Designer, Clay By Tina on Ceramics, Incorporating Sustainability & Embracing Creativity

Ever wanted to hear the experience of how someone turned their passionate hobby into a fully-fledged career? Join us as we discover the ins and outs of what it means to be Tina Thorburn aka Clay By Tina – a creative ceramic artist.

Photo | Rachel Hickey

From weekly ceramic classes to running a creative ceramics business from her father’s hobby farm all on her own. Tina Thorburn is the woman behind the wheel. Her beautifully unique and colourful designs with their signature speckles on garden pots and kitchen utensils would make anyone excited about shopping for homeware. Dive in with us as we explore how she fell into ceramics. As well as what shapes her designs, how environmental and self-sustainability is incorporated, the process, her workshops and the importance of creating and respecting personal boundaries when it comes to having a healthy work and life balance as a creative.

What led you to ceramics and why has it become such a huge passion for you now?

Like most of the wonderful things in my life, I sort of fell into ceramics. Back in October 2014 at the end of the hockey season I was looking for something to do on a Tuesday night, and I had a hunch I’d like ceramics. This was based on a deep intuition. Amplified mainly by the logic that my father did ceramics when he was younger and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. It has been pointed out to me that these are not necessarily two interchangeable activities, but at the time it seemed obvious that I would swap a team sport with a community-based art practice.

Anyway, I enrolled in an eight-week wheel throwing course, 3 hours each Tuesday night at the Carlton Arts Centre. By the end of the first term I was hooked. I wasn’t any good but I LOVED how clay slowed me down and made me put my mind where my hands were. I used to joke (before it was my job) that it’s hard to worry about work when you are trying to stop clay from flying into your face!

Over the next year I built my work hours around when Carlton Arts Centre was open and when a research contract finished up in March 2015 I took the plunge to become a full time potter. It was totally terrifying. But the kindest thing I did for myself was give myself permission to fail. If after a year I was miserable, poor or both, there was NO shame in returning to the workforce. And I think this mentality allowed me to put my best foot forward. Still fearful but not controlled by the potential of failure. I think this space allowed it to grow into more than a profession and is now a passion that I can’t imagine living without.

What are the inspirations and influences behind your ceramic designs?

That’s a really good question and one I get asked often. I am not a disciplined artist. Rather, I prefer to let things influence me organically. I believe that my past education, travel, and life experiences inform my ceramic design, combined with the stunning countryside where I live and work.

Having spent a lot of my life in rigid academic pursuit, I have a frivolous approach to ceramics in order to counter this. I am almost belligerent in my refusal to keep tabs on what influences me or to actively feed my creative side. Rather I prefer to move in the world and just soak up things. For example, I ride bikes and spend hours of my week getting muddy on the trails near my home. I have no doubt that this influences my work, but I don’t create any structure for this to happen. I simply let the landscape, shapes, smells and colours flow through me to my work, limited by the materials I can access but enhanced by my desire to try new things all the time.

Instagram | @_plantsmith_

From the pottery wheel to the glaze, tell us about the process behind making your homewares and plant pots. What’s your favourite part?

People often ask how long it takes to make a cup, and the answer is I have no idea. There are so many stages and so many variables (weather, other commitments, kiln gods!), but that’s what I love. I am naturally not a patient person, but clay is a tough mistress. She demands time. And for some reason, I bend my natural tendency to rush and hustle to clay’s tempo.

I throw everything on the wheel. The wheel is my happy place. I honestly lose myself; and time has no meaning. I can sit down at the pottery wheel, in deep sadness or grief and the clay pulls me out of myself.

So I prepare the clay into the right size balls and throw, remove, repeat. Then I have to leave the pieces to dry a bit, and usually within a day or two I can wipe them down and stamp them. Then they sit till they are bone dry. Once this happens I can load them into the kiln and do a bisque firing to 1000 degrees C. This stage is a remnant of the industrial revolution, and makes the piece bricklike.

Once it comes out of the kiln I glaze it. This is my favourite part of the process. Glaze is a chemical suspension in water and the bricklike ceramics soaks up the water leaving the chemical on the outside. This is when you make or break a piece.

