Reesha Zubair is one of the five New Makers that TOAST will be supporting and nurturing throughout the year. Originally from Maldives, she lives in Bristol with her family, creating small batches of wheel-thrown and hand-built pottery in her neighbourhood studio. Her work fuses together her connection to nature with her fond memories of her matriarchal upbringing.
Two simple stoneware mugs decorated with pale blue marks and finished with a matte white glaze take pride of place amongst Reesha Zubair’s vast collection of sculptural vessels in her Bristol studio. The humble pieces of tableware represent the very first chapter in her path to becoming a full time potter, the fruits of mug-making workshop at Illyria Pottery in Oxford five years ago. “They hold place and pride in my studio and are a reminder of the beginning of my pottery journey,” says Reesha.
When she heard the Oxford studio offered a six-month internship she didn’t hesitate to apply and describes her time there as the perfect in-at-the-deep-end introduction to the realities of becoming a full-time ceramist. “I was doing a bit of everything: mopping floors, wetting clay, mixing clay, working on the gallery floor, packing orders. It was the most beautiful and vibrant space,” she says. “I’d never thought of myself as being creative but I just fell in love with it instantly. I felt a connection to it,” she says.
Having explored the basics she used all her savings to buy her own wheel and spent the next 18 months perfecting her style at home. “I just wanted to practice and to learn. So I sat in my garage every free minute, making the same shapes repeatedly and watching YouTube tutorials. At that point I wasn't really interested in hand building at all, I was really happy just learning how to draw and turn on the wheel – I ended up with a lot of tableware!”
This methodical practice has paid off and she now works full time from her studio, a short 20-minute walk through Horfield Commons and allotments, from the converted church apartment she shares with her husband and two children.
Her leafy commute sets the tone for her marathon making sessions. “It’s a great way for me to observe nature and the changing seasons,” she says, and although she always works alone, (loving the solitude) she has the radio as a constant companion.
I find her today mulling a new project – making delicate bottles in various shapes and sizes using stoneware clay and then applying stoneware slip from other clay bodies to them. Her previous ‘Hawwa’ and ‘Shareefa’ series of vessels are named after her grandmothers. “They had such an impact on my upbringing and I wanted to pay homage to them in some way. So I started sketching out different shapes to get onto paper what, to me, they represented as people: their characters.”
Each hand-built vessel is a one-off and a love note to the bond she had with them. ‘Hawwa’ vessels are made soft and womb-like with bulbous, voluminous shapes and fine necks fashioned from soothing, bone-hued, flecked clay whereas the Shareefa forms are, in contrast, starkly beautiful, almost volcanic, hewn in black stoneware.
“I found Hawwa to be a very nurturing person. She was always the person we went to when we were hungry or needed comfort. Whereas Shareefa had a more adventurous life for a woman in 1970s Maldives, she travelled with my grandfather around the world. But she bought a whole different aspect of what the role of a woman could be. They were very different women and led very different lives.”
Laboured making is key for Reesha, with each vessel taking between seven and ten days to create. “It’s a slow process. There is no rushing when making those pots. I bet you could make them much more quickly using a heat gun to dry the clay but there is a joy in the therapeutic process of making them. I really value it.”
Working on small batches of three or four pieces, she is conscious of the preciousness of something, which is scarce. “I’m cautious about not over-making these because they mean a lot to me. I don’t want to make them just carelessly. I want them to mean something to the person who takes them home.”
Her studio, which overlooks a row of Victorian terraced houses, is laden with shelves of scavenged treasures which inform her work: shells, rocks, drying seaweed, crystals, broken pots and tiny bottles of sand - which she uses in firing to add texture.
“When I started I was really thinking about my background and bringing the Maldivian atmosphere into what I was doing. The beach, the brook, the branches on the shore, the colours and the textures of the rocks, but my inspiration is always evolving.” This summer’s trip to St Ives has gleaned Reesha a fresh trove of natures’ muses. She gathered seaweed, stones and sea glass from the Cornish coast to bring back to her studio.
On her horizon is a (currently under wraps) collaboration with a fine artist who works in ink and watercolours that will bear fruit in the spring; a show at Asthall Manor November with Vigour & Skills; and North Bristol Artists Trail in the last weekend of November. There will also be a continuation of her women’s series “I will let Hawwa and Shareefa rest for a little while," she says. "There are so many women I would like to pay homage to.”
As ever with Reesha, everything is intuitive as she builds her confidence to match her considerable skill. “I didn't come from a creative background so everything is trial and error. I was worried and scared, thinking, what am I doing? I don’t have the training, I don’t have the experience.” She’s now proud to set an example to anyone mulling a more artistic path. “If you can do something that you truly love and enjoy, even for a year or two of your life, do it. It’s really never too late to do something that you have the right feeling about.”
Interview by Vishaka Robinson.
Photographs by Suzie Howell.