Ceramicist Nicola Gillis struggles to part with some of the pieces she makes. Occasionally, a beaker, mug, plate or bowl evokes an indefinable feeling that makes the item hard to part with. It might be something about the openness of the form, the way it nestles snugly in the palms, a particular undulation in the glaze or the position of a dimple. “What I want,” explains Nicola, “is for every piece to make me feel like this.”
Nicola began her second career as a studio potter nine years ago. She had moved to southern California with her young family and was searching for a creative outlet. “I tried calligraphy first,” she recalls. “I was enjoying it, but I didn’t have that pull to practice it.” Nicola recalled experimenting at the wheel in school and decided to give it another go: “I absolutely fell in love with it. I wanted to do it all the time – I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Her new-found obsession travelled back with her to Brighton, where she now lives with her husband and two sons. She undertook a short course at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation before leaving her part-time job and enrolling on a full-time, three-month course at Forest Row School of Ceramics in 2019. “I didn’t miss an hour of that course,” she says. “Before then, I didn’t feel that my work was anything like I wanted it to be. The course was all about experimenting – just throwing everything at it and finding your own style. There were eight people on the course and everyone's work came out completely differently. Ultimately, your own personality and inspiration comes through in your work.”
During the first nationwide lockdown, Nicola retreated to her studio – a practical green shed at the bottom of her urban garden. “I was in there every day, experimenting.” The objects she makes are functional and obviously hand-formed. The concentric rings her fingers make as she manipulates the clay are left visible, rather than smoothed away with a rib, and there are dimples in the clay that are created when Nicola lifts the soft vessels off the wheel using her hands, rather than batons or pot lifters. “I want to keep that feeling that this is an object that has been made by my hands, that is going to be in your hands,” she explains. “The dimples are a place to put your fingers, to hold and support the cup, but also, for me at least, they give a comfort. A place for my fingers to rest, encircle, move back and forth, slow down and contemplate.”
These intimate, immediate forms are patterned with painterly slips and glazes – impulsive marks that Nicola “cannot help” make in her work. The marks she makes are inspired by the natural elements: “Wood, stormy skies, rust: they are the sort of things that I really love.”
On the wall in her studio is a handwritten quote from the British studio potter, Clive Bowen: “Beautiful things you use in your daily life”. “I want people to take a vessel off the shelf and for it to really mean something when they use it,” Nicola explains. “I want them to slow down and savour the moment. That's what I'm aiming for.” Guided by this principle, Nicola has made a succinct range of vessels for TOAST, including a multipurpose beaker inspired by Japanese “cupboard cups” or yunomi; a wide-rimmed vessel that displays an abstract depiction of leaden storm clouds, and a collection of shallow bowls marked with a simple, wide stroke of black oxide wash.
Nicola uses matte glazes in a neutral colour palette, but there is still plenty of room for experimentation. (Nicola’s ash glaze is made from handfuls of ash gathered from her own fire grate.) The magnesium matte glaze used for her bowls emerges from the kiln with unique speckled sweeps around the rim. “The glaze breaks beautifully, looking just like rust,” she observes. After the firing process, each piece is then hand-sanded by Nicola, who clearly relishes the time she spends with each piece: “They may all look the same, but holding each in my hands, and turning it round and round and upside down may reveal something to me that I can’t see when looking at a group.”
In a corner of her studio are the brushes she uses for mark-making. One is a flea-market find with bristles set into three rings. This enables Nicola to make three distinct lines in a single, sweeping movement. There is also a collection of brushes she has made herself by repurposing the split bamboo stalks of a wok cleaner. She uses these for a Japanese technique called hakeme that involves painting a pale slip over a dark clay, then using the stiff bristles of the bamboo brush to remove the slip, leaving a trail of painterly marks on the surface. Another customised brush is used for her wax resist work. Here, the neat line of dense bristles has been hacked into with scissors “because I don’t want anything to be really neat. I want it to be interesting.”
Nicola’s working day is guided by the weather and the conditions in her studio. “I work in the same space as my kiln, so I need to work with that heat. If the kiln has been on overnight, I know the studio will be warm in the morning, which allows me to make the bowls much more quickly and efficiently than when it is cold and damp. I put wooden boards down over the lid of the kiln and use it as a warm work surface.” When it is raining and cold, she works on the mugs. “These need to dry really slowly so that you can attach the handles to them. If the body of the mug becomes too dry before you attach the handle, it can be really difficult.”
Like all ceramicists, Nicola grapples with the variables: the make-up of the clay, the weather, the temperature of her electric kiln, the daily demands of life beyond the studio door. It’s working with these variables that motivates her relentless search for “that feeling”. “It's an endless journey of learning,” she explains. “It just never stops.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.
Shop our selection of hand-thrown stoneware pieces by Nicola Gillis.