East London-based ceramicist Grace McCarthy has been making functional objects for eight years. She grew up with an appreciation of traditional craftsmanship – her father was a carpenter and often made pieces for the house. She still remembers her first lesson in pottery while studying for her Art Foundation course at Oaklands College, St Albans, when she found an affinity for the material. “It was incredible to have something so malleable, that you could do so much with it,” she explains. Previously, Grace had been working with wood and metal, and found it was difficult to rectify mistakes. She was excited to find that with clay, “if you made a mistake, you could just let it go,” remoulding it in a new way, with no echo of the prior form.
Grace went on to study Three Dimensional Design at Camberwell College of Arts, focusing on ceramics in her final year. After graduating, she became a technician at Turning Earth, an open-access ceramics studio in London; then, she was part of the first cohort to study at Clay College in Stoke-on-Trent, which has a rich history of pottery making. “It was a very intense learning process,” she explains. “I thought I knew how to do all these things, but I had so many skills to develop.” Clay College is focused on practical techniques and Grace’s time there was very hands-on. “There were no essays or anything like that. It was just make, make, make.” She learnt how to throw efficiently, setting herself up to make a living from her work. “I remember my tutor saying, this is just the beginning.”
Currently, she is based back at Turning Earth in London, where she hand-throws simple pieces for everyday use. To create the candle holders for TOAST, she responded to the shape of the English beeswax candles also in the collection. For the mugs, she creates pulled handles. “It’s really important for me to pull the handles, to give that nod to traditional potters,” she says. “Then it feels like it’s coming out of the mug organically.” While the mug has a low, wide form, the cup is shaped to a rounded silhouette with a tapered base. She also creates personal pieces, such as horse figurines to celebrate when a baby is born to a friend or family member. Her clay is sourced from a supplier in Stoke-on-Trent, a tie to her former location. She works with multiple clay bodies at the same time, due to the different requirements of the pieces she makes.
Grace uses both an electric kiln for oxidation, and a gas kiln with a reduction atmosphere. This means that the kiln is starved of oxygen, creating different effects in the glaze. The candle holders are created in the gas kiln with a shino glaze, which is “a very simple, two-part glaze,” Grace explains. It creates rich, earthy colours and a mottled, speckled surface, with tones ranging from rust to pale grey, depending on where the pieces are placed in the kiln and what temperatures they reach. “It makes every piece unique,” she says. “I love that it’s a bit of a surprise each time you open the kiln.” She has to stay with the gas kiln throughout the 12-hour firings, adjusting the gas. She fills in graphs to compare the temperatures of firings. “You have to figure out the subtleties, and every kiln is different.”
To create the patterns sweeping across the mugs and cups for TOAST, Grace uses a shuro brush she bought in Japan, on a trip led by Clay College. “It’s falling apart a little bit now!” she says, laughing. The pattern is created at the greenware stage, which is when the piece has been shaped but not yet bisque-fired. She uses a slip recipe containing cobalt to sweep across the pieces. “It’s very reactive and one of the strongest oxides you can use for ceramics.” The mark-making process is so fleeting, she has to ensure she is not distracted to get a sense of free movement. “It can’t feel forced,” she says.
Grace is particularly inspired by the finishing of Japanese ceramics, reflected by the shino glaze she uses on the candleholders, which was developed during the late 16th century Momoyama period in the Mino and Seto areas of Japan. Her shapes, however, are rooted in traditional European pottery, reflecting how she uses the pieces every day. “They’re much closer to home,” she says.
In the coming year, she will be experimenting with larger forms, making teapots and ceramic stools with curved legs. She hopes future owners will see something new and unexpected in her pieces each time they are used. “I love that they can be so different depending on which angle they are viewed from,” she says. “That’s the beauty of handmade stoneware. There is always something intriguing that makes you keep looking.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Dunja Opalko.
Shop Grace McCarthy's hand-thrown stoneware pieces for TOAST.