For Helen, making mugs, jugs and other functional kitchen ceramics is a reflection of her love of food.
After years working as a potter, Helen, based in Belfast, now makes some of her pieces to measure to fit into how you cook. She’s worked alongside lots of potters in her time but Helen’s signature style combines a deep red clay with various coloured glazes.
We caught up with her to chat all things pottery…
What path have you taken to get where you are now?
I initially studied Contemporary Crafts at MMU Cheshire where I worked with various materials, including ceramics. There I fell in love with throwing on the potters wheel and was advised to apply to The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland’s Pottery Skills Training course.
Based in Kilkenny, it involved two years of intensive training and I ended up staying for another four and a half years after the course had finished, working alongside some fantastic potters. In 2015, I moved back home to Belfast to take part in the Making It programme run by Craft Northern Ireland. This gave me much needed business training and a studio in Down Arts Centre in County Down.
Did you always know you wanted to get into pottery?
I knew I wanted to work in art but it was doing a Foundation Art course that set me on the path to pottery. However, looking back I actually had a toy pottery wheel when I was quite young, which I think just used to make a bit of a mess, but that’s always half the fun.
What is the story behind why you started making?
Quite early in my training I became certain that I was going to make a living from making; I could never picture myself in an office. All the training I had already really built up my confidence that I could do it, plus I like being the boss.
How did you learn your craft and what inspires you to sit down at the pottery wheel?
The Pottery Skills course was initially where I learned my craft; focusing on skills, repeating throwing a certain shape, how to build and repair kilns, as well as the business side of things. Also, all my work is designed with food in mind – my other love in life. When I sit down to throw a board full of mugs I love the challenge of making them all the same, though it’s the subtle differences in handmade pottery that I believe make it so lovely.
Can you tell us about your studio?
This summer I took the plunge and set up my own studio based in an old textiles mill in Belfast. This is the first studio that’s totally mine; I’ve always shared or sublet studios, so it’s great to have it set up exactly as I like it and to have 24-hour access. It’s taking me a while to get used to working alone, although I do have Sheva my dog to keep me company and customers can call by too. The building itself has quite a mix of businesses there, from a gym to a carpenters.
What tools and materials could you not live without?
I love it when I get a new turning tool, one that’s used to carve and refine the shape of the pot once it has dried a little after being thrown on the potters wheel. The tools work so smoothly when they are new and sharp… it’s the little joys in life. I also use a lovely rich red terracotta clay coated in a thin layer of white clay which gives a good base for the five colours in the range.
What do you hope your designs bring to other people’s homes?
One of the reasons I enjoy making functional pottery is because of my love for food and in turn getting family and friends around the table. I really hope that people enjoy using my pottery on a daily basis because it really is designed to be used. For example, the large mugs have a smooth curved base that is made to rest comfortably in your hand for a cosy cup of coffee.
Do you enjoy cooking?
I really love cooking and food has always been a big part of my life growing up, and it’s also how my family remember events. I like trying new recipes and recently I’ve been making a lot of spicy noodle soups with chilli and ginger.
Are there any other materials you’d like to work with in the future?
There’s so much I’d still really like to do with ceramics, but I just haven’t had the time yet. In the next year I’m hoping to collaborate with a print artist on a collection of vessels. So keep an eye out for that.