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Q&A With Ceri White of Ceri White Studios - Made in Scotland Series

Posted by James King on

Ceri White is an extremely talented Scottish sculptor who runs her own studio. We spoke to Ceri for the latest in our Made in Scotland series. Read on to find out about the self proclaimed "mud monkey" who does incredible things with clay.

You mention on your website that you have been a “mud monkey” all your working life. Can you tell us a bit about what a mud monkey is and how you developed your passion for design?

Well I don't know how widely the term is used but I've described myself as a mud monkey for years. I guess it comes from from the idea that clay (mud!) is fairly unique in that it is an unpromising, basic material (albeit sometimes having gone through a refining process), unlike wood or metal etc which have a raw beauty to begin with.

Clay is a humble starting point and can be transformed into pretty much anything. I like the idea that I'm essentially carrying forward the mud-pie splatterings of childhood. It's a starting point we are all familiar with. PLUS... it can be hard for people to accept that a ceramicist's work hasn't simply been 'china-painted' or similar, having no concept of micro-manufacturing, and I like to remind them that the rather nice creations in front of them began life in my workshop as a bag of mud.

And the monkey part.... I'm a cheeky git and I like climbing trees/shelving/ladders/whatever else is in my way.

My passion for design is just there in my DNA, apparently. I see everything through that filter, be it colour combinations, shapes and patterns in absolutely everything. It's always there in the background of my thoughts. I love trawling through the work of other designers in a myriad of disciplines (thank you Instagram and Pinterest!) and there is always something new and exciting to discover even when I think I've surely seen it all.

It's worth mentioning that Scotland is packed with high-end designer-makers working away doing their thing.

I do like a good bit of engineering design too and can admire a clever and simple concept all day long. On the flip side, thoughtless, cliched, designed-by-committee results can make me very cross indeed. Design, from a favourite piece of jewellery to the planning of our towns, has the potential to affect our quality of life in unquantifiable ways. It's a rather enormous subject and I'd be happy to design everything in my path, given half a chance!

What is a typical day like for you?

I confess, I don't really have a typical day and routine eludes me which is Bad Practice!! Bad!

Being a chaotic night owl is not to be recommended, frankly. However, I was born with little sense of routine and a very low boredom threshold and I just work with it. I have had a string of rescue dogs and my last foster dog left a few months ago, and that affects my days. With them, I would begin the day with a snuggle followed by a walk in the surrounding fields.... and repeat through the day!

Generally, I will consume gallons of coffee and attempt to come to life whilst staring at my emails and checking out the news. Then I will generally do some throwing, decorating, unload a kiln or whatever as doing something practical is steadying!

I really come into my own more later in the day.... at that point I generally remember I've made lists and try to tick off the tasks I should be doing and have all the ideas and enthusiasm. Being a self employed creative often means wearing several different hats in a day though.

How would you best describe the style of your ceramics?

Contemporary. Colourful. Appealing. Stylish but fun. A confection of colour and pattern, maybe? I wanted to make little cactus pots... little indoor gardens. It developed a bit from there with similarly styled spice pots/spoons and yarn bowls... pieces which look beautiful while being useful. I decorate each piece to fit the shape and I tend to let the shapes decide themselves too so each piece is unique and fresh.

Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?

That's an impossible question to answer, really. I have new favourites all the time. There are moments of improved throwing skills, a breakthrough of pattern etc which make me very pleased with myself. It's more small moments than one piece.

What does designing an item to sell involve from beginning to end and what are aspects of the process you like and dislike the most?

In the past, when I first became self employed, I took over a tile studio where I was working and did sit down and go through sketch books and dreamt up ideas for surface decoration, incorporating many techniques with some trial and error. It carried on from what I had been doing, just with my own decorative designs and it was all about surface and my own versions of popular themes.

I already had relationships with galleries and shops and I'd worked in a number of studios so I just carried on from there but with my own designs. I was in a building of creative businesses at the time so there was plenty of feedback. For me there is never an end as designs improve and evolve and have to be streamlined a little for efficiency of production so it's ongoing.

However, my current work is a different story. After an enforced break, I found myself staring at cacti in Lanzarotti and announced I'd like to make little cactus pots. I'd been making ceramic pebbles for various reasons during the break (necessarily portable and simple).

