I used to run a restaurant: Richard Savin tells John Windsor how redundancy led him to pottery evening classes and

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RICHARD SAVIN is a 53-year-old young contemporary. Nine months ago he lost his job as a magazine editor and set off to the Guildford Adult Education Centre to brush up his Italian. Instead, a pottery and ceramics course caught his eye and now he is transformed into a sculptor.

He has sold shell-like abstracts as corporate art, acquired a dealer, sold a figure of a wartime dispatch rider for pounds 1,000 in the United States and is now exhibiting at the Harvey Road Gallery, Guildford.

Could anyone do that? What qualifications are required? Should all the middle-aged unemployed make a beeline for their local evening classes?

Mr Savin was no good on the potter's wheel and bored stiff with coil pots. Then he started modelling sea shells, exaggerating their fantastic shapes. 'I loved the feel of the clay, the forms and structures which came out of it,' he told me. Water Training International, the multinational trust, paid him pounds 200 for six pieces after spotting them at an exhibition put on by the centre. It was a start.

His subsequent output, which fills his home in Guildford - now replete with kiln - is no less fantastic. There is Mechanical Man at the Front, a stoneware First World War soldier in gas mask straddling a Vickers machine gun with an internal combustion engine embedded in his head. Victim of Ozone Friendly Fire is high-fired porcelain, part bug, part internal combustion engine, part helicopter gunship. Dawn Raiders is a blown safe inscribed 'Industry/City/Safe in Our Hands'. Anatomy of a Bad Dream is a 'worst nightmare' scenario - nude male figure in gas mask bogged down in mud.

The friendly middle-aged women in his class have cast a quizzical eye over his work and delivered their verdict. 'You need therapy,' they said. 'That's exactly what I came for,' he replied.

He is now in his third term, having absorbed 'how different materials and glazes respond and what more I can get away with'. Technically, his tutors say, he gets away with murder. Delicate filigree strands miraculously survive two or three firings, each with new glazes. 'It's because I make them fast and it all dries at the same time,' he explains, adding for good measure that European ceramics seem to have made no progress since Meissen.

His previous qualifications include three A-levels and six O- levels; helping to launch the Ford Cortina; setting the London to Istanbul rally record (54 hrs 25 mins); selling aircraft parts in the Middle East; making a documentary film on Jordan with King Hussein; being chef/patron of three restaurants.

True, the short-lived Saleroom and Auction Monthly which he edited showed some familiarity with sculpture. But it revelled in auctions of cattle and tower blocks. What his sculpture expresses is the wry, detached, half-mocking view of life which every time-scarred 50-year-old would do well to cultivate. Survivors of involuntary career changes and other misfortunes (Mr Savin was an unwilling guest of the Shah of Iran for a couple of years) tend to develop a certain wit or certain ulcers.

There was the memorable misfortune in his Belgian Brasserie in Tooley Street in the Eighties, when Fay Maschler, the Evening Standard's food critic, was served a pasta so horrible that she sent it back. Survival mechanisms in the Savin brain began to whirr. He telephoned the editor, gushed gratitude at having had Ms Maschler as a guest, then said the restaurant was about to be turned into a funeral parlour. Ms Maschler's condemnation was never printed.

Two world wars have imprinted their images in Mr Savin's psyche, images that tumble out whenever he handles clay - gas masks, guns, soldiers. Not that he has lived through both wars, but his father and grandfather did and his earliest impressions are of their fireside reminiscences, comparing wars. The First World War was primitive, pre-scientific, he learnt. People felt vulnerable, isolated. After the Second World War, the state and scientists were in command. People felt secure. His 'power ceramics' - more popular with men than women - convey the flavour of this transition.

Mechanical Man harks back to a nightmarish film image by Eisenstein of First World War gas masks - worn by horses. Other 'images from my journey through life' which haunt him: the wonderful symmetries of the DC10 tail section, the early radiator of the Aston Martin (his childhood doctor drove one), the unimprovable contours of hatchets, Crusader-style helmets. 'I'm exorcising ghosts,' he said.

Children who pot and sculpt at the centre on Saturdays appreciate Mr Savin's world. Malcolm Tite, the visual arts tutor, told me he glanced round the room one day to find it full of little clay figures in gas masks with machine guns. For him, there is no hiding from Mr Savin, who pounces on him in corridors or phones him at home to thrash out technicalities.

For Mr Savin, exposure came by chance. Perhaps it always does. Local galleries snootily rejected him - 'We only deal in ceramics,' said one - and his first showing, at a craft fair, earned him a measly pounds 3.50 for Hissing Sid, his serpentine paperweight. He resolved to give the 'crafts' market a miss. Then he offered his American Despatches (GI with classic 1936 Indian motor cycle) and the prospect of one-off commissions to a London dealer, Jeffrey Sion, who happened to have advertised in Heavy Duty, the bikers' magazine. Mr Sion, enthused, has instructed him to sell nothing from his exhibition. He is contemplating limited editions.

Moral from Mr Savin: 'Never treat adult education as a joke, something for the retired and failed. It's a spearhead against ageism. I'm the living, working proof of that'.

Surrey Adult and Continuing Education Service exhibition of sculptures: Harvey Road Gallery, Guildford, 9.30am- 4.30pm Mon-Fri and 7-9pm Mon-Thurs, 9.30am-12.30pm Sat, closed Sun. Until 12 June, closed 1-4 June.

(Photograph omitted)

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