Helen Evans created Planet Ceramics in 1998 in tribute to the world in an island which she found in Tobago. She talks to Pat Ganase about making art and a livelihood in a place of joy and endless inspiration.
I find it very inspiring to be working in Tobago. The whole environment is invigorating. If I just look outside my shop at the ocean, it changes from hour to hour, the sun comes out, clouds drift across, light or heavy rain, it’s an extraordinary spectacle all the time. And the sunsets are stunning. Then there’s the flora and fauna, the rainforest; so vivid, so much variety. We don’t often recognise what’s in front of us. Going back to London made me see what’s here, and what’s there; allowed me to appreciate the contrasts but also what’s special about each place.
I was born in Swansea, South Wales. I lived in the west midlands between Kidderminster and Ludlow. I loved the rolling hills and grew up fascinated by industry – taking raw materials and creating a product. There’s something quite magical about that.
All of this is expressed in Planet Ceramics. It’s a play with the words, using the earth to create pots – looking at the planet, turning into ceramics.
My parents came to Tobago on holiday at a time when the island was encouraging foreign investments, inviting people to live here. At the time, I had a dream to go somewhere that I could be inspired by the environment. I came to Tobago fresh out of art school; I had completed my degree at the Central St Martin’s (University of Arts) in London. Dad went to the High Commission in London. He met all sorts of government people in Tobago and Trinidad for me to be permitted to live and work here.
I opened three shops and employed five people; but ended up with only the one at Pigeon Point. After ten years, I wanted to take my art and business to the next level so I went back to London, worked with a lot of artists, went to shows. I even did some teaching. I showed my work in London and travelled to and from Tobago until I returned three years ago.
I spent one and a half years researching glazes for a large architectural project, working for a ceramics artist and an architectural team. This is where I learned my specialisation in glazing and understanding of how to develop glazes which is crucial to my work now.
My mum ran the shop while I was away. Those were some difficult years in Tobago. Things were looking up when I returned in 2017. I wanted to teach, so in the year before covid19, I developed a six-week programme for a couple apprentices at a time, sharing skills and practical knowledge about pottery. Making ceramics is a complex process that is physically very hard work. Having apprentices would give them and me insight, to see hand skills and aptitude. The idea is to run this programme once a year during my quiet months, targeting school leavers, presenting a course that could lead to positions in my workshop. I only managed to work with one group before the first lockdown.
In the first lockdown, I developed a colour range for high-fired stoneware, I wanted a family of bright colours, like our sunsets. My classic colour range had been developed in London: turquoise and pinks and muted tones. The new range is vibrant Caribbean.
I have two working kilns, electric. The small one is in use almost every day. The larger may be used once or twice a month. I have become quite adept at maintenance – everything rusts in this environment. There are people I can call in the UK, and a good electrician in Tobago. I think I use a ton of clay in a year; clay and glazes are shipped from the UK.
When I first came to Tobago, I experimented with local clay; I had big vats to dry it out. There were too many impurities. Eventually I thought, I don’t want to be in the mining and extraction business.
Ceramic work is something solitary and slow, I make everything myself, thousands of bowls to find the perfect one. I think that Tobago is a great place for this kind of productivity; and we should be a place that attracts creative people; understanding that the creative arts can lead to serious careers that you can earn a living from. Think of batik, or glass.
My comfort zone is making and designing, but covid showed how important marketing could be; I got a lot of business from my Facebook page and Instagram; and I was pleasantly surprised by the support from people who live in TT.
My statement pieces are my moon vases and platters. I glaze the platters and position them at an angle in the kiln so the glaze drips; you never quite know what you will get.
I am always thinking of going up to the next level; maybe to the point where I can make orders for export. I also dream of creating a craft centre with a full-time schedule where people can learn and make things from clay. My business has many layers: production for visitors; products for construction; creating an industry; and then there’s the export side. I would like to expand all avenues. I need a collaboration with industry and business to help the transition.
There has been some movement in the housing market. People are building and spending more on their houses in Tobago; every now and then I have commissions for very big pieces. There is demand for my rainforest tiles. These are designed using very simple moulds to build pieces with a lot of movement and variety; the tiles fit together for bigger pieces. I want to do more of these ‘industrial’ pieces.
I am working harder than ever, seven days a week. I spend two or three hours each morning in the studio; then I go to the shop. If there’s a workshop, that takes three hours, morning or afternoon.
The workshops are very popular, open to everybody from four to 80 in small groups. It’s a gentle but fun activity available for all ages and abilities. They have the experience of working in clay and end up with a product that they can take home, a cup or a bowl. But Pigeon Point is closed for three weeks. I will try to get the vaccine before starting more workshops. I have to think about my mother who is 78. I am hopeful that after covid, things will pick up again.