On the outskirts of Waterloo, is a hub of creativity. There, clay from Port Loko and Waterloo is taken, thrown, fired, glazed and transformed into unique and desirable pieces of contemporary homeware that are coveted by pottery connoisseurs as far away as Iceland and the United States.
The emergence of the Waterloo based Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre and School – a branch of the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA) – as a high-end handmade pottery workshop and studio, has been several years in the making. It is part of the Sweet Salone project, conceived by the Aurora Foundation – an Icelandic non-profit organisation, to develop Sierra Leonean artisanal handicrafts and market them internationally.
Aurora had been working in the education sector in Sierra Leone for almost 14 years, but was looking to broaden its impact. In Iceland, Aurora’s roots are in the creative industries. The board decided to explore the possibility of forging creative links between the two countries, working on a selection of ‘made in Sierra Leone’ designs, produced from local materials, as a way of generating employment opportunities for people in Sierra Leone.
“The idea was to think out of the box and target the export market, with designs that could be produced here but would be marketable internationally. Not souvenirs or other items that tourists will buy and then dispose of when they get home,” Regina Bjarnadóttir, Aurora’s Director of Development explains.
The Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre and School
The Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre and School was identified as part of an extensive artisanal mapping process. In 2015, when Aurora identified its long-forgotten potential, it was a dilapidated shell, many years past its 1990s heyday when it had been home to a flourishing training centre.
On the plus side, it had produced a small handful of talented potters; excellent quality clay and the natural materials to make the glaze are available locally. Furthermore, there has been a resurgence of interest in handmade ceramics internationally.
Among the designers brought in by Aurora to work with Sierra Leone’s artisans on fine-tuning their designs for the Sweet Salone project, was 1+1+1 – a well-known experimental collaboration from Sweden, Iceland and Finland. They were particularly keen to team up with the Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre.
Together 1+1+1 and the small handful of original Lettie Stuart potters came up with some prototypes. “It then became apparent that there was every possibility the collaboration could result in something that would really take off,” remembers Regina.
First though, they had to bring the Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre back to life. “The pottery had no funds or machinery,” Regina says. “I sat with SLADEA and asked what it would take to get the Pottery Centre up and running. We got funding from Aurora to rehabilitate the centre, build a new kiln and buy clay and other necessary materials.”
Just three potters
The project started with just three potters from the original 1990’s UNDP training scheme. However, to establish the Pottery Centre as a productive, money making venture, more potters were needed. And so the pottery school was re-opened in March 2019 with an 18 month-training programme, led by two experienced trainers from Iceland.
In January 2021, eight talented new potters will graduate from the Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre. Covid-19 has disrupted the original graduation date.
“The dream is to employ some of them at the centre, so that it can start to produce more pieces and become a viable business,” says Regina. Together Aurora and the Pottery Centre are working on a business plan.
A 20ft container of orders
It’s an achievable dream. International demand for the Centre’s pottery has exceeded expectations. Current orders destined for customers in Iceland and Los Angeles, USA will fill a 20ft container. The potters have started to recognise the value of their artisanal skill and creativity.
The Potters of the Lettie Stuart Pottery Centre are on the brink of a thriving business, but inevitably, there are challenges. For example, basic bulk packaging essentials like cardboard boxes aren’t available to buy in Sierra Leone. Ironically, nor is Rutile it seems, which the Pottery Centre needs to expand its range of coloured glazes. “One bag would last the Pottery Centre for years,” says Regina, “but Sierra Rutile has a policy of not selling Rutile in country.”
Although the Pottery Centre produces largely for export, local pottery fans can pick up pieces from the Aurora Foundation’s offices in Freetown. For those who are looking for something special for Christmas, a wide range of products from the Sweet Salone project will be available at Aurora’s Christmas Market on Friday 13th November-Saturday 14th November 2020.
You can also buy direct from the Pottery Centre in Waterloo, where they offer pottery classes. I went there a few weeks ago and bought the four coffee cups that had been on my mind since I first saw them on the Pottery Centre’s Instagram page.
International customers can purchase through Aurora’s webshop www.aurorawebshop.com
Regina says: “At Aurora, we are helping create markets for Sierra Leonean artisans, by encouraging them to think out of the box and recognise that their skills and creativity have a value and a market.”