Nestled in the Upper Tywi Valley in north-east Carmarthenshire, Wales, is a little village called Cilycwm. It’s here potter Tim Lake lives with his family, working in his studio at the end of the garden. “We're in a beautiful part of the world,” he says. “A wide open valley with dramatic hills all around us. It's very rural and quite rugged in parts.” He describes it as a wilderness, and was drawn there after living by the sea for two decades, craving more space and the countryside. “I was drawn to this area and it really does feed into what I do.”
After gaining a Higher National Diploma in metalwork, Tim went onto the second year of a Studio Ceramics degree at the Falmouth College of Arts, graduating in 1998 and going on to teach there as a technical instructor. He made pottery his full-time job in 2013 and has been based in Cilycwm for five years, enjoying the freedom afforded by his surroundings. “I often get out on my bike and disappear for a while, to be in the trees and the hills and out on the trails,” he says. “There are such expansive landscapes around here. They enrich and contribute to my wellbeing, both physically and mentally.”
When Tim moved into the house with his family, the garden had run wild. “It was an absolute jungle, but we've made it into a little haven,” he says. At the end of the garden is his kiln shed, which was the first thing he built when they moved in. Last year, he set to work building a new studio to work from. “It's great to have a specific space. It was lovely working in the house, although a bit hectic with the little ones!” Sometimes, after dinner, he will go down and prepare clay to throw the next day. It overlooks the garden, which has a vegetable patch and an array of flowers ‒ at the moment, you can see radiant sunflowers towering overhead.
The studio is compact yet airy, with two large, repurposed sliding patio doors to bring a sense of openness to the space. There is a stone outbuilding in the garden that he plans to renovate, becoming a place to store his finished pieces and perhaps a showroom for visitors.
The fulcrum of the space is Tim’s kick wheel. “There's a kind of idealistic view of a potter, that all they do is sit on the potter's wheel. We do that, but it's only about a quarter of what actually goes into making a pot,” he explains. Firstly, the clay has to be wedged by hand. “As you might do with kneading bread, I wedge the clay to try and work out any bubbles or hard bits. It's called spiral wedging. I work the clay with a rhythmic motion and it ends up getting a spiralled pattern, like a snail shell.”
For the beaker Tim creates for TOAST, he weighs the clay then throws it on the wheel as a blank shape. When it becomes ‘leather hard’ – “imagine the supple yet firm feeling of a leather belt” – he creates the faceted surface using a potato peeler. “It’s the best tool, I’ve had it for years,” Tim says. “I leave them to dry for quite a few days, until they're bone dry, before they are bisque fired.” He uses a smaller kiln for bisque firing, which is heated to around 1,000°C. This process ensures that the stoneware clay becomes porous, but durable, ready for glazing.
Tim makes up his glazes from scratch. For the beaker, it is one that Tim has developed himself over the years. “The two main elements are Cornish stone and dolomite.” He whisks up the glaze liquid to ensure it is a good consistency – “between double and single cream” – and pours the glaze into the inside of the beaker. “Then, I always get a jugful and pour it around the edge, dipping the beaker into the bucket as well to almost get a double layer.”
Because the bisqueware is porous, it takes in the moisture, leaving a dry layer of glaze. Tim then puts the beakers in his main kiln, which he designed and built himself from bricks. It has two fire boxes that run on gas and scrap wood from timber merchants, such as sawmill scrap or pallets which he breaks down to use. He stacks his pots in the kiln on shelves, fitting in as many pieces as he can to make the most of the energy used to heat it. “It's a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” Tim says.
Domestic pots form the basis of Tim’s work. “I make pots for use and beauty. Pots that will either feed and nourish people in the way they use them, but also visually as well. I want people to enjoy them; I make pieces that have a bit of vigour and life about them, but a bit of quietness as well, so they sit comfortably within people’s homes.” He finds it incredibly rewarding to hear that people have been using his pieces for years, for their morning coffee or tea. “I like the idea that I infiltrate people's everyday lives, it's quite exciting. You can easily get sucked into all the nuts and bolts of actually making pottery, but when you get feedback like that, it's lovely.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Heather Birnie.
Watch Tim in his studio on our IGTV channel.