Finding a Style and Making a Mess
When I first started making ceramics, the pressure to create a distinctive style for my work felt imperative. I recognised through other makers and designers whom I admired that the most effective way to build a brand was to have a strong visual identity, one good idea executed well. This puts a lot of pressure on that one good idea, but it felt important to me to create work with a clear message, to be something with purpose rather than just float into existence (I have never been, nor will I ever be, a float-into-existence kind of maker. If I could, I would paste graph paper to every surface of the studio, such is the strength of my need to limit my world to boxes and straight lines).
In order to attempt to create a style, I looked to what I knew in order to help inform what I wanted to be. My first interest in ceramics came from the traditional Bolesławiec pottery that I grew up with. My love for handmade objects and in particular my love of bold, simple shapes was formed through this. The beauty of this work to me has always been in its strong sense of identity, and part of me thinks that I will never make anything as lovely as those familiar blue dotted pots.
Although I never planned to produce work in this style myself, it felt important to me that my own work paid tribute to these pieces in some small way. I wanted to create an identity that felt like a descendent of this tradition, that somehow paid homage to it. The issue was, I was trying to be something that I already loved. Actually, worse than that, I was trying to develop on something that I already loved, and it was impossible to hold each new ugly little clay baby that I created to this standard. After months of trying to manufacture genius as a novice maker, I began to realise that creating a style is not something that can be forced; it is something that develops naturally, through experimentation and experience, one idea building on the last to create a third, which carries all the best traits of its previous iterations. I learnt that any conscious attempt to create an identity most likely hinders the creative process. The burden of this demand is not conducive to good development - I was suffocated by it, desperate to restrict my style to one method of making before I had even attempted to experiment with others.
I have also come to realise that some of my best ideas aren’t actually my ideas; they have come into being through the request of a friend, the challenge of a commission, or the practical restrictions of my materials or workspace. These are the challenges that push me outside of my comfort zone, the hurdles that become the making of a piece. I used to shy away from this kind of work, scared to disappoint the client and myself by not living up to their expectations, but now they are often my favourite projects, because it takes me out of my own head and helps me to explore ideas that I never would have stumbled upon otherwise.
Everything that I make is the product of a slow evolution of making, and a lot of trial and error, the things I make now a distant descendent of some ugly earlier rendition. It has taken many cracked bases, broken handles, ugly glazes and a hundred other crushing disappointments to be able to look at the pots I make and not hate them. I started making with a rough idea of where I wanted to end up, but those initial excited sketches look nothing like the work that I make today. The design process is equal parts intention and luck, and adjustments are constantly being made along the way to accommodate for failures.
It is difficult to say at which point exactly I started to feel like I was creating work that felt unified as a collection. I’m not even sure if I am there yet, or if I ever will be. I do remember, however, the moment that I started making work that I felt a kinship to, that I felt represented me as both a designer and a maker. I used to think that this meant attempting to concentrate my entire personality into a coffee cup, but I now realise that it’s enough just to like the piece, and maybe want to use it myself. It may sound a little mundane or anticlimactic, but anything else would be expecting too much - it is just a cup after all.