Studio Tour With Ceramicist Clare Harvey
Behind the scenes with Cheshire based potter, Clare Harvey.
I believe in celebrating the people behind products. There is a joy in seeing how things have been made and where they have come from that makes you love them just a little bit more.
Earlier this week I went to visit Clare Harvey’s home studio, I got a little insight into how she makes those beautiful ceramics and we chatted about her lifelong relationship with clay; from making pots as a child, to training in Kuala Lumpur, to running her own business today. Go to the end of this post for a video tour of Clare’s studio.
A short train journey across the water from Liverpool will take you over to the Wirral and West Cheshire. Although it isn’t far from the city at all it’s another world. We drove up to ceramistics Clare’s home and studio, as we turned out of the main village and down some country roads I was taken back by how peaceful and beautiful it was. It was a rainy and gloomy Wednesday but the autumn trees were golden and I thought to myself how lovely to live and work from here.
Clare’s studio is in an old outhouse which looks like it could have been a stables at one point. We had a cup of coffee and chatted about how she got to where she is today.
Hi Clare! I’m a big admirer of your work. You have such an interesting back story too. Can you tell me a little about how you got into ceramics and it’s role in your life over the years?
Hey Megan, thank you! I can’t actually remember doing ceramics at all at school, although recently my mum found some coil pots I supposedly made! Also my dad bought a kick wheel once (for himself I think, he was interested in throwing pots on the wheel!), but as far as I remember I showed absolutely no interest at the time and it stayed in a shed and never once got used!
I studied Structural Engineering at University and worked for some years designing buildings and then project managing the construction of buildings. I have always drawn, painted, crafted, and created things for as long as I can remember and once in my office job out of Uni I was desperate to get my hands into something crafty again, so when I started my first job I simultaneously enrolled almost immediately into a weekly evening clay class in Islington College in London. I took a couple of terms there, throwing on the wheel mainly, and a few years later after living overseas and moving back to UK, I again enrolled on an evening course in Exeter where I was living at the time. I think I must have been quite addicted even back then!
My Exeter evening classes were short lived as we had two children in quick succession I’m sure I thought that I might not touch clay for many many years to come. Luckily, it didn’t happen that way, as we ended up moving as a family to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When my children started pre-school there I was looking around trying to work out how to get back into my engineering work and, to be honest, my heart wasn’t quite in it. I happened across a studio potter running her own production business and workshops in KL, and once more became addicted to throwing pots on the wheel! When she suggested I pay her a nominal studio rental (similar to an open access studio of the sort now popular in UK) I didn’t hesitate and over the course of a year travelled every day I could the 2 hour round trip across KL to a steaming hot and humid industrial unit and just practised as much as possible. I did see some pots to their finished state, but far far more I threw into the clay recycling bucket to be reclaimed!
When we returned to UK a year later (now three years ago) I was quite determined I was going to make what I had only dared to day-dream about into a business , and I guess that’s where the learning really started…I quickly found out how little I knew!! It’s been quite a journey, and I’m still learning every day….
What’s your daily routine like as a small business owner?
It’s taken me a while to get my head around all the various aspects of running a small business. Making pots is a very slow and time consuming business in itself. And so there are never enough hours in the week for product testing and production of my ceramics, let alone the multitude of other tasks I should be paying attention to. Not least social media, marketing, branding, keeping my website up to date, financial and weekly/monthly planning, applying for fairs and stockists, keeping stock levels good and commissions, ordering of materials etc, and organising and improving my studio space for teaching classes (which I have done this year).
