Working Potters: Zak Chalmers

 

1 Zak Chalmers carries a ware board of raw glazed mixing bowls through the gallery on the way to placing them outside to dry.

 

Education

My ceramics degree was only the start of my journey in clay. I knew instinctively that I wasn’t finished with potting when I completed my four years at university. While in school, I spent my honors year learning how to use the anagama kiln I had built during the summer break between the second and third years of the course. I had a working kiln and an old tin shed to work in, so I just kept making pots. Over the summer of my third year, I worked with a local potter, honing my skills—learning not only how to make pots efficiently but also how to interact with customers. This experience showed me the possibilities of being a full-time potter. I had learned to live on limited funds while being a student, so I knew I would be able to live very frugally as my practice developed. When I first set out to make and sell my own work, I may have been pursuing pottery as a profession, but in retrospect I am not sure how professional I was! Over the intervening years I have developed professional skills to complement my techniques with clay.

A Turning Point

My life has changed enormously since I started out. Back then I spent my time surfing when the waves were good and making pots the rest of time. I went from no debt to lots of debt, from no kids to one, two, and then three.

 

2 View of the deck on the studio and showroom (on the left) and the kiln shed (on the right). 3 Raw glazed cups and bowls on ware boards in the studio, awaiting once firing in the wood kiln.

 

The turning point came when my wife was pregnant with our first son and I thought I had to begin to get serious about the future. She always said a potter needs a pottery. Deciding to establish Valley Plains Pottery was probably the biggest turning point in my career. It meant that I was no longer reliant on others selling and promoting my work and it gave me more of an insight into my customers’ needs. For a shy young fella it was very daunting to begin with: going into debt to build my dream gallery and studio, doing it three kilometers down a dirt road, 20 kilometers from the nearest town, and wondering if anyone would turn up. A friend and I built the gallery in five weeks. I rushed through a firing for the gallery’s opening day and people came! It sounds simple now, but at the time I remember it being the opposite. To this day, the majority of my work is still sold from my gallery. I find that people enjoy seeing where the work is made and chatting to the maker directly.

 

4 Bottle, 21 in. (53 cm) in height, stoneware, natural ash glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2016. 5 Bottle, 8 in. (21 cm) in height, porcelain, natural ash glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2016.

 

The Internet and social media have certainly helped promote what I do and where I am, resulting in more sales. This year we are focusing on launching an online store to cater to those customers who can’t visit our regional location or those who have visited and want to expand their collections from home. I also sell a small percentage of work wholesale and through galleries when I am invited to exhibit works. While I have predominantly relied on home sales for the last ten years, with a colleague’s encouragement I have begun exhibiting in large art and design shows. This has been fruitful: it both promotes the gallery and boosts my winter sales. I don’t like packing up pots for these events, it is difficult to capture the essence of Valley Plains Pottery in a 6×6-foot (2×2 m) stall, but more often than not it has been worthwhile.

 

Location

My gallery and studio are located on my property, 20 meters from our home. We are located on a local wine trail in a growing coastal tourist area. I find that what were once our quiet times are becoming less so. It is always very busy in the summer holidays when we get an influx of visitors to the area, as we are only 1½ hours from Melbourne. Often customers will just drive down to visit for the day. Winter is generally my stocking-up time, as I can use the kilns without risking a fire on the 100+ acres of bushland on the property. It is also usually when I take a break and head away on family holidays. Autumn is a good time to collect wood for the firings before the rains make it difficult to get around the paddocks. Spring tends to be busy with design fairs and orders.

 

Studio Time

I generally work in 6–8 week working cycles, which include wood collection, making, kiln and furniture preparation, packing the kiln, firing, then unloading and grinding wares. I do a 30-hour catenary-arch kiln firing five times a year and fire the anagama kiln once a year in the winter. This firing continues for over a week, with a four-day pre-heat and a three-day firing. It takes a number of days for the kiln to cool enough for me to access the fired works.

One of the reasons that I fire with wood is that our house and gallery are run on a stand-alone solar system (not connected to the grid). I have lots of wood, no gas, and limited electricity. I do enjoy collecting wood but not so much that I am going to fire pieces twice! So all of my work is raw glazed and fired once.

6 Cups, 2½ in. (7 cm) in height, local clay, natural ash glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2016.

 

When I first started out raw glazing I would lose quite a few pieces, but over time, I’ve worked out what I can and can’t get away with. It is all about timing, knowing your limits, and working out ways to achieve what you want. Catching pieces with the right moisture content is the key to reducing the amount lost. In the catenary-arch kiln, I raw glaze the majority of the work as this makes up a lot of my tableware orders. The depth of glaze quality that I achieve in this style of firing couldn’t be achieved in gas or electric kilns. In the anagama, I rely on clay and wood types to determine the end results. I use a few different local clays and stones that all have different qualities unique to our area.

We have planted over 300 silver wattles and blackwoods on our property for future firings and use deadfall from messmate gums and paperbark teatrees. When firings are difficult, I often dream of a gas port or two but in reality I can’t even bring myself to use it for the pre-heat! Maybe one day when I can no longer swing an axe I’ll have to re-consider.

7 Bottle, 6½ in. (17 cm) in height, local clay with quartz stone, natural ash glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2015.

 

Career Snapshot

• Years as a professional potter: 15
• Number of pots made in a year: 1000–1500
• Education/Apprenticeships:
Leongatha Secondary College
Bachelor of Applied Arts Ceramics at Monash University
Worked at Robert Barron’s Kardella Pottery

• The time it takes (percentages):
Making work (including firing): 70%
Promotions/Selling: 25%
Office/Bookkeeping: 5%

• Where it goes:
Retail Stores: 10%
Galleries: 5%
Craft/Art Fairs: 10%
Studio/Home Sales: 75%

• Where to see more:
Website: www.valleyplainspottery.com.au
Facebook: Valley Plains Pottery
Instagram: @valleyplainspottery

 

Advice for Potters

If I had one piece of advice to potters just starting out, it would be summed up in two words: be real. It can often take a while to build your success story. Nothing happens quickly in clay as it takes a while to find your style, define your techniques, and get a body of work out there that you are happy with presenting to the world. On the upside, it’s an endless job of creativity with no limits. It really comes down to effort and self-motivation. The age-old saying: “The more you put in, the more you get out” really fits.

After making pots for nineteen years I have realized that I have a problem staying still and recognize that there are many facets to running a business that don’t revolve around putting clay on the wheel. I often need to tell myself that it’s important to take a day off here and there and make sure that I’m making time for my family and the simple things in life.

Most of all enjoy doing what you do, as it will show in your work.

8 Teapot, 6 in. (16 cm) in height, porcelain, natural ash glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2016.
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