I had no idea that clay could be so theraputic says China-bound ceramicist Ellen

Having been seriously injured in a crash in her 20s, Co Down woman Ellen Cunningham's road to recovery was long and painful. She tells Lorraine Wylie how art helped her, to the extent that this month she it showcasing her ceramics at a major exhibition in China

Artist Ellen Cunningham at work in her studio in Newtownards Picture: Hugh Russell
Lorraine Wylie

WITH its exotic scenery and fascinating culture, China now ranks among the top ‘must-see' holiday destinations. But, for Co Down artist, retired Irish dancer and now owner of Cula Ceramics Ellen Cunningham, the country has an added attraction.

Situated in the Hunan Province, Liling city is home to the biggest ceramic trade show in the world. For any small business, an invitation to participate in this prestigious event is a golden opportunity. Much to her delight, Ellen has secured a place at the 2018 Liling International Ceramic Expo, which begins later this month. Now with her suitcase packed, she's ready to showcase Irish talent and introduce ‘Cula' to an international audience.

Success has been a long time in the making and the journey wasn't always via the scenic route. Taking time from a busy schedule, Ellen tells me how, with a little determination and a sprinkle of inspiration, anyone can find their dream.

“Growing up in Groomsport, I was quite a shy child,” she recalls. “My mum decided to take me to Irish dance classes, thinking it would bring me out of myself. She was right – I loved it. I think Mum enjoyed it too. She played violin and provided all my music so it was something we could share. It could be hard work but, looking back, it taught me focus and gave me the determination to succeed.”

At age 15 Ellen competed against girls three and four years her senior to win the intermediate Northern Ireland championship. Later, when she drifted into secretarial work, she continued to dance. Then, at 29, just before she got married, her life changed.

“I was involved in a serious car accident,” she says with a wry smile. “In fact, I was one of the statistics that resulted in the installation of traffic lights, near [builders' merchant] Haldane Fisher on the road between Bangor and Newtownards.

"At the time, doctors were amazed I escaped with relatively minor injuries. However, the serious stuff didn't appear until much later. I began experiencing excruciating pain and was eventually found to be suffering from a reverse curvature of the spine. The prognosis was bleak. I was warned I'd have to give up dancing but worst of all, doctors told me I'd never carry a baby.”

To add to her troubles, Ellen went on to develop ME and fibromyalgia. But she refused to accept the prescription of anti-depressants and painkillers as a long-term solution and determined to find another route back to health.

“I suppose you could say I was on a mission to get better. I learned everything I could about my condition and explored all the treatments available until I found some natural remedies that worked for me. It didn't happen overnight but slowly I started to build myself up.”

Her illness also proved the catalyst for a change in career.

“Unable to work, I had to think of the future and so I decided I'd like to be a teacher,” she laughs as though she's just realised the enormity of the goal.

“Anyway, I started looking online and discovered that Bangor college was offering a one-year course that would qualify me to teach computers. The problem was, I wasn't well enough to do it in such a short time. It took all my energy just to get out of bed, washed and dressed. So I decided I'd do it in two years. Getting myself to college became my main focus. I used to attend classes, accompanied by a Tens machine [a pain-relief device that uses electrical impulses] to ease the pain. But, as I grew stronger I could do more.”

Then Ellen discovered a centre near her home was offering an art class.

“I'd always loved art so I decided to try it as a hobby and discovered I was actually quite good at it. My tutor encouraged me to take it further so once again, I was back at Bangor College doing a short foundation course which, to my delight, I passed.

"That gave me the incentive to try for a university degree. But I still wasn't strong enough to travel to Belfast. Fortunately the University of Ulster brought the course to Bangor College and the problem was solved.”

As well as learning new skills, Ellen was introduced to new materials.

“I'd never worked with clay before so I'd no idea it could be so therapeutic. There was just something about the material that calmed me and I knew I wanted to work with it in the future.”

With limited resources, the degree course might have been prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, Ellen's Irish dance experience came to the rescue.

“I began adjudicating at Irish dance festivals and used the money to pay for my degree. By the time I'd finished I was completely debt free."

With her education complete, it was time to put her knowledge to use. Once again, Ellen delved into the internet, researching everything there was to know about setting up a business. Taking advantage of a branding and market scheme run by Ards council, she set about presenting her idea for what was to become, Cula Ceramics.

“Among other things, I had to do a presentation. Come to think of it, the experience was a bit like Dragons' Den,” she says, chuckling at the memory. “Anyway, I won and part of the prize money had to be used to pay a graphic design artist to help with my logo. I already knew what I wanted so she helped me bring it to fruition. I could use the rest of the cash as I pleased so I decided to put a deposit on renting a unit for my business. In 2013, I launched Cula Ceramics.”

Determination helped build the framework for her new career – but where did she find the inspiration for such exquisite pieces of work?

“Groomsport beach,” she says without hesitation. “I remember as a child, playing on the sand, enjoying the feel of it. I had a thing about texture and collected any unusual stones. Sometimes Mum took me shopping for wallpaper; I'd head straight for the sample book. I really loved the patterns, the colours and even the smell of the paper.

"My work is a reflection of all those childhood impressions of nature. I've always been drawn to the colours blue and green but its only recently I've discovered they're considered the 'feel-good' shades because of their positive affect on moods. I want my pieces to make people feel good.”

Now 55, Ellen has proven the experts wrong on all counts, including motherhood. Her 21-year-old daughter Rebecca is following in her mum's footsteps and about to study ceramics at university. At 17, brother Adam is currently engaged on a media course but hopes to join the navy.

As she jets off to China, her head is already filled with new ideas, bigger projects. Considering how far she's come, there's no doubt that, for Ellen Cunningham, the sky's the limit.

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