Meet the Makers: Zan and Me | illustration + ceramics
Mecki Allen is a studio potter who started making ceramics seriously about three years ago, leaving behind a high-pressured job as a linguist in law and publishing. Earlier this year, Mecki joined forces with her daughter Zanna, a trained illustrator, to launch Zan+Me. This new venture combines their two talents beautifully: Zanna creates illustrations to complement the pots made and fired by Mecki. They even have garden studios facing each other and by all accounts get on splendidly. We set Julie Saggerson from Julie Love Little Works of Art the task of finding out more about this creative mother and daughter team…
We’re excited by the concept of – literally – fusing together illustrations and ceramics
Tell us about yourselves and what you do…
MECKI: I’m the me of ZAN+ME. I make ceramics, functional pots for the home, designed for everyday use with the occasional decorative piece thrown in for good measure. I came to pottery five years ago when I cut short my previous career to start doing what I had dreamt of for years. After an intensive training programme I opened my own studio about three years ago, first trading as Mecki Allen Ceramics, then rebranding and expanding the business to fully incorporate the illustration part happened earlier this year.
ZANNA: So I’m the Zan of ZAN+ME. Don’t ask why I’m named first ;-). As a freelance illustrator I’ve been providing images for Mecki’s pots for a while now. As we’re excited by the concept of – literally – fusing together illustrations and ceramics, we recently joined forces to develop a number of ranges of illustrated ceramics complemented by art on prints and greeting cards. Oh, I’m also Mecki’s daughter, which is a real plus in our team!
I kept thinking that I’d like to be somewhere quiet leading a bohemian life making pots.
How long have you been practising your respective arts?
MECKI: I touched clay for the first time during school art classes. I tried to sculpt a face based on my father’s features, which wasn’t one of my better ideas. So I gave ceramics a rest – a long rest in fact – did something sensible by studying Modern Languages in Berlin and working for years as a linguist in publishing and law. These were high pressure environments though and I kept thinking that I’d like to be somewhere quiet leading a bohemian life making pots. Eventually the time was right for me to reinvent myself… professionally speaking. Since then, you could say, I’ve had nothing but clay on the brain.
ZANNA: My creative journey started with an art foundation course at uni, after which I moved to London to study for a BA in Illustration. Since graduating I’ve been freelancing, working on a wide variety of projects from book covers, logo design to promotional material while also developing my own artistic style. It was when taking part in three annual Open Studio events that we took our first tentative steps combining illustrations with ceramics. We enjoyed the experience and, as the response was really positive, it felt right to start working together in earnest.
Our different areas of expertise influence the process. With my illustrator training, I’m used to communicating narratives and ideas in 2D, while Mecki has the greater insight when it comes to looking at the practicality of applying these to ceramics.
I’ve seen that you both live by the sea – what else inspires your work?
ZANNA: Yes, we live right by the coast and experience the elements in all their guises – everything from the intense shades of sea and sky on calm summer days to their angry faces in a bad storm. But we’re also drawn to the country and, time permitting, go for hikes in hilly and mountainous terrain. It’s the beauty of nature in all its diversity that attracts and inspires us. We love both plants and wildlife and try to produce work that captures our passions through both imagery and glazes.
We live right by the coast and experience the elements in all their guises – everything from the intense shades of sea and sky on calm summer days to their angry faces in a bad storm.
Your ceramics are beautiful and I love the colours and patterns, how do you two work together on ideas?
ZANNA: We take quite a holistic approach when it comes to developing ideas. Not having to approach each project like the one before feels really liberating. Maintaining a certain level of flexibility can be a necessity though, as often new practical and aesthetic factors come into play. Our different areas of expertise also influence the process. With my illustrator training, I’m used to communicating narratives and ideas in 2D while Mecki has the greater insight when it comes to looking at the practicality of applying these to ceramics. Creating harmony between my illustrations and the form and function of Mecki’s pots is a constant consideration.
MECKI: It’s also important to us to step back from work. On our days off we may go to art events in the area. And with London not far, we regularly visit places like the Bankside Gallery or the Contemporary Ceramics Centre in Holborn. If we happen to be passing by the V&A Museum, it’s quite easy for Zanna to lose me in their lofty sixth-floor ceramics section. We relish these times and the opportunity to reflect on both past and present artists. It helps us evaluate our own practice. And then we come back brimming with motivation and ideas.
I often lie awake visualising new shapes and glazing possibilities while sensible folks are asleep.
The shapes of your mugs and bowls are lovely, how long did it take to come up with your final designs?
MECKI: I often lie awake visualising new shapes and glazing possibilities while sensible folks are asleep. I’m very much drawn to the aesthetics of shape and form and to the balance of proportions and try to express this harmony in my work. While there are certain shapes that I return to time and again, I don’t have what you might call ‘final designs’. If I had, I might risk stagnating. The beauty of being an independent maker is that I can allow designs and styles to evolve.
