IN CONVERSATION | CERAMICIST- LILY PEARMAIN

30.06.20

“New builds can be sort of fairly featureless and when plopped into the middle of existing communities that can cause friction or tension especially in kind of deprived areas. I hope the idea of putting studios into ground floors of new developments becomes more of an established thing because it creates a link to the community.”

-Lily Pearmain

Lily Pearmain is a ceramicist in southeast London. She studied Russian at UCL before turning to sourdough baking and then to pottery. She’s driven by experimenting with processes and approaches to clay as a material, while keeping the work clean- often using simple forms and minimal glazing. [ lilypearmain.com]




What is your definition of studio space?

For me as a potter, it’s quite prescriptive because there is sort of a basic list of very necessary components for a studio, I can’t just work anywhere. I have to have good access to decent electricity, I run two quite large electric kilns so I have to have access to three phase power, which is not always easy to come across and often makes spaces more expensive because they have to be to a certain specification.

Also, I need access to running water and I need to be on the ground floor. So those kind of requirements add up and really narrow down the possibilities in London. I think I’m really lucky in the space that I’ve got now. It has all three of those and it has a host of other things, like it’s well insulated and I’ve got natural light. Those are really important, obviously not completely necessary, but really nice to have. 

Collaborative/ communal spaces that are on the rise in London, do you believe this formula can work? 

I think it works up to a point. Enabling access is really really important, but if you introduce those  kinds of studios and say, use it as an excuse of solving, it doesn’t cater to everyone.

At the same time, it does generally give better access to artists by making it cheaper and just more accessible. Especially for people who may also have other full time jobs, who maybe don’t invest in their practice as a full time occupation. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of your practice. I work in a very solitary fashion and I think probably a lot of people really rely on a communal aspect because otherwise you know working alone can be quite difficult and it’s really not for everyone. I’ve never had a studio anywhere other than London, so I don’t really know how well other cities cater to this kind of communal studios. I think especially as a potter there’s a lot of equipment and a lot of very expensive equipment, so it can work really well being in a communal studio, but yeah it’s not for everyone.

Do you believe that London has an impact on your art?

100% yeah. There’s this kind of stereotype of what a potter is- I think most people might think of a kind of country potter and not existing in a city because it’s such a sort of cringy wholesome, like over the top wholesome pursuit, and people don’t really see it as an urban thing.  

I spoke to a potter friend of mine who lives in the country, many years ago actually, and we were comparing the way in which we work. It’s only interesting because he didn’t have any problem with the restriction of space because he had a huge studio that had a gallery attached to it and the rent was pittance. It meant that he just got into work every day, sat down and was like “What do I want to make today?” and make that, and then people turn up and buy his work and he made a name for himself that way. Whereas the way that I work, I take an order and then I make it. I don’t come into work and go “Well what do I want to make today?” I have to think, “have I already sold this? Is this going to leave the studio relatively soon?” Because I can’t just hang on to pots because I don’t have a huge gallery space because it’s unfeasible. So it means that I don’t just come in and make. I think that people would see that as being restrictive, but I find that quite freeing because I have a motivation to come into the studio.  


I’m not sure if it has an actual impact on the pots I make. I think the style of pottery that I make is quite often kind of country good solid standard ware, with more sculpturesque aspects as well. I don’t really see that being massively influenced by London, although I am from here so I don’t know if it would make any other impact. Though I guess the way in which I fire, I would love to have a wood fire kiln, but you can’t have that in London because of the smoke. 

Would you consider moving outside of the city then?

No. Never haha. 

I would love to build a wood fire kiln and I would love to have a space outside of London to do that as it’s very much a dying art. But I would never leave, I would never not live here, it’s a very much part of me. I love every, every, every bit of it. I’ve lived in other cities before and just totally missed London. I lived in Russia for a while and just missed my family and friends, and just really missed being in London. 

What do you think the future of studio space will look like?

I hope that studio space will become an important part of development. I’m really lucky in the space that I have; it is part of a new build. And it’s in a rather kind of obscure part of southeast London. On the ground floor there was not much passing traffic so they couldn’t put shops or a retail space in the ground floor, so they’re studios. I hope that is something that happens more often. New builds can be sort of fairly featureless and when plopped into the middle of existing communities that can cause friction or tension especially in kind of deprived areas. I hope the idea of putting studios into ground floors of new developments becomes more of an established thing because it creates a link to the community. I have people walking into my studio on a daily basis and that’s really lovely because it offers a real kind of link to the community and having that sort of ground floor or open door policy is really, really nice for me.

In terms of the communal studio thing, I know there are several dedicated ceramic communal spaces as well. One is Kiln Rooms and the other is Turning Earth and I noticed they are currently really struggling because of the CoronaVirus. I hope they survive because they offer a really important way into the craft. 

How do you think artists can collaborate and communicate with developers to try to maintain that cultural community?

I’m not sure the onus is on artists to do that; the onus is on developers to do that. Making sure there’s a link to the community should be really a high priority for a developer. Artists are a good way of doing that because often they can be very accessible and open to the community.

There’s a scheme in my building, for example, where part of our contract is that we dedicate two hours a month, so 24 hours a year, that is focused on the community.  I run a series of workshops for primary school teachers to try to engage them in clay. My idea with that is if they understand it a bit more they’re more likely to take it into their classrooms. And I think that’s kind of really lovely because it’s not something I would ever have done on my own without having signed a contract. It’s a really lovely, lovely part of these studios.

In terms of making connections to the community I think the onus is on developers to make sure that what they’re building is built with the community in mind and it’s not just a quick turn around and that it’s not just about selling expensive flats.

Is there anyway you believe we can ensure artists remain in London in the future? 

Making sure that studio spaces are properly funded or cheap enough to buy or rent. I don’t know if there is a proper term for this, but my friends and I call this the ‘Hackney Wick Effect.’ This tendency where an area is poor and deprived so artists knew they could make use of the space and then developers follow because the artists have made that area cool.  I think just there should be a kind of conversation around that. Making developers aware that they are kind of cashing in on artists would probably make artists slightly more open to conversation with developers, rather than feeling capitalised on.

It’s a hard one because eventually, you know, people move to Margate, or they give up, or they make it big haha those are your only options and that’s quite sad. 

I don’t want to kind of over romanticize this, but the idea of it being hard and being a struggle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Obviously, there needs to be accessibility to all. I think the thing with London is you have to want to be here, if you don’t want to be here then it’s just an expensive waste of time. So you have to really have a drive because it’s so expensive and because it’s difficult, and that creates really good art because you have to be really motivated. You don’t just kind of slop out, you know, oil paintings of the sea, because that’s not how it works. You don’t want to get too comfortable because then you stop making good art. But yeah, art will always be here, it’s why London is the city that it is.