Working Potters: Joanna Howells

Joanna Howells

Tythegston, Bridgend, Wales


Pottery Cred
Years as a professional potter: 20
Number of pots made in a year: 1500


The Time It Takes
Making work (including firing): 65%
Promoting/Selling: 25%
Office/Bookkeeping: 10%


The Sales I Make
Galleries: 75%
Studio/Home Sales: 20%
Online: 5%

This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s June/July/August 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!


I fell in love with making almost as soon as I touched clay, some two years before leaving school. But it was at Cambridge University, where I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum twice a week to see the early Chinese porcelains from the Song period, that I discovered a determination to give up medicine as a career and pursue ceramics.


I have been a maker for over two decades, and my modes of selling have changed recently. Where I used to attend quite a number of ceramic and art fairs, I made the decision a few years ago to move away from that, to concentrate on exhibiting, gallery, and studio sales, as well as selling online. My thinking was that fairs were costly, both in time and energy, and I would prefer to concentrate on one occasional high-profile fair and to exhibit more. This was also prompted by taking on another role in my life.


Crinkle Box, 4 in. (10cm) in width, porcelain, thrown and altered, with slip textures and ash glaze.

Crinkle Box, 4 in. (10cm) in width, porcelain, thrown and altered, with slip textures and ash glaze.

I have had to make two major decisions in my potting life. If the first was to give up medicine to become a professional potter, the second (very recent) was to join my husband as a director of our publishing house, Kestrel Books. This did involve a major shift for me, but has resulted in opening up a second creative space which has proved invaluable. Through it, I met the ceramics collector and writer on aesthetics, Dr. Richard Jacobs, and a couple of years ago, we published his book, Searching for Beauty, Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter. This is a series of 40 letters that he wrote to the potter Christa Assad, and it has been reviewed as essential reading for all craft workers. Kestrel also takes me into theater, music, and film—all of which feed my creativity in the studio. While it was a very difficult decision, and in the first couple of years I had to sacrifice more time than I would have liked, the advantages have been considerable. Through publishing books and articles on art and ceramics, and through the speaking engagements and contacts involved, I have met gallery directors, academics, artists, writers, and poets, been interviewed on national radio, visited places, and met people I would not otherwise have encountered.


Marketing my work mostly comes through the contacts I have built up through organizations like the Craft Potters Association here in Britain and the exhibitions I have been involved in over the years. I like to develop themes for exhibitions, such as “The Way We Live Now,” an exploration of changed eating habits and consumption patterns over the last three decades or so. It explored disposable packaging, world foods, work/life balance, and so on. This gives galleries something more interesting to advertise, rather than just the tag “new work.”


I find that new media is just beginning to become significant in the marketing of my work. My website is invaluable and I get regular sales from outside the UK. High on my list of priorities, though, is to engage more with social networking sites. I’m looking forward to putting some time aside to develop my web pages, having been urged to do so by potter friends who say they find it very valuable—advice worth passing on.

Chthonic Vessel,  13 in. (34 cm) in height, thrown and stretched porcelain, chun glaze, fired to 2372°F (1300°C) in reduction.

Chthonic Vessel, 13 in. (34 cm) in height, thrown and stretched porcelain, chun glaze, fired to 2372°F (1300°C) in reduction.

Most potters I know have some degree of back trouble—it is a physically demanding job. I have been lucky. I used to suffer greatly and at one point thought that I might not be able to sustain a career in the long term. Then I met a physiotherapist, who has become a good friend. She taught me better principles of back care, which are essentially about keeping more fit (I have dogs to walk), learning how to perform my stretches correctly, and not overdoing any particular task. This means planning my work better to alternate tasks, such as throwing, with other activities. As my physiotherapist friend is a well-known specialist in this area, Kestrel Books has plans to bring out a publication and DVD for the general public with the most up-to-date advice on back care.


My life as a potter has changed a lot since I started out. I look back now and see how I used to be on the road a lot more, while I now engage with the world more through the computer and through writing and teaching (I give occasional master classes for three students at a time at my studio). Also, fashions change, and the environment we live in changes. We face great challenges about the place of the handmade object in an industrial world. But I feel that the very upheavals in the way commerce has been conducted also provide an opportunity as people re-evaluate what they want out of life. It is possible that many are turning to a more personal and individual style of interacting, wishing to build more lasting collections instead of buying into an ephemeral style, which is by nature outmoded and loses value rapidly.


Those setting out on studio ceramics as a profession must be prepared to work hard and be flexible and responsive to the challenges of the ever-changing world, but not bent to its will. If they seek to respond to the market, that may work in the short term, but is not always a recipe for long-term success. I don’t think one ever fully knows what one wants to make. Knowing that would make one jaded. The important thing is to be open and curious about what one’s own impulses are and never stop questioning, listening, and exploring.


Where to See More
Facebook: Joanna Howells



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