Meet the Maker: Kath Cooper Ceramics
Ceramicist Kath Cooper has been working with clay for nearly 30 years and over that time her miniature clay houses and little birds have worked their way into many a heart. Kath’s love of folk art shines through in her simple motifs that draw their inspiration from nature, and she is a master of scraffito – a decorative technique where patterns are scratched through the slip to reveal the clay underneath. Fellow Folksy seller and featured maker Helen Wilde from Paper Bea Company spoke to Kath to discover more about her ceramics, her inspiration and her techniques…
I’ve explored many techniques over the years and now concentrate on the ones I enjoy most, which are hand-building and scraffito decoration.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Kath Cooper and I am a ceramicist. I live in Cheltenham with my other half and two sons aged 20 and 18. I’ve been working with clay and teaching pottery in various ways for nearly 30 years. I work in a studio in my garden and sell my ceramics through galleries, shops, local arts and crafts events and online. I also teach pottery two mornings a week at Headway – The Brain Injury Association in Gloucester.
Where did your creative journey start and has this always been ceramic based?
I’ve always been creative and spent my childhood drawing, painting, sewing and knitting. I took A-levels in art and dressmaking and had originally planned to do a textiles or costume design degree. Then I took an extra O-level in ceramics and as soon as I started working in clay I knew this was the material for me. I enjoyed working within the discipline of a tradition craft with all its creative potential and tactile qualities.
As soon as I started working in clay I knew this was the material for me.
How did you get to where you are now and was this your goal at the beginning when you started?
I did an Art Foundation course in Cheltenham specialising in ceramics then graduated with a degree in ceramics at Cardiff Art College in 1990. I then worked for five years at a small pottery factory before doing a course in adult education teaching. My aim was always to do some part-time teaching and make my own work from home while having a family. Over the years I’ve taught various evening classes and worked as a ceramic technician at a local college while continuing to make from home. When my children went to secondary school I decided to become self-employed and concentrate on making and selling my own work. I’ve spent the last nine years gradually developing my work and selling it in a range of ways through local artist co-operatives, craft fairs and online. My goal was always to be involved with the addictive qualities of clay, through teaching and sharing this with others, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that and spend my days making.
My goal was always to be involved with the addictive qualities of clay, through teaching and sharing this with others, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that and spend my days making.
You have Facebook page and a blog. Why did you choose these two social media platforms and would you say they’ve helped your craft business?
They have definitely been an important part of sharing my work with a wider audience over the years. Things have changed more recently and I’ve found Instagram to be more visual and immediate. This suits me better than writing a blog. Many of the galleries I now sell in have approached me through social media. It’s also lovely to feel part of a creative community and find people who enjoy making as much as I do.
I enjoy working within the discipline of a tradition craft with all its creative potential and tactile qualities.
What inspires your creative process?
I’m inspired by all the different processes involved in creating something and want to experiment and improve my skills in certain techniques. I’ve explored many techniques over the years and now concentrate on the ones I enjoy most, which are hand-building and scraffito decoration. Scraffito is drawing through a later of coloured slip with a sharp tool to reveal the clay underneath. I’ve always been interested in pattern and colour, primitive ceramics and textiles and decorative folk art.
Who inspires you? Do you have any favourite potters?
I’m inspired by makers who are dedicated to continually developing and honing their skills to a high standard and keeping these skills and crafts relevant in today’s high-tech world. The first studio pots I saw in an exhibition were coiled vessels with intricate geometric patterns made by Elizabeth Fritsch. Their beauty and what could be achieved in clay made a great impression on me. I’ve also always been interested in traditional decorative slipware and admire the contemporary potters Katrin Moye, Vicky Lindo, Douglas Fitch and Hannah McAndrew.
How do you start a piece? Do you use sketch books?
I usually start with an idea jotted down in a sketch book, then it might take a while to develop, sometimes several months of making and solving any technical issues. Each batch is an ongoing learning process.
How long do your pieces take to make and do you have a favourite clay, glaze or firing technique?
It’s difficult to say how long an individual piece takes, as over the years I’ve found the most time-efficient way is to do each stage in large batches. First, I spend a few weeks making, for example slab-building the houses or pinching and shaping the pots and birds. I then wrap them all in plastic ready for decoration. Then I spend time doing all the slip and scraffito decoration. After biscuit firing they are dipped in a transparent glaze and fired again. My favourite clay to use is a Super White earthenware clay, which is lovely to work with. My least favourite part of the process is the glazing!
My studio is in my garden and is a converted brick build garage with a Velux window in the roof for added light.
Tell us about your studio. Where is it, what does it look like and what’s in it?
My studio is in my garden and is a converted brick build garage with a Velux window in the roof for added light. I work on a large table and have lots of storage. I also have an electric wheel. I have a large round top-loading kiln used for glazing, a small kiln used for biscuit firing, and a test kiln which is really useful for firing my earrings, brooches and smaller work, and for last-minute deadlines!
I’ve always been interested in pattern and colour, primitive ceramics and textiles and decorative folk art.
What does being self-employed mean to you?
It’s very satisfying to be in control of you own working hours and doing what you love to create an income. Making the work is very time consuming, but the long hours are rewarded by the creative challenges and the making process and by the pleasure that other people get from your work.
I see you attend markets and craft fairs, which do you prefer? Selling online or selling at an event?
When you’re selling, I think you need to use a variety of ways to reach the widest audience. I love doing craft fairs, as it’s a great way to get instant feedback from your customers. Selling online is a great way to reach new customers and allows them to focus on individual pieces.
If you weren’t a potter and you could choose anything else creative to do for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
I think it would have to be knitting or crochet, as this is my way of relaxing and still being creative. The colours, patterns and textures of wool and the technical design process would hopefully satisfy me creatively as much as clay.
Making the work is very time consuming, but the long hours are rewarded by the creative challenges, the making process and by the pleasure that other people get from your work.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
First, I may do some admin and pack any online sales ready for postage. Next, I’ll start work in the studio. I’ll typically roll out 10 to 15 slabs of clay and wrap ready for later. I may then finish smoothing a batch of pinch pots ready for decoration. Some practical jobs may need doing, such as mixing slips and glazes. For a break, I try to go for a walk every day. I usually work in the evenings, fuelled by constant cups of tea and listening to the radio.
What’s been your biggest achievement so far?
There’s not one individual thing. I’m just so pleased that I can continue to make a living from ceramics. I really want to continue improving the quality of my work and increasing the amount of online sales and galleries around the country.
Have you got any exciting plans for this year?
I’m taking part in Cheltenham Open Studios, which happens every two years. I’ll be exhibiting with seven other artists, printmakers and potters in a local gallery. I have lots of ideas for a new range of larger individual pieces, which will hopefully take my work into a new direction.
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Helen Wilde from Paper Bea Company. Helen makes eco-friendly gifts for gardeners and plantable paper products, such as seed packs featuring poppies, foxgloves, hollyhocks and other wild flower seeds from her own garden. Earlier this year Helen launched her collection of gorgeous paper flowers and everlasting paper wedding bouquets.
Follow Paper Bea Company on Instagram @paperbeacompany