A potter who has always loved to “play with clay”

I’ve long had an admiration and interest in ceramics and pottery, heightened by my trips to Japan where this medium is really seen as an important art form and way of life – in fact it reflects a lot of the Japanese way of living most notably in regards to food and flowers. Therefore my interest is always piqued when I spot pottery that reflects a Japanese aesthetic as well as was recently the case when I came across the lovely work of Sydney based potter Denise McDonald from DM Pottery. Denise not only has work that has a Japanese influence but she also has a wonderful range of sculptures and tableware that are inspired by Australian birds and flora.

Iced Vovo spoke with Denise about her love of clay, what has influenced her pottery and a little more about her range of products:

Q: I read where you have been a Landscape Architect and worked in a large bank, amongst other things, before finding your niche in ceramics – what attracted you to trying your hand at “playing with clay”?

A: I started playing with clay as a young child. I’ve attached a scan of the cover of a little book I made when I was about 9 years old which was filled with ideas and careful instructions of things to make from clay. My mum found it in a clean up recently. So it was always in me and just put to one side. I thought I had to have a ‘serious’ job for a career, so I got sidetracked with professions I wasn’t really passionate about. Finally I admitted to myself I should return to what I was happy doing – making things with my hands.

Q: You have a lovely range of jewellery, tableware and feature pieces – what is your most favourite thing to make and why?
A: My training is mostly as a production potter – the vast majority of the things I make are repeatable functional tablewares. I find it very satisfying to look at the outcome of a days throwing on the wheel. I love throwing, but not the large stuff, which I find a physical challenge. I think my favourite things to throw on the wheel are bowls as they are relatively simple and relaxing – a restful form. Occasionally I make bird sculptures and I really love making these as well – I find injecting character and realism into the clay comes naturally to me.

Q: You have some Japanese inspired pieces – what do you like about this style of ceramics/pottery?
A: I really admire Japanese ceramics, although I certainly can’t speak with any authority about particular styles or philosophies. I admire the freeform wabi sabi approach (Japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection) but don’t think I’ve ever managed to do anything like it in my own work. I really like the status ceramics has in Japanese society and the respect they have for handmade pottery (if only it could be more like that in Australia I’d be much more successful!). Japanese cuisine is so visually beautiful and it therefore requires beautiful ceramics to present it perfectly. There are so many different bowls and dishes and pots for specific foods, it means the potter has a great range of forms to make. I love the whole Japanese tea ceremony as well, with all the implements that go along with it. I visited Japan years ago, but ironically it was when I was a Landscape Architect so I spent the whole time looking at gardens and didn’t see any pottery, except when I by chance took part in a tea ceremony.

Q: The tea-light holders have that wonderful translucent feel to them – how do you achieve this effect?
FF tea lights
A: This is a product of the material. It is good quality porcelain and when porcelain is made very thin and fired to maturation temperature, it becomes translucent (it is glass-like). All I have to do is make sure I make it thin enough and fire it to the correct temperature. With the tea-light holders, I roll a thin slab of porcelain into my flannel flower relief pattern mould. The deep parts of the pattern make the slab thinner in those places, so those parts of the design are more translucent and allow the candle light to glow through.

Q: I love that you’ve also used the Australian flannel flower on these tea lights and that the pattern was taken from a pane of pressed window glass in an Australian Federation house. How did the idea of using this come about?

A: Well, the window in question is in my mothers’ house where I grew up, so it is almost a part of me. The glass was out of its frame for some renovation work and I saw it sitting there and I just thought it was a great opportunity to make a plaster cast of the surface with no clear ideas about how I would use it exactly. Then I just started experimenting with using textured slabs to design forms and got very inspired with the design process of starting with a 2 dimensional flat piece of clay and folding and cutting and creating 3 dimensional forms. I ended up with a large flannel flower range in which the tea-lights are just one small part. I like the idea of helping to preserve this heritage flannel flower design by giving it a new life.

Q: What do you find the most technically difficult item to make?
leaf litter plates
A: Large bowls and plates made from slabs. They want to warp all over the place as they dry and when they are fired.

Q: What is currently the most popular item in your Etsy shop?
FF Vase
A: My medium sized flannel flower vase. www.etsy.com/listing/114852880/white-ceramic-vase-with-australian
Its also my best seller at Eveleigh Artisan Markets.

Q: What new items are you thinking about adding to your collection?

A: I was recently successful in developing a nice magenta red glaze and I have plans to develop a whole new range based on waratahs using the glaze. I have been looking for a vintage waratah design that is similar to the flannel flowers (I’ve heard there is a design in glass from the same era) but have only found modern tiles that are done in a similar style. I have decided to use the tiles as a starting point and develop my own art nouveau style waratah pattern.

Q: Is your Etsy shop the only place people can find your range of goods?

A: No, Etsy is just a small part of my business. I have work in the Inner City Clayworkers Gallery in Glebe NSW, and the Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newtown NSW. I am a regular stallholder at the Eveleigh Artisan Markets (Eveleigh NSW), and East Is East Markets (Kensington NSW). I am also about to have work included in the new West Elm store at Bondi Junction (through Etsy Wholesale). I am on the look out for other retail venues for my work and hopefully will be adding to the stockist list soon.
stone bowl
If you’re after functional and beautiful ceramics for your home then check out Denise McDonald’s DM pottery by going to the link provided here or her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DMPottery.

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