Deborah Frith: The unstoppable Yorkshire 54-year-old who is a teacher, potter, mentor, lockkeeper and biker
There’s a quote from Grayson Perry that goes something like ‘There are artists who work from nine until five, and then there are artists’. “I rather like that,” says Deborah Frith. It means, of course, that a truly creative person never, well, stops creating.
According to ‘Frith’s Law’, you are either making it, planning it, thinking about the process of bringing it about, or getting over the logistical hurdles to get it into place, and in the public eye.
But then anyone who knows Debs Frith, will tell you that not only is she an accomplished and award-winning sculptor, but she’s also a noted ceramicist, teacher, potter, mentor and environmentalist, that she is a lockkeeper on one of South Yorkshire’s canals and a keen motorbiker. We’ve missed out horse-riding and kayaking.
In fact, there’s probably a lot more to this unstoppable 54-year old, but there’s nowhere near enough space on these pages to cover everything she does. To say that her days are filled is a considerable understatement - standing still is not for her.
Born and raised in the Mexborough and Swinton area of South Yorkshire, Debs is the middle of three sisters and the family is close. Her son Joe has just started at Sheffield Hallam University, and from a very early age she and her siblings were encouraged to establish their own independence and to know their own minds. Her late father, a bus driver, used to encourage them all, for example, to enjoy doing mechanics.
“He loved his work, always did. He was a great driver. But one of the things that he loved even more, was to take us all on holiday to Scotland – not just for the scenery, but because he told us ‘I love the fact that there’s a lot less traffic up there. Mum took it all in her stride – she was the one who encouraged us to get down to the local library, and to read, read, read!”
She admits that, at school she was a late starter. “I was always daydreaming, unless I was in art class. But I was picked on, and bullied. The solution was that I decided that I’d rather like to do metalwork, with the lads, and I loved being in that class. I even made my own screwdriver. I’m really not sure when my love of sculpture started, but I do remember being at home, in front of the fire, and holding those little sugar sweets very close to the heat, and moulding them, twisting them into little shapes – generally of horses. Early anatomical modelling, I suppose”.
She went on to night classes, and then to college in Staffordshire. “I loved my home, and my parents and sisters,” she says, “but, like a lot of young people who experience it, college gave me a sort of independence.” She began working for some of the great names of the china industry – Royal Doulton, Royal Worcester and Beswick, but they were exacting taskmasters.
“As a freelancer, you had to create pieces for them, and then take them across the country for inspection, and comments. I’m afraid that they weren’t always upfront with what they required, and many a time I found myself, after the discussion, in tears in the nearest toilets. And none of them were exactly prompt in paying their artists.”
She worked for Disney, but in new mediums, fibreglass and resin – these larger designs were used in the architectural concept for EuroDisney’s faux buildings. And she also turned her very able hands to graphic design. And then along came something which changed Debs’ life – and the lives of millions.
“The internet just opened up so many doors for me,” she explains. “Instead of hearing about potential clients by word of mouth, you could discover opportunities right there on screen.
"I think that the first one that I went for were the Canterbury Cultural Awards, and there were others for the Arts Council. I’m sure that a lot of artists in all disciplines had ‘lightbulb moments’ online, and they thought, as I know I did, ‘I can do that!’
"For me, it was like that image of Mickey Mouse, with the lightning coming out of his fingertips. And I discovered the vital importance of networking – you’d mention that you were trying to create X or Y, which involved some metal work, and someone would say ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ve got a mate who can weld’, and it was problem solved. People are consistently helpful.”
She’s produced pieces for organisations as diverse as an assisted living complex in Bedford (pillars to a garden entrance with entwined Meadowsweet) and Lancashire Mining Museum in Wigan – which involved moving a 1.3-ton block of stone.
Currently, she’s working on a pair of stone greyhounds, which will sit outside the Davie Fine Art gallery in Tickhill, and she’s just welcomed home a gloriously colourful piece called Women’s Work, which was on display for many months at Shaw House, near Newbury, as part of an exhibition called Altered States, and which marked 100 years of female suffrage.
Made of car panels, it stands eight feet tall, and it’s not something that she will ever part with – it has indelible associations with her late partner Russ.
If there’s a problem with one of her commissions, Debs will always find a way. She recalls that she was creating a work which required 22 ceramic sticklebacks (made by schoolchildren) to be applied to stone.
“Everyone told me that it would be extremely difficult,” she says, “but I said, ‘If the Romans could do it on some of their monuments, why can’t we?’, and now its there, for all to enjoy. Problem solved.”
Debds hates “sitting still”, and equally loathes “routine. Having to do something on a specific day, just because it has always been that way.”
The nearest thing that Debs comes to being specifically on hand is her work as a part-time lockkeeper on the stretch of canal and river at Sprotborough, just outside Doncaster.
“I love it,” she says, “most of the people who use the waterways – and its mostly during the warmer weather, of course – are charming, great fun to talk to, and very interesting, passionate about their boats. Life’s better by water, where-ever you may be. I love visiting St. Ives, which was the home of Barbara Hepworth for so many years.
"That woman is my idol – five times better than Henry Moore, in my eyes. At the canal, the downside for me was the number of youngsters who used one specific area to jump into the canal on very hot days, and who were a danger to themselves. Every time that happened, we had to alert the police, because of the safety issues.
“And, very sadly, there was also the problem of visitors who showed little respect to the environment – they’d leave all sorts of rubbish behind them, used barbecues, everything that you could think of, and they were forever punch holes through the signage.”
After a little thought she solved the problem by re-wilding many patches of the waterside which had, until then, been mowed. It’s surprising how some folk don’t like being near nettles (vital for bees and butterflies), she says, when they are dressed for swimming or sunbathing.
There are, of course, plenty of other flowers and plants, but the riverbank is now a proper wild environment, rather than a mown lawn.
And, to Debs’ delight, nature even delivered some rare wild orchids, popping up in profusion after years of being dormant. She shares lock-keeping duties with her pal Geoff Hamill, an ex-policeman.
In the garage at home – which is also her workshop, with her kiln – are five motorbikes, and her favourite is a Bandit 1200, single cylinder super moto.
The biking community is as close to her as her artistic one, but for Debs they – and all her other many activities, blend harmoniously into her life. She exhibits at craft fairs, and in several galleries, and quite apart from creating art during the long months of lockdown, Debs also laid her own front drive at her Rawmarsh home.
“If I can do something, then I’ll do it”, she laughs, “but don’t expect me to stay stuck in one place for too long.”
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