Finding My Way into a Career in Clay

Slow Tide, 6¼ in. (16 cm) in diameter, pinched and coiled porcelain and stoneware clays, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2018.

I didn’t plan to have a career working with clay; in fact I don’t think I have ever really planned my working life at all. Rather, it has been a case of following my interests and taking opportunities as they present themselves.

When I finished secondary school, I went straight to university and lasted 18 months before heading to Australia to see what life was about. It was ten years before I returned to university in New Zealand to complete a bachelor’s degree in plant ecology. My partner and I then spent 18 months rock climbing and traveling in Australia before I enrolled in a Master of Science (MSc) ecotoxicology program in Sydney.

I had long hours in the laboratory doing my MSc research, analyzing field samples, and was starting to go a bit crazy with the precision and concentration required to maintain the validity of the analyses. The local high school was offering an evening pottery class, I signed up for it and that was it. I was hooked. In my last year at university, in addition to my masters program, I signed on for a part-time ceramics diploma at Hornsby Technical and Further Education (TAFE), which meant I had one whole day a week with clay.

1 Waterlines, 6¾ in. (17 cm) in height, pinched and coiled porcelain, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2017.

2 Sue Scobie in the studio.

I returned to New Zealand after submitting my thesis. After all those years of trying different things and following my outdoor interests, I thought I had better knuckle down and get a real job. While I did join the local pottery club and went along to every available weekend workshop, it was never my focus. I spent the next 15 years working in the public sector providing technical input on a wide range of environmental policy issues. When the Otago Polytechnic distance diploma in ceramics was offered for the first time in Wellington in 2005, I leapt at the chance to re-engage with clay. It gave me the structure and deadlines I needed to get making again.

In 2008, after working on a couple of highly stressful projects in my day job, I came home one Thursday and told my partner he had until Monday morning to talk me out of resigning and taking a year off while I considered my options. That same night, he said “go for it.” With one year left to finish my ceramics diploma, I spent 2009 fully immersed. I was completely disillusioned with the career I had left, and still wracked my brain to think what I could do in terms of a new career, but, with the support of my partner, kept going with clay.

Connections

Science and ceramics both require problem-solving skills with plenty of lateral thinking, especially when you are working on something new, or trying to resolve technical issues. Many scientists I know are also highly creative and in their spare time can be found playing an instrument, drawing, painting, etc. Experimentation is key to both fields; you only find out new things by trying and seeing what happens. Each firing, I try to include a small test of new material blends. Most don’t work, but the ones that do lead to new textures or colors to incorporate into my work. Keeping good records ensures that the results are repeatable.

3 Storm Front, 13¾ in. (35 cm) in width, porcelain and stoneware clays, pinched and coiled, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2015.

Two years of glaze technology was a requirement for the diploma, and with my science background, this type of study was pretty straightforward as I was already familiar with the periodic table and use of chemical formulas. However, it drove me crazy with so many hours spent mixing tests and using glaze calculation software when all I wanted to be doing was making work with unglazed surfaces.

Inspiration

I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors. Rock climbing and camping, hiking, or rambling around in Australia and New Zealand take you to some places that leave lasting memories, not just of the physical environment, but also of the weather, wildlife, and shifting light. Some locations hold traces of previous human habitation, which add another layer to the resonance of the place.

With my work, I try to capture a feeling of the places I have been, and hope that they encourage people to stop, look, and appreciate what is out there.

4 Dry Heat, 5 in. (13 cm) in width, porcelain and stoneware clays, pinched, coiled, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2015.

5 Flow, 8¼ in. (21 cm) in height, porcelain and stoneware clays, pinched, coiled, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2017.

Making

My current work evolved during my final diploma year. I chose to develop ideas around topography and landscape. I was initially working solely with a stoneware clay body, adding colorants and local materials. I combined porcelain and stoneware just to see if it would work, and it did, but has proven to be very fickle. The textural and visual contrast really appeals to me, so I’ve kept going with it. I make small color tests before starting a new series of pieces, but I am never entirely sure what is going to come out the other end. My forms generally all have quite narrow bases; I like the visual lift this gives, while also suggesting the balance of nature. The simple forms encourage people to pick them up so they can explore the variations in surface texture, and this is easier to do with a familiar rounded form than something more abstract or irregular. 

I can have big losses due to cracking along the joints between the different types of clay. Sometimes a piece warps to an unacceptable level. In either case, they end up as landfill. On a really bad run, I can lose 80% of a kiln load, but if all goes well, I lose none. Sometimes I work with a single clay body, especially if there has been a recent bad run with the combined clays. I am mostly used to the losses, but some days really do test my sanity. A lot of potters say how they feel excited when they open the kiln, I save the excitement until a piece is out of the kiln and had its final sanding, which is when I get a really close look at them.

6 Snowlines, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, porcelain and stoneware clays, pinched, coiled, oxides, unglazed, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2013.

Marketing

The whole business and marketing side of being an artist is still a challenge for me. New Zealand is a very small market and I need to put more time into my online presence. Currently, I sell my work on consignment through several New Zealand galleries and at exhibitions. The feedback I get from these outlets is that most of my work is purchased by international visitors who find that my vessels remind them of places they have traveled in New Zealand or elsewhere.

Instagram is the only social media platform I use. I didn’t know what to expect when I started in 2016, but it has been a great way to connect with other makers around the world working in a wide range of media. I am planning on trying out some direct sales later this year and setting up a shop on my website.

the author To learn more about Sue Scobie’s work, visit her website www.suescobie.co.nz or follow her on Instagram @suescobie_ceramics.

Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image

Send this to a friend