TURNING THE WHEEL & BREAKING THE MOLD

The New York Times recently published an article about handmade ceramics and how it has become a white-hot trend seemingly overnight. All of a sudden tastemakers around the world are serving their ethically sourced coffee from hand-cast mugs and plating their dinner on bespoke ceramic flatware.

Words by Anna-Bet Stemmet AND JAN HENDRIK VAN DER WESTHUIZEN

Pictures by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

A NEW GENERATION OF POTTERS RETURN TO THE KILN

“While terrariums, Edison bulb light fixtures and fixed-gear bicycles have all enjoyed moments of demarcating cool, handcrafted small-batch ceramics are suddenly the accessory of the moment,” states journalist Tim McKeough. “Just as those earlier trends represented a tactile, down-to-earth counterbalance to our sped-up, technology-centred world, the rejection of factory-produced sameness in dinnerware and vases reflects a desire to get back to something more essential.”

At JAN we have always had a soft spot for artists who work with their hands. And always keep our eyes and ears open for new talent and mind blowing ceramics. I got in touch with one of my favourite South African potters, Diana Ferreira, to find out more about her life, work and fascination with the inimitable art of ceramics. Here is what she had to say:

JH: Tell us about your passion for ceramics & how you got to where you are today?

DF: I have always been a very tactile person, but life happened and I started my adult life as a nurse. I took some pottery classes while studying and my teacher urged me to never stop with pottery - which I did for about 20 years! In my mid-40s I started to play with clay again and at the same time I used to help a boyfriend in his mold-making studio. I fell in love with the black clay body and without realising it I picked up some mold-making skills. We broke up and I lost my mold maker, so I started making my own molds.

JH: Why do you think handmade ceramics are the new HOT THING?

DF: I think it because there is just too much plastic and repetitive mass-produced stuff around us.  Everything looks the same, and it limits the users choice of individuality. And food plated on a beautiful handcrafted plate or bowl always just looks much more appetizing!    

JH: Describe your ultimate shape.

DF: Soft lines and curves; shadows should fall off it. I have made a set of nesting bowls because I loved the shadow that the bevelled foot created. 

JH: What would you re-call as a highlight in your career?

DF: I've had two!  The cold and windy day Luke Dale-Roberts came to my stall at the Neighbourgoods Market and told me he wants my work for The Test Kitchen. And then the day you contacted me…

 JH: Tell us more about your two children?

DF: Johanna the Second is my little Scorpio child. Almost two year old and as wilful and obstinate and loving and devoted as only a November child could be.  She is the bull terrier of my life. If she had a choice, she would spend her days at the beach swimming and chasing seagulls. Gert with his blue eyes and demanding voice is doing his utmost to be the man in the house. This 8-month old boy has a bit of a personality issue and is under the impression that he is actually a dog.  Dog food and apples are his preferred choice in snacks. Loves rides in cars and joins Johanna and myself on mushroom forages occasionally.

JH: Where can people buy your products? 

DF: Very few shops stock my work; since the local restaurants have started using Diana Ceramics it has kept us quite busy.  I do however sell from my studio.

JH: In what quantities do you create plates and are they all handmade?

DF: Our record production was an order for 2800 items completed in two months, but we prefer not to make more than 600 – 800 items per month. We are a small team of three who work on each piece.  My policy is to create perfection rather than quantity.  Although we use an industrial method to create the work (slip casting), every step of the production is done by hand.  It starts with me creating the original plaster shape, making a master mold from it, and then the casting molds. From there George casts the liquid slip into the molds. Rose fettles the work and finally I glaze and sign the piece.

 JH: Would you say your ceramics reflect your personality?

DF: I see myself as a plain Jane and I think that it is reflected in my work - simple and clean.  I have always been a tactile person and the smooth satin finish of my work reflects that. 

JH: You have a passion for foraging mushrooms. Any secrets on how and where our readers can start a hobby like this?

DF: The best advice I could give is to book a foraging trip with one of the professional foragers who would teach you how to identify the edible from the poisonous mushrooms! It is a highly addictive hobby and during the season you will find me a couple of days per week in the forests. Johanna and I normally set of before sunrise with a headlamp and basket. 

In the Cape Town area we have lots of San Parks forests to choose from. I normally visit Cecilia and Newlands forest, or do a trip out towards Stellenbosch. 

 JH: Your favourite feel-good/go-to meal?

DF: Braaibroodjies!

 JH: What is your favorite texture and why?

DF: Smooth. I want to be able to close my eyes and feel the shape underneath a piece.  In my previous life I used to sew a lot and I would buy fabric by touch – and then had find a pattern that would suit the material!

 JH: Are you a fan of the farm-to-table movement and which suppliers do you support?

DF: Absolutely! We are really lucky to have markets like the Oranjezicht City Farm Market.  One of my favourite vendors is Salvin (Son of a Butcher), who sells ethically raised meat products.

 JH: Tell us about your studio, people working for you etc.

DF: I have a small (133 m2) studio in the heart of Paarden Island, Cape Town. The building has a ceramic history. About 60 odd years ago it was a ceramic factory. I suspect that my unit used to be a garage and staff toilets! Today it is divided and there is 6 tenants renting space. As for my co-workers, George Kokera is from Zimbabwe. When he arrived in South Africa, he worked for in Durban for a few years selling soapstone sculptures.  When he moved to Cape Town he found a job in a ceramic studio and started to work for me part-time. He is absolutely amazing - dedicated and with an eye for detail. Rosie joined us a year later. She is also from Zimbabwe and her delicate hands help to create the smooth surfaces for our work.

 JH: How would you describe your ceramic style?

DF: I have been told that my work is either Scandinavian or Japanese in style.   

 JH: Process or product, which is your favourite?

DF: Oh, definitely the design process. Sometimes I will fantasise for months about a new design. It normally happens during a very busy period when I cannot take time out to make it.  Then when I finally have the time to mix up a batch of plaster, if feels like a holiday. When the original is finished, I will just sit and grin and stare at it; stroking the surfaces, sometimes with my eyes closed.

 JH: Did you have much of a learning curve when you started out?

DF: When I started with this journey, I had very little practical or theoretical knowledge of the ceramic process. I've spent hours reading books and searching the internet, but I learned the most from making things and trying to figure out why it works or not.  I always try and push my limits to make that one item that I was not able to make 6 months ago.  In the beginning I made very simple one-part molds; making the first complex mold with multiple parts was a thrill.

.JH: Do you specialise in functional design?

DF: Yes - right down to the support for my bal bakkies. It had to be a multi-functional item.  Although I love and appreciate sculptural work, I get a joy out of making something that is useful.

 JH: Any other ceramists that inspire you?

DF: One of my best friends is Karen Kotze from Woven Ceramics.  We shared a studio space for a year.  Her attention to detail and her analytical approach to ceramics helped me to push myself too.

Production and photography: Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Copy Editing: Anna-Bet Stemmet