Waihi artist Sarah Potton of Mousewhisker Studio had a childhood dream to become an artist and live a self sufficient life in the country, surrounded by as many animals as possible. While that dream (much to her amazement) actually came true, she does find that trying to combine an artistic career with the demands of a large vege garden and thirty-seven furred, feathered and woolly residents has been a bit more challenging than she imagined! Sarah’s creature-inspired artistry manifests on paper and beautiful pebble miniatures, all available in her Felt shop.
What do you make?
I paint on stones to create lifelike ‘rock pets’, which are guaranteed to be quiet, well behaved and flea free! I also do wildlife paintings in acrylics, with a focus on New Zealand birds. I have recently begun producing these as prints and greeting cards as well.
My latest project is a series of animal and bird pebble brooches, emphasising the cute and quirky. They are great fun to make – and wear!
How did you get into your craft?
I’ve been drawing and painting ever since I can remember. I never thought I would be able to turn my art into a career but circumstances ended up pushing me into it and I feel very fortunate to be able to work from home doing something I love so much. I started off by displaying a few of my painted stones in a local gallery, convinced that nobody would ever like them enough to pay money for one. I never imagined that 15 years down the track there would be hundreds of them scattered around the world in different people’s homes!
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I have no formal qualifications in art, though as a teenager I went to classes by Pauline Goodwin who is an amazing artist and also makes beautiful mosaics – she has been a huge encouragement and support to me over the years. It was through her that I got into rock painting – and I’ve been addicted ever since!
I also owe a lot to my lovely Mum, who always encouraged me to be creative as a kid. She provided me with never-ending craft materials from her large collection of ‘stuff’ hoarded over the years (because it ‘might come in useful’), and often persuaded me to keep going on a difficult project when I was ready to give up.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I’ve always loved to make things out of natural objects that I have found or collected. I particularly enjoy painting on stones because each is like a little blank canvas just waiting to be picked up and transformed into a cute animal ready to bring happiness to someone!
I use acrylic paint because it is so flexible, and works best for my stone art, but I also love the delicate nature and glow of watercolours, so that influences the techniques used in my wall paintings. I prefer to paint on wood or hot pressed paper rather than canvas as it gives the greatest scope for fine details. I like a surface smooth enough to be able to paint those adorably teeny fuzzy hairs sticking out just above a fantail’s beak!
I’m a bit of an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it comes to painting tiny details, which means my brush sizes have over the years got smaller and smaller. I have now reached the smallest size there is and it’s still too big!
What inspires you?
My animal and bird friends and the beautiful world of nature – especially the exquisite, tiny details that you only see when you look closely. I also enjoy studying the great paintings and artists of history. I have been influenced a lot by the Pre-Raphaelites, whose techniques were so controversial at the time; their use of thin glazes on a pure white background to produce jewel-like colours and their dedication to portraying nature accurately.
Describe your creative process:
This is usually in two parts: the imaginative bit, and the painting process. I always start with a very clear visualisation in my mind of the finished work and try to keep it in mind the whole time, as it’s easy to get bogged down in all the details as I paint and lose sight of my original idea. The painting part takes a lot of time and concentration – building up layers gradually and using lots of very fine brush strokes.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I hope to share my love of animals and an appreciation of nature through my art. There is so much enjoyment to be had in stopping and taking the time to look closely at the intricate design of a flower, or watch a bird go about its busy life, or spot a teeny grasshopper on a blade of grass. I try to capture these moments in my paintings and hope that they bring pleasure to others too.
With my stone and pebble art I love to portray the cute and funny in animals and bring a smile to people’s faces.
Describe your workspace:
Very small!!! My studio is a tiny room that is also used for lots of other things. Over the years I have got pretty good at working in minuscule spaces, and a lot of my painting is done at my desk within an area about 40cm square. Luckily most of the things I paint are quite miniature in scale which helps.
Just to add to the challenges, my studio is located in a paddock right in the middle of our 1.5 acres, so I tend to get lots of nosey parker visitors – the kind either with beaks or four legs – if I leave the door or windows open.
What has been a highlight of your maker journey so far?
I think one of the best parts for me is the fact that people often buy my painted animal stones because they remind them of their own pets, sometimes those they have lost. Animals are so incredibly giving and bring so much richness to our lives; it’s lovely to be able to share in people’s special memories of their animals. Also quite a few of my rock pets are bought as gifts for people who are sick or with terminal illnesses, sometimes really missing their own animals which they aren’t able to have with them – it means a lot to me that something I’ve made might comfort a person in that situation.
