Social Togetherness: Pat O'Leary

Ceramicist Pat O'Leary discusses her design process, from initial sketches to its realisation in clay and how the pandemic has affected her work and the studio community she works within.

Social Togetherness: Pat O'Leary

Where’s home for you now?

I have lived in Hackney in east London for nearly 20 years and can honestly say I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love how multi-faceted, multi-cultural, and slightly anarchic it is. Of course, over the years it has become much more gentrified like so many parts of London, but there is still enough grit left to keep me here.

How do you approach your designs in clay? Do you sketch before you work with the clay? 

I do a sketch. I always have a little notebook where I sketch ideas and insert inspiring images. Pretty standard stuff for a designer.

As my graphics work is almost entirely created on the computer making pots is such an antidote to that. Getting my hands dirty. Once I have resolved the design of a pot I keep detailed notes of the clay weight and the thrown dimensions. My training as a graphic designer was to always push the boundaries and that has definitely influenced the way I approach my ceramics. When designing a new vessel I spend a lot of time thinking about how to push it beyond the obvious. Looking for inspiration in unexpected places...

You predominantly work on the wheel, does functionality come first, and form develops from this?

I love throwing. I used to be a production thrower and love the energy of a thrown pot.

I lived in Australia for a while and worked in a pottery in Sydney. It was there that I really honed my repeat throwing skills. We used to have races to see who could throw the most mugs in an hour. A mug a minute was the target. Whoever topped 60 had the beers bought for them! After a days throwing in the heat of a Sydney summer, a cold beer was always very welcome.

I prefer to make pots that have a function and can be used on a daily basis. I like to imagine what the piece will be used for, what sort of food will go into it, how it will be held by the user. To me, a clay pot is an innately human thing. The first vessels represented what humans were doing in their everyday lives. While some were decorated they all had a function, made for cooking, eating, ritual and dying.

Having said all that there is a conflict between my natural inclination for the functional and a desire to make more sculptural pieces. A while back I started playing with thrown forms using textured black clay. Trying not to think too much about the finished article I joined the different pieces together making complex articulated forms from a series of simple thrown shapes. What emerged was the tentative beginnings of a series of candleholders coming full circle back to the functional but in a way, I had not worked before. I consider that to be a good thing.

What's your favoured clay?

Clay and the materials used in making glazes all come from within the earth and I like the final finish and colour to reflect that. The community studio only fires to higher temperatures (1240º centigrade) this suits me as I prefer to work with stoneware clay. 

The pieces I make for twentytwentyone are all thrown using Staffordshire stoneware which has a higher iron content giving it a rich warm colour with a slightly textured surface character. Many of my pieces are only glazed on the inside, allowing the colour and finish of the glaze to contrast with the colour and texture of the clay body. Added to the same clay the birdfeeders I make have a very small amount of lava dust that I brought back from a trip to the Azores. This gives a nice random speckle to the finish that reminds me a bit of a bird’s egg.

What’s your approach to glazes?

I rarely apply decoration to the surface of my pieces. For me, it is about the form and the quality of the surface. I tend to use muted earthy glaze colours. Pots are formed from the combined effects of three of the four elements – earth, water and fire. When on holiday I am always drawn to the remotest, most windswept parts of the world. One of my favourite landscapes is the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides Islands where the connection to those elements is very apparent. The thought of the colours and textures of that landscape makes my heart race… in the same way that a piece of ceramics can.

You work in a community studio, sharing kilns and wheels and this will have been significantly interrupted your making during the pandemic. How has the enforced sabbatical reflected in your thinking and approach to ceramics?

As my graphics work is mainly in the museum sector most of the projects I was involved with came to a halt as museums and visitor centres closed for lockdown. It was hard when the ceramics studio also closed. Apart from suddenly not being able to make, I really missed the interaction with the other members. I worry that I can be pretty fixed in my working practices but being in a studio with other people opens a world of idea exchanges and different processes. Not all are to my taste but it is constantly inspiring seeing the way others work and how everyone’s approach is so different. 

We hear you have been making ‘scrubs’ for the NHS, we’d love to share a picture.

At the start of lockdown, I thought I would use the time to work on new ideas and develop some of the ones that were unresolved. I am always questioning my work and my abilities, it is ingrained in my psyche and on the whole I think this is a good thing. Constant questioning is the way to learn and move forward. But too much self-criticism can also be debilitating as I rarely feel I am ‘there’ with a piece. I am working on that …!

