Making space: a Taranaki potter’s rediscovery of creativity

Ceramicist Janine Rata was born in the north of England and emigrated to Taranaki in the late 1980s, while in her early teens. She left her background in corporate IT in 2005 to dedicate her time to beginning a family (she and husband Hone now have two children), and it wasn’t until 2015, while searching for a creative outlet, that she discovered the potter’s wheel. She has been addicted ever since.


 

 

 
What do you make?
At the moment my crafting is focused on making ceramic functional ware. I love making things that are going to be used regularly, from cups/mugs and bowls to large casserole dishes and teapots.

How did you get into your craft?
When I was young, I always enjoyed being creative. Art, languages, music etc all lit me up, but in my 20s I was swept away trying to prove my worth through academics and career goals. I didn’t see creativity as something that was valued enough, or I could spare time for, so instead I gained a degree and worked in information technology in Wellington and then London.

It wasn’t until after moving back to Taranaki and having children in my mid-30s, and completely changing our lifestyle and view of the world, that the importance of it started to shift again for me. I was working to create a space for my growing children to follow their own interests and curiosity (we chose to home-school, or rather, adapt a “free-range” approach to learning, facilitating for/with them to learn what they want, when they want) and it slowly started to dawn on me that I wasn’t providing the same opportunities for myself. When I realised that I’d stopped doing all the things I loved doing as a child, I felt a huge pull to “just make stuff” so I dabbled for a while, learning how to knit and crochet (smothering my kids with handmade slippers, jerseys, hats and blankets).

I was looking for anything to try, and in 2015 I came across an evening hand-building course at the local pottery club. I enjoyed those classes and enrolled in another course which was based on the wheel. It was mesmerising and had me away in the clouds! I’ve always tended towards enthusiasm, regardless of the subject, but I just couldn’t get enough of it.

I connected with a few of the lovely members at the club, and started looking at everything I could get my hands on to do with pottery, talking to as many people as I could – getting to know local potters, travelling to workshops, and trying to make anything and everything I could on the wheel in the few hours each week I could grab to practice. I’m still in that place now – still very much in the early days of skill and experience (though I think my “crazy-obsessed” approach helped boost my path along the learning curve), and I’m still only able to allocate a small amount of time each week to this craft outside of family commitments.


 

 

 
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
The ‘old’ me still feels a pull to academics and the certification of learning, but I’m resisting that purposefully at this point, and just immersing myself in the craft when I can. While the kids are still choosing to learn in their own way, I’d much rather focus on having hands-on time with clay and talking to other potters when it works, than having to fit within a structured frame-work of delivery which will put constraints or further demands on my time. Things change all the time though, right? We’ve always said as a family that we’ll do something while it works, with an open mind and the freedom to change when we need/want it to, so I might consider formal training at a later date, but I’m happy as I am for the time being.
 
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I’m loving high-firing work right now, and especially in either a gas kiln or wood kiln. Electric kiln programmes are great for bringing ease/automation, but I’ve found that I was able to start understanding more of the process when I needed to stay with the kiln and record/respond to what was happening, which was the case when being taught how to fire with gas. You never know exactly what you’re going to get out of any kiln, but there just seems to be a greater range of ‘flavours’ that appeal to me from atmospheric firings.

“I tend to throw quite ‘tight’ and lean towards measuring and wanting things to be identical, which really works for me while learning and gaining experience, but I have found that I get a huge amount of joy from trying to loosen up and make fluid gestures and marks.”

Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
Generally, I start by weighing out each piece of clay I use. I’ve had people chuckle at me for doing it, but it also helped me to get a better understanding of what I was able to do with each piece of clay, and how I could improve by either getting more out of that same weight (height, width, etc), or work towards reaching the same with less clay. This has been invaluable for me, having a limited amount of time to practice when squeezing it in around my family.

When I’ve decided what I’m making I take an appropriate amount of clay, wedge it up, and go through the process of ensuring it is centred on the wheel head (pulling the clay up and pushing it back down, in a controlled way). I open the clay up from the centre, creating the internal base of the piece, and then pull the walls of the clay up to distribute it and gain height. There’s some shaping done then, until I’ve achieved the desired form, and then it’s left to dry for a while. When it’s firmed up a little (often the next day but changes depending on the season), any excess clay can be trimmed away using tools, for example, to create a “foot” on the base of the piece, or to add decoration, and then it’s left to fully dry out, which can take at least a week or more. When I have enough pieces to put in a kiln, they’re then bisque fired, then I glaze them, and fire again. The bases of each piece can then be sanded to ensure there are no sharp burrs, and then they’re ready for use.


 

 

 
What inspires you?
Within humanity – seeing people lit up by whatever they’re passionate about, people working together, ‘both/and’ thinking rather than ‘either/or’, optimism, kindness. Within ceramics – I’m currently inspired by potters who can create lovely loose forms which require a huge amount of experience and skill to make work just right. I tend to throw quite ‘tight’ and lean towards measuring and wanting things to be identical, which really works for me while learning and gaining experience, but I have found that I get a huge amount of joy from trying to loosen up and make fluid gestures and marks – this brings me particular delight, both during the process but also in the finished piece, because it’s a reminder of the clay’s softness in its original state.

Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Slowing down, practising mindfulness, having a greater connection to craftsmanship. I came into this with a huge need for presence after spending most of my life carrying a good deal of anxiety on my shoulders, and it’s been a wonderful therapy for me.
 
Describe your creative process
It tends to be me seeing something and wondering how it was made, or a friend asking me if I could make something for them, then giving it a go to try to understand it… and then making another 20 just to be sure! Is that a process? Haha! Sometimes I’ll sketch out an idea with pencil and paper, and then try to make that form. I’ve found that the times I have enjoyed myself the most though, is when I’m just playing/sketching with the clay itself (what happens if I do… this…?). I’ve arrived at a few forms that I absolutely love that way.


