INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr
Local potter and creative Bianca Bernstein talks to VISI about working with a wheel, her journey with clay, tips and tricks for beginner potters and life in her studio.
Tell us a bit about your background?
Born in the ’80s. Grew up in the ’90s (and still recovering from that). I’m a mostly self-taught potter, working primarily on the wheel to make small-batch and one-off craft pots, as well as large production orders for restaurants from time to time.
I live and make pots in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, with my long-suffering pottery husband, our Great Dane, and 3 cats. When I’m not making pots, I’m reading or trying to figure out ways to include pasta in every meal. My favourite colour is brown.
How did you get involved in pottery?
I’d been working as an advertising copywriter for about 14 years, and I was tired of trying to create things with small budgets, unreasonable deadlines, and tons of brand baggage attached. I needed to go somewhere where I could make mistakes freely and with no consequence, and perhaps see those mistakes develop into something rewarding. An amazing illustrator I know was posting these great little clay creatures that she’d been making at a local studio, so I asked her for the studio’s details. I got in touch with the studio and went to my first lesson. I sat with a lump of clay, trying to pinch a pot, thinking “This really isn’t doing it for me”, until some moments later, I spied a pottery wheel in the far corner. Not a single person was sitting there, and that’s where I wanted to go. I bundled some balls of clay together and started learning how to centre them. The first pots I threw looked like blobs, and I later glazed them accordingly in a fabulous 1970’s brown (origin unknown). I cried a bit in the car on the way home from that first class. I knew that something had changed for me. Cut to a month later – I’d stashed a second-hand wheel in my poorly-lit basement and was obsessively throwing pots every night and every weekend. Cut to 2021 – I’m having a gas kiln installed to start a reduction-firing journey and all of my nice clothes have been ruined (blessed) by clay.
What are your favourite things about working with clay?
Other than the fact that clay just feels like home to me, it also has a way of teaching me to live with uncertainty and acceptance. So much can go wrong before a pot is out of the kiln and in use, that I always feel a low-key acceptance that it might not make it. And plenty of the pots don’t. You learn to accept failures in clay with more ease than you would other things in life and start seeing these failures as lessons and opportunities.
What does a day in the studio look like for you?
I have a terrible habit of visiting the studio as soon as I wake up (quite early), and so I end up doing things in my pajamas before I snap out of it and go get properly dressed for the tasks ahead. I’ll start the day by ‘visiting’ the pots that are in their various stages of making, and see which pot needs what from me that day. Some will need to be turned (trimmed), and others moved along to a different part of the studio for drying etc. I then consult my work list, which tells me whether or not I have commissions to throw that day, or whether I can focus on making pots that I choose to make. On a very lucky day, I’ll get to do a few wild experiments. I’ll take breaks and walk around in the garden during the day, thinking about my pots and how I’m tackling them. If it’s raining I’ll take tea breaks on the stoep for morale. What’s important to note is that not all days look the same. In fact, very few do. This is because working on the wheel is just a small part of the efforts that go into making pots. There’s so much peripheral work, like recycling clay, putting up extra shelves, or sanding down kiln props, or creating new glazes, or caring for students’ work so that it’s ready for their next lesson. I’ve been working on having more disciplined ‘making cycles’, where my output is wheel-focused, and then allotting other times for supporting tasks and prepping for students and studio upkeep etc.
Where do you look for inspiration?
This is an ever-changing search and can be very rewarding.
I tend to look to a few things for inspiration.
1. The materials in my studio: what have I got on hand and what can I do with it? What am I lacking and what can I replace it with?
2. Materials in general: I read up a lot about the different materials used in making clay bodies and glazes and how they behave in heat environments. This technical reading can absolutely inform ideas or directions, and it’s very exciting when it happens.
3. Practical influences: there are potters out there who do certain things very well – and that drives me to improve my level of craft. For example, when I see a brilliant potter’s hands deftly pulling and attaching a handle with a certain level of confidence, it reminds me that I have a long way to go to get there, and it actually really gets me going. Some potters that influence my practical decisions are Lisa Hammond, the late Michael Cardew, and South African potter Richard Pullen.
4. Philosophical influences: This is a much more emotional space for me because being a potter is not a career choice – it’s a life choice. When you choose to give your life over to making pots, you have to go all-in if you hope to make anything of significance. For a greater understanding of what this means (because this understanding is ever-growing), I look to the late Karen Karnes, the late Shoji Hamada, and American potter Adam Field. Their personal philosophies of what life in pots means and can be are evident in the way they lived and live. There’s no separation of work and home. The work is home. The work is never finished. And that brings me great comfort and renewed energy when I need it.
How do you keep things fresh with so many potters around?
I do believe that there is a collective consciousness when it comes to creativity. And this can lead to trends in pottery, which can influence potters to make pots that look like a lot of other pots out there. You see similar behaviours in decor and fashion and food. What helps me to stay on my own path is not to look around too much and to trust in my own ideas. This doesn’t mean to say I don’t interrogate certain ideas I come up with quite harshly – some things stay hidden in the notebooks. haha. The thing is, no two potters are alike, for a million reasons – ideals, response to colour, processing information, daily environments, persistence levels etc. – and that’s something I like to spend time thinking about.
Do you have a preferred method of creating?
My only preferred method of creating is to create. To work. I have found that buckling down to do mundane studio tasks can sometimes spark an idea or two.
Any local creators to keep on our radar?
There are some really excellent working potters in South Africa. Ckho Mququ and Alila Hofmeyr are definitely two potters to watch – each with a truly unique style and approach to making functional, well-crafted pots. I am often impressed by Ckho’s precision and unique ideas (especially when it comes to surface decoration) and am equally impressed with Alila’s abilities. She’s moving successfully into creating beautiful porcelain lighting works and fixtures – which is no easy task!
Any tips and tricks for beginners?
The only tip I really have is: be persistent. Be persistent in finding a relationship with clay. Be persistent in asking questions. Ask a lot of questions. Oh, and keep a notebook. ALWAYS KEEP A NOTEBOOK! You’ll find that the more you know about pots, the less you know. And there’s just too much information to rely purely on memory for.
Tell us about your classes?
I teach beginners’ wheel-throwing classes at my studio in Wynberg, Cape Town on Fridays and Saturdays. The studio is small, so I get to give a lot of attention to each student, which I really like. Teaching is a humbling experience, especially when I realise that I’m passing something on that was passed on to me. It feels like the world’s greatest heirloom.