As the morning advances, a grey mist descends over the sleepy, windswept rolling hills of the Somerset countryside. We enter the village discreetly, taking care not to disturb the peaceful wintry atmosphere, and we drive past a red phone box turned into a lending library as we’re approaching Kara’s charming cottage. Once arrived, we linger for a bit in front of the door before knocking, piecing together random thoughts and taking in the beautiful rural scenery. Making our presence known, we’re greeted by Tom ‒ Kara’s husband and best friend ‒ who invited us in and offered us a steaming cup of coffee. Coming down from her garden shed studio to welcome us, Kara opened up about her journey into pottery, telling us how she felt the day she handed in her notice and decided to spread her creative wings and start nurturing her soul by doing what she loves most.
Later on, Kara invited us to see her studio, where she offered us an insight into her making process and talked to us about the inspiration behind her pieces and how her growing interest in clay led her to take part in The Great Pottery Throw Down and reach the final audition stage, which boosted her confidence as a potter. Drawn to art from a young age and having trained as a painter, Kara creates delicate decorative and functional pieces that reflect the organic colours and textures of the sea, while performing elegantly the use for which they are intended. Indeed, looking at Kara’s pieces is like stopping to admire the peaceful beauty of the seascape and one can immediately tell that they are true reflections of her graceful soul and audacious personality. We finished our time together with a walk in the village, stopping by the red lending library box and chatting about the local creative community, Tom’s passion for music and watchmaking and Kara’s current projects and dreams for the future.
Tell us about Kara from 15 years ago.
15 years ago, I was 19 (gulp), I’d just left home in Devon to begin my adventures at university. I studied Fine Art and Theatre Studies. I absolutely loved everything about uni, most of all the freedom to explore myself and my creativity. It’s also where I met my now husband and my best friend. Back then I knew I wanted to have a career in the arts but thought I would become a painter or work in a gallery or theatre – at that point in my life I had never touched clay.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
When I think back to being a small child my overwhelming memory is the feeling of frustration. I was dyslexic and misunderstood. School didn’t suit me unless I was drawing or making something or doing sport.
What or who inspired you to study Fine Art?
I’ve always been very inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe. But I’m not sure if my choice to study Fine Art could be attributed to any one person, it just felt like the most natural thing for me to do at the time. I was also encouraged by teachers at secondary school to do art (it was the only subject I excelled at other than science). My parents were always very supportive and bought me brushes, paint sets, etc.
Giving up your 9 to 5 job and plunging into the ceramics venture must have had its challenges. What did the people around you think about your decision?
Being a potter felt like it was something other people did – always a little too far out of my reach. The years before taking the plunge were tough and as time went on it became clear it wasn’t really an option to stay in that (work) situation – this actually made the decision really easy. The people (... i.e. my parents) whom I thought would be very against me giving up a stable job (with benefits like healthcare, pensions, sick pay etc.) were actually extremely supportive – they could see how unhappy I was or maybe they were just fed up of me moaning ;-) I had long conversations with my husband and nearly all of my close friends about it beforehand to sense check that I wasn’t making a huge mistake – every single person was 100% behind me.
Tell us a little about your previous full-time job and the day that you have handed in your notice.
After university I got an office job, in marketing. It was vaguely creative as I was in charge of lifestyle and product photography for a footwear brand but it wasn’t the real, dirty, hands-on work which I now know is the only thing that nurtures my soul. I kept at it for 10 long years – it never made me happy – I always had this sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. ‘What am I doing!?’ I’d often repeat to myself. The misery meant I was forced into doing something about it.
The day I handed in my notice felt like I had been given back power, until that point it always felt like I was at the mercy of someone else: my boss, the company, recruitment consultants. I was making a definitive choice which I hadn’t ever done in my career – everything before then just kind of ‘happened to me’.
Looking back now, I actually learned a lot about branding and marketing which of course turns out to be invaluable when starting your own business, in hindsight I am grateful for that.
How does your fine art background inform your approach to ceramics?
Being a painter before becoming a potter means I work backwards, I think about the colours/ textures I want to use first, before I think about form a pot will take. I suspect most potters think about the form first. A lot of potters were painters before they take up the wheel, but I don’t think there are many potters who become painters – there is something about working in 3D that painting on a canvas could never afford me.
Where do you source your materials from?
I’m lucky that I live only a few miles away from one of the South West’s main pottery suppliers – Bath Potters. They have been super supportive of me from the very beginning. All my clay originates from Stoke-on-Trent or Devon. I also import glazes from America – they seem to have a bit of a broader selection than the UK.
What inspires the choice for your own homeware?
I try to make and use my own dinnerware and I also buy from other makers. It’s important research (that’s what I tell my husband) but also I love supporting other creatives. Whenever I drink from one of my favourite potter’s mugs or cosy up next to a handmade cushion I think about the hours of work and love which had gone into crafting it and it makes my heart sing.
Tell us about your experience with The Great Pottery Throw Down.
It all started back in 2014 when I was still working in marketing. I saw an advert for a new pottery show. ‘Are you Britain’s Best Potter?’ it read. ‘No’, I thought but what the hell – ‘what have I got to lose?’. Things at work were really not floating my boat, I was commuting over 2 hours per day (sometimes 3 if I was stuck behind a tractor, a common occurrence in my part of the world!). I’d get home way after my husband, too exhausted to speak let alone make any pottery or do anything creative. At that time, we had just lost one of our closest friends, Alex, to cancer – he was only 32. The tragedy was on a level I had never experienced before and profoundly brought home the reality that we only get one chance at life. ONE.
