Sarah Dunstan | All Handmade Pots Are Unique...

There are interesting connections to be found linking the history of ceramics with the present day. Often through process: very little has changed when you dig deep into the practicalities of firing, for example, but also images and decoration find their way through to the modern-day via new interpretations. Sarah Dunstan explains here how an old blue and white Willow Pattern cup is currently an object of inspiration.  These associations can be seen with motifs used on the piece, China Blue Platter. 

Sarah Dunstan is one of four makers taking part in our current Bi-monthly display feature, and in the interview below, she talks about her leap of faith when starting her ceramics course, changes to her practice and current work.

Her work is for sale in the gallery, and further images can be found on our Instagram page.  

Contemporary Ceramics: How did you first get involved in working with clay?

Sarah Dunstan: I loved art at school and making things in woodwork and metalwork but it wasn’t until I discovered the ceramics department on my foundation course at Falmouth that I had a clear idea of the direction, I wanted to take. I was being encouraged to choose fine art but just before making my degree applications I rebelled and changed to ceramics. I was completely unprepared for my degree course but I loved it and have never regretted my decision.

CC: How do you work?

SD: My pots are all slab built. Most of the work is done when the clay is a flat sheet. The surface is
painted with coloured slips before the patterns and images are applied in the form of intricate
transfers, cut from layers of porcelain slip built up onto newsprint. Each design is scribed into the
wet porcelain freehand before unwanted areas are scraped away leaving the final image to be
transferred onto the body. The decorated clay sheets are then assembled to create the finished

Sarah Dunstan | Sardine Tin
CC: How has your practice changed over time?

SD: For some years after college, my work was made in porcelain - delicate, intricate forms with a glossy high-fired finish. But my sketchbooks, an important element in my practice, contain a collection of found images, details, colour, and texture; of paint and pigments, and I wanted a way to reproduce this in my work. In the late 1990s while on a residency at Rufford Ceramic Centre, I started experimenting with coloured slips painted onto a stoneware body. I found that this allowed me to bring all the elements in my sketchbooks more directly into my work. In the following years, I gradually developed my technique of making porcelain transfers. It took a long time to get it right! Although my making has not changed dramatically since then, I find that my work is always evolving.

Sarah Dunstan | China Blue Platter
CC: What images keep you company in the space where you work?

SD: I am surrounded by photos, small drawings, fragments of wallpaper - the same bits and pieces that go into my sketchbooks. Old magazines, books on fabrics, art and ceramics - my tools are stored in old Greek olive oil tins. For my current work, I am drawing directly from a beautiful old blue and white willow pattern cup. Having said all that, my studio is currently unusually bare, as the Leach Pottery has borrowed my sketchbooks, noticeboard and much of the clutter, to recreate my studio as a part of their ‘Surface’ exhibition running until May next year!

CC: What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

SD: In the 6th form at school, I won a prize and chose a book on Cezanne. I fell in love with his
painting ‘Bridge at Maincy’. On my degree course, I saw the real thing on a trip to Paris, and it
made me cry.

Sarah Dunstan | Small Red Jug
CC: What role does the potter/ceramicist have in the 21st Century?

SD: Once in Ceramic Review Wally Keeler was asked: “do handmade pots still have value in our mass-produced, digital world?” He replied “Every Sony Ericsson mobile phone is identical and perfect. All handmade pots (like daisies and lemons) are unique. They have the power to communicate unspoken poems.” I have this written on my studio wall.

CC: How do you hope people experience your ceramics?

SD: A woman came up to me at Oxford Ceramics Fair told me that she had been feeling very low after
being made redundant when she fell in love with a piece of my work at a gallery. It was a bright yellow bottle with the word ‘Sunshine’ on it. She told me her husband went back and bought it for her as a surprise.


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