Working Potter: Shannon Garson

1 Beauty and Terror (installation), 4 ft. 9 in. (1.5 m) in width, wheel-thrown porcelain, drawings in terra sigillata, underglaze, oxides, glaze, 2020.

I began my career as a painter and completed a visual arts degree. It was hard studying visual art back in the 1990s. There was a push toward conceptual work and against work that engaged with domestic or commercial space. In my third year, I met potters Clairy Laurence and Monica Usher. They were looking for artists to decorate their colorful pots based on the majolica tradition, and asked me to collaborate with them. This was one of the luckiest moments of my life as a whole. The world of art that interacted with people in intimate spaces opened up to me. I couldn’t throw pots at the time, but I soon learned. From the first moment I got on the pottery wheel, I was obsessed; I remember lying in bed at night with pots on a wheel turning around and around in my head!

2 Shannon Garson with one of her large pots. Photo: Greg Piper.

3 Luminous, 13 in. (33 cm) in width, wheel-thrown porcelain, drawings in terra sigillata, underglaze, oxides, glaze, thrice fired, 2019. Photo: Greg Piper.

Getting Started in Ceramics

When I started making pots, I was working in a studio pottery that made tableware and had a gallery attached. Some of the artists made the green tableware, and all of us worked toward exhibitions with a theme designing one-off collectible pots. This was a brilliant grounding in the reality of a potter’s life. I got to see what established artists did every day, how they organized their businesses and lived their lives. As a result, I had a very realistic idea about the life of a working artist from the start of my career.

Answering the question “Can I keep going?” is a decision that comes around like the sunrise in my life as an artist. In my 20s, I was working in all sorts of jobs and trying to be an artist part time. When the final café I worked in closed, I had to decide to commit to full-time making. That was the first major juncture when I was faced with this question. At that time, I tentatively thought that I could keep going. In the decades since then, there have been many turning points where I’ve had to face this choice.

Before I had my first child, I spoke to many artists about how to balance family and work. I could see that if I didn’t have a plan that included my partner, family life would dominate and I wouldn’t get back to making art. I knew that I wouldn’t be a good mother if I wasn’t able to work on my art. I won a Churchill Fellowship before I got pregnant, and when my baby was six months old, my husband and I bundled her into a baby backpack and took the fellowship, traveling around England and Europe, visiting studio potteries, and taking masterclasses. The fellowship was a wonderful experience but it also gave me impetus and inspiration just when I was ready to get back into work. It is so important for our art community to keep young parents in the art world by understanding the unique challenges faced with a growing family. I love it when artists talk about their family/art life, modeling myriad ways of making and being inspired when there are clothes to wash and meals to be made.

4 Summer Beauty Jug and Teabowls, various sizes, wheel-thrown porcelain, drawings in terra sigillata, underglaze, oxides, glaze, 2018.

5 Stack of Pinwheel Cups, wheel-thrown porcelain, drawings in terra sigillata, underglaze, oxides, glaze, 2019.

Techniques and Balance

I’ve always tried to incorporate drawing into vessel forms. When I began my career, I was selling a lot of tableware. I would get asked to be in the occasional exhibition and the work I made for exhibitions was fairly close to the tableware; it was based on the studio-pottery model of creating designs I could repeat. I’ve never been a great production potter, as my interest in drawing always leads to making complex designs that limit the number of vessels I can make per day. A few years ago, I decided to split my exhibition work and tableware into two distinct streams with their own aesthetics and price points. This has led to a more experimental approach to exhibition work, which has been very satisfying on a personal level. As I’ve shown more, the exhibition work has become conceptually and technically distinct from the tableware and I am able to price both bodies of work differently. This gives me a lot of freedom with exhibition work and now I can relax and put substantial detail and time into it.

Economically, I have found that a diverse practice is a strong practice. My practice incorporates tableware, exhibition work, teaching, professional contracts (like being a peer assessor for grants or judging competitions), and boutique art travel. With a diverse practice, some things underwrite the others. This means that I can balance what I love (i.e. being alone in the studio making work) with jobs that give me a lot of satisfaction on a professional and social level like judging competitions and hosting tours. I didn’t arrive at this point straight away; for many years, tableware was my main source of income. Gradually, as I became a more mature artist, I was able to share knowledge with my peers and emerging artists. Sharing and passing on techniques is really important to me. Many artists were very generous to me in my early years, and without their kindness I wouldn’t be the artist I am today. I try to honor their generosity by passing on my own knowledge.

6 Firewheel Range Baker’s Table, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze, oxides, glaze, 2018.

7 Shannon Garson’s studio. Photo: Annabelle Hickson.

Making Connections

Social media has been a 100% positive influence in my life as an artist. I started blogging in the early days of social media in the 2000s. Ceramics blogs had a beautiful, international community of artists who met through the practice and are still in contact decades later. I held a little competition on my blog for Bird Week and US artist Diana Fayt won it. This started a friendship that spanned continents and has led to a very long collaboration that we have continued over the years, making work together whenever we see each other. The friendship of my peers through blogging gave me a glimpse of the power of social media to create connections. Now, I have a wonderful Instagram community.

It is important to supplement online activity with real events. Artists (particularly if they are a bit shy) can easily get caught up in the virtual world with no benefit to themselves or their practice. Real contact with real people is the final and most important step for getting the web to work for you.

I live in an old wooden house in Maleny, a small town in Jinibara country in sub-tropical Queensland, Australia. This country is cool and rainy, known for its towering rainforest trees and dairy farms. I grew up here and moved away to go to university and travel the world. When I returned from traveling in my late 20s, I was considering moving to Melbourne or another big city, but then I realized that if I kept moving, it would put me back another couple of years as I established a studio and contacts in a new city. When I thought about where I should live, I looked around at my little town, seeing the rolling hills and rocky creeks, platypus, and one pedestrian crossing, and thought, “This will make a pretty good base.” I love living in a small town; it gives me isolation to work hard and concentrate. Still, it’s important to get out and meet new people and bring ideas back into the studio, so at least a couple of times a year I go on big trips to visit my friends in cities.

My advice for emerging artists is to think about how you are going to make money. Will your practice rely on products or services (or both) for income? Do you want to keep your art just for art and have another job entirely to underwrite your practice? These are all valid ways of being an artist. One of the most powerful forces in my practice is my lovely husband. This is not trivial—if you want to succeed as an artist, you need to surround yourself with people who build you up, who listen to you, who strive to make your life together a collaboration. Look for these people on every level of life from peers and friends through to partners. Being part of a supportive community will enable you to thrive and achieve beyond your own limitations.

8 Three Moon Vases, 8½ in. (22 cm) in width (each), wheel-thrown porcelain, terra sigillata, underglaze, oxide, glaze, 2019.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter
27

Number of pots made in a year
400–600

Education
Bachelor of Visual Arts (majoring in painting)
Masters of Ceramics

The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 70%
Promotions/selling: 20%
Office/bookkeeping: 10%

Favorite Tool
A cut slice of metal rib shaped like an orange segment. I use it for throwing, turning (trimming), and decorating.

Process
Throwing/sgraffito

Where it Goes
Retail stores: 20%
Galleries: 60%
Studio/home sales: 20%

Learn More
Instagram: @ShannonGarson
Facebook: Shannon Garson Porcelain
Web: www.shannongarsonporcelain.com.au

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