Opinion : handcraft and community ~ it’s not as good as you think

sewing circle - photographer unknown

sewing circle – photographer unknown


There’s something quite lovely about getting together with a friend and making stuff. Sewing, knitting, cutting, filing. Your hands are busy, and your mind has space to enjoy the peace and conversation. And there is the added bonus of a fresh set of eyes and ears to toss ideas around with. Share tips and tricks. Learn from each other. Offer suggestions for improvement. And there is the opportunity to pass on skills (like mother to daughter, but to a broader group).

There should be more of it.

We used to do this much more often before the middle of the 20th century, before the consumer age really kicked in. Before we became ‘self-sufficient’ and self-focused. Craft groups are having a small revival, but it is still small. With the resurgence in handcrafts around the world, are our lives that busy that we can’t meet up?  It seems to me that we are too easily lulled into a false sense of ‘connectedness’, and instead we are insulated by the internet. Youtubes and e-courses have their place, but there’s nothing quite like the tactile, one-on-one experience.


Because other people’s opinions are valuable, and
because not everything you make is wonderful.


True, some crafts are more suited to this than others; embroidery, knitting and crochet are highly mobile; jewellery and ceramics might be a bit trickier. But there are always aspects of every craft that are mobile. Could you set up a co-op to cater for jewellery, woodworking, or participate in an existing open access workshop? Instead of saying “my craft (sewing/jewellery/woodwork/ceramics/whatever) is not portable enough”, try and figure out ways to make it work. Or just invite a friend over to your workspace.

Watch and do, immediate feedback – what better way to learn a craft is there?


Go on, it’ll be fun.



grrlandog - vaucluse house guerilla knit

grrlandog – vaucluse house guerilla knit

{grrlandog via here}


The crafted object : Claire Baker {ceramics}


The patina of age, delicate patterns, fragments from life and fragments from memory. Claire Baker’s ceramics are curiously intriguing, whimsical and just a bit theatrical. Inspired by the darker side of Victoriana, and in particular, Miss Havisham’s wedding table, Claire says that her work comes out of revisiting memories and emotions associated with vintage ceramics.

She says is obsessed with junk shops and spends hours scouring them for pieces that can act as both inspiration and for inclusion in her own work as objects of adornment. Her resulting work has won various awards, and has been exhibited all over the world, including New York, Geneva and London.


claire baker - bowl and spoon

claire baker – bowl and spoon


Claire Baker - Eye spy

Claire Baker – Eye spy


Claire grew up in a big rambling and happy house in Wiltshire, UK in the 70s. Frequent trips to her grandmother’s house were filled with marvels – not least of which was being allowed to rummage through an old trunk of clothes from under the stairs. “It was huge and filled with the most exotic and eclectic mix of clothing; a kimono, velvet corsets, waist coats and hats, silk shoes, a lime green silk skirt with red and white ribbons hanging down with coins hanging from the bottom, and another skirt with gold coins stitched all over it; the textures, layers, smells and enchantment have stayed with me all my life. We would dress up, wind up the old gramophone and dance around the house or run to the roadside and wave at the cars. It definitely started my love with texture and the theatrical.”

She also counts herself as fortunate enough to attend a forward-thinking primary school, where the headmaster organised for them to have excursions to Bath Academy of Art (which was based in the same town). There, the primary students would then have art lessons with Academy students. “I remember making a puppet!”


Claire Baker - perfume bottles

Claire Baker – perfume bottles


Claire uses a variety of objects in constructing each of her pieces, often including teaspoons as handles and feathers as decoration. She usually uses similar techniques for most of her pieces, press-moulding the smaller pieces directly from Victorian tableware in order to capture their vintage forms, and then using a collage of textural surfaces, slips, glazes, transfers and lustres to achieve the final surface. Each piece is fired 5 times to achieve its distinctive patina. She refers to her larger pieces as ‘drawings in clay’; they are slab-built recreations of her drawings, spontaneous and richly textured.

