Inspired by Britain’s rugged mountains, rocky shores and folk history Kate Russell’s handmade ceramics, created in her studio in rural Wales, depict wild landscapes, escapist wildernesses and blustery harbours, with a folky twist.
Over the last few years especially, ceramics have become swoon-worthy must-haves for the home. And for good reason too; is there anything better than being able to hold a precious piece of art that has been created mainly with just a pair of hands and the earth? Perhaps it’s this idea of going back to basics (although no-one – especially if you’ve ever tried your hand at pottery yourself – could ever call making ceramics a simple or easy process!), that’s calling so many of us to give it a try.
Just a few years ago, busy mum of two, Kate Russell signed up for a pottery course at her local college, wanting to find a creative outlet. Within twelve months, the history of art graduate began selling her beautiful British inspired wares, mixing her love of folk history and the great outdoors.
“I came to ceramics fairly late,” Kate explains. “I studied history of art at university and worked in arts-related jobs until I had my first child. I spent the next five years as a stay at home parent, but once my daughter started school and her younger brother was 2 years old, I was keen to find a new interest for myself. I had in the back of my mind that I would ideally like to start a creative business down the line, but I wasn’t sure in which field or if I was capable. I signed up for classes at the local community college and pottery was the one that stuck. After a year I started posting images of some of my pots on Instagram and the interest they received gave me to confidence to start selling my ceramic work.”
Kate now creates her hand-built ceramics from her home studio in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. Growing up in between the picturesque peaks of the Lake District and the Pennines, and then living in cities such as London and Amsterdam, Kate’s return to her rural roots continues to inspire her work and has seen her adding welcome traditional touches. “I love wild landscapes – mountainsides and rocky shores,” the ceramicist continues. “It seems to be something in-built, perhaps because I grew up sandwiched between the Lake District and the Pennines. I absolutely love the Highlands of Scotland and, closer to home, Snowdonia. Our location in Wales prompted me to think about including Welsh ladies in my work. It just started on a whim, when I was decorating a piece in college, but they have since become a key design motif in my work.” This Welsh lady whim has paid off, as they’re among some of Kate’s bestsellers – each piece is currently sold on the Skratch Ceramics website, until the next shop update takes place on 24th June. “I like to take those long-standing trans-national folk traditions of pattern-making and colour, but give them my own contemporary twist,” she adds.
As well as Britain’s landscape and Welsh history, Kate’s pieces also feature sgraffito – decoration created by scratching away at a surface, to reveal a hidden colour – a talent she also rediscovered at one of those inspiring ceramics classes: “I made a couple of sgraffito decorated panels at secondary school, which my parents had kept all these years, and I remembered I’d really enjoyed it,” Kate smiles. “When I went along to ceramics classes at the community college, it was top of my list of things I wanted to try again. I was also following Vicky Lindo, a fantastic sgraffito ceramicist on Facebook. I was really inspired by her modern take on traditional slipware, using bright colours. As soon as I tried it again, I was absolutely hooked. There’s something about carving through leather-hard clay, that I find both therapeutic and thoroughly addictive. I really felt like after years of searching for ‘my thing’ I’d finally found it.” Sgraffito plays a big part in Kate’s work – appearing in almost every piece – hence the name Skratch (which also incorporates Kate’s initial too).
Not only did social media start Skratch Ceramics, but it continues to provide inspiration and connects Kate with other ceramicists as well as potential clients. “I have found it so inspiring on Instagram to see so many women with creative businesses, making it work on their terms,” she says. “That’s been a really positive influence on me – to just to go for it and do things my way. I follow a lot of ceramicists on Instagram, but more out of interest to see their daily working practices and relish in the sheer variety out there.” As Instagram has been such a “valuable resource” for her, Kate recommends other makers starting out to “make the most of social media as a free marketing resource. I haven’t spent any money on advertising, all my custom comes from Instagram and Facebook.”
“Share your making process and don’t be afraid to bring your own personality to your brand – it’s what sets you apart from the big guys and people really like to know where products come from,” she advises. As well as a scroll through Instagram, Kate’s also a fan of podcasts, gaining “businesses tips, reassurance and inspiration from those who’ve been there and done that,” including Hashtag Authentic, Raw Milk and Creative Biz Rebellion.
During her daily practice – although she tells us there’s not really a ‘typical’ working day, instead favouring a monthly making cycle (one week of making the clay blanks, a week or two of sgraffito decorating the leather-hard pieces, a week to bisque fire, glaze and fire again and finally a week of product photography, product website listings and posting orders) – is when Kate listens to podcasts while she works: “I find it’s a great way of picking up some useful small business and marketing tips while my hands are busy.”
Kate’s light and airy studio, just a few steps away from her home, is where she designs, creates and sends out her ceramics. Her favourite product so far? “My favourite changes depending on what I’m working on at the time,” she says “but I find that my pinch pots always fly out. I get enquiries about them after every sale, especially those with Welsh ladies. I think there’s something about a pinch pot, with it’s handmade organic form, nestling in the hand, that’s hard to resist.”
As anyone who’s ever enjoyed ceramics knows, it’s not a quick procedure. Instead, it’s all about taking time and enjoying the process. This is something that Kate takes pleasure from, as it allows her to go with the flow – constantly tweaking designs and making changes, when creating each of her unique pinch pots, platters, dishes and bowls. “The best thing about being a maker is the satisfaction of an actual physical product to show for your work at the end of the day,” Kate adds.
It’s been a busy twelve months for Kate, exhibiting at The Good Life Experience last September and selling out during each online shop update – so what’s next for Skratch Ceramics? “I’m finding it hard to keep up with demand at the moment, so I’m looking for ways to increase my productivity,” Kate says. “Next month I’m going to learn to slip-cast, which I’m hoping will prove a useful way to speed up the making process a little. I also want to learn how to digitise my designs so that they can be applied to other products and I’d like to do some more lino printing too! So many ideas and never enough time! My son starts full-time school in September, so I’ll have a bit more studio time and I’m so excited to see what the next few months bring!”
Describe your work in three words:
Tactile, bold, folksy.
What are your making rituals?
Lots of half-drunk cups of tea and a good podcast playlist.
Tea or Coffee?
Tea – Yorkshire Gold in the morning and Earl Grey in the afternoon. I love the smell and idea of coffee, but I hate the taste.
Mountains or Sea?
That’s a tough one! I love both, but if I really had to choose one to live in/by, it would be mountains.
Night Owl or Early Bird?
Most definitely night owl! Even though I have young kids who wake me early, I can’t get out of the habit of going to bed late. I often get some of my best work done in the evening. I’m looking forward to the days when my kids’ body clocks are more aligned with mine!
I wish someone had told me…
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. During my art foundation course in the 90s, there was a push towards towards conceptualism. I felt I had to be the next Hirst or Emin, or there wasn’t worth in what I was doing. That knocked my confidence and put me off taking up my place on a practical art degree. I wish I’d understood at the time that there was equal value in traditional, decorative arts and crafts, so that I might have found my way to this sooner.
Visit Kate’s website at www.skratchceramics.com