Old Materials, New Stories: Clay in Canada Water

Down at the Paper Garden, storytelling is a core element of the workshops we hold with children from local primary schools each week. Many of the stories are written by facilitators, and lead on to the activities planned for the session and correspond with the overall theme for the term.

Last term’s theme – the forest – inspired stories that linked to the children’s learning on the life of an oak tree, from germination to the ancient phase, and the ways in which the individuals living in a forest are connected in unexpected ways. One of the stories discussed was the network of fungi that connects the roots of the trees to one another, allowing them to communicate and share resources under the ground. The children taking part in this session then went on to make leaves, insects, and tree bark for the ‘forest’ that we grew in our Printworks space.

One of the stories, created for workshops where children made woodland creatures from clay, connects the work from last term to our activities going forward. This term, we will be using clay to explore the theme of diversity, creating items such as cups and tiles that tell stories relating to Canada Water as a dock, and a place of migration.

This story tells of a girl who lived alone in the forest, a long time ago, when trees covered all the land. She spent her time gathering berries and leaves around the forest, which stained her skin in blues, purples, reds, and greens, gaining her the nickname of Rainbow Girl amongst the trees. But as the only creature in the forest at the time, she grew lonely and missed the colours and noises of other animals. One day, she began to mould and shape the different types of clay she found around her – reds, yellows, and greys – turning them into figures which she place in her pot on the fire overnight. When she awoke in the morning and removed the lid from the pot, all kinds of creatures emerged to live in the forest, bringing with them all their colours and noises.

The inspiration for this story came from scientific research suggesting that the complex molecules that preceded life, such as DNA and proteins, were formed in a mixture of clay and water. So, like creation myths from cultures across the world – from Ancient Chinese traditions to the Quran, from Indian origin stories to those from Ancient Greece, from Yoruba myths to Mongolian tales – science also suggests that clay is linked to the origins of life. In fact, the earliest known creation myth was one from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who told that the gods created man from clay, but because they were drunk at the time, their final product was riddled with imperfections.

For the Winter Solstice celebration at the Paper Garden in December, Central Saint Martins ceramics student Ewelina, who is working closely with Global Generation this year, curated the clay creatures that children made after hearing the story of Rainbow Girl. She fired and glazed the figures, made a pot from clay, and hung them as though emerging from it, telling the story through this installation.


London is built on a huge geological clay formation dating back millions of years, and the presence of clay under the city has been beneficial for the building of tunnels, including the underground network and the Brunel tunnel under the Thames. As the Masterplan for the Canada Water development gets underway, we hope to play with the idea that clay will once again be taken out from the ground through our work going forward.

Generators from the Paper Garden’s youth leadership cohort began to work with clay this January, too. Some of their writing reflects on their experience of using this material, and how it reminds them of their connection to the natural world:

“Working with clay makes me feel capable of creating something from nature. The hands-on nature of working with clay is very therapeutic and relaxing.” - Fabien

“Working with clay can make you feel relaxed. It gives you a sense of freedom, as you can shape it to whatever you want, and it really connects you to the most creative side of nature. It’s very fun watching others make their own creations, as they explore what the other things they can make. It’s not the sort of experience you get everyday, and I think there’s a hidden creativity in every piece of clay.” - Vivian

“Working with clay is:



mildly frustrating

(but also somehow calming)

it’s a lovely texture, and it feels good to produce something with your own hands

Excited to do more!” - Ruby

Working with clay makes me feel happy as I am able to be creative. I like making shapes and objects and it is fun. I like trying new things and making whatever comes into my mind. It is very interesting and it is fun to do every time.” - Nyah