Twelve years ago, I started making pots. I never imagined that a few years later, I would be running my own small business in ceramics. Before pottery, I had worked in retail buying, having studied textiles at a British university, and this led to jobs in fashion and homewares. In 2003, my partner and I emigrated from London to a tiny town in rural Australia where, lacking positions in fashion, or homewares (or in anything else), I took up ceramics. And, like many of us potters, I was instantly hooked.
I am often asked if there are any connections between my career in textiles and my current work with clay. And indeed there are. With textiles, I became used to materials that require long and laborious processes—natural materials and their innate characteristics, inconsistencies, and imperfections. I also gained experience in product testing and quality control.
The dyeing and finishing of textiles have much in common with glaze chemistry. And, of course, there are the elements of design: color, form, pattern, and texture. Although not trained as such, I have always been interested in design, and thus came to ceramics well aware of my own aesthetic. It was then a matter of fine tuning the skills to enable me to translate this aesthetic into pots.
Through my work as a buyer, I developed business-related skills that I am finding invaluable today. I gained experience with budgets, profit margins, price negotiation, and monitoring good and bad sellers. I grew accustomed to thinking ahead, to foreseeing hiccups in the production line, and to planning work schedules so that items arrived in stores on time.
Buyers require quality, reliability, flexibility, and consistency from their suppliers. A ceramic artist (or indeed any supplier) does not approach a buyer before being confident they can meet these standards because they may get only one chance to prove they can provide what the buyer needs. When meeting a buyer, one needs to be professional and prepared, familiar with their product line and type of customer, and know how one’s work will fit into a buyer’s stores and their customers’ homes. Lead times for availability of the pieces being discussed, price lists, business cards, and samples must be readily available.
As a buyer I was required to collaborate often with our in-house designers to prepare saleable items; with our suppliers to produce pieces within budget; and with buyers from other departments to attain a cohesive collection in store. The opportunities for collaboration in ceramics seem far fewer, though we must embrace them when they arise, and even seek them out.
In my experience, collaboration with artisans from other fields may be daunting at first, since we are working with the unfamiliar, yet it is exciting and unpredictable as we share ideas that can push our work in unexplored directions. Those outside the ceramic community have richly enhanced my business: not only through new ideas and work, but in exposing my output to fresh markets, benefiting both me and the field as a whole.
Food and drink, plants and flowers, architecture and home decor are all overlapping interests that artists working in clay share with those working in other materials. Over the past few years, since moving to Melbourne, I have taken workshops in weaving, gardening, and basketmaking to connect with various crafts people and learn from what they do. I have collaborated with chefs and baristas, gardeners and florists, and interior designers and stylists, to make tableware for restaurants, vases and planters, tiles, lampshades, and custom bathroom sinks.
These collaborations have materialized in a number of ways through contacts via social media; shops and galleries that stock my work; connections made at conferences, talks, and workshops; even friends of friends I have met in the pub! I have learned to always have business cards with me, and ensure that my website is up to date. You never know whom you might meet, or when they might get around to checking out your work.
In my former role as a buyer, I attended many trade fairs, constantly searching for something new or unusual. Similarly in my current field, participating in craft fairs, trade shows, and competitions enables ceramic artists to place their work before larger audiences and to meet artists from other fields. New potters just starting out may beneficially offer their assistance to more established potters, leading to introductions to others in their networks.
Shortly after I left college, I assisted one of my teachers with a large restaurant commission, testing and developing the glazes while he did the throwing. Not only did I learn fundamentally about the commissioning process, I was able to meet chefs I would otherwise never have met, while also creating many great glazes I could adapt for use in my studio.
Finding Your Passion
My background in homewares has led me to gravitate toward making pieces for the home. I enjoy the meditative process of throwing, and use the wheel because it is a quick and efficient way to make multiples, when the need arises. Yet I also love to handbuild because, to me, it is less restrictive and offers greater opportunity to play. I have a gas kiln and most of my work is fired in reduction to cone 9–10, although I often experiment with other types of firings just to see what transpires.
As a buyer, I had to imagine how an item would be used by the customer, and how it would fit into a contemporary home; this is something I still do when making my pots. My former job also required me to keep up to date with contemporary design and to forecast trends in fashion and home decor. Thus I am still an avid reader of design and home magazines and blogs, and a keen observer of urban life.
Although I do not intentionally follow trends in my ceramics, through my subconscious they can find their way in. I have had a lifelong obsession with stripes—so basic and timeless, yet so expressive. And I am particularly drawn to indigenous and tribal art, ancient objects and Expressionist painting, all of which blend with my own aesthetic and inform my work.
My main influence, however, comes from the materials I use. I am fascinated by their individual properties and characteristics, and let their behavior and processes drive my output. The ceramic materials are tactile and beautiful, and I am drawn to strong, simple, expressive forms and embellishment, so that the materials themselves are never lost.
I try to stay true to myself, working from the gut and not from the head, using processes that excite me to create pieces I love. For it is genuine work, along with good craftsmanship, to which customers happily respond.
Throwing and Decorating a Bowl
I throw my Bedrock series bowls on the wheel using a richly colored and highly textured stoneware clay (A). After leaving the bowl to firm up for a couple of hours, so it is no longer wet and sticky but still very pliable, I then alter the bowl to give it a more organic shape by squeezing and stretching the clay between my hand and a wooden kidney tool (B).
When the bowl is completely dry, I use a sgraffito tool to incise the lines that will later be filled with black inlay slip (C), then apply an undercoat of white terra sigillata, rubbing it into the textured clay with a soft rag (D). The clay is very dark when fired and the colors require a white undercoat to show up.
The colored terra sigillata is brushed on next (E). Terra sigillata can be rather thin so it may take up to three layers or more to build up sufficient color. I burnish the terra sigillata with a soft rag so that the texture of the clay comes through.
After bisque firing, I inlay a black engobe into the incised lines and sponge off the excess (F). Then, when the piece is bone dry, it is fired in a gas kiln to cone 9, in medium reduction (G).
the author Sharon Alpren maintains a studio in Melbourne, Australia. To learn more, visit www.sharonalprenceramics.com.au.