 

 

 
Describe your workspace
Until just recently (as in, a few weeks), it was non-existent. I haven’t had any space to put my wheel due to staying with family while we wait for a particular piece of land to be available to purchase, to build something small on. All of my work was made in a few hours grabbed here and there at the local pottery club, using their kilns, or going to wood-firing workshops. Just before Xmas, friends of ours moved just down the street from us and have given me a small nook of space in their garage to put my wheel and a couple of shelves, and I feel so grateful for it. The only problem now is going in there to actually work instead of enjoying cups of tea and talking to our friends.

Five words that describe your mind
“Blah blah blah blah Oooh!”

Your favourite feedback from a customer
I had a couple of people email me with photos of my work in use – a morning cup of coffee in one of my mugs, and a delicious hearty meal served up in one of my bowls. That made my heart sing.

What are you currently listening to?
Often when I’m by myself now I really enjoy the quiet. I can tend to get a tad over-stimulated by too many sensory inputs (said every Mum ever), so having some quiet time is important for me to be able to defrag. Otherwise, I’ve become a bit of a podcast nerd and favourites would probably be ‘Material Matters’ with Grant Gibson and ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ with Brian Cox and Robin Ince. Music-wise, I tend to go with the classics these days… Bowie and Sting are always a good place to start. We have some long-term favourite songs in our little family that get us all grooving too, and I love those so much (“Short Change Hero” by The Heavy, or “Tribute” by Tenacious D are a few examples, and can often have us either grooving through the room or popping our heads around doorways to sing bits to each other).


 

 
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
‘Badjelly the Witch’ by Spike Milligan, because of how much he made me laugh. As a child, this was the typical type of humour of our family (my Dad is bonkers and Mum’s not that far off), and nonsensical/ridiculous things still make me laugh out loud.
 
What are you reading now?
Do glaze books count? All. The. Pretties! Otherwise, ‘The Descent of Man’ by Grayson Perry is currently sitting on my bedside table, awaiting some attention.
 
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
My Mum and Dad. Because they’re awesome (and were grossly undervalued by me for most of my youth). I’m so thankful for the wonderful life they gave us – they have been constant, kind, fun, and always loving.
 
A favourite quote
“…and then we’ll twang him into a tree.” ~ Eddie Izzard.
 
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
Hmm… not sure, though my hubby (a huge Batman fan, since forever) just suggested “Clay Face” (the supervillain!). I snorted when he said it, but after thinking about it, everybody’s got a story, right? The key is to have the strength to have your story and still be kind – that’s an awesome superpower to have.

“I came into this with a huge need for presence after spending most of my life carrying a good deal of anxiety on my shoulders, and it’s been a wonderful therapy for me.”


What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Just do it. I think that’s what most people have said to me recently as I take these first steps into selling work to people I don’t actually know! And, being accommodating is awesome, but don’t do it at your own expense. If someone wants something and you want to make it, great. If you’re not feeling it, or don’t have time for it, know when to show what you have and refer them elsewhere (and let it go).

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
On top of the usual points addressing the current global climate, de-centralising and moving away from big-business, mass-produced and mass-transported goods, there is so many wonderful things about supporting local craftspeople/artists. Not only does it encourage us in our local communities to reconnect with skills that are being lost, we’re also reconnecting with ourselves when we buy handmade. We’re holding a piece of someone’s joy – the thing that lights them up. As well as wanting to support and encourage more of that for them, it’s also real thrill for me to imagine how people must have felt while making the item, and the depth of knowledge that was required. Of course, making isn’t always sunshine, lollypops and rainbows, but having the intention of going looking for that helps me feel grounded, positive, and optimistic. It feels like a win/win for me, and I think we need more of that.


 

 
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
It’s bonkers really – I’m still getting used to it. The best part, though, is when they are also excited by the process and work that goes into it. Seeing that appreciation is wonderful.
 
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I’m going to list two things here because I love them both, and they’re both made by local ceramicists – I recently bought a pair of earrings by Marita Green (one is a tiny cup and the other is a tiny saucer, because I love tea… everything starts with a cup of tea for me. The other thing I bought was a simple clay brooch by Deborah French, with the words “Be Kind” on it, because I think kindness is cool!

What’s in store for 2020?
No idea! I’d probably like to get a little more comfortable with the marketing of my work (that’s a big scary thing for me, and I always have a fear that I’ll put my work (read: heart) out for people to see and then they’ll chase me with big sticks). Other than that? Just keep on keeping on – loving my family and making stuff when I can. And there’ll be tea… there’s always tea.

Special offer for Felt readers!

Janine is very kindly offering her Felt customers 20% off the gorgeous, tactile ceramics in her Felt shop for the duration of her feature. Just enter the code YIPPEE in the voucher code field at step 4 of checkout. 🙂 Thank you so much Janine!


 

5 thoughts on “Making space: a Taranaki potter’s rediscovery of creativity

  1. Janine,
    I really enjoyed reading your interview and felt a connection in the similarities and values held in our creative journeys. Your work is truly lovely. Keep going with the ‘what if’ approach, I look forward to seeing what develops.
    Karen

    1. Hi Karen! Not sure why I’ve only just seen these comments now (distracted I guess!). Thanks so much for your thoughts – what a lovely surprise it was to see someone had commented! Lol!
      (Imposter syndrome). Stay well, J. x

  2. Lovely work, I enjoyed reading your story very much, you have inspired me to get our Cowley pottery wheel out, dust it off and start the creative wheeled journey once again. All the best,

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