“My work is highly ornate and is adorned with printing and an array of visual ephemera. Each piece I have created is a spontaneous response to the reworking of ‘precious’ objects resulting in a sensory banquet.”


claire baker - rosa vase

claire baker – rosa vase


Claire has a list as long as her arm of other artists she admires – several painters such as Paula Rego for her rich darkness, Michael Sowa for his whimsy, and Frida Kahlo for her very powerful images of self.

“Vivienne Westwood is just amazing, she is my favourite clothes designer – completely theatrical & OTT, and she doesn’t give a damn, she makes what she likes & I admire her for that. And I was completely overwhelmed when I went to the House of the late Dennis Severs; 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, London – it’s amazing and I will be sketching up there this winter for inspiration.

“Lastly I go to see Giffords Circus every year. It has no animals apart from two beautifully looked after horses, Brian the Goose and a sausage dog. It is amazing, beautiful, creative, theatrical, magical, enchanting, spell binding and every single year I want to pack up my bags & run away with it!”


Claire Baker - sketch book

Claire Baker – sketch book


Like anyone, there are times when things don’t according to plan. But Claire doesn’t let it get to her, “I don’t have any worst moments; I truly believe in ‘happy accidents’, and a lot of my best work has come from such ‘accidents’. The thing to do is always record them or you can never repeat them! And I don’t abide by the ‘rules’ – if you want to put stoneware glaze on an earthenware pot – do it & see what happens.”

Despite only graduating four years ago, there here have already been some memorable moments for her. “Just after I graduated, I was at a show in London called ‘New Designers’. A buying team from Anthropologie, New York came, and bought a lot of work and shipped it to their shop in the Rockefeller Centre! Then a year after graduating I was selected by The Crafts Council as 1 of 17 emerging makers that year to have a place on their ‘Hot House’ programme, where you receive 6 months of mentoring and business help. It was brilliant, I was mentored by jeweller Anna Lewis and two international ceramicists – Katharine Morling and Stephen Dixon.”


Claire Baker - studio

Claire Baker – studio


For pure whimsy, I asked Claire what she would make if I gave her a cardboard box, a marker pen and a sharp knife. “I’d make a cooker! When I was a child I always wanted a ‘play kitchen’. They were so expensive then that I didn’t get one, so being creative I asked my mum for a cardboard box, cut it and stuck it and drew hot rings and knobs on it and it was my cooker. I can’t think of these three items together without wanting to recreate my cooker. Ironically I am a terrible cook!”

And a last piece of advice? “Don’t listen to advice. Listen to yourself, you always know the answer.”

You can find more of Claire’s work on her website, www.bakerart.org.uk.


The crafted object : Sandi Pierantozzi ceramics


The sweet and chunky ceramics of Sandi Pierantozzi look like they belong to Alice, in her house somewhere in Wonderland. Clear, bright pastels in many hues sit side by side on the pieces, which are often decorated with simple, all-over textured patterns that create yet another opportunity for yet more playful colour.

Primarily working with slab-built porcelain, Sandi decorates her surfaces through slip trailing, a technique which uses liquid clay coloured with ceramic stains and applied with a squeeze bottle or bulb with a needle applicator. Inspiration comes from many sources including  architecture, fashion, beads and “taking the time to look at nature up close”.


sandi pierantozzi - canolli vase

sandi pierantozzi – canolli vase


She has been working in clay since 1984, but didn’t start up full time until 1995. “My background is in Graphic Design and Printmaking and I worked as a designer for 20 years, and did clay in the evenings because I loved doing it.  When computers took over the Graphics industry, I did not like it and got out of that business. That is when I started doing clay full time and began selling my work at various craft shows.” Now she works in her Philadelphia studio with husband and business partner Neil Patterson, also a potter, where they also run evening classes.


sandi pierantozzi - fat bottom teapot

sandi pierantozzi – fat bottom teapot


Sandi credits her seamstress mother with teaching her about the importance of working with her hands.  “She taught me how to cook, sew, knit, crochet and instilled in me a deep appreciation for hand made things.  I believe it was her guidance that helped me know I wanted to work with my hands as a way of life.”


