Artist, Ceramicist, Craft, Designer, Interviews with creatives, Scotland | 16 September 2020
Ceri White — ceramicist.
We meet Ceri White next in our series of interviews with inspiring creatives.
Join us as we get a peek in to Ceri’s life as a maker. We find out why spoons are important to her and learn about her “part womble” tendencies. In an interview oozing with Ceri’s infectious energy and personality we learnt about her process and how the peak of lockdown affected her work.
Ceri White, Ceri White Studios
Ceri White makes wheel-thrown, contemporary ceramic, indoor planters and a range of colourful, hand built “Wee House” sculptures, among other things.
We first came across her work when Emma and her family visited the Bowhouse artisan market in Fife last summer — Emma instantly fell in love with her ceramic houses. These playful tactile houses that fit perfectly in the palm of your hand were lined up in joyful rows on Ceri’s stall and looked almost jewel like with their iridescent colours and shiny glazes. They are reminiscent of the croft houses that intrigued Emma during her trips to Scotland and the Scottish isles and seemed to beautifully symbolise home, comfort and sanctuary.
We set-out to find out more about Ceri and her work.
How did you discover clay?
I discovered clay and ceramics at art school (Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen), where I found I could handle the stuff fairly well. I found all the magical possibilities and technicalities of these materials really interesting. Apart from anything else,
“The fact that you put something in the kiln as one thing and it comes out again as something entirely different was intoxicating.”
Previously, the only interaction I’d had with this medium had been of the mud pie variety, playing in the garden or on the banks of the River Clyde where I grew up.
How did you get started?
After I left Gray’s School of Art, I went straight into working at a tiny studio pottery and since then I’ve mostly worked in a studio pottery environment.
Some serious life stuff happened and helped me make decisions about the direction I wished to go in. I took the required breather, found myself staring at cactus plants in Lanzarote (as you do) and decided to start making some small indoor planters. That sounded nice, enjoyable and doable. It turned out that an indoor plant / cactus craze was about to hit interior design trends (hurrah!) and my current work grew from that seed.
How do you generate your creative ideas and find your inspiration?
Mostly my creative ideas are derived from my interest in the natural world around me and also my formative years as a child.
My early childhood was spent in the 1970’s surrounded by all that bold colour and glorious wallpaper and fabric pattern and, just as importantly, a lot of post-war household items in the houses of my grandparents. I could spend hours absorbed in these old cocktail cabinets playing with interesting pickle forks, olive sticks shaped like swords, fancy little sherry glasses etc. These textures, patterns, details and somehow even smells and atmosphere have all informed my creative life.
How do you design for joy?
“A customer once told me every time they pass my work in their hallway, they smile... and that's joyful.”
I think joy is at the heart of all my creations. I have always wanted to make something which is appealing and which I’m proud to have made. Colour and colour placement is important to me. I tend to keep it fresh on a black and white base with the aim of making any colour pop as much as possible. Composition is something I think about all the time. I’m always aware of the golden ratio, classic proportions, and the triangular compositional tricks of the old masters. A customer once told me every time they pass my work in their hallway, they smile and that’s joyful.
What are you working on at the moment?
This year I’ve started to literally “raise” some of my cylinder–shaped pots with a high footring. It completely changes the look of them, adding to the aesthetic. It’s taking me down some unexpected roads, slightly shifting my decorative patterns and is allowing me to play with width while keeping a really elegant lightness. This has been a while coming as I’m always reluctant to add an extra stage to a process for reasons of pricing and it’s an extra thing to go wrong. A few years ago, I collaborated with my designer-maker sister, Hooperhart and we made some planters that she wanted raised on pointy feet. They looked great.
What are the main things in your life that give you creative energy?
“The natural world. It's so unfathomably ingenious.”
The natural world. It’s so unfathomably ingenious, endlessly beautiful even when horrifying, mathematically clever, simple yet intricate, interconnected and balanced (at least ‘til humans interfere). I am lucky enough to live in rural Perthshire near a flowing burn (Scottish stream) which leads to the River Earn. The burn is surrounded by little pebble beaches made up of every type of rock imaginable. The colours and shapes are endlessly fascinating, and I can spend a worrying amount of time closely inspecting this micro world.
