Allison Mueller has always had an interest in ceramics, but work and family got in her way.
The trained interior designer worked for 30 years as a fashion stylist. Mueller says the design industry is her “whole life.”
She started playing with clay 10 years ago, but it was only three and a half years ago that she started taking basic and intermediate courses in ceramics with Tafe. Around the same time, her daughters left home. With a zoom out on the horizon, she could really settle on sand.
She found a place with a “small studio space in the back.” She painted the room white and built a custom table and bench for her potter’s wheel, trimming tools, and buckets. Her oven sits near the door for ventilation, and rows of white shelves display test tiles and drying projects.
Vicki Grima, chief executive of the Australian Ceramics Association, has noted that the “slow uptake” of ceramics has turned into a sharp rise over the past two years. She says Mueller’s story is typical.
“There has always been a trend for hobbyists in clubs to switch from other industries and professions to ceramics in their mid-40s in order to start group courses.”
In the past four years, enrollments for ceramics courses in Tafe, New South Wales, have doubled, says Chris Casali, Head of Schools for Fine Arts and Ceramics in Tafe’s Sydney area.
“Overwhelmed by what you can do”
Pottery students come “at different times in their lives,” says Casali, with different needs.
While “some want the qualification”, others want “experimenting with resources”.
Despite his newfound popularity, particularly among hobbyists, Casali still says that “not enough people see the opportunities ceramics has to offer as a career.”
“You can work as an artist, with artists, as an exhibitionist. A lot of students want a path into an artistic health practice, like art therapy, where clay is used for a whole range of things like motor skills.”
Mueller says that fashion, housewares and interior design “become one” with ceramics.
She points to the success of Australian housewares company Mud Ceramics. Since opening in Sydney in 2007, the company has grown to eight stores worldwide, from Melbourne to Los Angeles to London. A second store will open in New York City this year, along with new stores in Byron Bay and Sydney.
Mud’s porcelain clay housewares are still handcrafted in a studio in Sydney’s Marrickville. “People want homewares that are unique and handmade,” says Mueller. “Mud does amazing things in this room.”
But it’s not just consumers driving demand for handmade ceramics. Casali and Mueller say restaurants are big customers, too.
“It started with the more exclusive restaurants bringing in ceramic artists to create their dinner attire,” says Mueller. Now, those collaborations have “even had an impact on local coffee shops.”
“Super bored in lockdown”
Not every person who finds a passion for pottery makes a career turning point in midlife.
An unexpected lockdown hobby turned into a small business for Nicky Li, a 20-year-old university student studying actuarial science and applied finance.
Li was feeling “super bored” in lockdown and “decided to order clay online” after seeing pottery posts on Instagram. Social media is a common entry point to the craft; on TikTok, Queensland-based pottery kit company Crock’d has 7.2 million views; More than 300,000 posts have been made on Instagram using the hashtag #AustralianCeramics.
Li’s projects started small, with air-cured clay; but she quickly switched to sturdier earthenware, turning her parents’ garage in western Sydney into a makeshift studio. After a while, the garage went “insane.”
“Sound goes everywhere, everywhere on the floor and on the table,” she says. Li stored her ceramic projects in stacked bread boxes and stocked her workbench with “buckets and pails of reclaimed clay.”
“I had a surplus of things that I made, and my parents kept saying, ‘What are you going to do with all of this just sitting around here?'”
Li decided to start selling.
She settled in be kewl, an online shop with batch-made ceramics printed with slogans and affirmations. It’s still a steep learning curve for Li. Though she’s now selling her work, ceramics “definitely isn’t a cheap hobby.”
“You can’t just cook it in an oven”
In addition to the sound costs, Li has to pay to have her works burned. “I don’t have a kiln, so I rent someone else’s,” she says.
Grima says the Australian Ceramics Association is “constantly” getting inquiries about where to find kilns.
Access “is a bit problematic as all people fall in love with ceramics”.
“You can’t just cook it in an oven,” she says. “People have to cook it in a special oven with a minimum temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius.”
For hobbyists learning about pottery from home, Grima recommends checking out sites like Crockd’s ovens near youwhich works almost like an Airbnb for kilns, charting studios and independent potters who offer shared kilns.
Pottery suppliers, local artists and community centers can also help. “But the reality is there are a lot of places in Australia that don’t have access to kilns.”
That was a problem even before the pandemic. Kayde Clemans, owner of Bondi Clay, says the lack of accessible kilns is “why we opened a studio three years ago”.
The studio offers casual classes, take-home projects (which have been big sellers during lockdown) and more intensive workshops, but shared facilities – and the resulting community building – take center stage. “People share facilities, but they also share their thoughts and ideas,” says Clemans.
It’s now open clay soila second studio in Rosebery catering to intermediate and advanced potters.
“An antidote to modern life”
Casali compares clay work to visiting the ocean or sitting in the forest. “When you touch clay, there’s a kind of weird connection… It just feels like you can slow yourself and your mind down.”
Grima admires the “amazing chemical change” of the material, ranging from “soft, muddy stuff” to the hardness after firing.
For Li, the impermanence of the craft is its great appeal. “Even after your work has dried – if you haven’t fired it yet – you can put it in a bucket of water. It will go back to a pulp and you can reshape it however you like.”
“Even if I make mistakes, I can repeat it and see my progress over time.”
It’s no surprise to Clemans that a world-changing pandemic drew people to ceramics. “It made people step out of their working lives.” He calls ceramics “almost an antidote to modern life… You pick them up and do something haptic again.”