Maryjane Macleod runs a successful studio in Devon, producing tableware and decorative work

“I didn’t do pottery at school. I first came across it as an idea in 1983, when I was working in a print room doing graphic art for a local magazine. We printed a leaflet advertising pottery classes, and I signed up immediately; the bug bit! Over the next couple of years, I did every course going; evening classes, summer schools and workshops, and I loved it. They then suggested that I took it further because I’d gone as far as I could with them”, explains Maryjane, or Mij, as she’s known.

Mij applied to Bristol, but she was rejected and told she’d need to do a Foundation Art course to make her portfolio. She applied to do a Foundation course at Eastbourne,  “which was fabulous. Doing playful, creative things because you’re meant to, rather than a guilty pleasure!” She achieved a Merit, and then applied to Bath for a three-year BA Hons in 3DD Ceramics. “I loved it, and juiced every tutor for knowledge; I was like a sponge,” she says. She finished with the highest marks in her year.

She moved to Dorset and started her first studio in a freezing cold garage, where she had great fun building a 30ft3 gas kiln. “The kiln was quite hard to fire. It was fuelled by 47kg propane bottles, and I was working in stoneware then. When you get up to the high temperatures needed for stoneware, the bottles would freeze during the 12-hour firing. I would have to stand there with a kettle, defrosting the bottles. You could hear the gas releasing as they thawed,” says Mij. She then moved from Dorset to Devon, and the deal was that she would get a purpose-built studio with a sloping floor and internal gutter, which makes cleaning very easy with a hose. She has been making pots there ever since, which she worked out was almost 30 years!

“My work has changed over the years”, says Mij. “I started off being quite idealistic just after leaving college. I was making pots, or rather ‘vessels’, that were functional, but then denying their function by adding a stopper with a dangly thing in it. It was all quite conceptual then, and my work did sell in Dorset. At that time, people had more money and were prepared to buy things that weren’t functional. “

In Devon, Mij became a single parent and needed to rethink things, to be able to make a living from pottery. “I had to start thinking more about the customer, and down here people don’t seem prepared to pay for non-functional ware so much. I developed a range of earthenware tableware, that’s quite decorative, and I’m still totally in love with the whole process – apart from glazing, which I find a chore. It’s a process I don’t enjoy; wet, sloppy, and dribbly! I don’t have a great deal of patience with it”, she smiles.

Functional and decorative
Freehand, stylised fish spiral into the centre of large dishes in mesmerising and intricate Fibonacci patterns; lifelike mackerel glisten in shimmering metallic blues and greens, and sprigged goldfish glitter with gold lustre highlights on butter dishes and plates. Mij combines an innate artistic ability with an appreciation of form and function. Her fish-themed tableware is collected by admirers, and she also undertakes commissions for wedding lists and individual pieces.

Her design inspiration comes from many sources, and she does a lot of sketching. “I love patterns; I have quite a ‘pattern head’. One, the Fibonacci fish, has been with me forever. I originally saw it on a Michaelangelo floor tile design. Lots of my work stems from the Fibonacci spiral, which fits pots very well, wrapping the form, whether it’s an enclosed vessel or an open plate. It expands and contracts according to the shape of the piece.

“People collect my work, and if I change my style they get disappointed, but I’m always happy to take commissions. I also revisit things, for example, the Fibonacci fish. They started to drive me mad, so I stopped doing them for six years, but I came back to them. They have developed; I’ve added various other fish into the mix, in a pattern I call ‘gallivanting’ fish, which are bigger, and more colourful, with smaller fish around them. They are jolly, and I do like a jolly pot! I have a range of hand-painted mackerel pieces – each one seems to have an individual face and its own expression – and also tableware with relief goldfish on it. Fish sell very well here, by the sea. People buy it to remind them of their holidays.”

Keeping it fresh
When Mij was starting out, like many new potters, she drew her inspiration from people such as David Roberts, Hans Coper, and Lucie Rie. These days, it’s Tim Andrews, with his amazing Raku, and John Pollex who, Mij says, “has a lovely way with colour.” When she first started, she had no mentor. Her only support came from a local art centre, which was very active, and the Dorset Pottery Group, which put on regular exhibitions.

