Meet potter Bev Seth from Seth Ceramics
Bev Seth from Seth Ceramics makes pots inspired by nature and our involvement with it. Storytelling is at the centre of her work, where it mixes with real and imagined creatures, the wild outdoors and folk traditions to conjure fascinating decorative but nominally functional pieces. Here Bev talks to fellow Folksy maker, Paulomi from Handmade by Tinni about her journey towards, away from and back to being a maker.
It’s all about the story: folktales, legends, spoken accounts of other times and worlds. There’s a continuing tradition of having a strong link to the natural world and that brings in the other thing I love: the wild unexplainable world.Bev Seth, Seth Ceramics
Hi Bev. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Hello I’m Bev from Seth Ceramics. I use clay to make decorative and household items and also a family of creatures called Caretaker Birds. My work gives a vague nod to function, as I like to make the birds and animals I model carry candles or store things. I also love to tell a story.
Animals and nature are at the centre of what I do. This includes tiny birds built to fit in the palm of your hand, pourers in the shape of wrens, and crow and deer boxes – although sometimes their main function is to bring a memory of the wild outdoors into our homes. I also make salt and chilli pots, which is just totally entertaining to me. I make them in the shape of cats, bears, wild beasts, all with spoons linked to their characters – basically anything I find amusing.
Tell us your story. What roads did you travel to become an artist?
I left art college full of enthusiasm and ambition. I bought a kiln with profits from my degree show and began selling my wares. It was successful in some respects – I sold work in the Strangeways shop in Covent Garden – but I struggled as I was alone, working from a converted outbuilding at home. This will probably resonate with a lot of people.
Then I got a job in the occupational therapy department of a hospital, followed by a career working with people with learning disabilities. These jobs were so creative I was fully absorbed and satisfied for many years. I still sewed clothes and did small projects at home but not clay.
It was during one of my projects that a friend said “why aren’t you making pottery” and I had no answer. So I looked into joining a pottery class,. Finding the right one was difficult. I had a couple of false starts but the third was perfect and that’s the start of another story.
Going back, was there a lightbulb moment when you first realised you wanted to work with clay?
We had classes using clay at primary school and in one session I made an owl on a nest. It’s standard brown clay and unfired, only varnished, but it’s survived and I see this as one of the lightbulb moments. In fact I see a very direct link to the things I like to make today. The owl sits on the nest, but you can take it off. I really like the dual purpose of it: it looking like one thing and being another.
I see a very direct link between the first piece I made in clay as a child to the things I like to make today. The owl sits on the nest, but you can take it off. I really like the dual purpose of it.Bev Seth, Seth Ceramics
At art college many years later, I can’t remember wanting to do anything else. I liked textiles and printmaking but it was the opportunities that clay gives you, the feeling of it being so hands on, the options for building something – almost anything – that captured me.
What inspires you and why?
It’s all about the story: folktales, legends, superstitions, charms, sung and spoken accounts of other times and worlds. There’s a continuing tradition of having a strong link to the natural world and the changing seasons in them and it’s this link that brings in the other thing I love: the wild unexplainable world.
Lots of tales talk about our place in the world and our relationships with nature and the untamed creatures in it and, let’s face it, being closer to nature and answerable for our actions, would solve a lot of our problems. But folk has undergone a big revival in recent years, from Folk Horror to re-singing old songs and the reimagining of dances and customs, and I’m right in there with all that.
My Caretaker Birds have individual stories linked to what they carry, always positive, about us, the world and our place in it.Bev Seth, Seth Ceramics
Tell me more about your Caretaker Birds. I’m intrigued…
The Caretaker Birds are a gathering of mythical (made up by me) creatures. They have individual stories linked to what they carry, always positive, about us, the world and our place in it. These are special to me because it’s how I talk about what I think is important; the things it’s taken me a lifetime to learn.
Talk us through your process. How do you go from inspiration to final piece?
A whole lot of my inspiration comes from the outdoors, but mainly in close-up. I love hedgerows, birds’ nests, mosses, berries, seeds, trees – branches and roots and the creatures you find in there. I think this is reflected in the scale of things I make – I just can’t go large. Mix in the folk tales, songs and superstitions, things I see as using a story as a cautionary tale or as a path to understanding the world and protecting ourselves. There’s lots of nature and animals involved in these tales too.