I was taught to treat clay like a canvas and glazing is where this really comes into effect. This is where my personality meets the clay process. I am able to try new things, push the limits of my understanding of clay and glaze, all knowing that after this firing I will be able to hold the final product. Once glazed, I fire everything to high stoneware temperatures of 1280, making the pieces oven, microwave and dishwasher safe. 

How have you incorporated sustainability into your work and why is that so important to you? 

Sustainability is a guiding star in my clay practice; both environmentally and physically. I have nearly burned out a couple of times as a ceramic artist. My tendency to overcommit, combined with the physicality of being a production potter has led to some serious injuries. A couple of years ago I developed a wrist RSI. This was a huge wake up call, and last Christmas season I reached a new crescendo of exhaustion. Now, I work hard to ensure I respect my own limitations, after all, my body is my work. Over time I have introduced some strict boundaries to ensure my practice is physically sustainable including regular massages, baths and limits on the amount I throw in one sitting.

Environmental sustainability is paramount to my practice too, and always has been. I recycle all clay, and all water except for that used for glazing is reused. To recycle clay I collect all the wet and cut off clay from throwing and dry it on a plaster surface. The plaster wicks out a lot of the water and when the clay is dry enough I am able to wedge it to realign all the clay particles. Wedging is like kneading dough; it’s hard work but I use this opportunity to introduce a very dark clay with a lot of iron oxide that gives a speckled effect. This means I can tell which is the recycled clay. I love this because those pieces have a story, and get a second chance to be something beautiful.

What are the highlights and challenges of being a creative pottery maker who runs their own business?

The highlights are endless really. I love being a self-employed creative, it allows me to work within the boundaries of my mood, energy levels and the seasons. Plus I get to spend all day in the company of my studio pup, Reggie. Additionally, I have found the autonomy of being a creative really important in learning valuable life lessons. Like how to say no, when to conserve energy, and most importantly, the worth of my time. Time is our greatest resource, and the longer I work as a ceramicist the more I am acutely aware of its value and the heightened intuition of what is worth my time and not. And I’m not always talking fiscally, I mean emotionally too. Learning to be true to my practice, and my values is a wonderful lesson that clay has taught me.

As for challenges, I think the greatest difficulty is logistics and time management. As a one-woman show, I do it all. I answer the emails, do the social media, make all the pieces, attend markets, ALL OF IT. Recently I have had a studio assistant and that has been a wonderful experience. But still, each piece has a bit of my heart and soul so I keep a close watch on all aspects of my business. For a capable, energetic person such as myself, the greatest challenge is forgiving myself when I (inevitably) make mistakes. Being open with customers about changes to schedules and generally accepting my humanness. 

Instagram | @clay_by_tina

Explain to us about the workshops you offer. What has it been like, being able to share and teach one of your passions?

Running workshops is one of my greatest joys. As an extrovert, workshops allow me to share my love of clay and soak up time with people who are interested in the craft. I currently run hand building workshops out of Work-Shop in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Over 3 hours I teach participants about the process and guide them to make a handful of pieces for the home or garden. No prior knowledge is required and watching people lean into clay is one of my greatest joys.

I am a firm believer that as humans we are all inherently creative. Most people have some block, whether it’s because they work in a traditionally un-artistic area, or were told when they were younger that they aren’t ‘good’ at art. My job is to facilitate a space where this idea can be challenged. Although clay is a tough mistress, she is a magical medium that speaks to the human psyche. No matter what participants make, I really want to encourage a sense of disconnecting from our critical minds and fast paced lives to be where our hands are: in the clay. Seeing people’s shoulders fall from their ears and eyes soften as they lean into the clay’s tempo is a wonderful experience to witness. Let alone facilitate.

What’s next for Clay by Tina? 

Great question! Aside from continuing to organically develop my practice I would like to strive for a better work life balance. What this means for the business is unclear, we’ll see! One clay dream I haven’t brought to fruition is the creation of a community. That isn’t strictly true as I started Melbourne Ceramics Market with another potter, Daisy Cooper. Which has a lovely collection of potters, some part time other professionals. But I crave a community of clay enthusiasts who seek a slower pace and a more conscious existence. How to nurture and grow this idea will come to light soon, but that’s the direction I’d like to take Clay by Tina.