Firing Up exhibition at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

An exhibition of ceramic artwork made by students from several local secondary schools as part of the Crafts Council’s Firing Up scheme is currently on display in Museum Street at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens (SMWG).  Firing Up is a national programme which aims to reinvigorate the teaching of ceramics in secondary schools. The project links schools with local university ceramics departments in order to create a sustainable infrastructure for skills exchange and education. The North East cluster was co-ordinated by Dr Andrew Livingstone, subject leader for ceramics at the University of Sunderland and leader of CARCuos, the Ceramic Arts Research Centre at the same institution.

Andrew also led ceramics workshops with staff and students at Wellfield Community School, while Robert Winter, ceramics technician and maker, together with CARCuos Artist in Residence, Katherine Butler, worked with Farringdon Sports Community College, Sandhill View Community Arts School and St Bede’s Catholic School and Sixth Form Centre. I worked with approximately twenty Year 8 students and two members of staff from St Aidan’s Catholic School, Sunderland. Several undergraduate students from Glass and Ceramics also supported these sessions. Each school benefited from 4 full-day workshops delivered by a maker, as well as twilight skill-building sessions for the teachers run by Robert Winter at the National Glass Centre. Many of the schools will also receive Crafts Council funding to renew or refurbish their kilns, enabling them to continue using clay in their curriculum after the project has ended.

An important aim of the scheme is to demonstrate to school students how working with clay and ceramics can lead to a viable career and each maker adopted their own distinct approach to the project, reflecting their professional and creative interests. I was keen to incorporate my involvement in the project into both my PhD research and my wider artistic practice. After consultation with Alanna Nipper, St Aidan’s art teacher, I decided to adapt the ‘Tags, Tabs and Traces’ local mapping project suggested by Clayground Collective and the Crafts Council. Our project was loosely called ‘My Sunderland, My Museum’ and the participants were invited to initially make clay stamps and press moulds from personal items and found objects brought in from home. From these stamps, a series of ‘labels’ and ‘plaques’ were created. Finally, the students made a decorated slab-built box in which they could store the original items used to make the stamps, as well as any other personal ephemera, thereby creating their own miniature ‘museum’.

During the course of the project, Marie Harrison, SMWG’s Assistant Learning Officer, led a session in the museum’s Pottery Gallery, where my students enjoyed handling a range of objects from the handling collection before being sent on a treasure hunt around the museum to find iconic images and objects connected to Sunderland. The trip ended with a sketching activity back in the Pottery Gallery. It was intended that the visit would provide the students with an insight into the varied collections in Sunderland, with particular emphasis on the Sunderland pottery, which would inform the practical work they were making in the ceramics workshops. Knowing that their work was soon to be displayed in the museum, the students certainly seemed to enjoy the trip, their only complaint being that it was too short. Some students, taken with the ‘frog mugs’ on dispay, made their own versions back at  school, using slip-trailing techniques, inspired by other items in the collection, to decorate them.

Andrew’s approach was to spend the initial sessions focusing on developing basic clay skills which enabled the students to make work inspired by the architecture of their school.  Robert and Katherine’s students produced collage-like pieces combining textures, modelled elements and surface imagery.

Firing Up St Aidan's Year 8

Detail of work made by Year 8 students from St Aidan's Catholic School, Sunderland

The exhibition opening and North East Cluster Celebration event was held on Friday 13th July and, according to Tony Quinn, Firing Up Project Co-ordinator, was the best attended event so far. The exhibition will run until 13th September, 2012.


Christopher McHugh is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD student based at the University of Sunderland and Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens.

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