Fiona Matthews – Ceramics
Why did you become self-employed?
I suspect my experience has been different to most people in that I had no previous formal (or informal) training with clay. Briefly, I retired and came to Devon and knew I was looking for something. I didn’t know what it might be, but suspected it might involve using my hands. A friend introduced me to a local internationally renowned ceramicist who happened to have a place on a week’s course she was running – and I realised I had found what I was looking for – clay.
With unbelievable good fortune that same ceramicist had been commissioned to make a large ambitious piece for display at Chatsworth House, and with great generosity invited me to be her intern for the year – following which, I found an industrial unit and set up my studio.
So, I had a year’s experience but was still essentially a novice, and as I had been surrounded by strong vibrant exuberant work for some time, it seemed important for me to try to isolate myself – to create a space where I could be free of all influences, visual and verbal – to give myself permission to work on my own ideas; to experiment; to explore; to try; to fail, all essential if I was to find my own voice – and that seemed to demand that I worked on my own.
Slowly I began to know my chosen material, to understand how far I can push things and to then seek out technical challenges and to come to understand and learn for myself why some things work and some things don’t. The joy of clay is that you never stop learning.
What main challenges have you faced whilst being self-employed?
Loneliness is not generally a problem as I personally work best on my own, with no distractions. It is easier to access that internal creative zone that knows no sense of self, time or place. Sometimes friends or the curious come to visit and I have to take myself out of that zone and re-enter the real world. I suppose I could put a sign on the door, but the sociable part of me absolutely loves seeing people and so I put the kettle on and revel in the company for a while.
At other times when I am restless and in between work, then I long for people and chatter – and then have to go off and find them. I have now learnt to build in times during the week to meet up with friends, socialise, go for a walk etc.
Initially I did think I could have a studio at home and work from there, but this really did not suit me. I need to physically leave the house and go somewhere different, otherwise it was too unsettling to think – ‘ooh I could just put the washing on – plant out the beans etc.’ My studio is now 7 minutes away in the car and whilst driving I can mentally as well as physically remove myself from domestic stuff.
One of the main challenges for me is the lifting, carrying or placing of large heavy pieces. It can cause me some headaches trying to manoeuver the forklift and to hold the sculpture steady at the same time, particularly whilst placing it in the kiln. I have to be inventive!
It is also challenging when something is going well and then suddenly collapses, or just doesn’t work because you have pushed it too far, to have to pick yourself up and start again. It would be good sometimes to have someone to commiserate with, but you just have to find a way through to start again – I think that comes with experience and a learnt resilience. One large pot I remade 5 times over 5 days because I could not stop myself from just gently pushing, pushing, pushing a curve to destruction!
How do you make it work? (Are you full-time self-employed, or part-time?)
Every week is different in regard to days when I am in the studio but I aim to start work between 10 – 10.30 am. Set rituals have evolved on my arrival (usually involving the kettle and music), to enable me to get into the right mindset.
I work at least 4 days a week – often more, but it depends on all sorts of factors including being caught up in the excitement of making something; an approaching deadline; firings etc.
I find I need deadlines and I need a certain amount of routine. If there are no deadlines it is easy for me to drift about not doing very much – and so I have learnt to artificially set them.
Thankfully I am very organised and its second nature to me to be able to visualise the sequence of events for the week. I like to have several things on the go at any one time – and these can be a mixture of large to small pieces and so I need a certain mental agility to juggle everything, from ordering a steel post for a particular work, to ensuring there are all the materials to complete each piece, and thinking about the order and time frames for the making, drying, firing (particularly with 2 differing size kilns). Then tying all these in with possible deadlines .
With sculpture I find it essential to periodically sit back and review what I’m doing.
Is it working and what is it that makes it work and if not why not. Am I pursuing a theme that interests me or have I drifted away.
Record keeping is a must. Kiln books – recording what was fired to what temperature and when, are vital particularly if you are using 2 or 3 differing clays and several glazes. A book to record everything you make and what glaze or slip was used – what price – when sold etc . Photograph everything !
All essential and I try to remember to keep these up to date and record as I go.
Do you have one piece of advice you would like to share about being self-employed?
Yes and there are 4 –
- Know yourself and what you personally need mentally and physically, to function well.
- Try to be organized and follow a routine for photographing, record keeping, invoices/receipts etc
- In your work be true to yourself.
- Get some good music and stock up on coffee!