It’s all gone potty

A ‘memory’ popped up on my Facebook page last month. It was, apparently, six years to the day that two of the first pots I decorated emerged from the kiln. I had been, quite rightly, excited. One was a painstaking rendition of harebells in various shades of blue, which would have been chosen with more luck than judgement in the absence of supervision. (I remember painting it alone; it must have been a quiet Sunday while I was manning the shop).

The other, my first seascape, trying to emulate the best-selling pattern which we all paint, did not go so well, although I was delighted with it at the time. I used entirely the wrong green for the water; in fact, Kirsty green is more of a purple and the sea had a stormy, brooding look. It was painted on a handleless pint mug – a large beaker – and I now use it to store pens and brushes. Not that it was unsaleable, of course. Every piece of Highland Stoneware, no matter how quirky, finds its forever home. It just wasn’t ‘right’.

When an American couple came into the shop and asked me if I was one of the decorators, I could not resist showing them my efforts, and they placed an order for an entire tea service in those exact ‘mistake’ colours, to be painted by me and shipped to them in the USA. I couldn’t persuade them to take the proper, conventional version; they had now met me and what they wanted was something unique, special. I wasn’t sure if I could replicate it exactly but when it was all ready it did look quite smart, even if it made my colleagues cringe.

I’ve come a long way since then, at least in my ability to toe the line. I started working at the pottery as a part-time gardener, of course, and although it had always been on my radar as a great place to work – even in my gallery days I kept one eye on it as a future possibility – it had not been my ultimate plan to move inside. Rather, it happened organically. I remember a conversation with David, my boss, in which he indicated it was absolutely not worth training anyone to paint pots if they were only planning on staying for a few months. I could not envisage, back then, just how much training would be involved (I was already a painter, after all) but I couldn’t argue. I was always on the point of going somewhere. I completely escaped twice. But when I returned for the second time, it coincided with a need for someone to learn the pebble patterns, and from there I gained my own decorator’s bench and thus began my pot-painting journey.

Perhaps David and the others knew something I didn’t: I was still hoping to sell my flat and move back to Langkawi. I intended to be there by November, and this was May. However, I’m somehow still here, six years later. I don’t do much gardening these days, and I have a better bench. One could be forgiven for thinking I’ve taken root.

I’ve learned to paint many patterns including my favourite, the Rockpool design. Mastering that felt like the pinnacle of my ceramic career, especially when a couple of my pieces were selected as samples for the last trade fair, a triumph I could not have imagined when I first grappled with the harebells. How much further could I go? Well, I could get to grips with things that still fox me. Neat banding, for one thing, imperative for tableware. Or the complex Machair pattern which never turns out the way I want it to. I can understand David’s philosophy: six years and I’m still learning.

Painting onto ceramics with glazes is an entirely different skill to watercolour on paper and in addition, much of it entails the interpretation of someone else’s vision. While inevitably we each have our own style, there isn’t much room for manoeuvre within the ranges. We are like Michael Angelo’s apprentices. Unless we’re clever enough to come up with our own feasible patterns, which I’m not really, yet.

I’ve been told – I believe it’s in jest– that I’m not ‘allowed’ to leave until I’ve designed the Mug of the Year. This then means painting, signing and numbering every one ordered for the entire calendar year, which can easily reach a thousand. I have tried out a few designs but so far nothing has been particularly inspiring or suitable. I’ll have to get a wriggle on if I’m to do it, though. Because although we joke that the pottery is like Hotel California, I am not intending to break my ten-year rule. I have plans. And this time, hopefully, they won’t end in disaster.