Deep in the Mayenne countryside is the quiet village of Saint Calais du Desert, and its hidden gem, a wonderful ceramic painting and pottery studio run by Susan Clarke and her husband Keith.
Susan and her husband who were originally from Essex, bought the house and five attached barns in 2001. This beautiful part of northern France initially attracted Susan and Keith as it was easily reachable for frequent visits. There are many places of interest nearby but a couple of their favourites are the 15th century medieval town of Lassay-les-Chateau and beautiful St. Ceneri la Gerei. They retired in 2010 and Susan wanted to her dream to make her hobbies of ceramics and pottery into a small cottage industry.
In November 2010, the couple moved permanently with their elderly cat Sophie, and straight away found themselves snowbound for the week! The fact that this husband and wife make an excellent team is evident as soon as you meet them, very welcoming and hospitable. They make you immediately feel at home, and as if you have known them for a long time. Far from retiring, these days, Keith is kept busy either working on the buildings or in their large garden, They have transformed two of their barns into beautiful gites prettily furnished and decorated by Susan with lovely unique hand crafted furniture and objects. This year they also have the Tour de France to look forward to since it will pass just 5 minutes up the road.
Luckily for me and other craft enthusiasts, Susan has succeeded in making her dream into a reality. After joining the French system and registering as an auto-entrepreneur Suesies Ceramiques was born in 2012.
This was the reason for my recent visit to their lovely home nestled in the Normandy countryside, a friend and I took part in a day ceramics course. We had arranged to try ceramics in the morning and pottery after lunch. However, as soon as we walked into the Aladdin’s cave of a studio we were in a quandary, as to what to do first, the choice of ceramics to paint was enormous, house plaques, dragons, jugs, bowls, statues, the options seem endless. Eventually we decided on a project each and settled down to learn about how to select and use the paints from the large variety of colours available.
Very soon it was lunch time and we went into their home where they provided a delicious, three course meal complete with fresh homemade bread. What could be better! Of course, being expats we talked about our experiences. They told us that they have they found the locals very welcoming and Susan’s workshops are popular with French and English alike. Their area has a large expat community and they belonging to the Euro-Mayenne expat group, however, Susan has also run a ceramics class at St. Fraimbault de Lassay in the Maison de Retrait for French residents with Dementia.
After enjoying a tour of the garden which overlooks the valley with the Mayenne River running through it, we left their cat Sophie and two French felines sunning themselves in the lovely sunshine and headed back to the studio. We were so hooked on our ceramic painting we opted to continue with this instead of pottery – I guess we will just have to go back to try that.
Susan is an excellent teacher and taught me a technique I had never tried before called barge painting. It is the type of art you see on canal boats and great fun to do. Finally, after half an hour practicing on paper I felt brave enough to apply some leaves and flowers to my work and was very pleased with the result.
All too soon the afternoon had passed, wonderfully filled with friendly chatter and were very pleased with the results of our day’s work. As we wandered outside into the warm evening sunshine all that was left was to arrange a date to collect our work after it had been fired. We bid a fond farewell to this lovely couple, secure in the knowledge that we would be back soon.
Susan Keefe is an author and book reviewer