I’m inspired by the nature all around me, the uplifting chirruping of birdsong, the hopping of a bunny… a dragonfly’s lacy wings – oh, you get the idea, I’m a bit of a nature daydreamer!
One of the most colourful potters on the British ceramics scene is Sarah Duke from Dottery Pottery, who describes herself as a ceramic artist rather than a potter. She makes ceramic buttons, jewellery and decorations in bright and bold glazes, decorated with patterns and prints inspired by nature. She has also recently mastered the art of wheel-thrown pottery. She’s come a long way since her days of watching Why Don’t You? on the telly and playing with pots of PVA glue…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hi, my name is Sarah Duke, I live in Hampshire with Mr Dottery Potter and my two teenage boys. I would call myself a ceramic artist rather than a potter in the traditional sense.
As a child I used to get quite frustrated when glue wouldn’t stick anything to yoghurt pots – I think that’s when I decided to use other materials instead. You have to get quite inventive when you’ve only got a tub of PVA!
Where did your making journey start?
I’ve always been creative but took inspiration from my family as a child as they were all very artistic. My favourite pastime when I was quite young was junk modelling. I had a massive box full of old toilet roll tubes, yoghurt cartons, washing-up liquid bottles etc, and I really enjoyed trying to create something weird and wonderful from them. I used to get quite frustrated when the glue wouldn’t stick anything to the yoghurt pots though, I think that’s when I decided to use other materials instead. You have to get quite inventive when you’ve only got a tub of PVA! I remember successfully creating a gonk from a toilet roll, some fake fur fabric and some googly eyes. Blue Peter and Why Don’t You? have a lot to answer for!
What was your experience of craft at school? Were you encouraged to be creative?
I was really fortunate that I went to school at a time when we were given a whole afternoon a week to try out different arts and crafts, ranging from needlework to graphic design. We used to go to a separate annexe building about 3 miles away from the school. It was a lovely old building, really full of character (and also supposedly housing a grey lady ghost!), so it felt like a special time when you were learning in a very relaxed yet inspiring atmosphere.
How did you discover ceramics?
I dabbled with pottery throughout my school years but it wasn’t until I went to do a Foundation Course in Art and Design with unlimited access to a proper pottery studio, that I decided I loved the malleability of the material. I loved getting stuck right into the bag of clay, essentially just messing around with mud and then getting a solid, permanent piece of artwork at the end of it. I know this sounds really corny but working so directly with clay and minerals does make me feel closer to nature in a small way.
I know this sounds really corny but working so directly with clay and minerals does make me feel closer to nature in a small way.
Who are your heroes – in craft and design or just in life?
I have huge admiration for the great potters such as Lucie Rie, Bernard and David Leach for the beautiful simplicity of their designs, but I also love the bright, fun, design elements of artists such as Emma Bridgewater and Orla Kiely. I love how a design can successfully translate on to something as functional as a mug and also be admired and appreciated as wallpaper on your lounge wall!
What or who else inspires you?
I’m inspired by the nature all around me, the beautiful, bright petals of a summer bloom, uplifting chirruping of birdsong, the hopping of a bunny, raindrops on the window panes, the beautiful iridescence of a dragonfly body, it’s lacy wings – oh, you get the idea, I’m a bit of a nature daydreamer!
How do you start a piece?
Initially, I always sketch out a quick design first. Sometimes, I draw out templates for the different elements of it before I start, to make sure that it will work. So my clay has to be a certain consistency and firmness for different projects. If I’m making something flat that will require lots of impressions and mark making on the surface, I like the clay to be quite dry. This means that I sometimes have to leave slabs of clay uncovered for a few days before it’s ready to use.
I start off by rolling out a slab of white earthenware clay on a cloth base between two wooden sticks, so that my slab of clay is nice and even. Then I cut round my template design with a knife and make the surface decoration using all sorts of different objects to stamp into the clay. When the piece is finished, it needs some time to dry out without warping. If you dry it out too fast, it can curl at the edges. Sometimes, I weigh the items down so they are kept flat but the drying process can take anything up to a week.
I use a combination of ready-mixed glazes, and glazes that I mix myself from raw materials and a recipe book! I like tweaking recipes to find just the perfect colour and texture.
Then I paint colour into the decoration and wipe off any excess. When it’s completely dry, it’s ready for the bisque firing to 1000 deg C. This means the clay is no longer mouldable but is still porous enough to absorb the glaze. When the kiln is cool enough to unload, then it’s on to the second firing, the glaze firing.
How do you decide on your glazes and decorations?
I like my decoration to be bright and bold – this is most easily achieved at earthenware temperatures, so this dictates the type of glazes that I can use. I use a combination of ready-mixed glazes, ready to brush on, and glazes that I mix myself from raw materials and a recipe book! I like tweaking recipes to find just the perfect colour and texture.
You can open the kiln to find that everything has over-fired, warped, cracked, bubbled and weeks of work can be totally ruined… or you can open the kiln and find everything looking shiny and perfect.
How does it feel when you open the kiln?
It’s easily my most favourite part of the process – exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure. You can open the kiln to find that everything has over-fired, warped, cracked, bubbled and a good few weeks of work can be totally ruined… or you can open the kiln and find everything looking shiny and perfect. It’s also really exciting when you’ve tried out a new glaze for the first time because when you glaze in the raw state you never know exactly what it’s going to look like until it’s been fired.
I love getting stuck right into the bag of clay, essentially just messing around with mud. I know this sounds really corny but working so directly with clay and minerals does make me feel closer to nature in a small way.
Can you describe your workspace?
I used to work in a teeny little utility room until Mr Dottery Potter and I built my studio at the bottom of the garden just over a year ago. It took sweat and tears but we finally managed to finish it on a very small budget. The windows and doors are all reclaimed, that’s why they don’t match! I suppose I built it to a very specific design for functionality. It has two worktops at opposite sides of the studio, one for messy work and one for clean work, such as finishing and packaging. I have lots of storage space and shelving, with the wheel in the middle of the room. I have a separate kiln room, so that I can run the kiln while I’m working and not be overcome by fumes! I’m so happy to have more room – it’s my little haven.
It sounds ideal. If you didn’t have this, where would your dream studio be?
It would be a really characterful old barn in the middle of the countryside, with maybe a view of some fields and horses.
Mr Dottery Potter and I built my studio at the bottom of the garden just over a year ago. The windows and doors are all reclaimed, that’s why they don’t match!
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your business?
Meeting such a wonderful network of hard-working crafters. I love how supportive the crafting community is. Also, having the opportunity to work so closely with my customers and getting to know a little bit about them.
Which of your pieces are you most proud of and why?
At the moment, I’m most proud of my wheel-thrown pieces. Throwing has never come that easily to me and I really have to work hard to get the shapes I want and not just a squidgy mess! It gives me so much satisfaction when I’ve managed to get a design to work.
My wheel-thrown pieces give me so much satisfaction. Throwing has never come that easily to me and I really have to work hard to get the shapes I want and not just a squidgy mess!
What does craft mean to you?
I think of craft as work that the designer has put a little piece of their heart and soul into. It means years of trial and error; it means processes that could be as old as time itself. It requires a certain amount of learning and understanding to produce works that should be cherished.
The best thing about being creative for a living? Knowing that I’m going to be doing something I enjoy every single day.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
Just knowing that I’m going to be doing something I enjoy every single day.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
Go for it! Obviously make sure that you do a little bit of product research first, maybe do a small business course, but most of all, have faith in yourself.
To celebrate being our featured maker Sarah is offering 10% off all Dottery Pottery with the code Happy. Only valid until 7th September 2015.