Older Women Rock the Potteries! The Clay Frock

Emma and Judith with the dress. Image with thanks to John Bishop.

Leah Thorn is a spoken word poet, lecturer, speaker and activist, published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. At the heart of her Poetry is the autobiographical exploration of identity and issues of liberation.

‘Poetry [E]motion: Older Women Rock the Potteries!’ is a development of ‘Older Women Rock!’, Leah’s ongoing project to create pop-up political art spaces in which to raise awareness and explore issues facing women in their late-50s and 60s. 

Leah Thorn’s concept was to create a dress, made from ceramic, which would carry some of the key words, ideas and emotions drawn from a poem by Lynn Burrow created in the Older Women: Rock The Potteries poetry workshops.

The poem tells the story of the breakup of Lynn’s relationship, its shattering effects on her life, and the gradual rebuilding of her personal world, using the analogy of a ceramic urn being broken and re-built.

Designing a dress made from ceramics was a real challenge; the material being both rigid and heavy - not qualities that would normally lend themselves to being worn. Undeterred, Emma explored a number of options and eventually adopted a design approach using ‘sequins’, or fragments of ceramic that could be sewn on to a fabric dress. This not only enabled ceramic to be incorporated into the garment, whilst maintaining its flexibility, but it also was a direct representation of one of the core sentiments from the poem - shattered fragments.

Lynn the poet was invited to be involved in the process by writing selected key phrases on to some of the porcelain fragments that were hand-made by Judith and Emma on site at the former Spode Works in Stoke. Also, Judith developed a technique to incorporate Lynn's hand-written poem into the dress by printing it on to organza.

From the onset it was hoped that the dress would be wearable and therefore the design needed to enable the garment to be taken on and off - hence, the wrap-over style. As a further depiction of the poem’s core theme, Emma designed the dress to reflect the shape of an urn; an idea which brought with it a range of technical challenges relating to the creation of a self-supporting form which could also be worn.

With some degree of trial and error, the artists overcame the challenges of combining fabric and ceramic and written words; creating a beautiful dress full of curves, energy, symbolism and powerful imagery. This was also carried through onto a necklace, created by Judith, carrying the key phrase ‘quirky beauty’ - which the artists believe accurately describes their frock.

The dress has been created as a size 20-21, both to encourage its wearing by a 'real' woman, and also to provide a gentle nod in the direction of Stoke on Trent’s City of Culture 2021 bid. To further underline the roots of the dress (and the artists) in Stoke-on-Trent, it also carries a ceramic ‘made in Stoke on Trent’ badge sewn into the sleeve.

Emma Scholin Tipping and Judith Bishop are the two artists responsible for the design and creation of ‘The Clay Frock’. Emma having a background in dressmaking, design and mosaics, Judith in textiles, design and technology; with the two sharing a common love of ceramics and a relationship founded in their participation in the British Ceramics Biennial Clay School.

Both artists jumped at the opportunity that the dress represented and, whilst used to working independently on their own projects, were excited to collaborate and combine their broad range of creative skills and experiences. The project itself has sparked their interest in working together on further projects.

ARTISTS: Leah Thorn | Judith Bishop | Emma ScholinTipping |

Poetry [E]motion: Older Women Rock the Potteries! exhibition is open until the 17 November 2017, 10am-4pm Monday to Saturday, Keele University Gallery, Chancellor’s Building, Keele Univertsity, ST5 5BG

Slides by Aisha Shabnam, Final Year Media Communications and Culture student.

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