Style

Medium of the moment

The maker movement has seen the reinvention of a whole host of classic crafts – and now it’s ceramics’ turn to have time in the spotlight again. Alice Lines talks to two up-and-coming potters about getting their hands dirty in the most beautiful of ways.

In New Zealand’s short history of arts and crafts, locally made pottery was once a common kitchen commodity. In the 60s and 70s you were quite likely to have your tea served up in a handmade cup. Since then our local studio potters have suffered the effects of globalisation and the continuing trend towards household purchases of mass-produced imported goods.
But we’re now seeing the rise of a new global trend – one that manifests itself via Instagram and Etsy. It is the widespread need for people to reconnect with handmade processes – the rise of the hobby potter.
Night classes around the country have filled up with urban creatives trying to hone their skills, and having recently joined a studio myself, I can tell you now it’s an addictive pastime. There’s something about the methodical approach, where your production is dictated by time, combined with the element of surprise when you lift the lid on the kiln that keeps you going back for more.
And for those not so interested in the act of playing with clay, you’ll  be pleased to know there are a bunch of promising potters who have recently turned their bowl-making into full-blown businesses. I had a chat with two of them, Holly Houston and Felicity Donaldson, about their love of creating from clay.

Holly Houston
Houston Design Co

There was always a streak of entrepreneurship in her, Holly Houston says. It’s a trait she credits to her mum, Kim Evans, with whom she created the Auckland cafe institution Little and Friday. And now Holly has added another string to her bow with Houston Design Co, which, she says, would never have come about had she not discovered a love of pottery.

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What drew you to pottery? I took a class at the Art Station in Ponsonby. I was addicted from the get-go, and soon after set up a studio at home.
I make everything while my baby sleeps. A lot of people say the door
closes when you have children, but I’ve found it to be the total opposite. I would never have enrolled in that ceramics course if I wasn’t having a baby, and it was discovering my passion for working with clay that has ultimately led to me to starting up Houston Design Co.
The the act of using my hands is really important to me – if I go a day without doing it I feel really agitated. So Houston Design Co will be the umbrella under which I can explore working with other mediums too.

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What influences your work? Last year we decided to refrain from buying anything non-essential for a year. It has led to a simpler life, and the desire to create objects that fit with a slow-design ethos.

How would you describe your aesthetic? Perfection in the imperfection – the Wabi-sabi result of the handmade process. I’m impressed by the perfect results you get with slip casting, but I don’t think I would get much out of it personally. I like the funny little dents in my work; their organic nature. It’s a fine balance between beauty and just the right amount of odd. Simple, thoughtful tableware that won’t date.

What is your creative process?
The thing about ceramics is you don’t create a piece in one sitting. There’s a series of processes that are undertaken over a couple of days to get something to the firing stage. Every day I’ll spend a bit of time experimenting before I get into making the pieces I’ve already developed. What I love about pottery is that you don’t have much control of it. You have to not be uptight about what you’re making, or what the results might be. I hand-roll everything, which is hard on my wrists, but I try to do yoga every day to combat this. Then I come back and shape my flatware with a stencil and slump mould.

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Holly creates all her pieces from a home studio in the Auckland suburb of Devonport. The first collection in her recently launched online store houstondesign.co.nz is a study in white – a collection of tableware and vases made by hand for everyday use. “Handmaking homewares is always going to be a niche market,” says Holly. “But long-term, my aim is to develop a lifestyle brand where making things by hand is at the core of what I do.”

What have you been working on lately? Over the last few months we’ve replaced all the vintage plates at Little and Friday with pieces I’ve made. The collection is cohesive, but as my processes are all handmade every piece has it’s own character. I was also honoured to be asked to make the dinnerware for the Kinfolk dinner in October. I could only dream of working on a commission like this. With just six weeks to prepare I made over 200 pieces – but that kind of hard work is worth it. houstondesignco.co.nz

Felicity Donaldson
Wundaire

Growing up in a home filled with Lladro figurines, Felicity Donaldson had always shied away from decorative clutter. But in a search for unique planters to decorate her K Road apartment, she inadvertently stumbled across a passion for pottery. Unable to find any receptacles she liked, Felicity joined the Auckland Studio Potters in a bid to make her own. But once a week sessions at the studio weren’t enough for her, so she bought a workbench for her apartment – and has been working away on a growing range of collections ever since.

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What do you love about pottery? It’s such a versatile medium! The possibilities are literally endless in terms of being able to manipulate both form and colour.

How would you describe your aesthetic? Quirky, functional and kind of dreamy. My influences change depending on what sort of piece I’m working on. At the moment it’s plants, nature, space, paintings from my favourite artists and tie-dye!
I’ve also been working on dinnerware for The Forest Cantina, so form and functionality has more influence there. What surface would the food, as the star of the show, look best on? How will it stack for storage? Things like that.
One set of pots has taken on a distinct TexMex vibe and once I realised that, it was easier to play into it. There was a trip where I got left behind by a train on the Texas-Mexico border, so I’ve called that collection Del Rio after the fateful town.

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What sort of work do you do? I hand build everything at this stage. I like the process and it is possible to work from home doing it that way. Hopefully my next studio will be able to house a wheel so I can get all Ghost on it!
I’ve been experimenting with pit firing, a process which is much like a hangi, where combustibles like driftwood, seaweed, leaves and other organic materials are sprinkled with copper and salts then set alight. It gets pretty smoky, but once it’s cooled the mysteries of the pit are revealed – it produces cosmic patterns. The pots are unglazed so still porous, but they look great after a rub with beeswax.

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A selection of Felcity’s one-off creations.

What is your creative process? I am a huge fan of the public library – I can spend hours amongst the stacks. Books on Aboriginal art, West African baskets and mapping the stars are all currently collecting overdue fines on my behalf! I’m a total daydreamer, I think about form, colour, size and how I can create the shapes I want from slabs.
When I work I like to start with a clean workspace, put on a talking book and then I kind of just go for it. Sometimes things turn out far from the initial intention, but that’s okay, I love them anyway.

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From rolling out the clay, to drying, glazing and firing, each piece is handled about 20 times before it’s finished.

What would be your dream project? I would love to travel and share the pit-firing technique with people all over the world, with bonfires on the beach and minds mixing. wundaire.com

Words Alice Lines     
Photography Gareth Hemmings & Evie Mackay

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Finished pots stack up in the makeshift studio in Felicity’s apartment. Pieces on the top and bottom shelves are produced in the pit-firing process, while the middle shelf holds a selection of pieces glazed by hand.