ZANNA: Our designs are also influenced by themes we’re working on. As we are both drawn to the power of storytelling, we recently chose six Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. Mecki searched them for quotes whereupon I produced a series of illustrations which are now available as prints and on greeting cards. And Mecki has fused them on to various ceramics.
Creating harmony between my illustrations and the form and function of Mecki’s pots is a constant consideration.
How long does it take to complete a pot?
MECKI: Every piece goes through many stages – prepping the clay, throwing, trimming, attaching handles, 2-3 firings with image application in between. Drying is a big factor. Small pieces dry faster than large ones. Plates in particular need plenty of time so they don’t warp or crack during firing. I find stacking platters during drying helps with keeping them flat. Also, I try to only fire the kiln once it’s well and truly full. So completing anything in less than 2-3 weeks is unrealistic.
Every piece goes through many stages – prepping the clay, throwing, trimming, attaching handles, 2-3 firings with image application in between – so completing anything in less than 2-3 weeks is unrealistic.
What are your favourite parts of your respective making processes?
ZANNA: My desk is usually home to piles of loose paper with research and drawings. Groundwork takes up a lot of time. Contemplating the next step can feel quite daunting. It’s at this point (as I’m sure a lot of artists can relate) that doubt can set in. Which is why it can feel almost euphoric when I finish a piece I’m happy with. It’s like slotting together the last pieces of a puzzle. As I work up my final images digitally, it feels quite special to finally hold a new print in my hands. Seeing my work fired on Mecki’s ceramics would rival that feeling for me now though. It just adds a whole new dimension I hadn’t previously imagined.
It can feel almost euphoric when I finish a piece I’m happy with. It’s like slotting together the last pieces of a puzzle.
MECKI: My favourite part of making would have to be working at the wheel, which can be a very rhythmic and meditative affair. It also forces me to relax, put to one side anything that may cause me inner tension. If I’m not ‘in the zone’, I can’t throw well. So throwing has a very therapeutic effect on me. But then again, we both enjoy many other elements of our work and running a business is incredibly varied and stimulating. Marketing, dealing with stockists and maintaining our Folksy shop requires time and focus. It feels good when an order is boxed up and ready for the journey.
Mecki’s studio is filled to the brim with her pottery gear… when the weather is kind so we can listen to the gulls and hear the waves lapping the shore as the wind picks up.
Can you describe your studio?
ZANNA: We have two studios in Mecki’s garden. I work from the smaller as my work is much more contained. The bigger one is Mecki’s domain – she also calls it her workshop or shed as the mood takes her. It’s filled to the brim with her pottery gear: the wheel, clay prep board, drying shelves, workbench and all the usual pottery stuff. The glazing, store and kiln rooms are separate. It’s not a good idea to breathe in those fumes.
MECKI: We really love the fact that our studios are so close together. That way we can visit for a chat when a new idea strikes or when we think we’ve created something amazing. Also we appreciate that they’re light with glazed double doors that are wide open when the weather is kind so we can listen to the gulls and hear the waves lapping the shore as the wind picks up.
We really love that our studios are so close together… we can visit each other for a chat when a new idea strikes or when we think we’ve created something amazing.
Your Instagram account is lovely, how useful do you find social media?
ZANNA: We got serious about Instagram after launching Zan+Me. We love it for its visual appeal and the fact that it enables us to show a great variety of images and also the making process. Also, it’s such an inspiring platform where we’re making friends fast and are connecting with both makers and galleries and people generally who are looking for our kind of work. It also helps people learn more about us.
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What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start selling their art online?
ZANNA: Do research, plenty of it. Improve your photographic skills and if necessary invest in a good camera. If you’re selling online, buyers can’t handle your work in person and only have your images and descriptions to go by. So make them good. And use friendly forums like the one hosted by Folksy to invite feedback. Many sellers are incredibly generous with their time and advice.
Seeing my work fired on Mecki’s ceramics adds a whole new dimension I hadn’t previously imagined.
Have you set yourself any business goals for the next year?
MECKI: We use Google Drive to jot down ideas to avoid forgetting things we should have picked up on. We have both long- and short-term objectives and review our priorities regularly. Our goals for the next 12 months are: continuous development of product lines that make beautiful gifts and are a joy to have in the home, increasing our promotion (especially online), establishing good relations with new stockists and showing our work at one or two art shows. That should keep us out of mischief ;-)
Use code ZANandME for 10% off all Zan and Me Ceramics – only valid for a limited time.
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Julie Saggerson from Julie Love Little Works of Art. Julie makes small sculptures inspired by birds, nature and life, handmade from wood, textiles and lovely things. You can also commission Julie to create a miniature model of your house – just send her some photographs of your house and she will create a one-off bespoke portrait of your home in wood.