So I start drawing, mainly to understand the shapes and record what I’ve seen. Then I let my mind and pencil wander, doing lots of (little) drawings, doodles and back-of-envelope scribbles. This is where I mix it all together. After this, I might have a quite solid idea or I might start to work it out in clay. There are usually a couple of ways to make things, so it’s very much a trial-and-error process at the start. Usually the fifth thing I make is the one where I’ve really worked out what I want to do.
When I start making I usually work on a few similar pieces at once. I make all the component parts, for example for the Caretaker Birds I make three bodies, three beaks, lots of arms (to get the elbow angle right), legs and shoes, wings and sacks.
Then it’s my favourite part: making the things they carry – the part that tells the story. I make tiny acorn teapots, cups like seeds, sprigs of foliage, usually hiding a bug or two. In fact, I love this bit so much that I’ve started making tiny tea sets, baskets, spoons and bowl sets.
My favourite part is making the things the creatures carry – the part that tells the story.Bev Seth, Seth Ceramics
When I have everything ready, all laid out in front of me, I start construction. It’s a stop/start process, as between each step I need to leave it to let the clay harden up. But it’s good to live with them as they grow. Once constructed, tweaked and built, I let them harden slightly and then start to carve the surfaces. This enhances the glaze, letting it pool and become more interesting. It also adds texture and a sense of flow to the movements I am trying to capture.
Then it’s left to dry slowly, until all water is gone from the clay, before the first firing to 1000 degrees C. This leaves the pieces solid but still fragile. A bit of tiding up and they are ready to glaze. I dip and pour the glaze – it’s a thin application and if it’s a bit splashy it just adds to the finish. Then back into the kiln, this time to around 1200 degrees C and hopefully out comes a well-finished, family of Caretaker Birds.
Do you have a favourite piece and what makes that one special?
My Caretaker Birds will probably always be my favourites because of their stories, personalities and the well-world link. I put a lot of myself into these and I can see so many more things to make in this series.
But running alongside this, my favourite piece is usually the design I’ve just finalised, the number five. At the moment it’s the cat salt/chilli pots. Full disclosure here, I was making a bear – I love bears – but it just wasn’t happening. It really wanted to be feline, so I went with it and made the black and white cats. The lucky black cats with a fishtail spoon are my favourites – they have a slightly wicked look to them, some mischief we’ve yet to discover has happened.
And my favourite part of making them? It’s carving the fur and features, giving them an individual look and having fun with their expressions.
Tell us about your studio…
Part two of my pottery story began in other people’s studios, but there was a moment when I was going in for over three sessions a week and selling work in good shows, and I thought I had to gather myself together and take the leap. So now I work here in my garden shed. Grubby, untidy, still a place other things get stored, inefficient heating, no running water – but it’s my workshop.
I can see the garden from my desk, so on an average day I’m watching the birds in the birch trees, noticing the gentle change of seasons and imagining that one day the passion flower will continue to grow and finally cut me off from the rest of the world. It’s got a table where, in my head, I imagine myself sitting, in peaceful contemplation to write and draw, but it’s usually just full of the things I’ve collected – leaves, seeds, berries, twigs, grasses – all mixing in with scribble-filled notebooks and drawings on scraps of paper. I wouldn’t change it really.
If you weren’t a maker, what would you be? Did you have a plan B?
I’ve done Plan B and now I’m back on Plan A. But I think it all worked out well really. Today I’m driven, have more focus and I’m altogether more open to everyone and everything that comes my way. While I do worry that I’ve missed my prime creative years, I think I’m better equipped to be buoyant – a key skill in the world of selling craft and also to just enjoy myself.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Really I think there are things 20-year-old me could tell present-day me. For example, she wasn’t one to worry about the functionality of teapots; if a spout shaped like a twig looked good, then that’s the right spout. I can imagine her saying if it seems like a good idea, do it, it might be. Go with your creative ideas. Overthinking wasn’t one of her failings.
But would I warn her about the incredibly rewarding but ultimately derailing day job? The one where she meets such great people and has the opportunity to support them to lead the lives they want and deserve, but at the cost of her creative ambitions? I really don’t know, but then again, who knows whether she’d even listen?
What does craft mean to you?
Being part of something bigger than myself, taking my ideas about the contemporary world and using traditional skills to make this successful. Craft is something personal to me but simultaneously continuing the work of the millions of potters who have gone before me.
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Paulomi from Handmade by Tinni. Paulomi makes sustainable textile jewellery and home decorations.
Visit her shop on Folksy https://folksy.com/shops/HandmadebyTinni
Read our interview with Paulomi here – Meet Paulomi from Handmade by Tinni