I'm not an artist!

That was what I told myself when I enrolled at West Dean College Summer School in August 2013. It felt pretentious to think that I might be able to produce, in only a week, a piece of work that wasn't total cr**. But I was ready for a challenge so signed up for "Sculpting the Human Figure (in Clay)", a course taught by professional sculptor, Ian Edwards. It sounded impossibly ambitious.

It was a warm summer's evening when I drove up the curving, gravelled drive in front of an imposing flint mansion. This is the home of a remarkable college in the heart of the Sussex Downs where accomplished artists rub shoulders with complete beginners and where you can learn everything from furniture-making to photography and silver-working to sculpture. There are year-long diploma programmes, a Foundation and extensions to MA/MFA qualifications, but during the summer the place is given over to aspiring artists and crafts-people of mixed abilities. Some are here to "have a go"; others to improve their already considerable skills.

As a producer of factual television programmes at the BBC, being creative was in the job description with daily discussions around ideas, scripts and editing. But, throughout my working life, I had used my head not my hands. This would be uncharted territory. Would creativity flow from my fingertips into the clay to produce a mini-masterpiece? I could only hope.

Day One

The signs are not promising as we get stuck in. There are five students in my class. We introduce ourselves and discover that we represent a mixed-bag of skills, ages and life experiences. Three are already painters or sculptors but, fortunately, there is one other beginner like me. There is also a life-model perched on a plinth in the centre of the room. Our tutor bends her into an impossible position. She is kneeling, back arched, with one hand raised and the other behind her, holding her ankle. It looks uncomfortable but she seems happy to be here.

Our pieces will be about 30cm high….table-top sculptures. Firstly, we make an armature - the metal frame that forms the skeleton around which the clay will be packed - bending aluminium rods to mimic the model's pose; the tilt of her head, the curve of her spine and her outstretched limbs. So much, so technical. Now for the messy bit. Before long, each of us has a slab of grey clay which we tear into manageable pieces and use to cover the armature. By the end of a rewarding first day, we have each created something with rough human proportions which will be our starting point.

Day Two

At this week's Summer School there are about 150 students, the majority well-heeled and over 50, doing oil painting, jewellery-making, stained glass, print-making, textiles and watercolours. The atmosphere is friendly and it's easy to meet people but this is no Saga holiday with added arts and craft. There are no late-night drinking sessions in the bar. The amateur artists of middle-England appear to be a focussed bunch, intent on making the most of their time here.

Whereas the print-makers and stained glass students share a large, messy workroom, we sculptors are tucked away in a small but pleasant studio. Yesterday, we packed clay roughly onto the armature. Today, we will begin to shape and mould the piece. The atmosphere is relaxed but quiet as we add clay then carve it away, add more clay and carve it away again. Thus we continue hoping to fashion from this base substance muscle and flesh, even hair.

It surprises me that so much concentration is involved but, instead of tension, it induces that "good tired" feeling at the end of the day. We also seem to have entered something of a time warp as no sooner do we begin than it's time for coffee, then lunch. We are absorbed, utterly. The rhythm of the work is broken by the occasional sharing of tips and techniques but otherwise a contented silence settles upon the group. And it is in this semi-meditative state that we continue from day to day. There are frustrations and eureka moments but the joy of clay is that it can be reworked again and again. There's no such thing as a total disaster, only an opportunity to learn.

As the week goes on, our small team bonds and each student divulges more of their personal story. In the studio, the tutor talks about the nature of creativity and, as we temporarily park our British reserve, the discussions go deeper. We can hear laughter and chatter coming from other groups nearby but, though we have plenty of fun, this feels like a precious opportunity so mostly we just crack on. It occurs to me that this is the first time for many years that I have done something that is just for me and gradually feelings of guilty self-indulgence are replaced by a kind of quiet euphoria.

All Good Things...

And then, as suddenly as it began, it is over. By the end of my week's Summer School, I have made new friends and have something to show for my efforts which exceeds my expectations. I feel refreshed, invigorated and inspired. Impossible as it seems, I have fashioned a statuette of which I can be proud. And I am not alone. Every student, from print-making to painting and jewellery to textiles has a piece of work to share and as we emerge from our creative cocoons and tour the exhibitions staged by each classes, I marvel at the skill on display.

Several months on, my tiny home studio (or garden shed) now has a turntable, tools and stocks of clay. To be honest, it's been a bit chilly to work there during the winter but now that spring has returned, I shall be making a fresh start. Overseeing my efforts, a small but perfectly formed figurine.

Gill Tierney

Gill Tierney is a Bafta nominated Executive Producer responsible for creating new series including: Coast; Hairy Bikers Mums Know Best & Bakeation; The Edible Garden; Don't Die Young; Indian Food Made Easy; Life in a Cottage Garden, as well as developing some of the BBC's heritage brands (Gardeners' World; Chelsea Flower Show). Read Gill's post on the Chelsea Flower Show on the BBC blog.



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