Tell us about yourself
I’m a porcelain ceramic artist, and have been working with porcelain for 20 years. I’m married to Duncan, and we have three grown-up sons and two grandsons. I was born in the West Country, and after living and teaching in Kent for many years, I returned to the place I love the most.
When did your interest in porcelain start?
When my sons left home. I was still teaching, and had always wanted to try pottery but had never had the opportunity. I enrolled on a pottery course and immediately wanted to use white clay. This was not encouraged, as porcelain is both more expensive and difficult to work with. Nevertheless, I persisted by buying my own porcelain clay to work with in the classes. A year later, I met Billy and Alan, two Master Potters who ran Aylesford School of Pottery. That’s where I continued my learning curve with porcelain, and I’m grateful to them as they were so generous with their time and patience.
What brought you to St Ives?
Around this time, I visited a friend in Penzance who introduced me to St Ives. I couldn’t believe the beautiful colours of the sea and sand, as well as the quality of the light. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I looked out of the window at the harbour and saw that the light and sea were ever-changing. I knew then that this was where I wanted to be.
Where is your workspace?
In Whites Old Workshops, which has opened up a new group of friends that are supportive and enthusiastic. I have a kiln in my studio and I like to walk daily along the coast; the colours and textures of the sea and beaches inspire and provide me with new ideas for my work.
What steps did you take to sell your work commercially?
I worked hard at making 3D relief paintings of cottages, buildings boats and the sea, all out of porcelain. I was making so much work, it started to take over the house. At that time Channel 4 had a new afternoon programme with Richard and Judy, and they wanted to promote new artists so I sent in photos of my paintings. Two weeks later, a production assistant rang to say I should approach galleries with my work. This was just the confidence boost I needed, as I had never shown my work to anyone before. I plucked up the courage to contact the New Craftsman in St Ives; they took my work, and within 30 minutes called me to say they had sold one of my pieces. I was thrilled – it was a dream come true.
What do you love about porcelain clay?
It has a wonderful smooth texture and can be incredibly delicate. It fires very white and colours dance across its surface. The texturizing techniques I use take time and patience, and you never know if a piece will be successful until you open the kiln after the firing – nothing is guaranteed.
How do you start a piece of work?
I make a sketch using pastels. I also take photographs of the bay and sea at different times of day so I can observe the colour changes and textures on the sand and rock formations. I then use these to decide the form and design of each piece. This includes deciding whether to hand-build or throw the clay on the wheel. The new piece will need at least a week to dry – at its own rate, according to humidity and outside temperature – then it will have its first firing, for just over 10 hours.
I mix my own palette of colours to decorate it. The finished painting will sometimes have a glaze and glass additions, then it goes into the kiln for its final firing of just over seven hours. I have to allow the kiln to cool for a day before opening it, which is when it is ready to frame or take to the studio. The entire process from starting to the finished product takes approximately three weeks – porcelain clay can’t be hurried.
What are the challenges of working with porcelain?
It’s temperamental. If it’s too dry, it cracks; too wet, and it slides off the wheel like putty! But when you get it right, it’s just magical. I absolutely love working with it and hope to be able to carry on exploring its many possibilities.
Julie Harper is based at Studio 6, Whites Old Workshops, Porthmeor Road, St Ives TR26 1NP
Tel: 07734 793686