Done Is Beautiful: Things I’m Learning From Learning to Make Teapots

I am a perfectionist with a huge problem with procrastination. It’s funny to me that perfectionism is the problem they tell you to admit to in job interviews like it’s a good flaw that your future employers might want you to have. In my experience it’s a terrible flaw, in my experience, it’s paralyzing. (I talked about this a little in my last post) Procrastination and perfectionism are bound together, I know this because in 2012 I spent 2 days listening to an audiobook called ‘How to Stop Procrastinating’  three days before handing in my final degree. The book explained that both perfectionism and procrastination stem from deep-rooted emotional issues and had a load of exercises to help you discover what the cause of your procrastination is, and when I get round to doing any of them, I’ll let you know my results.

Letty McHugh Ceramic tests.jpg

This is the results of my third ceramics class. My phone malfunctioned and deleted the pictures from the first week. I guess it was getting into the spirit of things.

This blog post is not about that book, it’s about the teapots I’ve been making. We’ll get there I promise. A few years later in 2015 when I should have been working on a hand in for my MA I read this Tumblr post by author and illustrator Ursula Vernon (it came into my life via Neil Gaiman) advising all creative people to study ceramics, specifically throwing,  if they ever got the opportunity.

The whole thing is good, you should read it, but this bit particularly stuck with me “Pottery, particularly wheel-throwing, is wonderful for this, incidentally. You fail over and over and you fail fast and you are creating quantity to lead to quality. You throw and throw and throw and things die on the wheel and things die when you take them off the wheel and things explode in the kiln and after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more. There is always more clay.”

She also talks about how liberating it is to smash up the stuff that didn’t work at the end of term. (It’s worth noting for context I still own everything I ever made on both my degrees. Even the dreadful first-year stuff.)

I’m precious about my work sometimes, (a lot of the time) I’m afraid of making mistakes. I’m pretty sure if I’d ever done any of that hard work exploring the reason I procrastinate they would have told me fear of failure is a major cause. Everybody who writes anything about creativity and the making of art agrees that you can not simultaneously be afraid of making mistakes and make good art. It’s an idea that’s very much in the zeitgeist. Brene Brown says it. Austin Kleon says it. Amanda Palmer says it. Better, more intellectual and impressive people I can’t think of right now say it. It’s advice I hear over and over again and never embrace your failures, embrace your mistakes, and yet I still hate making mistakes, I can’t get past it, it’s a problem.


Letty McHugh Teapot.jpg

My first successful teapot – it even sort of pours.

When I was starting to do some experiments for my Emergence Bursary work I wanted to so stuff where using my hands was an essential part of the processes because not being able to rely on my hands after an MS relapse is partly what the projects about. Experimenting with ceramics felt like such a perfect way to do that because clay is so tender and tiny hand movements leave lasting impressions in the material. That’s how I pitched the idea to everyone anyone, but I was also thinking back to Ursula Vernon’s Tumblr post, and hoping learning to throw would finally cure me of my fear of failure.

Am I cured? Honestly, learning to throw is amazing. I’m embracing the process, I’m learning by doing, I’m making frequent messy mistakes. I was bad at it when I first started. Like even for someone who had never done it before it was bad. I’ve now seen quite a few other beginners and my first efforts were objectively the worst. But that’s not the point, I embraced the process, I carried on. I spent five weeks being terrible and making rubbish and chucking it out and I made this misshapen teapot that only sort of works, (it lovely, I’m proud beyond all proportion).

Then I spent another five weeks being slightly less terrible and making a slightly better class of rubbish to chuck out, and I’ve just finished a second teapot that marks a significant improvement on the first. When I look at my teapots I can see the progress, I can see the effort and the learning, the ghost of all the afternoons where every single thing I made ended up in the slop bucket. It’s magic, I’m so glad I did it. It hasn’t cured me.

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I assembled Teapot 2.0 this week. It’s drying before it goes in the kiln.

Ahrgh. I know. That’s a very unsatisfactory conclusion to this story. I’m as disappointed as you are. Wouldn’t it be better if I’d grown and changed as a person? And I guess there’s still time, I’ve still got another 10 weeks of ceramics lesson. I haven’t fully embraced the Ursula Vernon philosophy and smashed up the precious teapots I spent so long making.

I could do it in a glorious live stream at the end of the year. But I don’t think I will, I think the truth is this, getting comfortable failing in the ceramics studio is a good thing worth doing, but I think it maybe only gets you comfortable failing in the ceramics studio, I’m not sure it’s a transferable skill. Here’s the lesson I am reluctant to admit I have learnt. You have to slay the actual dragon. An effigy will not do. What I mean by this is – I can not get over the fear of writing this essay collection I’m meant to be writing by being bad at ceramics, I can only do that by writing a bad first draft of my essays.