I had been invited by Katy Galbraith, of Recycle Me Mosaics, to take part in a group exhibition called In the Garden With Friends. Perfect theme! So for that I began to make small pinch pots (literally pinching the clay into shape) as a continuation of the pebble designs. I made up the patterns as I went along and kept the colours simple – mainly black and white and orange and turquoise, my favourites.

The exhibition was a perfect way to test out the market and they were enthusiastically received, all planted up with their cacti. My pinching technique became more refined and the pots got much bigger. However, as much as I love the very organic and quirky shapes I could achieve with pinching, I couldn't begin to keep up with demand and they just cost too much to make. So I decided to reacquaint myself with throwing on a wheel with the help of advice and tutorial vids on You Tube! Through doing select design fairs and working with shops and galleries, I've noted what works best.

Oh but pricing is one of the worst parts. There is a formula certainly, plus what the market will support. A myriad of adjustments all round. Staring at the hundreds of emails coming in is also a killer. But my favourite part is just the joy of practising my throwing at the moment. And direct selling. People are very complimentary and interested and it's never not a buzz to have them want to part with actual money for something I have carefully made and brought into the world.

Today I got a message that my customer couldn't stop photographing her three new cactus pots as they sat on her mantlepiece. She was ecstatic and I can't ask for better than that!

Which other creative people do you admire and why?

There are so many for many reasons!! There are some fantastic movers and shakers on the Scottish scene and barely a fraction of the forward-thinking cultural happenings, support, networking, exhibitions, education and artistic outreach would ever happen were it not for the drive and vision of artists and designers themselves across the UK.

I have dabbled on the very edges of all this effort and I am in awe of those who make it happen... frequently despite the odds, lets face it.

How has living in the Perthshire countryside influenced you and what other parts of Scotland are important to you (and why)?

I moved to Perthshire from the city and found myself looking down instead of up. There are so many interesting things happening in the insect and plant world... you just have to look closely. I also became acutely aware of seasons and their routines and colour and light. I don't know if it's had a direct influence on my designs but I will say that my work has loosened up and become more organic, shape and pattern-wise. I'm not one for taking a particular flower or beetle and directly reproducing elements of it though.

One of my favourite things about lowland Scotland at least, is that one is never far from either an exciting town or some of the world's most beautiful countryside. I've lived in urban, rural, east and west and there is something I like about all of it. I adore the west coast for it's special, idyllic beaches and astonishing vistas... I had some great childhood holidays there. More recently I've discovered the Fife coast though and that has it's own charm.

Coasts are very relaxing, I think! All those open horizons. And who doesn't love footering about in rock pools?? I'd like a bit more consistent heat of course, but then we wouldn't have all the fantastic rivers and moss. I love a bit of moss and lichen, me. I live next to a burn and it'a source of endless fascination.... always changing and full of so much texture and sound.

What else inspires you to create?

Apart from just a fundamental need to express myself in whatever manner, the rent comes high on the list.

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to make their living in
a creative field?

It's not the only avenue, but from the point of view of a designer-maker:
Try to get some experience in a studio situation. (I went to art school followed by years in various studios – both valuable educations).

Do not undersell yourself. Never never never. It harms the value of your work, your earning potential from what you love doing, and it lowers everyone's value in the field.

This is not a hobby and everyone deserves to be paid for their time, materials, skill and experience. It's very common for people on both sides of the fence to forget that.
If you love your work, share your enthusiasm.

Be creative in your thinking and be prepared to be a bit flexible. Feeling discouraged is normal as it can be quite a struggle and don't necessarily expect everything to take off immediately, but stay on the bus (even if you have to respray the bus and change the livery or rip out the seats, or some such analogy!!!!).

Take advantage of all the organisations out there such as Cultural Enterprise Office, Make Works, Creative Scotland, Craft Scotland etc.

Network at every given opportunity with creatives of all stripes.

Prepare to give up exotic holidays and long weekends.

Big thanks to Ceri for taking the time to answer our questions. Find out more about Ceri White Studios on her website and don't forget to follow on Facebook!

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