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Three Cups of Tea – Karen Taylor O’Neill and Elise Johnston, inspired

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Our latest exhibition, Current, features nine creatives and their works inspired by items in the Museum’s textile collection. In a series of blog interviews we introduce the artists.

How would you describe your work and aesthetic?

K: Well, it’s ceramic; technically it’s slip-cast porcelain, and the aesthetic – we’re committed to functional ware. Historically it’s been very functional as well as decorative and sculptural.

E: We want each work to be a beautiful piece – as William Morris said, you only have in your house what you find to be useful or what you believe to be beautiful. You can have the two in ceramics; functional and beautiful. Our aesthetic is about clean lines; we’ve been described as slightly Scandinavian. We like bold colours, but have a couple of different ranges which include a white with black illustrations.

K: We also really like the retro New Zealand industrial style, which is probably why the Swanndri appealed. The design has grown out of a desire for functionality. Also we have taken inspiration from Crown Lynn, especially the New Zealand Railways cups which evolved as a practical solution to a need. In that respect too, the Swanndri met with our aesthetic.


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What attracted you to ceramics as a medium?

K: Ceramics is quite hard to get into unless you have some instruction, because it requires a lot of equipment and initial guidance. It’s not the kind of thing you can do by trial and error. My Mum did ceramics at college so we’ve both been familiar with it. Elise got the opportunity to do it at Art School, although she majored in sculpture.

E: I was always very keen on ceramics so I majored in sculpture mainly because it opens up a whole world of tools and there are more workshops available, but I still was doing ceramics as well. After Art School I did a few different things. I did an exhibition at the Blue Oyster which was paper and cardboard, because at Art School I worked with them. I was also doing ceramics at the Otago Potters Group, just playing around. Then Karen and I were sitting down one day and thought maybe we should work together and plan a range of functional ware, cups and teapots, themed around cups of tea.

K: You were doing a lot of throwing at the time, a lot of cups and bowls and things, weren’t you?

E: Yeah, with the idea of sharing of cups of tea with friends and family, and social connection, and being able to bond over cups of tea.

K: As a family we believe in cups of tea curing all ills and solving all problems. If in doubt, drink tea.

K: We had also read the book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time by an American climber who stayed with the Tibetan Balti people. They have a very strong belief in sharing drinks, and their expression is ‘the first cup of tea you share with a stranger, the second cup of tea you share as an honoured guest, and with the third cup of tea you become family’. So it’s a social interaction that’s important in communities, and bonds people.

E: Also, one of the things about Three Cups of Tea that makes me laugh is that Nana, Karen’s Mum, reckons that she needs three cups of tea to start the day.

K: Don’t even try anything until you’ve had three cups of tea.

E: That resonated with me because quite often I’ll have two cups of tea here in the morning and then I’ll take a thermos cup and drink that on the way to work, so when I get to work I’m ready.


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Describe your creative process from conception to completion

E: I certainly find sketching and drawing important in my design process, but casually, just on a scrap of paper. We might individually be sketching and thinking about ideas and then come together and discuss and research things, looking into pieces we like or have seen lately. We will decide on a few ideas and then start planning and testing. For this project, we wanted to do something larger than our usual range because of the big space. Then it’s a case of lots of testing – colours and design ideas. Casting the bottle was quite an engineering feat in itself. With the mould weighing 20–30 kg and with 30–40 kg of clay added into it, we needed a special, husband-designed pulley system to lift it and tip it. The mould is in four pieces, stropped together with big straps, and with carabiners to support it from the roof beams, taking its weight while it tilts and pours. So there are practical considerations to work through. For glazing we had to buy in quite large quantities of glaze material because normally we are dipping a little cup into a bucket of glaze; now we have a big bottle which we need to dip, thus bigger buckets. The final stage is getting the tests to work on the big bottle. Once it has been cast and dried it needs to be bisque-fired and that takes a 12-hour firing with up to two days’ cool-down, and then the glaze kiln takes 17 hours, because it’s a bit hotter. Again it’s a two day cool-down. There are times when you can’t do a lot, and these stages can’t be rushed.

K: The physical properties of the material dictate the timeline and the process. One of the things that appeals to us about ceramics is that it’s huge – the skill, the experience, and the knowledge involved. All areas require that, but in ceramics the physics and the chemistry involved are complex and vast. With everything you do, something different can result. Even when you think you know what’s going to happen, it rarely does.

What environment do you like to work in?

K: Out of necessity, we sometimes work in the evening because it’s hard to leave stuff, so you have to be able to have two or three hours clear to actually do it.

E: My zone is any time that my kids aren’t pestering me. And we both have part-time jobs as well. I do have a couple of studio days throughout the week. In the evening we both like to have music or National Radio on. Sometimes if I’ve got a monotonous job like production work doing 20 or 30 of the same thing, I like to get an audio book or something out of the library.

K: And they will quite often be ceramic-related, the articles or books or things. There’s a few good ceramic-related historical novels.

E: I quite like energetic dance music like drum and base, but I also like Matinee Idle on National Radio which is so funny. It’s the most random collection of music you’ll ever hear. I’ve got really broad taste in music.

K: I’m much the same – I will listen to anything, apart from talkback radio.

Where do you draw your inspiration from and what inspires you most?

E: All sorts of places, but definitely museums, art galleries, local exhibitions and commercial galleries.

K: In terms of family and habits, if we go to a city, we go to the museums and art galleries and exhibition openings. That’s just what we do. We were saying how good social media is – Instagram, Facebook –there is no end of really amazing resources to follow.

E: I find a lot of international ceramics inspiring. Using social media, especially Instagram, you can follow all sorts of overseas people that you don’t know at all, and connect with and see their process as well.

E: They are all so generous with their knowledge.

K: Ceramics is such an ancient art, because of its functionality. Civilizations throughout history have used ceramics, so museums always include them. We know the Otago Museum and Te Papa collections quite well. When I go to Wellington I always go to the fifth floor at Te Papa and look at the little ceramics exhibition that changes regularly.

E: Last time we were in Wellington we stumbled across a Japanese ceramics exhibition.

K: Ceramics are everywhere and they are very trendy at the moment, from sculptural works to objects in restaurants and kitchens, all are using these beautiful contemporary ceramics. That’s really exciting.


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Why did you choose the particular object from the collection that you did?

E: Because we love them.

K: Because we’ve used them; we like the outdoors, so warm, weatherproof clothing is important.

E: It’s an iconic New Zealand brand.

K: We like natural fibres; we are really into wool, and Swanndri encapsulated a lot of what we believe in.

E: And also visually, the chequer pattern is a stunning design; it’s quite bold.

K: The design fits with ceramics because in ceramics there are physical limitations. Some textiles and fabric creations you would have more difficulty in interpreting into the sort of ceramics that we make. The simple shapes required for this practical type of garment are very compatible with ceramics, especially what we do, and it fits with our design ethic as well.

Check out more details about Current exhibition and programmes here.