Ugghhh. I guess I have learnt and grown in predictable ways through this process. I just don’t want to because the lesson is I have to get over my self and get on with my work. Which I think we can all agree is the worst possible lesson to learn.

When Letty Went to Norway

I went to Norway at the start of this month. Then I came back and spent 23 days trying to write a blog post about it. I’m not exaggerating (well, not much) when I say I sat down every evening and tried to get something down, but I just couldn’t. It’s partly because my MS fatigue has been off the scale since I got back, a cosmic trade-off for the fact it wasn’t too bad while I was in Norway I guess.

It’s mostly because I’ve been psyching myself out. I do that sometimes when I’m working on something I care about. I really want to do a good job and nothing I make or write feels like it’s good enough so I procrastinate instead of doing it. The longer I put it off, the more impressive I feel like it needs to be, the more I hate the work I make for not living up to my unrealistic expectations, the more I hate it, the longer I put the work off. You get the idea. All this is just a long-winded way of saying, writing this blog post nearly killed me, so as you read it, please be kind.

This dock was the main merchant shipping hub in Oslo in the 1930s, soon it will be the new Munch Museum.

This dock was the main merchant shipping hub in Oslo in the 1930s, soon it will be the new Munch Museum.

I was in Norway as a sort of pilgrimage to my Great Grandfather, who was regularly sailing from Newcastle to Oslo and Bergan with the Merchant Navy. The ship he was serving on had to flee the country at the outbreak of WWII.  He used to joke that he sailed round half the world twice with the merchant navy. I don’t know every where he went, but I know it was a lot of places, most of the world. Norway was the only place he ever wanted to go back too. Having been there now, I get why something about it lingers in you.

There’s so much I want to say about my time in Norway. The mystic beauty of the fjords, the way the air felt; an encounter I had with a singer sewing machine on The Fram (that’s the ship Amundsen used on his expedition to the south pole). And the fact the apartment I was staying in turned out, by fate or coincidence to be on the refurbished docks that 80 years ago all merchant shipping was coming out of. I launched some of my paper boats into the fjord. I’d love to tell you about it but I don’t have the words yet.

Here are some of my origami boats with a Viking ship.

Here are some of my origami boats with a Viking ship.

Here’s what I have figured out how to say. I loved my time in Norway, I miss it in a way I didn’t expect. When I was there I went to see these Viking ships, the best preserved Viking ships still in existence. I couldn’t get over them – because they were beautiful and easily the oldest thing I’ve ever stood in front of and just seemed so small in comparison with the sea.

They looked so fragile compared to even the most basic of modern ships, like the ferry I took to visit the museum. But they worked didn’t they? Vikings sailed their boats as far as North America, far enough for peacocks to end up as grave goods in Oslo. Those boats were strong enough to get people where they wanted to go.

That’s the lesson that finally got me through trying to write this post. Maybe it’s not everything it could be, maybe I’ll build better versions in the future, but it’s the best I can make it tonight, and hopefully, it’s enough to get us where we need to be.




100 Origami Boats and Other Stories

Wow, It has been such an amazing three weeks since I last blogged for DAO. I went down to London and spoke at the Emerging Artists discussion at the Tate Exchange. (I got a charcuterie plate and ate it looking at St Paul’s, it was super fancy) I had chance to see the Jenny Holzer exhibition at the Tate and the Tracey Emin exhibition at the White Cube. (Tracey, if you’re reading this I’m a fan of the new stuff).

I then travelled back to Yorkshire and speedily folded 30 origami boats to finish off the fleet of 100 for The Art House Wakefield Micro Commissions exhibition on Wednesday (I had a coffee and a cannoli at the café there, it was also surprisingly fancy).

I somehow also squeezed in my second session in the ceramics studio and learning to use a laser cutter (You won’t get away from me now James Bond.) It’s been incredible, to have so many exciting things to do, and I’ll be honest, I was worried how I’d get it all done with my MS fatigue.

