necks, intricate surface patterns and joyful bursts of colour. I had to find out more and that’s when I found myself browsing Carolyn Tripp’s website. Carolyn’s work is exquisite and, as I read more about her, I realised that she is also definitely a woman after my own heart. She works with adults recovering from mental health issues and believes passionately in the healing power of creativity.
I wanted to know more – and to share my discovery with you too. So I emailed Carolyn to ask if she might like to share her thoughts, ideas and inspirations with us. I love that she wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter when she was little, that throwing pottery at her wheel helped her process grief around the loss of her mother and oldest friend… and that she helps people to find their creative wings as a way to combat mental health issues. As I said, definitely a woman after my own heart. Hope you love discovering Carolyn Tripp as much as I did!
Can you describe your work to us a little and give us some background?
I wasn’t always a ceramicist. I started my working life in advertising and tried all sorts of things along the way, including being a scuba diver. At school I was deemed academic and steered away from the creative subjects I loved.
Frustrated, aged 30, I set about evening classes in ceramics and stained glass and realised that it was having a creative outlet, rather than financial reward that made me happy. That led to an A level equivalent in art which in turn led to a ceramics degree in the mid 1990’s and, ever since, clay has been a part of my life.
For the last 18 years I have taught ceramics in a mental health setting and maintained my own practice. In the last five years I have embarked on a range of thrown work, inspired initially by a small Chinese bottle gifted to me as a child by a well-travelled Great Uncle.
Today I find my inspiration in everyday life. I am intrigued by connection, to the past and to each other. Recurring themes in my work include love and loss.
Which part of your creative process do you love most?
The throwing is perhaps my favourite as it engages both my mind and body and I can happily loose hours at the wheel. I used to hate turning (the process by which you refine the freshly thrown piece once it is leather hard) but with practice I have learnt to love it as its when the shape of the finished piece emerges. You finally see the vision you have held in your head.
Which of your designs do you love best and why?
I love throwing and decorating bottles with thin necks. Just getting the clay to go from a wide cylinder to a very narrow one is always a challenge and a thrill!
Which parts of your process do you find most difficult or challenging?
Each piece takes about 6-8 weeks to make as there are stages when it has to dry completely before moving onto the next and I have to make enough to justify each kiln firing. So, it’s sometimes hard as I work very long hours and have little to show for it until quite a while later. Mind you, when the glaze kiln is finally ready to open I’m then bombarded with work which can be just as much of a challenge in its own way!
Why is mental health such an important issue for you?
In my life I have been aware of mental health since my childhood.
My paternal Grandmother Peggy, due to a close bereavement, devoted her life to helping people leaving hospital after a stay for mental health. She set up a series of group homes in Lewes, Sussex and was eventually rewarded with an MBE. As an adult I’ve experienced mental health issues myself, particularly anxiety and I am aware of so many people who have also been troubled. I started working with adults in recovery from mental health illness about 18 years ago, using ceramics as a catalyst to aid recovery. This formed into the social enterprise Studio 306 Collective, based in Wood Green, North London. Over the years I have witnessed many people receive help and relief through the medium of clay.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do in this area and why you do it?
At the studio we offer a short course of classes as an introduction to a new creative area. We work in silver jewellery, sewing and screen printing alongside ceramics. After learning the skills, students are offered the opportunity to become members of the studio. As the ceramics tutor I guide the makers to make products that we sell to help fund more courses. For each hour a maker spends making our products they earn an hour in the studio to work on their own ideas. It’s wonderful to watch people progressing. It’s a fun, stress free and social setting, safe for those that may be feeling anxious or unwell.
How has creativity benefitted your own mental health?
When I lost my mum after a long illness and a year later my oldest friend, I found that it was my wheel and making that gave me sanctuary to process my grief. I had spent a great deal of time looking after them both and when they died, I found I had a lot of time on my hands. Both of them had believed in me and the creative work that was emerging from my hands.
In fact, my mum gifted me my wheel. It arrived four days before she died, and I was able to tell her it was here. Her last words to me were that she wanted to have a go on it. I didn’t sit down and use it until after her funeral when I felt ready, but I think of her each time I do and feel that she is spurring me on. I found that I was keeping my promises to both Mum (above, right) and Debbie (above, left) to invest in myself and my work, and I was able to find a space where I was free of sadness and deep thought.
How have you seen creativity benefit the mental health of others?
Through my work I’ve witnessed people able to slow down and sit and concentrate when they think that will be the last thing they will be able to do. Often, medication for mental health issues can affect concentration and those that hear voices find it difficult to concentrate. The peace that comes through creative work can bring a respite and its always wonderful to witness. I still remember the feeling of satisfaction and achievement that I had when I first made something, and I always take the time to point out achievements no matter how small with my students.
Do you have any simple tips for anyone wanting to improve their mental health through creativity?
I think it would be just to start something, don’t be put off by thinking something is difficult, skills take time. There are loads of great You Tube tutorials out there that give a good indication of what’s involved in a creative process so that’s a good place to start. I’d also say, reach out to a maker whose work inspires you – they may be able to give you tips on how to start. Finally visit open studios and art events and engage with makers to work out what inspires you.
Are there creative activities or processes that might help someone suffering with anxiety?
You might start with a simple pen and paper and doodle. It’s amazing how quickly a doodle on a doodle can create quite an interesting picture. Or, tear magazines, look for pictures or colours you like and glue them down – I’m a firm believer that we can all draw and create, and you shouldn’t let the pressure to make something perfect from stopping you from starting.
Are there any inspirational quotes you might like to share with us?
I have two. The first is “Connect, Connect, Connect “by EM Forster – the importance of human connection cannot be exaggerated.
And the other is my computer screen saver:
I have no idea where I came across it, but it’s about confidence in being who we are. It’s a reminder to make sure that I fly every day and look out for others who should be soaring too but might be weighed down.
What are you reading/watching/listening to right now and what are your thoughts?
I’ve just finished a wonderful book called Between Two Kingdoms by an American Author Suleika Jaouad. She was diagnosed with leukaemia in her late teens and the book tells her story. She is inspirational and a great reminder to live life to the full each day. I attend an online book club with 3 friends, and we all gave it 10/10.
Also, I listen to a lot of podcasts, Joe Wicks, How to Fail and How did we get here, amongst them.
I also listen to The Archers every evening (I grew up in one of the villages it’s based on, so it reminds me of that time with the accents and farming talk!)
If you weren’t a maker, what would you be?
That’s a hard question but I have always loved television and production, so I’d like to think of myself working somewhere in that field. My daughter is an actor, so I get the chance to visit sets and I love the buzz and appreciate the hard work that everyone puts in. I’d be firmly behind the camera though!
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Two things :
A mounted policewoman – I think I was looking for a way to have horses, rather than the police in my life!
Or a Blue Peter Presenter – as I said I loved to make!
What motivates you and gets you out of bed in the morning?
Usually my dog who has taught me that a long morning walk makes us bother happier.
If you could share just one lesson or piece of advice what would it be?
Don’t stay too long doing something that doesn’t bring you joy. Don’t wait for everything to be right to change things , make small changes and opportunity will present itself.
Any resources you would like to share that might be useful?
For interest in ceramics there are many makers offering lots of great tutorials on You Tube.
For mental health , which thankfully is a far more acceptable discussion point than it ever has been, seek help through your GP. To help someone else, there are fantastic mental health first aid courses available through https://mhfaengland.org. I have attended several over the years and think that they should be taught in schools alongside physical first aid courses!
Find Carolyn Tripp in the Ceramics made in UK section of our Directory.
Find our more about Carolyn Tripp’s work on the Carolyn Tripp website
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