Richard Godfrey was an inspiration once she moved to Devon, but he died a couple of years ago. “He was a lovely man, a very skilled potter who made amazing pots, and he was beautiful to listen to. You could listen to him talk forever. Doug Fitch and Hannah McAndrew are potters whose work Mij follows; Doug used to be not far away from Mij, on the moors. “There are a few potters up there, Nic Collins who uses a wood-fired kiln, producing really crusty bowls, stacked with shells which are stuck in the bottom; incredible things, that are fired for days,” says Mij.

Mij currently admires the work of Alberto Bustos, which is “inspired by the strength of nature, and it’s sculptural. His work is mildly political, blocks of ceramics with a few fronds of grass-like filaments; lovely, round, and tactile. He holds master-classes in Spain, which would be fantastic to go to. He’s big on the continent, but I haven’t seen much evidence of him over here.”

Raku and pit-firing are processes that are both pleasurable sidelines to her ‘bread and butter’ work. Mij hasn’t found a market for this type of work in Devon, but she enjoys the process and does it to keep her mind fresh and creative. “Raku was a process I’d known about for a long time, but I’d rarely worked with it. Because it’s so quick, it makes a light relief from the fish. It’s good fun.”

She now has a 45-gallon drum that she converted into a top hat raku kiln, with a pulley that lifts it off the pots, and another 45-gallon drum that she uses as her ‘pit’ for pitfiring.

The studio
Throwing is Mij’s favourite technique. “It’s the first creation of a form. I challenge myself to make things large, constantly pushing my skills, so I don’t get bored. I use red earthenware from Spencroft Clays, in Stoke. It’s a bit odd that I use this because I then cover it with white slip, but that’s so that when I use sgraffito I get the colour contrast.

“I used to mess about with the clay ingredients when I was being more experimental, but now I’m doing functional work, I use the red earthenware straight from the bag. It’s smooth, plastic, and the glaze fits it, so I stick to it because I need to make a consistent product. I know it won’t craze and it’s usable. The stoneware clay I use is brilliant too. It’s quite smooth but has enough grog to stand up to massive thermal shock, so I can use it for domestic ware but also for raku and pitfiring, and it’s amazingly robust.

“I throw in small batches, of maybe 20 mugs at a time, and don’t make a huge effort to make everything identical. I weigh the clay, but that’s about as far as it goes. I quite like the variations in the finished work.

“I glaze with clear, leadless earthenware glaze, and use readymade underglazes for colour, from Potters Connection, CTM or Bath Potters, who are brilliantly efficient and knowledgeable.

“I have four wheels, two electric and two kick wheels. Each is used for a specific purpose; one of the electric wheels for throwing red earthenware, the other for stoneware. One of the kick wheels for turning – it has a large wheelhead that stands proud of the tray so I can use big batts – and the second one for decorating. Four might seem a bit excessive, but I have them, so I use them.

“My kiln is Italian and cost as much as a medium-sized car, new, but I bought it secondhand on eBay. It’s incredibly energy-efficient; when I fire overnight the outside is barely warm it’s so well insulated. I only fire it to 1120°C as opposed to 1280°, I won’t fire it to stoneware because it’s quite destructive to the kiln. I do have plans to build a wood-fired kiln, but I haven’t got round to it yet.”

Hard work, but fun
Mij works five days a week, from 8am-5pm, but in the run-up to Christmas, from September onwards, this becomes 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. “I have a big sale here before Christmas, in the barn. The locals are great and very supportive.” She used to have a shop window in her studio, with an open-door policy, but she found that she spent so much time chatting to the customers, that it was taking her away from her work, so she had to stop!

“It’s frustrating that all the big shows are so expensive to go be involved in, and you have to pay to get into open exhibitions. It’s challenging when you’ve changed your name (she was previously Maryjane Carruthers), and no one knows who are you.

“Pottery is a lifestyle thing, you think you want to be big in ceramics, but I love my life, I pay the bills and put food on the table. That’s enough. That said, it’s definitely a passion; if I don’t create something in clay for a few days, I go a bit tense.”

Mij’s work is sold through local galleries, and she undertakes a lot of commission work locally, particularly for weddings. “My work is available at The Gallery Project, Noss Mayo; The Gallery Project, Avonmouth (thegalleryproject.co.uk), and the Salar Gallery, Hatherleigh nr Okehampton (salargallery.co.uk). There are another couple that I’ve got my eye on.”

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