Craft as Gateway to Wonder

Oct 29, 2020

By Rev. Jane Sheppard

For me, craft is a gateway to wonder. It speaks to me of human potential; the extraordinary ability we hold to understand potential in the resources around us. How incredible that somewhere someone decided to spin wool, and then others passing the baton to make nets, knit or crochet. Such extraordinary leaps that bring great rewards, both materially and in connection, forming communities of knitters and makers individually pushing and excelling in their craft. Weaving magic.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the liminal. There’s a constant thread of interest in the thresholds of the world; in witches, fairies, spells, rituals, folklore, stone circles, religion, philosophy.  When I write those words they look flaky and crystal-gazing, but in reality my experience is very grounded and practical. I simply view the world as a place of flow and change, where ideas and beliefs permeate and nothing is known. I see transience and possibilities.  I know that in another time, another place, my working knowledge of the world would be very different and I look for pointers and reminders of this.

Both these aspects – the liminal, and craft – have always been part of my life. My mum was an art teacher and I spent my childhood sewing, drawing, weaving, dyeing, calligraphy. These activities connected me to our past and rooted me firmly in the present. They guided me into studying art, eventually becoming my career.

I was overwhelmed at first with the thought of pottery. I’d always loved the magic of a good ‘curve’ – but all that cleaning up, such a lot of effort and muck! But it was worth it. I loved the physicality, the earthiness, the incredible sensation of making something from nothing; a form with life and character. I look to the old ways and my hands are my precious friends that have gifted my life.

I still feel vulnerable when I approach this subject of pots having their ‘own life’. As I got deeper into ceramics (always hand building, never using glazes – I like the clay to breathe) I found the meditative process of coiling allowed me to really enter a deeper state, connecting me to my thoughts and opening an expansive space within. A meditative, open space that seemed to be actually absorbed by the clay, built into its surface.

In the West we don’t talk about these things. It’s not a part of our cultural experience. We bypass it. The deeper I went into my career as a ceramicist, the more alienated I felt. I was too scared to voice this understanding, which was so fundamental to my work. So I asked for a sabbatical year from my job as a lecturer in art and design and journeyed into Africa, aiming to research the spiritual use of clay in traditional communities.

Anyone who’s harboured a secret will know the incredible relief that comes with sharing it into a community that recognises and accepts their experience. It is beyond acceptance. It brings a trust in humanity. A trust that we can change, grow, transcend. An understanding that if we talk, share, open with each other we have so much to bring and so much to learn, collectively.

Gifted with this, I returned to lecturing and brought up my sons. Practical ceramics sat back stage but always with an intention of returning when the time was right. I also felt a calling to make bespoke handmade urns as an antidote to the conveyor belt funeral process. Again, I sit awkwardly in the weirdness of that. But to me that was a logical step. I work with clay.  I work with a meditative spiritual process.  I honour humanity and the earth. I will make funerary urns.

But not yet. I just didn’t feel qualified.

Fast forward through a divorce, painful curve balls and life changes. I overheard someone say the words ‘training to be an Interfaith Minister’ in conversation. I had no idea what this was, but have always been drawn to ministry as a concept. Sadly, I’ve never found a path I could devote myself too. I’m too resistant to conform, too expansive in my thoughts and too downright stubborn to follow given rituals. I just don’t do organised religion. But these words sent goosebumps up my arms.

I couldn’t afford it, my boys were at school and my relationship with my ex was dire.  But sometimes the path just clears, inexplicably, for the right move. My OneSpirit Interfaith Minister training 2016-2018 was intense, deep, challenging, uncompromising; all the things I really needed. Every internal stone was turned. It left me redefined and with a deep and willing capacity for accepting and supporting others, in all our difficult edges. It even led me to become a faculty member of OneSpirit for a year, supporting the cohorts of interfaith ministers.

My ordination brought a return to making, with new vigour and a deeper engagement with my work. I’m learning to speak more openly and directly about the work which now sits comfortably alongside my ministry – end of life care and funerals – which is a huge privilege.

Now I am diving deep into my ceramics work again.  Lockdown and all that comes with it flourished my vision of creating funerary urns. My ceramicist soul is in full swing – I’m making pots, firing them outside (often in the rain, it seems), getting mucky and smoky. I consider this sacred work and put the same energy into these as into a funeral, creating them in a ceremonial manner.

Each urn is individually made in the same way as my other work – hand built using the ancient technique of coiling. This is a slow, contemplative and meditative method allowing me to focus on the intention within the form. There are parallels between coiling and ceremony and this allows me to create a sense of sacred space within.

I have a simple life making pots and urns in an organic way; unconventional timeless urns that are individually made, gentle and poetic with a good handful of earth and smoke thrown in. Because we’re all different and it’s important to me that each of us is honoured for who we’ve been and what we’ve brought to the world.

That’s what I do.

Rev. Jane Sheppard is an ordained OneSpirit Minister, ceramic artist and Samaritans Listener. Based in Bath, England where she lectured in Art and Design for 14 years alongside a career as a ceramicist. You can discover more on our Register of OneSpirit Ministers, and on Jane’s website.

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