Inside the Kitchen Table Collective

The Kitchen Table Collective is an ongoing project that has brought the art of ceramics into our homes and our library.

From clay-making kits distributed to families during lockdown, to collective clay sculpting in Crosby Library’s music room, artist Aliyah Hussain has allowed us to play with relationship between food and the objects we eat from. People from across the community have come together to create a collective dinner service— an elaborate yet functional collection of art for future feasts at the library. Everything from sculptures designed only to hold olives, to simple but beautifully patterned bowls have emerged from our collaboration with local residents. .

To learn about what made this project so singular, team member Clara spoke to two participants about why they got involved and what inspired them to create their unique additions to the table.  

Charlotte, Creator of a Funky Patterned Cup

Clara: What appealed to you about this workshop?

Charlotte: I’m quite local — I only live down the road — it’s nice to see something happening in the local community. I’m also interested in working with clay so it seemed like a good opportunity to learn from an artist but in quite an informal way, there’s no pressure. My background is in History of Art, so I know a little about art but I don’t have many opportunities as an adult to be creative in day to day life so something like this and this organisation — it’s just nice to try something without having to invest in loads of materials but have a go and see if you like it!

CL: What inspired your cup design?

CH: I really liked the examples that were made. It’s very H&M home, like those organic shapes. I also looked at the patterns on the wall. 

CL: It reminds me of confetti. 

CH: Yes! Confetti, quite organic.

Lizzie, Librarian and Creator of Herbert the Monster, a Food Sculpture

Clara: Talk us through the inspiration behind your sculpture. 

Lizzie: I had an idea when Aliyah was talking about the project and how we display food in a creative way. She was talking about little tiny bits of food like olives, and she showed me pictures of her work. It inspired me to think about something that can cup like a cherry or have food draped over it, which made me think of tentacles. From there she was also talking about making bowls but making them lopsided or at an angle so I thought “ooh, maybe like a clam mouth to give it a bit of personality”. I thought that went with the tentacles perfectly and it all just came together really well during the session.

CL: Have you worked with clay before? 

LI: I worked with clay once before when I was about nine, but it was on the wheel and completely different, it’s completely different techniques. But I really enjoy the ceramics sessions. I came back and made a stamp inspired by him with some squiggles that look like his tentacles because I really like that shape. Once I’d done that, I came back again and made a cup that’s got coloured clay inlay tentacles on the side and little seaweeds. I feel like it goes with the theme. 

CL: Is it inspired by an octopus?

LI: Yeah. It’s like an octopus because I like eating seafood as well, although it’s designed to hold cherries. 

CL: Why cherries?

LI: I was just thinking of something small and unusual. I like unusual pairings, like something that gives you a way to be creative in the kitchen. I brought that with me into ceramics, the idea of making all sorts of random food pairings to see what happens. I make my dinner with whatever I have, I really enjoy being creative in that way and don’t particularly plan.  I start with ingredients and make something from them. That’s how my mind works. 

CL: Has this inspired you to be more creative in the future?

LI: Yes. The next day I wrote a short story about a tin of tuna for the library’s ‘Halloween Zine’. So yeah, I think it has inspired me to just go for it and do random creative things outside just me in the kitchen making dinner. 

C: Do you think you’ll want to work with clay in the future?

LI: Since the first session I’ve come back for the second one, come back for this, and the only reason I’m not coming back for more is to allow my colleagues to have a go, otherwise I’d be here everyday. It’s only because I have a job that requires me not to be making my tentacle empire that I won’t be here. 

CL: Amazing. Any last thoughts you want to leave us with?

LI: Everyone should try it!

Aliyah Hussain, Project Artist

Clara: In a few words describe this project, what inspired it and how it came about?

Aliyah: I was invited by Niamh to come to the library to work on a project that was working with the people in the library to create a dinner service. I had done a project previously that was called Dinner Service, in Castlefield Gallery.  I made a load of sculptures and all the items were designed around specific types of food. It was a very sort of playful way of having lunch or a buffet. I wanted it to be a conversation starter but also thinking about the relationship between objects and food.