sandi pierantozzi - lidded jar

sandi pierantozzi – lidded jar


As with most full-time artists,  financial issues are never too far away, but it has its advantages. “I think the biggest obstacle was finding a studio I could afford.  My workspace is not very big, but it is efficient. I have photos all over the wall to inspire me, and my husband, Neil, works right next to me in his not very big space! Working with Neil is great, and we enjoy bouncing ideas off of each other.” And, because she lives in the city, she doesn’t have or need a car. “I can walk, bike or do public transportation to most things I need to get to.”


sandi pierantozzi - vase

sandi pierantozzi – vase


When there have been technical failures, or a show hasn’t sold as well as hoped; when things aren’t going so well, Sandi remains optimistic.  “The best thing is all of the great people in the field of clay who I met mostly at craft shows and have developed life long friendships with. You always meet terrific artists at shows which helps us all overcome a poor sales weekend. When sales are down, that is usually when a lot of trading with other artists goes on, which is always great fun.”


sandi pierantozzi - backyard garden

sandi pierantozzi – backyard garden


You can find more of Sandi’s work on the studio website, www.neighborhoodpotters.com.


The crafted object : Maria Chatzinikolaki – ceramics


Working out of a space at the legendary Jam Factory in Adelaide, Greek-born Maria Chatzinikolaki produces delicate porcelain vessels painstakingly covered in intricate lines and shapes.


Maria Chatzinikolaki - ceramic vessels

Maria Chatzinikolaki – porcelain vessels


Her forms are simple, yet organic, her palette is rich and warm, but it is her patterns that I am continually drawn to – they are abstract, and yet they are at times reminiscent of landscape, plantlife, mid-century motifs, and even expressionist paintings. Attention to detail is her hallmark – hence it comes as no surprise that she is quite particular about her workspace. It “has to be very VERY clean and tidy. Everyday and always, otherwise I find it is distracting and cannot work.”

She uses the slip cast method to create her forms, and prefers to leave the outer surface of her forms matt. “Having been a graphic designer for years my eye goes straight for the pattern in the everyday environment and this is how I get the ideas for my decoration. I might see something in 3D and come up with a 2D design and vice versa. I see pattern in everything. I am mostly interested in intricate designs and detailed patterns inspired by nature, ancient civilizations and classical art movements. For me decoration starts from a dot that forms into a line, straight or curved.”


Maria Chatzinikolaki - ceramic vessels

Maria Chatzinikolaki – porcelain vessels

Maria grew up in Greece, surrounded by family with a deep appreciation for art in its many forms – her dad was in the advertising business from the 70s, and her mother was a piano teacher.

“My mom and my grandmother always kept me occupied with some sort of art whether that was tiny sculptures out of polymer clay, drawings, etchings, collage or even sewing. But I remember a specific day very clearly. It was summer holidays (I must have been 5yo) and we were at our holiday house in the hills with family friends. One of the dads dug some mud from the back yard and turned it into cheap terracotta clay for us kids to play with. I remember sitting and looking at the lump of clay not knowing what to do. Everyone else had done their bit and were starting to lose interest. But then I just started making and poking and sculpting and ended up with something that resembles the head of The Scream by Edvard Munch. I still have that piece unfired but safe and bubble wrapped. I always refer to that day when I am not sure what to do with a piece of work. I just stop asking questions and start working on the piece by trusting my instinct.”

She came to ceramics again much later, more or less by chance, when she started work in a  local ceramics shop.

“When my parents moved from the capital city to one of the islands of Greece, I jumped at the opportunity to follow them into a less complicated life style. However, being on an island that relied on tourism for only 5 months per year didn’t leave me with much choice when looking for a job. I found a job as a retail assistant in a shop that sold local ceramics. When one of their production assistants got sick I was asked to help with production as well. Soon I replaced the hours in the shop with more hours in the studio and 2 years later I was decorating their main dinnerware range.”


Maria Chatzinikolaki - ceramic cups

Maria Chatzinikolaki – ceramic cups


Maria moved to Australia, arriving in Adelaide in 2007, and decided to undertake ceramics at TAFE. She also enrolled in all the porcelain workshops she could at the Jam Factory, eventually applying for and receiving a Jam Factory associateship.


