My husband James, 58, and I moved to France in 2001 after he was offered a job with a UK company that wanted to set up a premises here.
James had some contacts in France from a previous role and spoke French well, so at the time it seemed an ideal opportunity.
We moved to Le Mans (Sarthe) that March, but about nine months later the company made him redundant.
We decided to stay but it was a difficult couple of years.
James is an engineer but his diploma was not recognised in France and he ended up working in a variety of roles for different companies.
Eventually, he was offered a job with Renault in Le Mans in January 2004.
Having studied 3D speciality ceramics at degree level, I had always wanted to work as a ceramicist, but it was a difficult field to get into.
Instead, I started my working life in 1992 as a guide at the Natural History Museum in London, teaching pottery in the evenings.
Five years later, I began a job for St John Ambulance. I became a trainer and eventually progressed to being responsible for all first aid training across Wales.
When we arrived in France, I spoke no French at all and did not look for a job.
However, when James was made redundant, I had to pick up what I could.
Before leaving for France, I had done a Celta course teaching English as a foreign language at Hammersmith College, and in March 2002 I got a job in the chambre de commerce, working as a vacataire teaching English to adult professionals.
I still did pottery in the evenings, but just for myself as it was too hard to set up a business at that time.
Taking the leap
In 2009, when the autoentrepreneur system came in, I registered and began to make and sell items on the side. However, I kept my job as vacataire, worried I would not make enough money from my ceramics.
As things grew and I began to sell more of my work, I was forced to make a decision – to grow my business and give up a steady income or to stay as I was.
I decided to take the leap and I have never looked back.
Still focused on making an income, I made a lot of urns, domestic ware and jewellery, which I would sell on my website and at local craft fairs.
I had always enjoyed sculpture but did not think I would be able to make a living out of it.
I also ran classes for adults and children.
I was content with my work, but in 2020 everything changed.
When the pandemic hit, like many, I re-evaluated my life. Fatalistically, I thought to myself: ‘If I’m going to die, I may as well be happy.’
It was the push I needed to move on from homeware to my real passion of animal sculpture, even though I was afraid I would never make enough money.
I was wrong. The moment I changed my website to reflect this new direction, in November, I began to see interest.
Elephant in the oven
Soon I was making pet sculptures and received a large number of commissions from doting owners.
I also worked on some larger sculptures of animals, including elephants and tigers.
My husband got used to taking a peek in the oven to see what was cooking – only to discover an elephant drying out inside.
When restrictions were lifted in 2021, I did a trade show in Paris called Maison et Objet. One of my favourite pieces – a 60cm-high leopard – attracted a lot of attention. He sold instantly to a gallery in Provence.
Then a representative from a Japanese department store expressed an interest. When I told him the piece was sold, he commissioned me to make another, along with an owl.
Both were sent to a store in Tokyo for display. It is amazing to think of my sculptures being enjoyed so far from home.
Confidence to carry on
The interest in my animal sculptures gave me the confidence I needed to carry on.
I am now exactly where I always wanted to be – using my skills as a ceramicist, creating lifelike sculptures, and selling them too.
I also still run courses for adults and do children’s workshops at a local museum.
My biggest piece to date is a metre-long lion. We had to build a special kiln to go around him.
Something on that scale takes about six weeks. It takes patience and, as my health is not great, I have to sometimes take things slowly.
However, seeing the finished result and the joy it brings to others makes it all worthwhile.