Five words that describe your mind:
Animals plus art equals happiness.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
This one was extra special – from a lovely customer who bought one of my painted elephant rocks for a friend: “Thank you for another beautiful animal… this little guy has put a huge smile on a very frail elderly animal lover’s face… she joked with me that a baby elephant on her bed would be the bees knees in visiting animals… now she has one!”
Another one that made my day was after a customer bought a painted rabbit stone: “So happy with this gorgeous work of art. So lifelike my cat stalked it!”
What are you currently listening to?
Right now, several roosters crowing in full volume outside my window, loud cat snores coming from across the room, and multiple Nubian goats commenting with earsplitting yells on the dampness of the grass and how they don’t want to come out of their cozy shed to graze because they’ll get their feet wet, and Why Don’t I Do Something About It? When I feel the need to drown out the compulsory auditory material, I listen to RNZ Concert (classical music), or early jazz.
So tell us about these pets!
This could easily get very long, but I’ll try not to get too carried away. My life is currently ruled by one cat, one dog, nineteen hens, three roosters, five sheep, and a small herd of goats. The chooks all have very individual personalities and keep us supplied with eggs and a lot of entertainment. We don’t need TV at our place – you just have to look out the window. The goats started off as two pedigree milkers, who took reproduction rather seriously last spring, and there are now eight of them eating their way through hay at a frighteningly expensive rate because I can’t bring myself to re-home any of them. Mouse (whippet) and Ollie (cat) are my beloved friends and studio companions of the past thirteen or so years.
I rarely have an uninterrupted painting session because of little incidents such as: trying to prevent the cat from galloping across my work with muddy paws; getting up to tuck the blanket round the whippet (who feels the cold) for the 5th time in one morning; rushing out to remove a goat from INSIDE a tree protector with great difficulty while sadly surveying what’s left of the expensive specimen tree (i.e. a few bare twigs); having to hotly pursue a little group of hens who have nipped over the fence and are making determined tracks towards the neighbour’s vege garden; rescuing the ram who has decided it would be entertaining to roll down the steeply sloping paddock and get stuck upside-down in the fence; and preventing two roosters from murdering each other while the hens look on interestedly… well, you get the idea.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
I had so many favourites, I can’t possibly choose! One that made a big impression on me was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. When I was little I had a large collection of stuffed toys that were all very good friends of mine and took up most of my bed at night, leaving only a narrow space at the edge for me. I always wished that they would come alive so that I could have conversations with them. Although the story of the Velveteen Rabbit is rather tragic, I remember being captivated by the ending where the child’s toy becomes a real live rabbit. Also to me it speaks of hope shining through the sadness in life.
What are you reading now?
‘Off the Sheep’s Back’, an autobiography by Bill Richards, which I discovered at a local book sale last week. He was a pioneer, bushman and master shearer in the early 1900s. A fascinating read and quite hilarious in places.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
I have a great admiration for artists who pursued their careers facing incredible odds. I recently read the book ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ by Irving Stone about Michelangelo. The hardships and personal and social upheavals he endured while working on his masterpieces were truly incredible, yet he never gave up.
A favourite quote:
“Creative clutter is better than idle neatness.”
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Try out all those exciting ideas you have, see which ones sell best, then focus on those. Sometimes it can be disappointing if something you have high hopes for fizzles out, but if you’re serious about turning your hobby into a business, it’s necessary to find a balance between doing what you love, and what there is a market for.
Ask for constructive criticism. My long-suffering family (aka the artist’s unpaid advisory committee), are frequently asked questions like – ‘does this look cute, or just weird?’ A fresh eye is incredibly helpful sometimes after you’ve been working on something for hours.
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
In our era of so much mass production it’s a great thing to support small businesses and people who are keeping old skills alive. Handmade things have so much love and time put into them, and they also make amazing gifts as you are not only giving something with intrinsic value, but helping to support a talented craftsperson.
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
I remember the huge thrill I got when I sold my first painting – nothing quite beats that! But every sale is exciting – it makes me very happy that people enjoy my art and want to own it.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
Handmade soap from a little gift shop. I love things that are both useful and beautiful.
What’s in store for the rest of 2021?
Lots of new ideas and, as usual, not enough time to do them all! I have just begun a new series of New Zealand bird paintings, which I will be continuing, so keep a look out for more originals and prints available throughout the year.