Crafting Ceramics: A Conversation With Fiona Mackay
Zayyar: Tell us a little bit about yourself Fiona, what do you do and where are you based?
Fiona: I’m a ceramic artist based in Devonport, Auckland. I’ve been making ceramics for just over two and a half years. I originally studied furniture design, then worked overseas as a clothing buyer. After having two sons I took a few years off working. I later worked in various roles including merchandising and styling. I now have my own business designing and making ceramics in my small home studio.
Zayyar: So how did you first become interested in pottery and ceramics?
Fiona: I’ve always been drawn to beautifully made ceramics and just over two and a half years ago I started a Friday morning class at the Ceramic College in Belmont, housed in a lovely old church. I loved it from the start, I was immediately hooked. I loved the challenge of learning to throwing on the wheel, and making a usable vessel from scratch from a lump of clay. Not long after starting the classes a friend lent me her wheel, and that was the start.
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Zayyar: That’s awesome. Were you always interested in starting your own business?
Fiona: I had always toyed with the idea of having my own design shop. I originally studied furniture design and was interested in selling my own work as well as other selected design pieces. While living in London I ended up working as a clothing and accessories buyer, so I thought even more about having a shop back here in New Zealand. On our return my husband started up his own graphic design business, which I assisted in, as well as then having two children. The plans for my own shop unfortunately got parked!
Zayyar: I guess that leads into my next question - how exactly did you turn your hobby and interest into a business?
Fiona: Once I had my own wheel, I spent a lot of time playing and experimenting with new shapes and clay. I also spent a lot of time watching YouTube clips on pottery, learning lots of techniques and tips on throwing and glazing. At the time I was doing the occasional styling job, so I would make pieces that I was missing as props. This encouraged me to be a lot more experimental with what I was making. I was also lucky enough to be offered a few large commissions, which involved making lots of pieces.
A friend asked me to help her out at the first Cross Street Market, run by Alison and Tony, just off K Road. I ended up selling a few of my pieces at that market and a month later at the next market I had my own table of my work. I was lucky enough to sell most of my ceramics, even if it was heavily supported by friends and family! But it was a great opportunity to see the responses to my work and I also ended up with more commissions. The Cross Street Market has been a great platform for my work, as well as many other makers. I still sell my work there at regular markets.
I also spent a lot of time on the photography of my work, and then created my Instagram account. Most of the enquiries from new stockists and collaborations have come through Instagram. It’s been a huge part to the start up of my business, and still is a big part of where my private commission inquiries come from.
Zayyar: From the initial launch of the brand what were some of the obstacles and challenges you faced along the way?
Fiona: I made the big leap to full time making in early 2018. The setup costs were pretty high, but purchasing a kiln and a new wheel gave me the freedom to produce more, and have more control over the glazing results. Despite being terrified of my new kiln, I looked at it for about a month before I finally plucked up the courage to do my first firing. I have only just moved out of the garden shed into a new purpose built, and perfectly formed six and a half square metre studio.
I am a one woman show, so at this stage I am limited to how many pieces I can produce. I can often work 7 days a week, and end up checking on my pots or kiln at strange times during the night. There are so many stages in producing one piece. My work has simple clean lines, but to achieve this I spend a lot of time on the detail. Each piece spends a lot of time in my hands through the various stages. It’s a slow process that can’t be rushed. I love every stage and would struggle to pass any of this onto anyone else. I always underestimate how long orders will take, I always find myself apologising for the delay. So many things can also go wrong in the firing process. Opening the kiln can be the best part, but it can also be the worst when things don’t go quite to plan.
Zayyar: To some of the crowd who may think a lot of ceramics and pottery are similar, what’s your creative approach when it comes to designing? Does it come naturally or do you force it?
Fiona: My interpretation of ceramics and pottery is that they are fundamentally the same thing.
My design aesthetic has alway been simple clean lines, whether it be furniture or functional wares. There’s something very addictive about the repetition of creating the same form repeatedly, and definitely a good way of perfecting what you do. I’m currently making 200 cups for a restaurant. I usually try spending a day every couple of weeks just playing on the wheel and making new shapes and refining proportions.
Sometimes I start with drawings, but usually with the clay itself. It’s always important to take lots of notes and measurements when you work with new shapes and glazes.
Zayyar: Interesting you bring up clean lines and the repetitive nature of making. To follow on from this where do you look for inspiration creatively?
Fiona: Inspiration for designing ceramics comes from so many places, including architecture and paintings. Often it comes from just trying to achieve the right proportion of an everyday object, as well as achieving interesting colour palettes. I’m forever looking for the perfect cup, so I’ve spent a lot of time refining my cups.
I love Japanese ceramics, so I always spend a lot of time reading and following Japanese potters. A trip to Japan is something I’m hoping to do soon. There is so much to learn, this is something that I love about what I do. The infinite amounts of possibilities and the fact that I will never stop learning.
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Zayyar: Who are some designers you enjoy and how do you feed off them into your own work?
Fiona: There are so many incredible potters out there. Jono Smart, an English potter based in Glasgow was one of the first I started following. I love his design aesthetic and beautiful colour pallet. He’s incredibly honest about his work and his personal struggles. I follow a lot of Japanese artists, I love the glazes and textures of Akiko Hirai’s work. I also love the precision of Miro Chun’s work too.
There’s an amazing community of inspiring local makers, who are incredibly generous with sharing their knowledge and advice, as well as their day to day challenges. One of the best things that has personally come out of doing what I do is the incredible group of friendships that I have made through this community.
Zayyar: Amazing that you bring up local makers and the community aspect of making. Apart from ceramics and pottery what other creative fields do you dabble in?
Fiona: I’ve always enjoyed making things, ever since I can remember. When I’m not making ceramics I like to make clothes. I’m obsessed about buying fabrics, which occasionally get made into clothes. This is something I would like to spend more time on, but for now it’s all about clay. I feel so fortunate to be able to make every day!
Zayyar: Finally, what's some advice you’d like to pass on to someone wanting to turn their creative endeavours or passion into a business?
Fiona: Practice what you do, the more hours you put into what you love, the better you’ll get.
Most of my work has come through my Instagram account, it’s a great platform for getting your work out there. Spend time working on your photography, or get someone to photograph what you do. This is where people view you, make sure it represents you well. Do a small business workshop, this can be the less fun part but it’s important that you have an understanding of the business part of it all. Talk to people, and spend time with inspiring creative people.
Working as a maker can be isolating sometimes, so it’s important to have like minded people you can have a coffee with. Do lots of creative courses, even if you just take one valuable thing away from it. You never know where a new idea or skill will take you.
Zayyar: Thanks so much for your time Fiona!
Interview: Zayyar Win Thein
Photos: Cyrus Chow