Lucy Barker

Thumb Pots, Chronic Health Issues and Creative Expression Through Pottery-making

By Lucy Barker

This is a post documenting a project (or what became a project!) which has been going on since lockdown. It began with making small thumb pots and evolved into reflecting on the place of these “simple”, repetitive processes both as a way of accessing creativity when health and circumstances limit options, and also as a facilitator of connection through “sideways conversation”. You can now find some of the pots for sale on my Etsy store as well!

The photos and video in this post show some of the process, and the end result, turning these small pieces of creativity born from limitation into something useful and decorative. The text is mostly based on the transcript of a recent conversation reflecting on these pots and the circumstances that surrounded me coming to make them at various points in the last four years.

Why Thumb Pots?

If you’ve done any sort of ceramics class, that’s one of the first things they teach you. I went to a ceramics class in lockdown, just wanting to get out of the house and be in a room with other people, as was many people’s urge at the time, and had a really lovely teacher. I’m not really very experienced with ceramics, and one of the things she showed us how to do was a thumb pot, which was just really simple. You get a ball of clay and then you sort of plunge your thumb into it, and then start shaping it and you can make two and then if you want you can make a little sphere with a hollow centre.

That was just between 2020 and 2021, and then in the winter of not last year, but the year before. I’d been having a lot of work on my spine and my shoulders and generally my back and was having a lot of tendon and neuropathic pain in my right arm and my right hand to the point where I couldn’t type or text. I couldn’t really do anything and it was really frustrating me and it was part of a bigger process. So it was not permanent, necessarily, but it was very painful. And I got really frustrated and I really wanted to make something, but I couldn’t use scissors, couldn’t draw or type. I was like, the only thing that’s fucking working is my thumb. Okay, we’ll make thumb pots.

So I started making them, and I had this clay that was a “paper clay” which has fine flax paper fibres in it, and so I started working with that. But I struggled to get it fired and had this ridiculous rigmarole of trying to get it to a friend in Scarborough, which worked for a bit, but then I really damaged my arm and I couldn’t actually drive so then that became really problematic. But since moving at the end of 2023 I can actually fire it at Everybody Arts in Halifax where I now have a studio, so that’s fantastic.

What I really liked about the material is that the very small fibres of paper that are in it allow the clay to be pushed to quite an extreme limit. You can make it really, really thin, and I just got really into how I could sort of press it and push it. So it was actually starting to disintegrate but didn’t fall apart, and then when it actually gets fired it becomes much stronger because the paper burns away. The ceramic is left and it’s almost like a porcelain.

There’s so many lovely things about this paper clay that I really enjoyed, and this idea of it just felt like the way chronic health things flare up, and how you kind of want to push, you always want to push and find out how far you can get with things. The clay became quite a nice metaphor for that and I had quite a long period of just making thumb pots relentlessly, and starting to think about sideways conversations and how something really simple like making a thumb pot can be a really good opportunity to have a sideways conversation.

So that’s going be part of my Notes on a Glitter Brain project which is currently ongoing with various components aiming to forge new social economic & creative pathways that care for ND artists. Part of that is to do nomadic crafts for “sideways conversation”, which was a term coined by my friend when we were at a wedding event and we realised we need crafts, we need a table where we can sit and do some stuff and not be constantly talking all the time, so that’s sort of how that idea came about. And there’s just something about having lots and lots of the same thing, and also doing repetitive things over and over and over again, these are all sort of quite soothing things to do. Also they are quite simple things to do, so that makes them available for everyone.

The holes for hanging didn’t come until the following year – listening to a book launch conversation online for ‘At Work in the Ruins’, as a talk about climate change, it really resonated with me from a chronic illness place. The idea of “What do we have to work with? let’s work with that”, and somehow this turned into wanting to create tiny dioramas of this idea. Initially the micro hanging plants were to have a slow growing fern and some foraged concrete, or other industrial detritus, but I’ve not got round to that bit as yet (mainly as I wasn’t sure how bits of industry would affect a tiny plant). I’d love to see 100s hanging in a space…

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Thanks for reading. The end result of all of the above is that I now have quite a lot of thumb pots that need a home, so I’ve turned some of them into micro plant holders for air plants, and you can find them in my BucyLarker Etsy store.

Music in the video at the top was made by my friend Gid.