Maria Chatzinikolaki - ceramic cups

Maria Chatzinikolaki – porcelain cups


Although she has participated in quite a hefty number of exhibitions, she told me she always feels incredibly deflated after a solo show.  “You put your heart and soul into an exhibition and its concept, which might have taken a full, long and intense year. Finding yourself empty after a show is when the insecurity creeps in and you start fearing about ‘what comes next’. I always find that scary. I think patience in oneself is most helpful but faith from fellow artists/friends who are willing to talk and analyze new elements and concepts on a daily basis has been invaluable.”


maria chatzinikolaki  - sketchbook

maria chatzinikolaki – sketchbook


She cites Australian ceramicist Robin Best as a wonderful mentor, who has “set a very high standard for me to try and reach sometime in the future”, and Klaus Gutowski, a fellow Jam Factory resident, as another wonderful everyday influence, for his skills and his teaching.

Maria sets the bars high. “Art is a combination of skill, talent, uniqueness and beauty. If something I make does not meet all four criteria and is not pretty enough for me to put in my own house, then it is not pretty enough to go in a gallery.”


Maria Chatzinikolaki

Maria Chatzinikolaki


You can find more of Maria’s work on her Facebook page here, and on her own website mariachatzinikolaki.com.au.

The crafted object : Nancy Gardner & Burt Isenstein, ceramics


I am so chuffed to be able to share with you some truly wonderful ceramics by Nancy Gardner and Burt Isenstein. Based in Burt’s hometown of Chicago, they work out of a small studio attached to the garage in their garden.

The forms are whimsical and very, very fun; reminiscent of weird cacti, sea creatures and cartoon characters; I love their crazy rich colours, and their clash of bright patterns. Stripes with florals and checks? Yes please! Spots over circles over stripes? Why thank you! They look like the sorts of things that Olive Oyl might have decorated her house with, or perhaps even David Hockney.


nancy and burt - orange teapot with floating circles

nancy and burt – orange teapot with floating circles


nancy and burt - wide load bottle

nancy and burt – wide load bottle


They both have impeccable track records. Nancy has a BFA and MFA in Ceramics, and Burt has an MFA as well. He also teaches in the Foundations program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has taught college ceramics, and is currently teaching drawing to architecture students a couple of times a year.The line of homewares for their Etsy shop NancyandBurt comes from Nancy’s work, as Burt’s work is more oriented to sculpture, and they have been collaborating on pottery since their first son was born in 1988. “When we decided to do this as a business, it kind of grew out what I was already doing, so I am probably more the creative and he is more the business.  That said, there is a lot of discussion and collaboration on exactly what we will produce and he is also the technical guy that figures out how to get the glaze to fit and how things are fired.”


nancy and burt - diamond shaped pitcher with four feet in blue and green

nancy and burt – diamond shaped pitcher with four feet in blue and green


Ever since she was young, Nancy has always had to be busy with her hands – drawing, painting, collage – she particularly loved copying the fashion illustrations in the newspaper. She hasn’t stopped, and her sense of childlike fun permeates each piece.

She uses quite simple, basic handbuilding techniques to make her quirky forms. “Slab, coil – mostly stuff everyone learns in beginning ceramics class. I suspect I’ve refined these basic techniques a bit, since I use them so much.”


nancy and burt - eccentric lineup

nancy and burt – eccentric lineup

nancy and burt - collection

nancy and burt – collection


I asked Nancy what had been her worst experience as an artist.  Surprisingly for someone with such an extensive CV, numerous awards to her name and obvious expertise, she still counted rejection from shows as the thing that hurt the most. “It happens all the time and I still hate it.  You think you would get used to it, and I am to an extent, but it still stings. You just have to keep working, with the faith that another show will materialize and it usually does.”

And I really don’t think this will stop Nancy from playing and working in the studio any time soon.


Nancy Gardner - sketchbook1

Nancy Gardner – sketchbook1


Nancy Gardner - sketchbook2

Nancy Gardner – sketchbook2


nancy and burt - studio1

nancy and burt – studio1

nancy gardner at the studio

nancy gardner at the studio


You can find more work on their websites nancygardnerceramics.comnancyandburt.com, and on their Etsy site, NancyandBurt.