Scattered about are bits of river glass and old pottery, which are the signs of humanity I don’t mind so much. They still remain close to their original components of sand, clay, silica and alumina. Eventually these things will be ground to matter smaller than pebbles, in total contrast to the inevitable plastic which drives me absolutely insane. I’m part womble these days, always dragging a bag of plastic home.
“I'm part womble these days, always dragging a bag of plastic home.”
More happily I collect nice stones, little bones, bits of glass, lichen, shells, honeycomb, bark. Some of the structures made by our tiny insect and animal friends are the most beautiful things in the world, the caddis fly egg tube they construct from miniscule pebbles is a prime example of this. All these tiny things are as pleasing as any work of art for me and inspire me to not replicate but create something as pleasing to the soul.
Secondly, my creative family and friends. My network of creative friends spreads throughout Perthshire and beyond. You never know when you’ll find yourself working with some of them on a project, as part of a creative group, or even being part of a wider community like Perth’s Creative Exchange studios. When restrictions of lockdown were very strict, the five of us were having wee coffee meetings on Zoom, taking the time to really talk about what we were doing and why and it’s been lovely to do that. It made me want to get back into the workshop.
Is there a time or place in which you felt truly happy during your creative / working life?
Moving into my new studio at Perth’s Creative Exchange, run by Wasps. It felt like a real change in my working life with so much potential. I was looking forward to lockdown ending so I could get back into it. Sadly, this took much longer than I hoped. It’ll be a long time before the building can live up to its proposed function for the wider community.
What are the rhythms of your working day?
“I'm such a visual person, I like to stare at everything I'm working on for a bit before I start.”
Since I moved into my new studio in Perth, a few months ago, I’ve found a more solid rhythm than I had working from home (yeah, lockdown blasted that to smithereens!) and it’s been good to be around other peoples’ habits again. My new routine was mainly dictated by the dog I was looking after for friends (thank you again, Sweet Mollie x) and she really set the pattern for my new working life from the day I moved in, with walks in the park at set points in the day. She kept me on track for five weeks and it helped!
My day always begins with a route straight from the bed to the kettle for coffee prep. It takes ‘til at least noon for my thoughts to stop tearing around like overexcited puppies and focus themselves on what I’m meant to be doing. I’m such a visual person, I like to go and stare at everything I’m working on for a bit before I start. Lists largely go unread to start with, I just find it easier to have everything surrounding me physically to understand my tasks. It’s usually evening when my most creative sparks happen, not to mention the accompanying enthusiasm. Solutions to problems usually come just before sleep, I’m a full-on night owl.
How did lockdown affect your creative practice?
“My wheel just sat staring at me accusingly from inside the car!”
The first thing that happened was the cancellation of all my upcoming summer events, such as art and design fairs. Some of these events did go online but all my outlets had to close and watching these galleries and independent craft boutiques close their doors, not knowing if they would ever open again, was really quite heartbreaking. My most immediate income stopped. I was low on stock and had just started on new work so I couldn’t offer much work online. The main blow however, was that my fantastic new studio complex had to close immediately.
The Creative Exchange in Perth is the latest Wasps building (Workshop and Artist Studios Provision. Scotland, a not for profit organisation providing affordable studios) and it had just had its grand opening to much fanfare. It really changed my life after 14 years of working through freezing winters on my own, in my wooden self-built workshop at home. Overnight, we were out. Luckily, I had time and help to grab my thrower’s wheel, some clay, materials and tools etc.
“There's a joy to be found in practicing my skills.”
I still have a small kiln at home too. Little did I realise that, like most of my creative friends, all motivation would leave for a time while upset and bewilderment settled in; I was simply unable to even look at it all for over a month. My wheel just sat staring at me accusingly from inside the car! I’ve since managed to cobble together a clear corner of my shed again with encouragement from fellow artists who I regularly Zoom with. I soon found making pots therapeutic.
