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  • Writer's pictureMáthair

Jemma Millen, maker, ceramicist, artist and mother.

Jemma is a hand building ceramicist who graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Fine & Applied Arts from the University of Ulster, Belfast. Her studio is based in Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim. Creating ceramics influenced by her natural surroundings and events in her life, she applies traditional hand building techniques to craft unique, sculptural forms using clay. Jemma’s work has been chosen to take part in the 137th Royal Ulster Academy of Arts annual exhibition. The exhibition will run from the 19th October 2018 to 6th January 2019, and will take place in the Ulster Museum.

I could not express the joy I felt the moment I found out I was pregnant. I remember so distinctly the shock of watching the test change quickly to positive - it was so surreal, I felt time could physically rewind and erase the fact.

I remember when I was a child, probably about 5 - playing by myself between my bedroom and my mum and dads' room with my doll squashed up inside my dress. I was really committed during this particular play time and so completely oblivious to my oldest brother arriving and making his way upstairs to see me.

Taken by complete surprise, I belly-flopped onto my parents' bed to hide my play pregnancy. It was so uncomfortable with the rigid plastic from my doll's arms and legs digging into my abdomen while my brother teased me and asked me what I was doing. But I was so embarrassed that I was caught playing that I remember telling him I was sleeping and really tired so he should leave, all the while hoping either the bed or my body would absorb Timmy Tiny Tears. I lay there for a bit after he left, then had a quick lift-of-the-dress c-section before running down stairs, suddenly fully refreshed and ready to play with my big brother.

The grandest dreams my 5-year-old self-wanted for me as an adult were:

3. Scan groceries on a till.

2. Be a mermaid

1. Be a Mum.

I remember thinking then that I definitely want to be a mum when I’m older: something I just assume happens when you want it to, because why not? I was told when I was 19 it would be ‘difficult’ to conceive and hearing that felt like I was being suffocated. So, when the pregnancy test changed to positive, and the 2nd did, 5th, 8th so on - that ever so grand and silly dream as a 5-year-old became real.

In case you didn’t notice, ‘Be a ceramicist’ wasn’t in the top 3 list of my dreams as a child, or truthfully – not in my top 50 either but here I am a ceramicist and a mother. Don’t get me wrong, I wished super hard to be a mermaid on every birthday cake candle blow out and I’m confident I got close one year too.

Lungs by Jemma Millen

Full of joy (and baby), I was ready to put my ceramics practice to sleep for the next 18 years. I chose to stop making, slow down and enjoy literally every second of the next nine months: and I did, it was amazing and I have no guilt about abandoning my making - I owed it to my 5-year-old self to be selfish and indulgent.

I am extremely lucky as a mother to have the mother I have. My mum is a mother to mothers. She moved here from London to marry my Dad, left her family, her job as an au pair and began their own family. Six children in total, while fostering children for 40 years and at one point managing a small café; if there is anyone that makes being a mother look effortless, it is my mum.

I heard from many people while pregnant that ‘it takes a village’, this is not what I saw growing up – sometimes a person is a village; my mum is her own village. While she has put in her time as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, I have only just started my journey, and I’m not a village.

There’s a wonderful quote from Lauren Groff replying to a question about how she manages work and family, she replies:

“I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle... But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”

The craft sector in Northern Ireland is full of strong, creative women – most who are also mothers. Observing them I thought ‘god, is everyone their own village?! How is this possible, what is the secret?’ I don't have the answers but so far for me a huge part is my extremely supportive husband and another is time.

I’ve always seen my practice as split in two: there is my gallery work and my retail work – the fun and the bread and butter. My gallery making is where I can work things out, exercise my creativity, demonstrate my thoughts and reveal. The retail making is sensible, practical and a necessity - it’s a yin and yang situation.

The term ‘balance’ reminds me of The Sims – trying to keep every aspect of your character topped up in the green – I think this is how I visualise myself. Looking back, while I stopped making ceramics, I definitely kept making; I was topping up that little bar (which I’m sure kept me sane) by nesting, baking, knitting, writing, drawing and reading. But now there’s a new bar – the mother bar and it requires grown up, practical and sensible actions.

I have started making again, slowly – almost glacier – (what did I DO with all of that time beforehand) and truthfully, I’ve never enjoyed making more. Right now, my making is selfish but it’s making me a better mother. I’m not confident enough with my time yet to take on commissions or orders, my 5-year-old self is still overwhelming with her voice that my time is for being a mother – the guilt is strong between either direction of my need to make and need to mother.

Grief 2018 by Jemma Millen Black Clay, Stoneware, Handmade Grog, Polyurethane Resin

Word by Jemma Millen

For more information on Jemma's work: or visit the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition at the Ulster Museum from the 19th October 2018 to 6th January 2019.

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