Me at the Tate with a Slide Featuring my Great Grandfather

Me at the Tate with a Slide Featuring my Great Grandfather

On Friday I was feeling healthy and accomplished, walking around thinking “See I can do everything after all”, and it’s weird because that feeling of wellness is so often accompanied by a feeling of guilt. Like I’ve somehow been lying to myself and everyone else this whole time. Like I don’t deserve to be getting this bursary or the amazing opportunities that come with it because I’m not really sick enough, am I? That’s the thing sometimes with invisible illnesses, sometimes they can even feel invisible to the people who live with them. I have this lingering fear sometimes that secretly it’s not my illness that stands in my way, but myself, that I’m lazy (I’m really not) and disorganised (maybe a little bit) and a chronic procrastinator (Okay, this one is true).

Seaworthy Vessel at the Micro Commission Exhibition

Seaworthy Vessel at the Micro Commission Exhibition

These feelings are very relevant to a conversation I had with @kirstymhall on twitter after my first post about the Seaworthy Vessel project. She commented that the notion of seaworthiness applies to an aspect of the disabled experience I hadn’t previously considered for the project – the ways we are constantly having to prove we are worthy of aid or perceived advantages, like access to disabled loos or seats on public transport or whatever. That’s where an invisible illness can be a real Catch 22, I’m sick enough to be disadvantaged but am I sick enough to be worthy of help? This feeling of questioning my own worthiness is definitely something I want to explore more as the project develops.

Anyway, it turns out I didn’t need to worry so much about being an MS fraud because I tried to keep up my whirlwind of activity this week instead of resting and I am a total wreck. (I did pass my driving test though, that’s irrelevant but I’m a braggart.)

My absolute favourite thing about getting to share my work in progress is when people say something that helps me look at the work in a new way. So If you do have any thoughts to share, I’d love to hear them.

PS. Esmé Weijun Wang explores the fear of being lazy while chronically ill so beautifully and thoroughly here, I’m reluctant to write about it myself. I just want to link to the essay and go ‘what she said’.

The Story So Far

Hi, my name is Letty McHugh, I’m an artist and a writer and one of the recipients of the Emergence Bursary. I wanted to write an introduction post to my practice and the project I’m working on for the bursary, but I’ve been putting it off for two weeks because it makes me so nervous. My Mum once told me if you are nervous in a new situation you should just acknowledge it out loud and then you’ll probably find out everyone else is just as nervous as you. I don’t know if that advice applies to this situation, to be honest, but on the off chance you are feeling fluttery – don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.


Origami birds I posted to strangers around Leeds and Bath. 2011

Origami birds I posted to strangers around Leeds and Bath. 2011

So a quick introduction to me as an artist. I was always making things when I was a child, I was always sewing dolls clothes and stuff. I liked art at school I think basically because it was the only subject where being dyslexic didn’t get in the way.

When I was 17 I found a book about Tracey Emin in my college library at Calderdale College and decided I wanted to make proper art. I didn’t make any progress with that lofty ambition until mid-way through my Creative Arts degree at Bath Spa University when I had the revelation that it isn’t enough to go all Sophie Calle and bother unsuspecting members of the public. Proper art has to be about things. That’s when a tutor advised me to find some rigorous theory to ‘Hang my work off’ and I discovered Situationism and Object theory, ideas that still underpin my work now.

For the Emergence Bursary, I will be working on a new participatory project Seaworthy Vessel. I first had the idea for this project In 2015. I passed a scrapyard on the train, from the window I could see a line of large anchors and started thinking about the ships they came from, declared unseaworthy and scrapped. I was interested in the concept of seaworthiness, the idea that for ships a clear distinction could be drawn. Seaworthy/ unseaworthy, a ship/ a collection of parts in a scrap yard. What if we applied this logic to people? I thought of my Great-Grandfather sent home from the Merchant Navy in 1944, His hands were so mangled after an accident they had to tuck his train ticket into the folds of his bandages. Was he unseaworthy? I thought of myself and the damage Multiple Sclerosis is doing to my brain. Am I unseaworthy?

Seaworthy Vessel Origami experiment Letty McHugh 2019

Seaworthy Vessel Origami experiment Letty McHugh 2019

I was due to start exploring these questions in my project Seaworthy Vessel in 2016 when a string of MS relapses effecting my hands and sight meant I couldn’t work for nearly three years. So I’m exploring these ideas now, with the added question of what it means to be able to use our hands?

The Emergence bursary will mean the project can be much more ambitious, I’ll have the opportunity to take a research trip to Norway, reversing the journey my Great-Grandfather made when he fled Norway at the outbreak of WWII.

It also means that I can make new work that experiments with print and ceramics to document and celebrate the current stability of my hands and reach out to others with injury and disability affecting their hands to get a better understanding of the emotional impact that such injuries have on our lives and how we keep ourselves seaworthy in the aftermath of them.

This post is crossed posted to Disability Arts Online and A-N