Daunted by the expanse of time and with no possibility of being able to try out any of the ideas in the studio, not to mention the whole pandemic situation, I found it really difficult to concentrate. Then a chance encounter led me to one of the many groups organising volunteers to make much-needed scrubs for NHS workers. I have always enjoyed sewing and perhaps it was a form of procrastination, but I got really stuck in and for the first couple of months I sewed scrubs pretty much full time. It satisfied my need to make and was surprisingly creative. The scrubs were mostly made from deconstructed bed linen donated in huge quantities. Playing around with different colours and patterns, and especially making scrubs for paediatric wards using children’s bedding was very satisfying.

Any music or podcasts you would recommend?

I mostly like to work in silence. Unless I am working on something mindlessly repetitive I find listening to the radio or podcasts too distracting, and music can manipulate my mood too much interfering with the thought processes and questions that need be answered during the making. Getting deeply into the zone when I am working is probably the closest I will ever get to actually meditating and that is where I am happiest. I didn’t watch or listen to many of the virtual offerings available during lockdown but I did watch some of the broadcasts from the Goldmark Gallery who started their own lockdown TV station. Goldmark is a gallery based in the town of Uppingham in the East Midlands. As well as a wonderful collection of 20th-century paintings and prints, they house an extensive collection of ceramics. Their TV conversations with artists, commentators and interesting individuals have been inspiring and entertaining.

At times while sewing I listened to Fortunately, a BBC Podcast with Jane Garvey and Fi Glover chatting together in lockdown. At times laugh out loud funny, intelligent, as well as tackling difficult topics head on it is a very female view of the world with no holes barred and definitely no annoying superficial political correctness. Honest and very refreshing.

How is the community studio operating post lockdown?

The studio is open again for members, social distancing measures are in place and we now have to book in advance to ensure the studio doesn’t get congested. Masks or face shields are compulsory. Wearing a face shield while working was a bit strange at first but now I hardly notice it. Other than that it is business as usual and it’s great to be making again.

What are you working on now?

Apart from the range I make for twentytwentyone, I have decided to concentrate on the development of work I had started some time before lockdown. I am interested in combining other natural materials with ceramics, in particular willow. I like the work of some mid-century Danish ceramists, one, in particular, Arne Bang, adds beautiful intricate handles to some of his pieces. I decided to have a go at making my own from buff willow for a new teapot. As well as being a more interesting approach it also meant that each handle would be unique having been made to suit the individual pot. 

My first attempts work ok as handles but I decided I needed to learn more about the medium and how to work it effectively. Last year I did a willow weaving course at the City Lit with Anne Marie O’Sullivan who makes beautiful contemporary baskets and sculptures. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and although there is still so much to learn I feel I can progress with my handle making with a degree more confidence.

I also want to work more on the candle holder series with a view to producing a small limited edition.

What’s your thoughts on the pandemic and how we might find some positive from the time behind us and what is ahead?

For me, the lockdown has not been particularly difficult, and in some ways, I have felt like a bystander to the reality of the pandemic. I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful house designed by my partner who is an architect. There is enough space for us both to work in separate parts of the house. Great neighbours meant even in deepest lockdown we never felt cut off. There are plenty of small independent shops in Hackney where we could get everything we needed without having to travel or queue in supermarkets. It has been inspiring to see how inventive the local pubs and cafes have been, turning into shops to keep themselves and their suppliers going.

I am also lucky enough to have an allotment around the corner and in the early days of lockdown that was a real haven, ideal for social distancing I could lose myself completely in preparing the plot for the growing season. The sight of young seedlings emerging is such a sign of hope. Working there I couldn’t help but reflect on how quickly our planet starts to recover when major pollutants are removed. How the air in London had never smelt and tasted so clean. How remarkably clear the light has been day after day. You could really see the difference.

Like most people over the past months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about COVID and its effect on all of us. How vulnerable we are, not just to catch the virus, but because we are so over-populated and interconnected, to the catastrophic effects it is having on the global economy. I have been ranting a lot about the various cock-ups with the supply of sub-standard PPE equipment from government procurement contracts. I wonder why we can’t revert to smaller makers collectively satisfying these orders instead of the big corporate entities. 

Does it make sense to carry on the way we have been after this crisis is over? Should this, could this bring about the end of capitalism as we know it? Surely this is a massive wake up call to make lasting changes that are urgently needed to combat the biggest catastrophe we are facing, that of global warming.

Thank you Pat for taking the time to talk to us.

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