Today I want to share with you the story of a super talented crafts person I met at the New Designers show in June this year, Judy McKenzie. Judy’s work really resonated with me; it’s large bold and pure forms set against free flowing glazes and her resourceful use of traditional techniques to explore new avenues are breathtaking.
I love Judy’s story, partly because there are elements of it that I think we can all relate to and she is living proof that it doesn’t matter where you are in life, it’s never too late to follow your dreams. It might take you where you least expect!
You came to your craft later in life, what inspired you to make this change?
When I was at school during the 60’s, I knew I wanted to follow a career in Art, but was told I wasn’t good enough. The bad stuff always sticks sadly. I decided that if I couldn’t pursue an artistic career, I would be ‘arty’ with my life, decorating homes, dress making, cooking. I was working for a print company as a production assistant when the Apple Mac was introduced, which revolutionised the industry and gave me a commercial focus for my creativity. I could now be ‘arty’ in my work, but if I’m honest, I was in denial.
I always tried to follow an artistic path, but life often got in the way. Evening classes, although enjoyable, had no meaning or possibility of carrying things any further. As my family responsibilities reduced, my desire to do something ‘just for me’ increased. I caught up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 40 years. It was a miracle she recognised me, and she told me about a degree course she was doing and ordered me to talk with the 3D Design and Craft course leader Jane Norris at Havering College. I was hooked. I signed up the next day and had the best three years of my life!
How has coming to this later in life influenced your work?
I surprised myself with my overwhelming enthusiasm for the creative environment I found myself in. My work didn’t just happen, there were tears, but I found myself getting up at 5am just to do my sketchbooks. The degree taught me to research, to think about and look at others work and to evaluate and have an opinion about art. I am only at the start of this amazing journey, but by work is a work in progress. I love what I am doing and no longer dismiss my work as worthless. I have the confidence to continue to develop my making and investigate new ideas and processes.
What is the process of conceptualising and making a piece?
I’m an intuitive maker, I’m not the most disciplined at drawing a piece and planning it’s construction. I have never planned my life, which is probably why it’s taken me nearly 60 years to find this path! I love form, the bigger the better. I could imagine the feel of their surfaces and could picture the forms in my head. I had a couple of disasters, one of which turned out to be a very happy accident as it transpires.
The making was exciting as I was working on more than one form at a time, which I wouldn’t recommend as each pot really needs your undivided attention. I build by coiling, or sometimes press moulding the base to achieve a good even start. The shape develops as I coil. Sometimes, after 10 minutes away from a form, a fresh pair of eyes will result in me cutting off the top and changing the shape. The forms evolve, both in form and in the way I manipulate the surface.
What are the inspirations behind your work?
One of my inspirations I found while researching at the British Museum. I love the shapes and colours of the Cycladic forms and the pottery of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, particularly the use of terra sigillata rather than glaze. I also fell in love with the work of Korean Master Onggi potter Lee Kang-hyo. His forms are amazingly powerful. The way he builds and manipulates the surfaces of his forms is incredible to watch.
I love studying the work of other ceramic artists, it’s incredibly inspirational. The beautiful work of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and more recently, the work of Ashraf Hanna and Gareth Mason. The North Norfolk coast is another major influence to my psyche.
Your first collection has two distinct feelings. How did these come about?
My intention was to create forms, bisque fire them and then investigate the addition of slips, terra sigillata and glazes on the fired forms. During bisque firing the large white Kintsugi form broke. I was incredibly precious about it and didn’t want to throw it away, so I investigated ways to repair it. I sent away to Japan for a Kintsugi Kit, but in it’s purest form Kintsugi would have been impossibly messy on the unglazed surface. The result is my interpretation of the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold to show the damage of an item as part of its history and true beauty, rather than hiding its faults.I used an epoxy putty and gold foil which worked well, saved my pot and found a new path which is waiting to be explored.
The main body of work progressed as planned. The forms were fired and thens slips, terra sigillata and glaze were poured horizontally across the surface. The whole process is incedibly enjoyable and has become a metaphor for my making and my journey throughout my degree. The care and precision necessary during the building of the forms is intense and painstaking, the serendipitous pouring of the slips and glazes is a joyous release of tension and control.
Here’s a sneak peek of Judy creating one of her pots!
What do you like about working in the medium of ceramics?
Clay is a wonderful substance to work with. It has no form of its own until you work with it and shape it. It feels wonderful in your hands. I can totally lose myself when working with clay.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
Going back to study as a mature student and doing something for myself is my biggest achievement! It sounds terribly selfish, but by the number of nods of approval I get when I say the words ‘me time’, I know I am not alone in thinking this. Education isn’t necessarily wasted on the young, but I know I got far more out of my degree course because I was 60 and not 16. I am so glad that I bumped into my old school chum. Without that meeting, I would never have even contemplated studying for a degree and would have missed out on three fabulous years.
What advice would you give to others who want to try something new or embark on a career as a crafts person?
To coin a well used Nike phrase, ‘Just Do It’! At the New Designers show, I spoke to many women my age and they said that they found my story inspirational. I was surprised and flattered. I would never have classed myself as inspirational and don’t consider myself 60 years of age. I don’t know how that happened! I have been very lucky and I know that I give everything I do 110%. I get immense enjoyment out of what I do.
Please, JUST DO IT!
Since New Designers I have been approached by a number of galleries who are interested in my work. I have also been selected to feature in a number of shows and exhibitions.
I have also been approached by a local Adult Training Centre about the possibility of re-forming a pottery class. The idea is in it’s infancy, but I am very keen to get it started.
There is a lot to do, but it is all very exciting and I have had some encouraging results. I’m looking forward to my new career.
Up-coming places where you can see Judy’s work:
Arts Thread Selects at Handmade In Britian, Chelsea Town Hall, November 13-15th 2015.
Bevere Gallery, Worcester, as part of the 10th Anniversary Graduate Show, January/February 2016.
Society of Designer Craftsmen Exhibition, Mall Galleries London, August 2016
Photos: Paul Hammond, Havering College