Interview with celebrated local potter Gabby Smith “shopatseed”
Gabby Smith took up pottery only a few years ago but her creations have rather outgrown her tiny home pottery studio and can now be found in numerous independent shops and restaurants with big names approaching her to create pieces for their exclusive venues. Not bad for a girl who was warned off taking GCSE art!
With an entire page in the incredibly prestigious Country Living Modern Rustic (no 21) Gabby took a few minutes out of her ridiculously hectic schedule to talk about her amazing journey from harassed commuter mum to rustic country potter (still commuting to London but this time for exciting meetings about her work and not other people’s!).
Hi Gabby! Congratulations on the Country Living piece. Your world has changed so rapidly, I am interested to know: How do you introduce yourself now? Are you a Potter or a ceramicist?
Haha – good first question!! Well, I’m quite shy about calling myself either really as I’m still pinching myself most mornings that I really get to do this amazing thing as my job. But I have started to admit to myself that I am a potter!
Have you always worked in a creative field?
I had a career in pr and marketing before I started doing this – which is ironic as really I have no excuses and should do a better job of my own – but the reality is that these days I’m much happier and more comfortable making pots than marketing them.
Family? Pets? Home style?
I have a son and a daughter – one in the middle of A levels the other in the middle of GCSEs – our house is a permanently-unfinished former rectory in Ashdon. It is chaotic and extremely lived in but it’s an accurate reflection of our slightly messy and very busy family life. We have lots of treasured things that belonged to either mine or Kev’s parents/grandparents so it’s a bit of a mix up of mid-century and vintage with some modern things we bought before we had children when we lived somewhere vaguely tidy.
Did you have a creative upbringing?
Not in a conventional sense – I was rubbish at art and I remember my art teacher telling my mum and I that I definitely shouldn’t do GCSE art. So I grew up with words as my creative outlet and I read and wrote a lot. My mum was creative – my parents were decorators and she was the colour and paint-technique side of the partnership and at home she made things and always had lots of projects in the go -sewing, knitting and crocheting – she was reading blogs by modern crafters and looking at instagram and Pinterest way before me and was really inspired by the new way old crafts were being used to create a much more pared down modern aesthetic in homes. She was a tremendous cook too – her cooking and the role food played in our house is an enormous influence on my work now.
How did you discover your artistic talent?
I did that thing of officially stepping back from my career when I had children but I kept working in a freelance capacity and before long I found myself back in a full-time job with two small children and a hideous commute, travelling and really feeling a bit dragged under. I tried to cut my hours but that was just the same job in half the time and eventually I decided to make a break. By that time I’d been hanging out with my mum and we’d been doing some work together and I’d been trying to learn some of her craft skills and helping her to develop a bit more of an outlet for some of the things she was making.
We worked together on a tiny range of homeware pieces – shibori-dyed table linen and some wall hangings and hand knitted cushions. She kept saying I should try ceramics and I resisted as I definitely thought my lack of formal artistic training (and ability) meant it wasn’t for me. Around this time my mum became ill with ovarian cancer died which was absolutely devastating for us all. It was also a pivotal moment as I didn’t really know what to do with shopatseed which was still nothing much more than a small germ of an idea but I didn’t really feel I could stop at that point as we’d put quite a lot of thought into it.
One of the projects we’d been working on was some hanging planters with very simple macrame tops and ceramic pots. I’d taught myself macrame but I was a bit stuck as to where to go from there. Quite by chance I was introduced to the wonderful Amanda Banham by a mutual friend – at the local dog and pony show. I asked her what she did and told me she was a potter – we hit it off immediately and I told her about my idea for hanging planters and she kindly said she’d teach me how to make the pots. So I pitched up at Amanda’s studio one morning and had a bit of an epiphany. She was utterly brilliant – she showed me how to hand build a pot and as soon as I got my hands on a lump of clay I realised that ceramics were indeed the thing.
