Meet the Maker
Interview by Camilla Frances
Images from Laura Huston
After a successful career working in film art departments, Laura Huston, then in her early 30s, decided she needed a change of direction. She enrolled on a part-time course to explore wood working and ceramics and found it was, "obvious from the first lesson which path I should take". Two years and a brief throwing course later - under the tutelage of Japanese ceramicist, Akiko Hirai - and Laura moved from London to rural Norfolk, transforming a "damp barn" at her mother's house into a ceramics studio. Now a full-time ceramicist with a young family, she continues to live in Norfolk, creating subtle, pared-back ceramics for functional use. Laura is currently exhibiting at Houghton Hall's Contemporary & Country, on until 25 September.
Who or what most inspires you?
Beautiful craftsmanship in any medium. The natural world. Korean bunching ware - the anonymous maker in a state of flow bringing a spontaneous energy to their work. There are few sacred moments in contemporary life. As a mother, I am constantly aware of the rush, the lack of time. Pottery is where I can quiet my mind, allow the making of pots to concentrate my energy and release tensions, clearing my mind in the process. The choice to concentrate on functional ware is the desire to bring to daily attention a certain quality of experience.
And where do you feel most inspired?
Last year I visited the Outer Hebrides and was very moved by the place. That is the most wonderful thing about traveling to a new environment. It awakens that childlike fascination. I felt, as I often do when visiting a new environment of dramatic beauty, an intense need to capture a part of it just in case I never see it again. I can see that desire to capture in my children. When they are fascinated by a thing, be it an animal, artwork, a character in a movie, they immediately have to interpret it through drawing or acting it out. I recognise that desire in myself, a need to capture its essence through recreating it. It haunts me until I do.
How do you research and plan your works?
When I travel, I keep a mental note of different hues, textures, and qualities of light. I take endless pictures because sitting to draw is almost impossible with young kids. I arrive back to the studio in rather a frenzy with an intense desire to capture that other reality before it dissipates and fades.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am developing a fermentation jar with a pounder and illustrated recipe booklet with some friends in Norfolk. It’s an exciting collaboration with a wood turner, a writer and an artist. I became hooked on fermentation during the first lockdown, when the garden produced more than we could eat. I am also working towards my open studio events, and planning another trip to the Hebrides - the source of inspiration for my recent work (pictured below).
Are there any themes running through your work?
I make a varied range of work with recurring themes that I tweak every so often to keep them fresh. There is an underlying current - an energetic mix of tones and colours, playing with drama, finding and refining the balance between pattern and space. These are constantly changing and evolving ideas and in so make a significant difference between the final outcomes. On the one hand I have a desire for tidiness and order which you can see in my geometric and sgraffitoed pots. The other side is the more spontaneous, playful nature of making, where I am less sure of the outcome and relish the inevitable surprise when opening the kiln.
How would you describe your process?
For a new design, I roughly draw the idea to understand the scale, the proportions, certain details. Then I get on the wheel and throw. The most successful pots are the ones I don’t overthink. I’ve learnt to trust my instinct.
And what does a typical working day look like?
I’m up at 6am and, after the school run, I go to the studio. I work until lunch, which I have most days with my mother [who lives on the Houghton Hall estate too], taking it in turns to cook. Then I return to the studio, work until 3-4pm, which is usually when my dog gets impatient for a walk and forces me out the door. Then it's home to cook dinner for the family. One of the things I love about making is that I can listen to audiobooks, lectures or podcasts, learning while I’m working. At the moment I’m hooked on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. It’s over 50 episodes of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, some I understand, some I don’t, but I feel my mind is expanding. I also listen to a range of music, from classical to modern, old folk songs, music from all over the world. I’m married to the musician, John Johanna, so music is a big part of our life together.
Your favorite artwork or artist?
The British potters, Lucie Rie and John Ward, are hugely influential for me. Their simple, honest elegance astounds me. Mihara Ken is a contemporary Japanese potter who hand builds textural, sculptural vessels. They are completely unique, precise, architectural and dramatic creations. Ken Matsusaki makes the most delicious looking tea bowls and vases. Extraordinary texture and decoration. Lee Kang-Hyo for the spontaneous, flowing method of decorating his pots, using the surface as a canvas. American ceramicists, Michael and Magdalena Frimkess, and their endlessly playful pots; the sign of an insatiable mind for playing with form, function, imagery and meaning. I understand the need to experiment with new styles, it keeps the excitement alive. Jennifer Lee makes incredibly beautiful and delicate handbuilt vessels. The clay is hand mixed using oxides and materials that emulate the textures and colours of the earth.
Your favorite museum or gallery?
Cluny museum, Paris or Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, designed by Carlo Scarpa, one of my favourite architects.
A contemporary artist whose work excites you?
Ernst Gamperl is an artist working in wood. He uses sustainable sources of wood to make extraordinary vessels, pushing the material to its limits. The wood is worked when green and he uses drying methods to distort the vessels into extraordinary shapes, then polishes and refines the surface. Fortunately he is showing at Houghton Hall this year, so he’s right on my doorstep.
Recommended reading: A Postcard from Houghton Hall