Sajo Star Student for January – Flora Sullivan and the 100 Cup Challenge

We are kickstarting our Star Student Series with Flora Sullivan. Flora has been doing pottery and ceramics at Sajo for 2 years. I stole her away from her wheel for a few minutes to ask her about her pottery journey!

 How did you get started with pottery?

My daughter was looking for somewhere to try pottery, and she did a bit of a search and found Sajo Ceramics, and asked me if I’d like to come along with her. So I came along for a lesson, not having done it before or knowing what I was in for, and I really liked it! You can’t tell from one lesson how things are going to be, and even if it doesn’t look great from the first lesson, which it usually doesn’t, I kept going and then I got addicted to it!

I had some wins, and I had some frustrations as well but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t give up – if I get frustrated I get more determined to just push through to a point where I conquer it.

I still have a lot more to learn but I’m really eager, and I’m determined to get good quickly. I did a lot of crafts when I was younger but I do feel like I’ve found my thing now, this is my creative thing that I love.

What techniques have you focused on?

Mainly throwing. I’ve done a couple of ceramics painting classes, just to be able to broaden my skill set, but my main thing has been the throwing and trying to get to a point where I can do large pieces well.

Tell me about your 100 Cup Challenge?

Jo gave me this challenge because I needed to break through a plateau, and she felt that if I took the challenge to make 100 cups, then as I went along, I would just get better and better at my technique. The point was to be able to feel the clay and not analyse things mentally so much, but just to get your mind to a point where your body just does it. I feel like that’s starting to happen with me. I’ve just finished cup number 70! I started the challenge about 6 months ago. I’ve not just been doing the cups, because that would be really boring! So when I come to class, I start off maybe throwing  4 or 6 cups, or maybe just 2. Then I do whatever I want after that.

Do you have any specific requirements for the cups?

It’s funny because when I started doing it, I was hell-bent on doing them all the same. And that was frustrating. I wasn’t enjoying it, because I was trying to get them identical. And then I realised that it was too much effort. I needed to just let go and just make a cup, and not care about what height it was, what width, shape or whatever. And I think when you get to that point, your cups start looking the same anyway.

Another thing that has really blown me away and has been a result of the challenge for sure, was enabling me to make much larger pieces. My goal is not just to be making a whole lot of stuff and sell it. But I do want to create large, beautiful pieces that I can give away to people or maybe exhibit. You’ve got to be able to jump through a lot of hoops to get to that point. So through the 100 cup challenge, I’m finding that when I’m now throwing a larger piece, it’s actually easier than the smaller cups, which is something I would never have expected.

Why do you think that is?

Well when you’re doing a larger piece, you’re actually going slower, because it takes more time for the pieces to go round the wheel , which makes me feel like I’ve got more control, and I even find the centering easier. I find it much easier to center a large piece of clay then a smaller one.

Maybe you’ve found your sweet spot, the clay mass that you feel the most comfortable with?

That’s actually true, that’s the mass I feel comfortable with. Now I’m throwing a 1.5 kg piece, but anything 1 kg upwards I’m finding is ok, and when I first started off, no way could I control such a large piece of clay.

Do you do a lot of research? What inspires you?

I’m very much inspired. I’ve done quite a few workshops with different masters, like in porcelain. I’ve also done glazing workshops and I’ve been to Japan and went to the Museum of Ceramic Art in Mashiko, which is a pottery town north of Tokyo. That was very inspiring because the Japanese are very into exact, simple and aesthetic pieces as well as beautiful, earthy glazes.

What are you doing with your 100 cups?

At the moment, every single shelf in my house is covered with cups and bowls and pieces. I’ve given some things away for Christmas, but I think I’ll do a few markets just to get rid of my stuff and to make space in my house to put more things.

Favourite piece:

I have a really nice bowl that I like the way I glazed it. It was a technique that Jo showed me, I dribbled different glazes, and it was a bit of an experiment, I didn’t really know how it was going to turn out and how the colours would  all look together, but it looked really beautiful and different, and quite vibrant, and I like the shape of the bowl.

What are your long term goals?

My goal is to be able to work well with porcelain and to be able to do quite fine work, but different, unusual. I’d like to make controlled change, where I am able to throw a certain piece and then alter it knowingly and to know what I’m going to alter it to. Controlled and then uncontrolled.

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Thank you Flora for sharing! My key takeaways are:

  • Find the things that inspire you
  • Have a long term goal that you are working towards
  • Find a targeted challenge to hone in on whatever you're struggling with in your pottery practice. For Flora, it was throwing consistently, and that's why the 100 cups makes a great challenge. But if glazing is your kryptonite, find a way to improve that. If you are sloppy in finishes, make that your challenge.