I wanted the people involved to really shape everything as much as they could. I’m not really a production potter, I’m coming at it from a more sculptural or decorative place. So, I started with that project as inspiration but also so we could focus on the decorative elements like the dyed clay inlay and the stamps. It was about giving people the opportunity to design the look of the plates through the making. 

We started with the sculptural food objects, so we got people to think about eating together and what things they like to eat. Then I introduced the three basic hand-building techniques in that first workshop and we made our own version of food sculptures for a buffet meal that we’d like to eat together. From that session we then set up the buffet with all the food people requested on the food sculptures and used it as a still-life set up. From that we ate lunch and did drawing, from the drawings we designed the stamps, and then the stamps became part of the decoration. The idea was that if you came to one session or if you came to all of them, something of your work would end up in the dinner service even if you’re not there physically making the plates. 

Those two sessions set the tone for the making. I think for me it felt very important to have that sort of experimental start before we narrowed it down into more technical, functional ceramics which are still fun but there’s a little more pressure to make things that are usable. I didn’t want to start with that pressure and nervous energy, I wanted it to be wide-open, fun, and a little bit silly. 

CL: Did anything surprise you about the process?

AL: Maybe I was surprised by how much we made, because you never know. And maybe everything is surprising, because you just kind of plan for things, hope for things to work, but you actually can’t know until you do it. I’m not surprised by how good they look because I think that people make great things all the time but maybe just the volume. And it was so nice that people were super into it and came back to many sessions. People came back to as much as they could, which was amazing.

CL: What was your favourite part?

AL:  The first session was really fun but it was sort of slightly chaotic, it was more abstract, but people really got into it. Then the still-life session meant you could kind of see part-way through the project, what the intention was and it all came together really nicely and it was really fun having that lunch together. It felt like sort of a mini version of what the whole intention is, and that was really nice. And I’ve really just enjoyed the workshops, I really enjoyed the actual making of the dinner service, it was lovely. 

CL: Would you say you’ve learnt anything from this process or any of the participants?

AL: Yeah, I’ve learnt a lot actually. I think everything about it has been learning for sure. I really enjoyed and learnt the scope of how things can be made and how things can be decorated. Like with the inlay clay technique, the range of the designs, imagery, and patterns that we got was really amazing and really personal for a lot of people. People managed to bring in their own stories and their own experience, and then put that into a plate using basically just lumps of dyed clay. It’s really really amazing. 

CL: Has it made you think differently about your use of ceramics or inspired you for any future projects? 

AL: Yeah, it’s definitely given me a bit more confidence that I can do something on this scale because the scale of it feels massive compared to other things I’ve done. With the support from the team, it’s just been unbelievable, which has given me confidence as well. 

CL: If people were interested in pottery but missed these workshops, what advice would you give them?

AL: A: Get stuck in, but it really helps to know some of the basics. That felt really important to me in these workshops, it’s not just messing around with clay – which is fun – but I really wanted to share as much of the skills side of it. There are certain little techniques, you only really need a few of them, and then you’ve basically got all of the ceramics at your disposal. There’s three hand-building techniques, and once you know those three in any combination you can really make anything. I think that’s nice, useful knowledge to learn, learn those basic things and then that just opens up this possibility for you. 

CL: If someone was going to come to the meal we will be having using this dinner service, what would you want people to take away from that experience?

AL:  I want the people that have made the work to hopefully feel proud about what they’ve made, that will be lovely. I just think that this whole Chopping Club programme, the eating together, the sharing of food, cooking together, and now this facilitates the eating of food as everyone’s made their own plates. I just think the whole project is really inspiring. It’s got a really nice sense of community to it, a really good sense of agency and ownership.The way that At the Library and this programme works feels very genuine. That’s how I’ve perceived it as an artist from outside coming into the project, and I’ve tried to stick with that. It’s quite a rare and amazing thing to be part of something like that.