There’s a joy to be found in practicing my skills and I had a few online fair deadlines to work to. It literally took 5 weeks to even start the process, and let us not mention these woeful short attention spans… I was also in the process of planning some beginners’ throwing workshops to run through the year which were going to basically pay for the studio rent. I couldn’t see how that would work in the near future so there’s plenty more creative thinking to do as we experience more lockdown restrictions!
How do you approach sustainability in your work?
“Every potter knows firing a kiln that isn't packed feels like a crime!”
Well I must confess that ceramics isn’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly thing to do in the world. It involves firing things to very high temperatures for a start and often metals and chemicals are involved in glazes. However, as a tiny one-person concern, I approach everything in quite a tight, controlled manner. In fact, I probably approach it in a similar way to how I approach food, buy and sell as close to home as possible and waste little. I use high quality white earthenware clays (and materials wherever possible) produced in the UK.
The last thing I want is to make something as permanent as ceramic for it be useless. I make– do–and–mend everything. I fix my own kiln, repurpose materials for absolutely everything from machine parts to display and workshop shelving. Generally, I try to find creative solutions in everything I need. Clay itself is recyclable to the point of firing, so every scrap gets saved in a bucket, slaked down with water to liquid mud, then dried back out to the point of plasticity on a plaster batt. Lastly, I’ll wedge it up (like kneading dough) back into a useable ball of clay ready to make something. And, as every potter knows, firing a kiln that isn’t packed feels like a crime!
At Kiss House think of home as sanctuary — where do you find your sanctuary?
It depends on my mood. So, it can be books… stories are a hugely important escape for me.
It can be in the company of dogs; I have access to my friend’s dogs and have a “Hairy Nephew.” They are all my joy and my sanctuary.
At my pottery wheel; I find when practicing the skill of throwing, even in my own limited way, it’s a wonderful place to be.
The Scottish countryside is a lifelong joy. Its West and East coasts; both so different but endlessly explorable and life-giving. Its rivers and forest, mosses and wildlife and of course, mountainous vistas. Words can’t really describe what it means.
What role does home play in your creative practice?
Other peoples’ homes inform my creative practice. Not so much mine. I want to make points of interest with pleasing aesthetic beauty. The plant pots work in harmony with plants for their full effect, and my little sculptures complement that.
“Composing these on a shelf with other precious-to-the-owner items taps into that desire to collect objects of desire.”
Oddly I’ve found that my work is having a side effect on my own living space in that it’s becoming absolutely full of plants. A few years ago, I just wasn’t a plant person.
What item in your home speaks to you of great design and why?
“Who doesn't love a spoon?”
The spoons. What great friends they are from early life onwards. During the height of lockdown they unfailing carried peas, curries, stews, soups, rhubarb crumbles, custards, ice cream and everything else comforting straight into my mouth with efficiency and pleasing elegance. Who doesn’t love a spoon? Occasionally I even make them.
What does quality mean to you?
“Handmade ceramics is one of the oldest crafts and can be instinctive and flowing, but it's also quite a technical subject.”
With this in mind, I do everything I can to ensure my pots have structural integrity and are as well made as I can manage. Over time, I’ve played about with shapes that are aesthetically pleasing. I do the same for plants and of course I test my pots to check they don’t have drainage holes (unless I’m commissioned to put some in), but being low-fired earthenware, they breathe a little and plants seem happy in them. I also want to retain an echo of the hands that have made them.
In what ways do you think your work speaks to fundamental human needs?
“Most of us curate collections of things which please our soul.”
I think there is a strong human need to collect. I think my work taps into that. It can be pebbles and moss, stamps, books, vast numbers of plants, shoes, spoons, glass eyes, medals or whatever; but most of us curate collections of things which please our soul, be it tiny shells or classic cars. 9 times out of 10 I find my ceramics either forming or being part of folks’ collections of “Things that please the soul.”
To find out more about Ceri White, please visit her website and Instagram above.