15 Days in Clay – as featured in Dorset Life Magazine

An interview for Dorset Life , Janna was approached by the magazine to do an article on 15 days in clay and her ceramic career, the feature is in the October 2022 edition.

Feat of clay

Nick Churchill has been to meet ceramic artist Janna Edwards

CLAY -it has fired her imagination all her adult life, and ceramicist Janna Edwards remains endlessly fascinated, challenged and inspired by it. For her it’s the stuff of life, as indeed it may be for us all if, as some claim, life on Earth began in the sticky stuff.

From her studio at Livability Holton Lee, the idyllic 350-acre discovery centre on the shores of Poole Harbour, Janna has for almost twenty years overseen the uniquely inspirational 15 Days In Clay project she conceived in 2003 to give adults with learning or additional needs the opportunity to explore their creativity and become artists in their own right. Of the original eight participants, five are still involved. All the artists-to Janna they’re ‘the guys’ -have gone on to exhibit work across the country, many have undertaken commissions and several have donated works to charities to raise money.

The group’s work has been seen in a series of exhibitions throughout the region and last year its installation, ‘The Gathering’, came second in the ArtWorks Together International Learning Disability and Autism Competition. The work – fifteen ceramic figures each about five feet tall and made in three sections – so impressed organisers of the finalists’ exhibition at the prestigious Wentworth Woodhouse stately home in South Yorkshire that it now lives there in permanent residence.

One of a collection of ‘Bat Boxes’ made by 15 days in clay and mounted on a wall the of the Old farmhouse at Holten Lee

‘That was the recognition the guys always deserved 15 Days in Clay is al I about them and what they can do, so to have that appreciation is massive,’ says Janna, sidestepping her own part in the success. The group is now working towards a twentieth anniversary exhibition at Durlston Country Park’s Fine Foundation Gallery from 37 March to 20 April next year.

‘The exhibition is now based around sowing seeds, me planting the seed of  15 Days and the seeds that have grown through those attending,’ says Janna. ‘The figurative sculptures will incorporate messages and questions that ask the viewer to respond, planting new seeds of thought by connecting with the audience. The sculptures will also become a natural habitat for wildlife, creating new life, the seeds of hope.’

Lockdown had a profound effect on Janna and her work. On one level, everything stopped and she could only meet the artists online, but it gave her time and space in which to re-invigorate her own practice. She found herself exploring clay and its possibilities with    a much more consciously personal approach, completing a Covid-related ‘thought head’. This was started in the first of a series of workshops (interrupted by Covid) at Dorset Museum that were inspired by its collection of Elizabeth Frink works.

‘I found it incredibly cathartic, quite liberating and emotional,’ recalls Janna. ‘It’s very raw and deeply personal, a bit shocking, but these were my feelings and my responses.

In lockdown some of the 15 Days guys also made heads and stayed in touch online, then as soon as we were able to meet again under restrictions, I re-started the workshops. The heads feature some beautiful ways of expressing profound emotions- one of the guys wrote about feeling like they were walking on a pane of glass.’

The heads went on show at Dorset Museum late last year in the exhibition called ‘My Creative Life’ and, like recent 15 Days In Clay installations, ‘Talking Heads’ (2015), ‘Oak Tree Gathering’

(2017) and ‘The Gathering’ (2019), marked another huge step forward.

‘Place is important and I don’t think their work could have been made anywhere other than Holton Lee. It’s such a beautiful place. But also it’s because the guys are so incredibly supportive of each other – there’s no judgement, you are what you are, which is why, now that the group is open to anyone who wants to come and work with clay, I’ve always insisted we are not dividing the group up, it’s everyone in the same pot.’

One of the figures from the ‘Gathering’ a remarkable collection unvailed by 15 days in clay in 2019 as ‘The Tribe’ but now renamed and living in Yorkshire.

Janna Edwards, founder of 15 days in clay at work.

lnclusivity is a big thing for Janna, strangely perhaps considering that she grew up in rural Cambridgeshire and always felt a bit of an outsider. Not a natural student, she found her way onto an art foundation course and went on to study ceramics and sculpture. Her degree show went to the celebrated Art In Clay showcase, where she sold out on the first day, made a string of contacts and applied for a Prince’s Trust loan that enabled her to make ceramic artworks for the burgeoning gardens market. Business boomed until she turned down a lucrative offer to sell her designs. ‘I didn’t want to sell my soul and be mass produced’ – before discovering a vocation to work with adults with learning disabilities.

‘I moved to Dorset around 2000 and did care work because I wanted to learn more about adults with additional needs and needed a better understanding of their lives to help me teach. Then I got a job with Poole Adult Learning, was offered space at Holton Lee and got funding for a day a week for fifteen weeks – hence 15 Days in Clay. Essentially, I came straight out of college and into business and didn’t stop until the pandemic struck in 2020, 26 years later.’

In lockdown, Janna was invited to be a keynote speaker at an international online symposium celebrating the centenary of the influential Leach Pottery in St Ives. ‘It was terrifying, but it reinforced how 15 Days in Clay has made its mark. It isn’t art therapy and I’m not an art therapist, it’s a way of enabling others to establish themselves as artists. The benefits – to cognition, mental health and wellbeing -are a by-product. I’ve worked a lot with groups of people with dementia and it’s amazing what the clay will unlock. My father had a stroke a few years ago and I moved him to Dorset so that I could take care of him. He came to 15 Days and, having lost his left side, through working with clay he got most of it back. Then he got vascular dementia and again working with clay really helped – it’s good physical exercise, it occupies the hands and the mind. I’ve also worked with the spinal injury unit at Holton Lee and the occupational therapists and physios there have validated what I’ve found about the healing properties of clay. I would love to secure funding to research this field further with medical professionals as well as artists.’

Talking heads in which 15 days in clay artists created self portraits to show how they see themselves and how others might view them.

Now that 15 Days is established in its own right, Janna’s own practice is enjoying a new lease of life. ‘All this time with 15 Days I’ve been involved in work that I want to do without ever having to worry about the need to sell it and until I made the head, I hadn’t had to reach inside myself to make work. Now, though, I find I’m dealing with grief, trauma, death, all kinds of stuff, and putting it all in the clay. I did a reiki course and wondered if I could channel reiki in the clay-and it turns out you can, so I’m exploring that now as well. It all goes in the clay.’

15 Days In Clay meets on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays from 10.30 to 2..20 and is open to everyone. Janna also runs monthly/weekend clay wellness classes

Artist Kirsty Massarella at work.

The oak tree gathering installation at Holten Lee, a collection of 19 totems. As featured in Katherine Bebo’s book 111 places in Poole that you shouldn’t miss.

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