I also juggle with family life so my working hours are strictly school hours, apart from October-December when I definitely over run in terms of my time commitments in both attending and making for markets at this busy time of year. I have to be very strict with myself to allow one day per week in less busy season outside of my studio, not making, otherwise I’d just be in there every day, and ignore all the other things I should be seeing to! But I’ve found recently that an early hour before the kids wake up is a good time for admin. And I’m amazed how much I can get done when I limit myself to that one hour per day! So every morning after school drop off, when I’m in making mode, I change into scruffs, and head into the pottery. I can be doing anything from actually throwing on the wheel, to trimming partially dry pots, to loading the kiln for firings, glazing, glaze weighing and mixing….or testing new products, glazes or techniques. I then try to take a quick half hour lunch break and back into the studio until 3pm. At this time of year making really takes over and I’m ‘nipping out to the pottery’ at any time of day (or night) to finish some glazing, unload or reload a kiln, or wrap some pots in plastic (to ensure they don’t dry too quickly before I have a chance to trim them/attach handles etc)….
You have such a beautiful, minimal aesthetic to your work. How did you come to find your personal style?
I’m not quite sure. I have travelled a lot and I absolutely adore colour and when I look at wood and gas fired ceramics I am in awe of the surface variation and effects that are achieved. However, many potters who I admire do tend to have minimalist styles, so I am definitely drawn to this aesthetic. I am also a great lover of natural and outdoors environments, give me a windswept beach, mountain or landscape any day in any season and I’ll be the happiest person!
I think a lot about how we live our fast pace lives and how we as humans are impacting our earth and natural landscapes, and against that noisy and sometimes stressful backdrop I think perhaps it’s inevitable that I am erring towards a quiet and simplistic style of making. Also, because I have limited formal training in ceramics, when starting out with my business it has really helped me limit my working glazes to just one or two, and I think I have tended towards a quiet and in some ways simple aesthetic to allow me to focus on improving my skills and confidence as a maker at this point.
I always find it so therapeutic watching videos of potters at the wheel. Is it as relaxing as it looks?
Yes it is pretty relaxing. You really can just ease into it and let your thoughts drift away!! Well, that is until you start running to production schedules, then it’s arguably the opposite! I have been known to time myself making each piece – i.e. I only allow myself 7 minutes for a certain vase, or whatever, so that I can fit a making a certain number in a certain time !! However, the whole process of making pots is not something you can really do fast (unless you have the experience, I have seen professional potters work at amazing speeds), and to be honest if you try to rush or push too hard, things inevitably go wrong. So within my current skill set where I am as a potter right now there is definitely a certain pace that suits me, and trying to push too hard beyond that isn’t really a great idea.
I know sustainability is important to you. How does this play a role in your work?
As within other aspects of our family and daily life, I try to be mindful of the impact that my business is having on my local environment and on the planet. I use local suppliers for all of my materials and all of the clay I use is from UK sites. I reclaim and recycle as much clay as I can and similarly I’m very mindful of water usage in my studio.
My small electric kiln is on 24/7 firing schedule at this time of year, which is impactful in terms of energy use, however we are on a green/renewable household electricity contract which I hope mitigates the impact somewhat. In terms of packaging materials use repurposed/reused packaging as much as possible (my local friends are now all fully trained to pass on their spare packaging/card boxes/bubble wrap etc!) and for new materials I use recyclable wherever possible. As within our daily lives, I try to be mindful of how different aspects of my business might be more kind to the environment, and I try to take the time to find solutions that are less impactful wherever possible.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into ceramics?
Firstly, just try it! Find a local potter and ask if you can go and chat to them, book a class or find a shared studio space (many UK cities have them). If you’ve already tried it and got the bug (or even if you haven’t) there’s nothing to stop you buying some clay (there are many clay suppliers in Stoke-on-Trent as well as throughout the UK) and giving it a go – there are so many videos out there showing how you can hand-build with clay, and if you get into throwing there are so many tutorials online also.
You might need to work on a friendly potter contact or shared studio to fire your work, but where there’s a will there’s usually a way!! I’d also recommend going on a social media platform such as instagram as there’s such an extensive network of potters who use the platform regularly (many of whose work is just awe-inspiring) and you’ll get a real insight into their work and life as a potter, plus loads of tips, ideas and inspiration from their accounts. And ceramics shows such as Potfest and other Ceramic shows across the UK which happen throughout the year are great for inspiration and to get an idea of all the various ceramic techniques which are out there.