Meet the Maker: Kara Leigh Ford
British potter Kara Leigh Ford started making ceramics at evening classes while she paid off her student debts doing a ‘proper job’. After 10 years in marketing, she finally felt confident enough to leave her day job and become a full-time maker – although she still finds it hard to believe she now actually does what she loves for a living. We talk to Kara to find out more about her oh so beautiful handmade ceramics and discover that she very nearly starred in our favourite show of last year, The Great Pottery Thrown Down…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hi, I’m Kara Leigh Ford and I’m a potter. I design and hand make decorative, functional ceramics. It still feels amazing to be able to say that!
I did pottery at evening classes as an ‘aside’ – I had to do something with my hands to keep sane.
Have you always been a maker?
I’ve been creative my whole life. It was the only thing at school I excelled at – I have dyslexia and struggled with a lot of other subjects but I always found that making things felt natural and fun. I studied fine art and drama at university but after graduating I got an office job, mainly because I was up to my eyeballs in debt and, like many graduates, I didn’t really know how to use my degree to make a living. I did pottery at evening classes as an ‘aside’ – I had to do something with my hands to keep sane.
I worked in branding and visual merchandising for 10 years before I decided to take the plunge and become a full-time maker. The time I spent working was actually really useful, though, as it gave me so many important marketing skills, like understanding the importance of branding, photography, social media, copywriting and no doubt plenty of others, which I didn’t have when I was fresh out of uni.
Craft is everyman’s art. Anyone, no matter what their social status, education or wealth, can learn to create or own a masterpiece.
What was the first thing you made in clay?
My first experience of clay was at a pottery workshop at a summer school when I was 10. I made a little cat. It must have been ok as I remember another kid stole it and pretended it was theirs!
What draws you towards functional ceramics?
I love the idea that pottery is used and is part of everyday life, handed down from generation to generation. For me, the essence of a piece of ceramics is its function. The look is obviously also very important as that initially draws you to it, but it needs to be pleasurable to use.
For me, the essence of a piece of ceramics is its function… it needs to be pleasurable to use.
How would you describe your aesthetic and how did you develop your style?
I would describe my work as modern rustic with distinct organic undertones. Every piece I make has its own unique character. My style is developing all the time. Being mostly self-taught, I spend a lot of time experimenting with new glazes, seeing how far I can push the materials and enjoying any resulting ‘happy accidents’. Trying to reproduce them, that’s the challenge.
From a stormy winter sky to a turquoise rock pool on a summer’s day – the changing moods of the ocean feature heavily in my work.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I love the sea and growing up by the coast in Devon has had a massive influence on my work. I’m drawn to the colours and textures that I remember from my favourite South Devon beaches, Bantham and Bigbury, where I whiled away weekends as a child. From a stormy winter sky to a turquoise rock pool on a summer’s day – the changing moods of the ocean feature heavily in my work.
Who are your design heroes?
One of my favourite potters is Norman Yap. I enjoy the fact he raw-glazes his pots, which means he only fires his work once, putting the glazes on before they are fired. I find that really daring. Katrin Moye’s surface patterns are stunning too – I love her colour combinations. I also have an affinity to Japanese Wabi Sabi style – simple forms heavily influenced by nature and perfection found in imperfection.
I completely understand how hard it is to put your work ‘out there’ but when you’ve made that first leap of faith it gets easier and the rewards far outweigh the fear. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
How long does it take to make a piece and what’s involved?
The majority of time is spent in developing a piece: getting the aesthetic right, making sure it’s balanced and beautiful but more importantly making sure it’s fit for purpose and that it can be replicated. There are lots of different stages involved in pottery: initial making, drying, fettling, drying again, firing, glazing and firing again. Depending on what I am making it can take 3-4 weeks in total to make one piece. It’s really important not to rush things in ceramics, that’s when mistakes happen. I’ve learnt this the hard way, so now I always give myself plenty of time.
Can you describe your workspace? Where is it and what is in it?
I work from my shed in my garden. The shed was one of the main reasons we bought our house! When I gave up my job and started working in there full time, my husband gave it a beach-hut paint job. The shed is small but that makes it easy to heat and forces me to keep organised, and I absolutely love it. In it is my circa 1970s potter’s wheel (which looks a lot like a baby’s bath), my kiln ‘Ronda’, all my tools, clay, glazes and drying shelves. I have a separate clean shed for my stock and packaging materials.
I work from my shed in my garden. The shed was one of the main reasons we bought our house! When I gave up my job and started working in there full time, my husband gave it a beach-hut paint job.
Is there anything in your shed that you couldn’t live without?
I have a pair of bamboo chopsticks that are about 15 years old. I use them for so many things – detailed work like attaching handles and spouts, as a depth gauge when rolling out clay, smoothing clay, the list goes on…
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
I would be making things anyway, even if I didn’t sell anything – it’s just something I have to do. But to do it for a living really is a dream come true. I still have to pinch myself. The freedom of being my own boss is so empowering. I probably work more hours now than I ever did in full-time employment as I often do admin in the evenings and I’ll work at least one day nearly every weekend, but it doesn’t feel like work because I enjoy it so much.
I would be making things anyway, even if I didn’t sell anything – it’s just something I have to do.
How does it feel to be part of the UK craft scene?
The UK craft scene is amazing. It’s such a supportive community. I’ve met some lovely people via social media, at craft fairs and as customers. Everyone has been so generous with advice and support – it really is mind-blowing. I am so, so thankful to the all the other crafts people and the lovely team at Folksy who have given me advice and their time.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
I completely understand how hard it is to put your work ‘out there’. It took me so long to muster the courage to do it. I was afraid of people judging it – it’s like sending your precious children out into the big scary world, but when you’ve made that first leap of faith it gets easier and the rewards far outweigh the fear. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
In my shed is my circa 1970s potter’s wheel (which looks a lot like a baby’s bath), my kiln ‘Ronda’, all my tools, clay, glazes and drying shelves.
What does craft mean to you?
For me craft is skill, an understanding of your materials and passion. Craft is everyman’s art. Anyone, no matter what their social status, education or wealth, can learn to create or own a masterpiece. I feel like it is as much a reflection of the buyer as the seller. It is the antithesis of a throw-away culture: craft items are made to last and be treasured, and every piece has a story behind it.
I actually applied to the first series of The Great Pottery Throw Down and to my absolute shock I got down to the final 20.
It’s just been announced that there’s going to be a new series of The Great Pottery Throw Down. Were you a fan of the first series? Would you ever apply?
Ha! Funny you should ask. I actually applied to the first series of The Great Pottery Throw Down and to my absolute shock I got down to the final 20. Despite some obvious initial disappointment, it was actually a bit of a relief when I didn’t get through, as I was so overcome with nerves in front of the cameras I don’t think I would have enjoyed it. It was a great experience, though. I met some lovely people and it gave me the final burst of confidence I needed to leave my job and be a full-time potter. I thought it was a great show, bringing British ceramics into the public consciousness can only be a good thing.