From homelessness to hope – reviving a town’s rich pottery heritage with New Linthorpe

AS Co-Director of New Linthorpe, the first physical pottery on Teesside since the closing of Linthorpe Pottery in 1889, Emily Hesse explains why she is running a social enterprise using local clay and why she recently joined Streetwise Opera.

What did you want to be growing up?

Different things at different points in my childhood: an actress, singer, archeologist, politician, architect, then an Arabist in my teenage years which led to me spending quite a bit of time in the Middle East. Being creative in the artful sense was always part of my life from a very young age, I’m not sure I ever realized it was a career choice!

How did you end up in the job you’re doing now?

So I’m currently Co-Director of New Linthorpe, it is an artwork but doesn’t operate within the traditional boundaries of art. It is a creative industry within its own right. Inspired by the original Linthorpe Art Pottery, Middlesbrough the project intends to re-visit the idea and value of a social enterprise through the medium of local clay. The work carried out is guided by the belief in not just the ability but also the responsibility of art to make a difference to lives. Social making and community input through discussion formulate the project outcomes, which aim to establish ceramics as a viable industry once again here on Teesside.

In 2014 my partner James and I bought an original Linthorpe Pottery jug on eBay for £25. We both had a longstanding interest in the history and ingenuity of Middlesbrough, myself being born in the town and James having lived here for the past 14 years, we also had a love of ceramics.

What fascinated us about the Linthorpe Pottery was how industrial designer Christopher Dresser recognised the quality and potential of the local clay: how his vision transformed this humble material into the basis of a pioneering art pottery. The jug started a discussion we haven’t actually stopped having yet; could our local clay that most of Teesside is built upon (and often ends up in landfills) be utilised once again to not only produce pottery, but to act as a medium for social empowerment.

We started working with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) last year to develop a making and display space within the Localism exhibition. An open workshop ran two to three times a week where members of the community came in and made ceramic objects in local clay but also discussed. These discussions often involved heritage, local industry, the current economic climate, identity and just what a pottery on Teesside could look like today.

New Linthorpe is directly co-authored by the voices of the community, so if you come and make with us no matter who you are, your input becomes part of the work that we do. Responding to current needs is how we operate, a grass-roots approach as oppose to the top down.

One of the next projects we are running over the summer at mima came directly from a discussion during Localism. I worked with an amazing group of people from Eritrea who expressed a need to make objects for a coffee set that couldn’t be bought in this country. So we’ve been making them and holding a coffee ceremony. We make what is needed and we go where we are asked to.

Emily Hesse, Co-Director of New Linthorpe pottery in Teesside.

Emily Hesse, Co-Director of New Linthorpe pottery in Teesside.

Have qualifications got you where you are, has it been sheer hard work and talent or a combination?

In life you can learn something from every person you meet, so I’m the sum total of all the people I have ever met, they are the ones that have got me where I am today.
Do you feel pressure to be a role model to others?

To me the idea of a role model suggests a person who is put on a pedestal in some way beyond reach. I operate on a level playing field within reach of everyone. I’m more of an advocate, for justice and equality, for Teesside, for the creative industries, and this is of my own choosing I don’t feel pressure to be this, it’s just who I am.

Do you prefer networking on social media or face to face?

Anywhere where there is a cup of tea! I have made some really interesting connections through social media but face to face works best for me as I work with and for the community so I need to be out there.

What is a very underrated business skill?

Ethics. An ethical business can be a successful business.
How will your industry evolve over the next five years?

I operate within the creative and the ceramics industries, which are both quite different landscapes. However both industries have recently been brought to the attention of the current government as valuable assets to the U.K economy. In the recently published Culture White Paper (2016), Ed Vaizy in his introduction outlined Teesside as one of the five regions in the country where ‘culture is an integral part of thinking.’ This is nothing new to any of us working in the arts, heritage or cultural sectors who are firmly rooted here on Teesside and have been operating in this manner for a number of years. But this sudden interest from central Government could definitely have an effect on the evolution of the sector in this region. Equally important is the Tees Valley’s bid to become City of Culture 2025, our industry is being pushed to the forefront and it’s up to us to position ourselves actively, so that we can take full advantage of these opportunities.

The ceramics in the U.K is still viewed as a production industry. We are not a large-scale production pottery, most of our work is done to commission but this year we are hoping to see a small production line of apprentices set up to put some objects into regular production. The first of which being teapots.

A parliamentary body has recently been setup to support the ceramics industry, again, the potential and value of the work that we and people like us all over the country do is being recognized, it’s all about how we take this forward. I think we will start to see more people trained in traditional skills and for the application of those skills to be diverse. I also think we will see a rise in cottage industry, and this is something I’m advocating for quite vocally at present.

I also think we will see the industries we operate in becoming more responsive, to those that utilise them. We are currently building a mobile pottery for £1,000. It may be small but will be the first physical pottery on Teesside since the closing of the Linthorpe Pottery in 1889 and is a direct response to the needs outlined by the community. They need a pottery that can travel and come to them. When I first discussed this with one of the co-authors of the project he said it was a bit like that famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come.” I explained that it actually wasn’t anything like that – because we spend so much time discussing our work, hopes, fears etc. with all members of the community, we can safely say they are already here, now we just need to build a place for them to use.
Which three people (alive/dead, celebrity or not) would you like to work with?

I’m very lucky to be working with some incredible people at the moment, my local community, my partner James, the team at mima; director Alistair Hudson and curators Elinor Morgan and Miguel Amado so my choices are all people who are no longer here – Political theorist Hannah Arendt, Henry Tooth Artistic director of the Linthorpe Pottery and my Dad, Ray Guy-Jobson.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

I have been homeless. Recently I joined Streetwise Opera and unfortunately don’t get to go as often as I would like but being part of the group has allowed me to accept and start talking about my own experience of homelessness. It’s much more common than we think and risk takers are particularly susceptible. Find better ways to support each other and keep talking, don’t face everything alone and realize that you are stronger as part of a team.