We visited Mark and Emily in their studio for a conversation about their work and creative process. Hailing from different creative backgrounds, they've joined forces as ACE Firers with the desire to make functional items that they'd use in their own homes.
You both come from different artistic & creative backgrounds - How did ACE Firers come about?
Mark: We first met at an Auckland Studio Potters kiln build and group firing.
Emily: We started talking about clay bodies and glazes and stuff and found that we had some similar interests.
M: From there we went and collected some fire bricks from the Monier brick works in New Lynn, which they were pulling down at the time. We decided to build a small test salt kiln with the bricks, we called it the baby ACE.
E: Our friend and fellow potter, Steve Aitken, suggested that we would be better off using lightweight insulation bricks in such a small kiln because the dense fire bricks would take too long to heat up. But we went ahead anyway. We had some 24 hour firings in this tiny kiln. That’s actually how we got our name. We joked that we were ACE firers, when clearly we were just learning.
Then I was making some water jugs for my friends cafe, Hayes Common, in Hamilton. They wanted some bigger jugs that I didn’t think I could throw myself, so Mark made the larger jugs. That was the first thing that we did collaboratively and it grew from there.
Tell us how you got started with pottery. What interests you in this type of work and art form?
M: I came to pottery from a collecting background. I was sign writing for nearly 14 years and needed a change. I thought about going to art school, but instead started painting at home. I painted and exhibited for a couple of years and at the same time started collecting pots. I liked the immediacy of clay. With painting I would spend a couple of months on a work and still not be happy with it, so I would put a hammer through it! It was the collecting that encouraged me to find out how these forms were made. I started a class with Renton Murray at Auckland Studio Potters in 2011. I was lucky enough to be looking after my kids who were at school and kindy, so I could go and do a class before I picked them up. It then became a real passion. I had read books where people talk about how the clay gets you and I thought... that’s a bit over the top. But argh... it does! I don’t have any interest in going back to painting now, except maybe painting on pots.
E: I’ve been making things for a long time. I went to Carrington (Unitec). I started in ‘89. Lots of glass and woven metal. I’d dabbled with clay and I wanted to make some functional things. I think because I was sick of making useless, fragile things. But it’s interesting that thing of the clay getting to you. You find that there is so much more potential with clay than with glass. Glass is so limited. You have to follow rules a lot more, because it breaks if you don’t. With clay, you can basically make something really beautiful out of just some dirt. That’s really cool. I did Peter Lange’s class. I just wanted to learn some basic throwing, then I had a wheel in here (the studio) and I was thinking I would try to make a few pieces all the same. It starts off as a bit of a struggle. Then I tried to make something everyday, then suddenly I realise it’s dark outside and think I’ve become quite obsessed with this!
ACE Firers seems like a very collaborative project - do you each have your own roles, or is it just about sharing in the creative and making process?
M: We just naturally pick jobs that suit our particular skills.
E: We do work on a lot of things together. Most of the jobs in the studio we both do; we’ll make the clay together, and spend the time throwing and glazing. There is a lot of menial labour to do. It’s work. I don’t think people realise the work that goes into it. And it’s nice to have someone there to joke with and say how boring that part of it is.
M: I think fun is the key ingredient. I know it’s so cheesy, but to make it work. You know when you enjoy working with someone and after a while you just want to keep working with them. We think very much alike, so it makes things easy.
E: We often do that thing where you say “I was just thinking that”… it’s like you almost finish each other’s sentences, which is good when you work together.
What interests or excites you about the different (wood / salt / soda) firing processes?
E: To me, the wood is more appealing. It’s just so beautiful when you get the flame hitting the pots and the ash glazing the pots. It’s much more subtle. You really see the firing process. It’s really fun, when it’s all going well, because you’ve got fire and food and it’s social, especially on the long firings that are over 36 hours.
M: with electric and gas kilns you have to be very exact with your glazing. But with a salt firing, you can be quite loose with your application of slip or glaze and you’ll mostly end up with an interesting result.
We are building a new kiln that we can salt/soda in. We spent a great deal of time arguing about what type of kiln to build. We looked at a Daniel Rhodes design and a catenary arch plan - but we decided on a design that Steve Aitken drew up for us.
Who are some of the people or what are some of the time periods that influence your work?
E: I really love textiles, so I’m always trying to pull that in, and historical objects.
M: I like everything from a piece of 18th Century tin glazed delftware to a grunty coal fired fatso by Barry Brickell.
E: We look at Lucy Rie, Peter Hawkesby and Ian Smail. We’re always looking at different people. But probably our favourite makers are Denis O’Connor, Andrew Van Der Putten and Peter Alger.
You both collect NZ studio pottery, including everyday practical pieces. What you you look for in a piece and in making your own work?
M: I was always taught by other collectors that you can look at books, but you need to handle the pots to get a feel for them. So things like a good handle, that the cup’s not going to slip forward. A functional handle, which was never my forte in the beginning, I was always after the aesthetic value. People talk about weight, but you need to think about it’s function too. Things like a vase can be heavy, but a cup needs to be light. It’s just common sense when making an object.
E: We generally make things that we want, like a good sized muesli bowl to have breakfast in. Things that feel good to use. Or like a mixing bowl that’s deep enough, just simple things like that.
That’s the great thing about throwing too, that you’re constantly trying to strive to make something that is a bit better. Even though you might be making the same bowl, when you get to the end of the day you can actually see, oh, that’s actually a much nicer shape, even though it’s basically the same thing.
M: We’re basically still serving an apprenticeship and I suspect that we always will be. I think that’s why you get hooked on clay. Even after a long day throwing, I will still go home and look at pottery books.