With an inherited passion for clay, potter Esther Mcdonald takes inspiration for her wares, Thea Ceramics, from her beautiful Waiheke surrounds
From her Waiheke Island home and studio, Esther McDonald of Thea Ceramics, is never short of inspiration. Whether it’s from her paddleboard looking back at the shore or from her deck looking out to the bush, the island, off the coast of Auckland, fuels her creativity.
Where did the name ‘Thea Ceramics’ come from?
It is a memorial to my nan, Althea Kypers, who was also a potter. I always wish that I’d got to pot with her.
How did you end up working with clay?
My uncle Shane, who learnt from Nan, taught me. Shane was mentored by a production potter in New Zealand and that’s the style he taught me. It’s a style of strict repetition, which suits me. I really enjoy the discipline.
What inspired your signature cross-dipped look?
I wanted all my pots to have a raw clay element. But for the tumblers, I didn’t want the raw clay at the lip because it wouldn’t be as pleasant to drink from. The angled look gives a clean and recognisable aesthetic as well as being practical.
You’ve moved away from the warm, reddish clay to a paler one. What inspired this change?
The red blush clay that I started out with became unavailable, so it was a good excuse to start a fresh new range. It was hard but I had planned on extending my glaze technology skills (which is still a massive journey) and the clay change pushed me to make time to do so. I choose glazes that work with the clay and normally aim to have a cohesiverange of three colours; there’s always a crowd-pleaser, a pretty colour and a more edgy colour.
What is your most popular product?
Hands down my tumblers. Thank goodness I like making them.
How long does it take to make one tumbler?
The dreaded pottery question! It’s tricky to work that out because I never make just one. I normally make them in batches of 30. On one day it will take me about two hours to throw 30 tumblers, which will then need about 24 hours of firing time. After that, they need to be glazed, put back in the kiln and tidied up. On a good week, I might get three to four good throwing sessions in.
What is your favourite part of the process, and why?
Throwing – it’s really challenging, hard work, but with practise you can train your hands to know what to do. When I’m throwing, I feel accomplished, skilled and I love getting the mahi done.
Which other creatives inspire you?
Nikau Hindin is an incredibly inspirational wāhine toa [brave woman]. She has so much integrity in her work, she is graceful and her pieces are beyond stunning. In ceramics, my idol is Paul Melser. He is a New Zealand wheel-throwing production potter and you have probably eaten off his plates; he is a powerhouse.
What’s it really like being a ceramicist? It can be really heartbreaking. You can have small fails and monumental fails – I’ve had both, more than once. You can’t really celebrate a pot until it’s in the hands of its happy owner. Wheel pottery can be really tough on your body, too, so it’s not an easy job. I definitely need a swim after work. When the process is flowing and there is no drama, that is when things are satisfying.
What is an example of a monumental or a small fail? Late last year, I had a whole kiln filled with 200 glazed products and part of the kiln failed. The kiln reached its hottest temperature possible and stayed there for about 20 hours before I noticed and turned it off. The inside of my kiln melted, including all the pots, kiln shelves and props. It took me about two months to get my kiln back to working order. I have small fails every day; I’m getting really good at just moving on and learning from it.
What exciting new ideas or projects do you have in the pipeline? I have been playing with a brutalist clay and glaze combo and I am also laying down plans to work with a few of my favourite artists, which is something I have dreamed about. I’m planning on connecting with my marae from the Far North, with my whānau, which is a huge deal for all of us.
Words by: Bea Taylor. Photography by: Manja Wachsmuth