Suffolk & Norfolk Life

Leah at work

Leah at work

This is an article from Suffolk & Norfolk Life (December 2004).
Article & photo copyright Natalie Wheatley 2005.

Leah Hinks works with porcelain and her hands. Her jewellery, dishes, spoons, bowls and little salt containers are unusual and beautiful. They are made to be used, and are not just for ornamentation. They can be personalised with names and make good christening, wedding or other gifts. The dishes and bowls have an air of fragility. They are paper thin, curled at the edges, thoughtfully made and fired. Not one piece ever turns out like another one and, after the third firing, the opening of the kiln always produces surprises. Colours are not quite as envisaged, outlines a little different, lustre at a different depth – but each a work of very special art and a piece to treasure. Leah makes her own glazes and always adds a touch of lustre. Lustre is fiendishly expensive, over £80 of pungent liquid in a teeny bottle, but it gives a special jewel-like effect.

She is a Scandinavian beauty; her mother came from Alesund, north of Bergen, on the fjord coast of Norway, and her father from England. Her childhood holidays were spent in a cottage on the North Norfolk coast at Hindringham. It was here, and other places, that Leah discovered the sea.
“I love the movement of waves, the meeting of ocean and sky, formation of shells, crunchiness of sand, the shimmer of light, and ripples,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “I love everything to do with natural shape, form, colour and creation. I particularly like spirals, swirling water, rock pools, the unfurling of nature, flowers opening, and soft green ferns greeting the spring.”
Recently she was in Umbria in Central Italy, and was very inspired by the soft landscapes, warm colours and the ornate churches encrusted in gold.

She gained a Degree in Ceramics at Wimbledon and then moved on to study a BA Hons at the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education in Cardiff. Carefully chosen because of its excellent tutors – memorably Mick Casson and Geoff Swindale. After graduating she set up on her own in Pembrokeshire in a place called Mynachlogddu, a little village on the edge of the Blue Hills near Prescilly. Wales gives great support to local artists, and Leah benefited from this assistance and has never looked back. Through exhibitions and networking, she has operated all over the country and been continually busy – doing as much as she can cope with. Originally she threw and made pots. They had wacky lids and colours reminiscent of the Pembrokeshire coast.

After a spell in London, she moved to Bury St Edmunds and joined the Suffolk Crafts Society supplying material for two exhibitions a year. She then married and moved to Great Bealings, near Woodbridge. Because of the change in her lifestyle, her designs have become more definitive and smaller, with an emphasis on jewel-like ware, subtle colours, and quirky shapes. She likes to see her work as exciting, having a sense of humour, a sense of movement with interesting colours. Leah is a quietly efficient, talented ceramacist.

Despite a busy life, with a husband and three children, she manages to put in many hours each day in her peaceful studio. It is companionable because her husband works mainly from his adjoining office. This is a quiet haven in their orchard garden, chickens clucking in and out, cats lolling in the sunshine, autumn leaves falling and winds blowing. She has lots of space and often forgets to have lunch, she is so busy fashioning and forming shapes in Limoges porcelain, which she purchases by the bag from Staffordshire.

The porcelain mixture comprises of china clay, potash, feldspar, ball clay and quartz. It is the toughest of all clays but can produce the thinnest objects. Leah loves the translucent quality, the delicacy and the strength. It comes in paste form, a sort of cross between pastry and plasticine, and soon turns dry and grainy, crumbly and ‘short’. It has to be worked quickly or it loses its flexibility. Using a wooden pin, she rolls it on to a plaster batt, on to which she has made some relief shapes, perhaps a star, a leaf, a butterfly, a heart. She presses the flattened porcelain on to the reliefs and then, as whimsy takes her, uses other textures to make patterns on the porcelain. They could be the imprints of metal, studs, cloth, rope, and even screws. They create all sorts of decorative patterns, which build up the form in delicate layers – like a shell. She has to work fast so that the raw porcelain does not lose its pleasant squidginess. At this stage it is very fragile and has to be handled with great care. She takes several days creating new pieces and, when she has enough, she fires them in a big electric kiln, with the jewellery in a smaller kiln. There are three firings – biscuit, glaze and lustre. The biscuit fires at 1000°C and comes out looking dry, porous and pale – also shrunk. At this stage, she dilutes powdered stains made of oxides and applies them with a brush like water, and then applies glazes. The pieces are fired up to 1260°C – a five-hour job where the porcelain becomes white hot, taking a minimum of 12 to 15 hours to cool and handle. Touches of lustre then complete the process and the finished articles are fired quickly at 750°C.

The jewellery is particularly light and pretty, but fiddly to make and time-consuming. Leah shows it off by wearing a different necklace and earrings every day. She makes her own sterling silver hooks for the earrings, and strings the porcelain necklaces with beads. Each piece is so inimitable and personal, and the colours are lovely. Her prices, for the amount of time and effort entailed, are very fair.

Leah Hinks is a member of the Open Studios scheme and had excellent sales during the warm summer months. Her studio was open in November, and she is happy to show her work to anyone wishing to telephone and make an appointment. Some of her porcelain, particularly jewellery, can be seen at the Taplin Gallery in Woodbridge.

© Natalie Wheatley 2005