This month we visited Rebecca Proctor from Modern Craft Workshop at her workshop in north Cornwall.
How did you get started as a potter?
I’ve always enjoyed working with clay, but it wasn’t until I started learning to throw on the wheel that I really got into it. I saw a notice in the post office down the road, offering wheel throwing classes. That was about nine years ago, just after we moved to Cornwall. I’d always wanted to learn, so I signed up. After the first class, I knew this was what I wanted to do, but I could tell it was going to take a lot of practice. Luckily, I really enjoyed it and I always accepted it was going to take a long time.
Can you tell us a bit about your practice?
I make functional stoneware pottery. Simple pieces – bowls, cups, plates – which are designed to be used every day. My workshop is based at my home, in my garden. I use a lot of local Cornish clay and other local materials, like wood ash, in my glazes. I fire most of the work at home but I’m also part of the Kigbeare Kiln Project, in Devon, and I help fire the large wood-fired tunnel kiln there.
I try to make things which are based on traditional shapes. When you look at historical pottery, it was often simple. Over time, it became more and more complicated. I’m trying to go back to really simple, effortless throwing, which is actually quite difficult to do. The glazes are what I hope will bring the interest. Layers and layers of ash land on the pottery and melt, and that makes beautiful, random elemental glazes. This type of glaze only needs a simple shape to sit on top of. If you put it on something really complicated I think you’d lose the essence of the glaze.
What kind of clothes do you prefer to wear when you’re working?
At the wheel I wear comfortable trousers and tops with short sleeves because you tend to get clay on you. Throwing at the wheel is a small part of what you do as a potter – a lot of my time is spent outside, stacking wood and firing the kiln. For that, layers are essential: T-shirts, shirts, jumpers. I just layer them all up.
Who or what has had the biggest influence on your work?
I studied art and design history, and before I became a potter I was a design writer, so I’ve basically got loads of random influences in my head. I actually try to block them out, because there’s too much in there! I focus on trying to make simple, everyday things to use. If anything, I’m influenced by the way, people come together and eat and use pots, and I try to make things which might be a little bit beautiful in use.
I’ve also discovered there’s an amazing tradition of pottery in north Devon and Cornwall. I enjoy looking at country pots and the way things were made – like the bellies on the jugs and the pulled handles, which are typical of this area.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy working by myself and being able to follow my own whims. I also really enjoy making something out of nothing. I find it fascinating that a lump of clay from the ground can be transformed by hands and fire into something which people can use every day – and I really like to know that people are using the pieces I make.
What do you do when you’re in need of inspiration?
If I want to get away from pottery I go to the beach and the cliffs and have a walk, get blown away, then come back.
What drew you to Cornwall?
I came here nine years ago – we moved for a bit of an adventure! I’d always lived in towns and cities and wanted to try something different. We didn’t plan on staying this long – we just thought we’d come for a couple of years and see how it went, and we haven’t ended up moving!
Tell us about your typical day – what does it look like?
I get back from dropping the kids off a school at about 9am, then get started in my workshop. I usually have a timetable, so it’s all planned out. First, I have to prepare the clay and think about what I’m making, then start throwing. You imagine that throwing is what a potter does, but it’s probably only 40%. One day I’ll prepare clay and throw the pots, other days there’s trimming, packing, firing and glazing. There’s lots to do – it’s different all the time.
Which is your favourite place/stretch of the Cornish coastline, and why?
Probably the area from Millook to Duckpool on the north coast, just five minutes from where I live. It’s an overlooked part of the coastline of Cornwall and feels quite isolated, but the cliffs have got beautiful rock formations and the beaches are usually completely empty. At low tide it feels quite wild and untamed. That’s usually where we go.
Rebecca is wearing her Sailor Shirt and Gwithian Jacket in our photos.