My Best Teacher

6th February 2009 at 00:00
The artist fondly remembers a teacher who was bossy and bright

Any kind of leader has to have two qualities: love and boundaries. You can't have one without the other and Caroline Whyman, the teacher at my evening pottery class, had both. She was stricter and more prescriptive than my other art college tutors. I suppose there was something in me that saw her as a kind of mother figure. She looked like Valerie Singleton if I remember rightly.

I had just come up to London from Portsmouth in 1983 after leaving art college a year before. I knew I wanted to be an artist but it was tricky - I didn't have a studio or any money and there were all the distractions of London. It was easy to get off track. I did work on the sitting room table, but it was hard without a studio.

My girlfriend's sister was living in the same squat as us and she went to evening pottery classes. She said the teacher was good and it was quite a relaxed atmosphere, so I went along in the autumn. I started by saying: "I'm not going to have anything to do with what she's teaching." But curiously enough, while I was sitting in the corner of the room, doing my own thing, I could overhear what Caroline was saying to the other members of the class. I was picking it up by osmosis.

The thing is with ceramics is that there's a lot of waiting around involved, so you need to have a lot of things on the go, otherwise you'd spend most of the time waiting while your stuff was in the oven. Caroline was showing the rest of them how to make a plate. I just thought I'd have a go and I found that I took to it quickly.

Caroline was clear about how she taught. She was quite bossy, but that made you feel kind of secure. She could see that I was a self-motivated art student type, so she didn't feel like she had to prod me in the creative side of it, but technically, she was clear.

I remember one day Caroline got my piece out of the kiln and said: "Oh what a shame, it's cracked." But I replied: "Well at least it's a genuine crack, it's not like one of your contrived, stylish cracks that you put on your zen-style teapots."

Part of the reason pottery appealed to me was that it was such a naff thing to do. I was quite reactionary in class. I was more of an angry punk rocker. If I see an orthodoxy in any area of culture that I'm interested in, I will somehow try to present an opposition to it. But we got on well. Caroline was something solid to kick against in a way and was encouraging too.

As I progressed I started to get more daring and used images of SM and swastikas on my pieces. It turned out that some of the people in the class had complained to the head of the course, but he had said I was harmless and wasn't disrupting the class. At least I turned up every week.

Like a lot of art students, I was resistant to technical instruction. But too much emphasis on creativity can be a killer. It's something that happens out of the corner of your eye as a by product of just getting on with it. If you sit down and say: 'I'm going to be creative' it's a disaster. To control it, to ride it, takes experience. You need to teach people to do things and they learn to be creative through doing them

Grayson Perry is a patron of Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank, For more details visit He was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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