From physical therapy to full time venture: the rise of Wellhandled Ceramics

Christchurch potter Hilary Cowburn of Wellhandled Ceramics is inspired by nature, necessity, and the need to reduce waste. A lover of handmade New Zealand products, her journey into ceramics and becoming a full time maker started from an unexpected place – her fight with cancer.


 

 
What do you make?
I make functional ceramic homewares with an emphasis on replacing single use products with hand made reusable pieces that are beautiful to look at and feel great in the hands.

How did you get into your craft?
I first started pottery classes in Auckland in 2016. After finishing a gruelling six months of intense chemotherapy for stage three bowel cancer, I had lost feeling in my hands and feet. I thought pottery would help to heal the damage to my nerves by recreating the pathways of sensation to my brain and the hand eye coordination pottery requires. When we moved down to Christchurch I found my tribe at the Mt Pleasant Pottery Group and we quickly became the naughty class! Pottery became therapy for me. This really helped when my cancer returned and I became stage four requiring more surgery and more chemo. Escaping to the studio was a life saver!

Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I love the repetitive and precise nature of throwing 40 identical cups to really get into the zone and out of my thoughts. You need to be fully present in every moment. But I do also enjoy the slower pace of hand building, knowing the clay, waiting patiently for the piece to be ready for the next step.

Opening the kiln after a glaze firing is my favourite part! Every time it feels like Christmas. I usually fire at night, it finishes the next morning and I have to wait until morning the day after to open it. I’m usually out there first thing, coffee in hand and crossing fingers that it is cool enough to open.


 

 

 
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
I use a variety of techniques to create a piece, but whether a piece is hand built or thrown on the wheel, perhaps the most time intensive parts are the things people don’t realise when they think of the making process.

For example, It might only take me three minutes to throw a cup on the wheel, but before that I spend time preparing the clay, wedging and weighing it, shaping it into consistent balls. Then after a cup is thrown, there’s drying to the perfect leather hard, trimming, putting on my maker’s stamp, perhaps a handle… more drying time until bone dry. Next is the first firing. All the delicate work is loaded into the kiln and fired over twelve hours or so to 1000 degrees Celsius, and cooled over another twenty four hours. Then the pieces are sanded if necessary, washed to remove dust, dried again and glazed.

Glazing for me involves dipping the pot into a bucket of glaze for just the right amount of time to make sure it is neither too thin or too thick. Often I then dip it into another colour too. I sponge off any imperfections and then they are back into the kiln for the second firing. This is when the magic really happens. I fire my kiln to 1220 degrees Celsius in the second firing over around twelve hours again, The glaze particles melt and form the glaze that you see on the finished pot. Cooling takes a couple of days, then the pots can be handled. I then sand the bottoms and check each pot for quality and imperfections.

Pottery making is a long process requiring a ton of patience. Certainly a skill I do not possess naturally! LOL

What inspires you?
I’m not sure where my inspiration really comes from, It just sort of shows up out of the blue. I might see something ordinary and wonder if I can make it out of ceramic.

Some of my work has stemmed from nature. There’s a piece I made for my friends that was inspired by our trip to Totaranui together. The textures of Punga with Rata growing up its trunk, the sea and the beach.


 

 

 
What has been a highlight of your maker journey so far?
There are just too many! My journey is constantly evolving and growing, there are always new highlights and goals to reach for.

I think one of my favourites would be coming across some yellow ochre coloured clay at my Dad’s house in Picton, digging it up and bringing it home with us. I sieved it to get the sticks and stones out, wedged it up and threw a tiny bud vase. Once fired it became the most beautiful brick red, and seemed to hold up well to the temperature. So I decided to make my Dad his own cup from his clay. It’s glazed in white, and is gorgeous. That was pretty special.

Describe your workspace:
Beautiful chaos. My studio is a gorgeous building in the garden, it’s painted duck egg blue with white trim. There are grape vines and fruit trees growing all over it and the sun streams in through the windows. Inside, there is always a mess. Clay, tools, half finished projects scattered around. Although I work best in a tidy organised space, I just cannot keep it that way. I often feel like I need a person purely to magic the mess away after I’ve finished. Over the summer I completely redid my studio. New easy clean floors, new shelves and work spaces, I organised everything into “its place”. It lasted maybe three weeks, until it reverted back to chaos!

Describe your mind:
Much the same as my workspace!


 

 

 
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
The best feedback for me is when people return to me time and again for their special pieces. I also love it when people send my photos of my work in use. “Wellhandled Ceramics in the wild,” I like to call it.

What are you currently listening to?
I’m listening to a great podcast by Alexis Fernandez called Do You F**king Mind. She is brilliant! Her podcasts are about mindset hacks for personal growth mixed with neuroscience and plenty of swear words!

I also love listening to LPs or a mix of homegrown New Zealand music

A favourite quote:
Not sure you can print this… But “I’m not here to F**K spiders” is probably the best quote ever.

Tell us about your pets:
Our pets are Frankie, a three year old Beardie/Catalan sheepdog cross. She is the BEST dog ever. She is just so sweet, she loves to snuggle, but despite her persistence, at 28kg is not a lap dog. Then we have three cats. Lily and Lulu are seven year old sisters. They are the cats that sleep on beds, purr, smooch and spend about twenty hours a day sleeping. Bindi (B****h cat) is my baby. I adore her. It’s not reciprocated, she bites if I pat her, hence her name… but she’s beautiful and can be extremely sweet, just from a distance and as long as you don’t pat. Kisses are ok… sometimes. We also have fish, so many fish.


 

 
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
The fixer. In class I’m known for being able to rescue a pot that was collapsing, wonky or just awful and fix it.

What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Find a niche, be unique. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you shouldn’t sell your work. Do not sell yourself short. Your work is worthwhile, your time is valuable. Make sure you price your work properly to reflect that.

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
Buying handmade shows that you value a person’s time and skill. It puts money directly into local people and not elsewhere. It keeps skills that have been around for centuries alive.

What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
For me it means I can keep doing what I love. Just before Christmas last year I decided to give up my 20+ year career as a veterinary nurse to become a full time potter. It’s hard graft running my own business, creating and being a busy mum, but so far I am loving it. Except when it’s too rainy and my pots won’t dry!


 

 
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I bought a beautiful dried floral wreath from Mamabloom for my bedroom wall. I was drawn to the muted tones of the flowers, the textures… and the sage green of the leaves matches the fabric in my curtains.

What’s in store for 2022?
2022 is going to be my year! I’m now doing this full time, so I’m hoping to expand my range, seek more wholesale opportunities and I’m most excited to start some cool projects for our bathroom and kitchen renovations. I’m planning to make a sink for the bathroom and hanging light shades for the kitchen. I can’t wait!

Special offer for Felt readers!

Hilary has kindly offered 10% off any of the gorgeous homewares in her Felt shop when you enter the voucher code MARCH10 at checkout. This offer is valid throughout the month of March 2022. Thanks so much Hilary!

 

See the range of Wellhandled Ceramics now »

 

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