I didn’t get on the show but just being chosen for the audition gave me a newfound confidence as a potter: I was chosen out of hundreds of people AND I got to the final audition. I asked all the other people in each round of the audition what they did for a living and everyone looked at me a little perplexed before answering ‘I’m a potter’. Everyone at that final audition stage was making (some level of) living from creating things out of clay. Except me. So, I wasn’t chosen for the show, but the journey highlighted to me the life-changing question: ‘if all of these people can make a living from pottery, then why can’t I?’.
If I am honest with myself, as a potter, I wasn’t ready to be on a TV show but what I was ready for was giving myself the chance to earn my living doing something I love. Would I audition to be on the show now? No chance!!! ;-) I got what I needed.
What stories would you like your creations to tell?
Apart from my studio, my happy place is by the sea, so the colours that I use are designed to transport people to their favourite beach or stretch of coastline. Also I’d like to think my work offers my customers a more mindful eating and drinking experience. Drinking from a handmade mug is very different to drinking from one from Ikea. Maybe they will think of me (the maker) whilst they choose the cup from the cupboard, they’ll enjoy the form and feel of the clay beneath their fingertips and study the colours of the glaze whilst waiting for their tea to brew. This is my hope anyway.
What is your favourite piece of functional ceramics and why?
My favourite piece has to be a teapot. A good teapot is a work of art. Most don’t make the cut so when beauty and functionality come together it really is special.
Where do you travel for holidays and do you ever find yourself buying ceramics on your travels?
My hubby and I have terrible wanderlust. We are lucky to have done a lot of travelling. We love Bali – the Balinese are the most generous, wonderful people. We love Italy – for the food and art. We also love Iceland for its landscape, folklore, myths and legends. I ALWAYS buy pottery when we travel.
What are some of your favourite places in your area?
We live in such a beautiful part of the country. We love Bath and never get bored of ambling around it’s cobbled streets early on a Sunday before all the tourists get there. We also love to go to the coast as much as we can, North Devon is a firm fav as is Cornwall and the South Hams.
What other disciplines and/or projects are you involved with and/or interested in?
At this early stage of my career I am pretty much 100% focused on my pottery and making a success of my business.
How do you engage with the local community of artists and makers?
I largely engage with other artists and makers via social media, Instagram is where all my peers hang out. It’s become an important support network for me. I have a lot of virtual potter friends – we are all very supportive of each other – if we need help or advice someone is always on hand.
What is your favourite dish?
By this I think you mean food dish. I love Balinese food, so I think it has to be Mie Goreng (fried noodles).
Do you listen to music while you work?
Generally, I tend to listen to Radio 6. I also really enjoy podcasts and audio books. I have been able to get through some seriously hefty tomes by listening to them whilst in my studio.
Tell us about your perfect Saturday evening.
My perfect Saturday evening will be with my husband in front of the fire, a lovely homemade meal, maybe a wine and a really, really great film or book.
Where is one most likely to find you when you are not in your studio or running your business?
Either running cross country around my local area, at the beach or snuggled up in bed with the hubby and the cats ;-)
What was the best advice you have been given?
Oh, there are so many pearls of wisdom I could rattle off here, I am a bit of an ‘inspirational quotes’ hoarder. I have a few Pinterest boards dedicated to them.
A friend who owned the shop which first stocked my work said to me ‘don’t worry if someone doesn’t like what you do, because there will be a whole queue of people behind them, who will love it’.
‘Pray success doesn’t come before you can handle it’ – I think this was Henry Ford (no relation).
‘Chuck it in the ‘fuck it’ bucket and move on’ – I’m not sure who said that but it’s a good one for potters to remember.
What would be the dream commission?
A dream commission would be to make a collection of plates and dishes for a chef/ restaurant. For someone who cares that much about food to choose my ceramics on which to present it would be the biggest accolade.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on a big dinner set order for a lovely lady in America, wholesale orders for a couple of galleries and I’m restocking my shop as everything sold out over Christmas. I’m also doing some planning for the year ahead. January is a nice time for reflecting on the past year and dreaming for the year ahead – such a contrast to the crazy months of September to December.
How do you see your style evolving in the near future?
I still feel like I am working out the kinks in my aesthetic. I’d like to simplify things a bit, and I want to really pin down ‘my brand’ so that someone can easily recognise a Kara Leigh Ford piece.
What about your dreams and ambitions for Kara Leigh Ford Ceramics?
I just want to keep creating and I always want to be hands-on in the process. As they get bigger, many potters seem to outsource some of their making to factories or bring in production potters in order to meet demand but I can’t ever imagine being happy letting someone else make something I put my name to (but then again – you never know what the future will hold – come back to me in 10 years and I might have a huge factory;-) but as long as I can still get messy ;-) that’s my main goal.
I also want to have the health and energy to keep working, I can’t ever see myself wanting to retire.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Lord of the Rings (the first book I ever read from cover to cover, aged 18)
A film: Memento (a film which made me think about it for days after I saw it)
A song: 'Nine to Five' Dolly Parton (No high brow stuff here ;-)
Thank you, Kara for the insight into your personal and creative realm and thank you, Tom for the company!