It was all pretty straightforward from there really. I didn’t really consider that I would do anything else. I just had this absolute drive to make very specific tableware that was durable, practical, robust – that looked lovely but was completely functional. Amanda was completely amazing – she taught me, helped me, she let me work in her studio she fired my work until I got my own kiln. She is a wonderful friend – and my unofficial mentor. And her kindness and generosity of spirit are things I will always incredibly grateful for – without that I wouldn’t ever have picked up a lump of clay. I do try to keep that in my mind and I’m very happy to offer space, support and encouragement to anyone who wants to come and have play in my studio.
Do you think in clay? In shapes or patterns?
To be honest I normally think in food – I seemed to spend quite a lot of my adolescence at village jumble sales and mooching around vintage or second hand shops. I’ve got a huge collection of old china – plus all my mums pots and things that she bought back from travelling in Spain and North Africa. So much of my inspiration comes from what we are cooking and eating as a family – and many of my serving dishes and platters are based on templates of old vintage pieces we have at home.
Does your modern rustic style translate to you and your home and family?
It really does – my work feels like a reflection of my approach to life at home – how we live and eat as a family. I have incredibly hungry children – food’s a big deal in our house!
Your creations are immediately recognisable as yours, is this conscious?
It’s not as such because I find working a fairly subconscious process. Its taken me a while to understand that if I overthink things in the design process I don’t normally like or feel confident about the the result. If I think too hard about what it ‘should’ be then it somehow doesn’t work. I just make what I like.
Does where you live influence your work?
Very definitely – if I’m not in the studio I am normally outside. I am endlessly inspired by what I see outdoors. The countryside around us is really beautiful and its really important to me to get out in it and experience the seasons – although I feel slightly fraudulent saying that as I have droned on about how the January weather and the endless mud is grinding me down – but I love it really – I went for a run this morning and took about a hundred photos of the amazing sunrise – although I find I’ll take just as many photos of a grey day – the colours are always gorgeous – even if they aren’t dramatic and showy.
What are other influences on your work? Which artists do you admire?
I’m an absolute magpie and I love collecting images and other treasures – stuff I bring in from outside like moss or stones – it drives everyone slightly mad. I make my own glazes and I’m always on the look out for ideas and colours or combinations of colours that inspire. I absolutely love artists like Sarah Muir Pollard – the way she uses colour is so phenomenal and local artist Bethany Holmes whose representation of the outside really resonates with me.
Do you have a design that always proves popular?
I think platters and serving dishes are probably my most popular pieces. I often make bowls or plates with feet or little legs – or tiny handles – I think little details that elevate pieces and reinforce their individuality are always very popular.
Do you think in “collections”?
I didn’t – but I’m starting to work in a much more cyclical way now. There’s more of a rhythm to my work and whether I like it or not – I do have to stop and do some work on my website and some marketing and admin every so often. If I had my way I would spend 100% of my time covered in clay but I’m learning its not realistic.
You have recently been featured in the fabulous Country Living Modern Rustic Bookzine in their “Objects of Desire” section. These dishes seem more tactile and textured than you previous work – is this a conscious new direction?
It feels like a very natural evolution – I have always experimented with surface design and mark making and I am really enjoying exploring the way I can make some more deliberate patterns with the tools that are lying around on my table.
Do you have any new creations bubbling away?
I have had a really busy start to the year – I’m working on new mini- collections for some of the lovely shops I work with and I have also been updating my website with some brand new work. Alongside this I have been researching some new glaze colours for the work I have in development. I tend to work with a very limited colour palette and finding new shades to introduce is always really exciting and slightly nerve-wracking – I have a definite colour palette that I’m excited about for a spring collection.
See more of Gabby’s work on her website: https://shopatseed.co.uk/philosophy
To read last year’s interview with Gabby’s mentor Amanda Banham click here: https://www.myenglishcountrycottage.co.uk/interview-with-amanda-banham-essex-potter/
The Treacle Tart recipe came from the wonderful Little Library Cookbook which we will be featuring in a whole new book series on Wednesday. it features in the wonderful Hogwarts feast in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.