Focus on an EVAN artist: Mary Chappelhow

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‘Dogged Determination’ – An interview with Mary Chappelhow of Interlude Ceramics by Sarah Hiscoke.

I interviewed Mary Chappelhow of Interlude Ceramics on a beautiful sunny day sitting in the grounds of Brougham Hall while we both drank delicious coffees from the Café 4 Eden while one of her dogs sat under the table.

Mary is a well-known potter in Cumbria. The distinctive and beautiful glazed pottery ware she produces as part of her business ‘Interlude Ceramics’ and her more individual pieces, which she shows under her own name, adorn many a table, or sideboard in England and Scotland.

I know Mary best as a fellow Eden Runner. Her phrase ‘dogged determination’ does well to describe her running stamina and her ambition and determination as an artist and potter.

I asked Mary first about her daily routine?

Mary rises early and takes her two dogs Minx and Rascal for a two mile walk getting into work at quite a civilised time of 9am. Her first job is to check her computer-operated kilns, two of which are gas. She has five different kilns for a variety of firings, such as the Raku work, which she does with her students. Then she checks on pottery made the day before, examining consistency, which varies depending on the weather and season.

Mary has several workshops, galleries and studios at Brougham Hall. Some of this space is dedicated to teaching. In the Raku class the students prepare pots for their first firing; then a glaze is put on and they are placed straight into a gas kiln where temperatures can reach up to a thousand degrees in an hour.  When it is absolutely glowing red and Mary is wearing full protective gear, including a helmet and gloves, they are taken out and put into sawdust where they burst into flames giving them the variation of colours in the glaze. The unglazed areas turn black. Raku produces totally unpredictable work but fabulous turquoises, emerald greens and reds or even a copper metallic. Mary doesn’t use this for her own work as it is so unpredictable and not oven-proof or dishwasher safe, but the technique is great for sculptural and one-off pieces.

Mary’s day is very much dependent on how the work the day before has gone, so she can move on, finishing different parts, such as adding handles. Once Mary has unpacked and checked the kilns, she handles the business-side of the operation, getting items ready for posting etc.

Once the business-side is done, she can get on with preparing clay with the pug machine (pushing clay through a machine to get the air out). She prefers to use recycled clay from her waste clay or the students’ waste clay – saying it is a lot nicer.

The clay is weighed into balls of different weights depending on what she is making. At this point I asked Mary about her Guinness Book of Records fame. Mary initiated the record for throwing clay as part of the publicity for a pot-fest in Scotland. Although she no longer holds the entire record, she is still the fastest female thrower in the world.

The afternoon is when Mary can get down to some work.  If, uninterrupted by the phone or customers, she is able to get into a flow, her muscle memory comes in and she produces her beautiful mugs bowls, plates etc. However, often customers will come in and watch Mary at work at the wheel. Fortunately, she has mastered the ability to work and sales-chat at the same time. Despite that, sometimes she finds herself having to make pots, after everyone else has gone home.

Mary runs a very successful business and as we all know sometimes the actual making of pieces is only one part of a successful business. I asked Mary how she had got to this point and it is the dogged determination that Mary speaks about which is very evident in her path to success.

After completing her A level in pottery she left with school with no seeming way of continuing to work with clay.  She took jobs, such as waitress and shop assistant, until she had saved up enough money to buy a potter’s wheel.  With four bags of clay she just kept recycling and working with this to perfect her skills.  At this point she took a post at Wetheriggs Pottery as an apprentice, but found it was more of a dogs-body job – loading kilns and preparing clay for twelve potters who mass produced a lot of pots.   This lasted for six months and when facing redundancy Mary persuaded the owner to let her use the facilities to make her own pots and demonstrate.  This is how she developed her own range in 1995  – of decorative bowls and vases with nothing matching.  After two years she decided to get a degree in craft design specialising in ceramics in the last two years. It was a fabulous opportunity to experiment and use the College’s massive glaze lab – trying out lots of different recipes and noting the results. The data from which, she still refers back to.  During her degree she still worked part time at Wetheriggs as a production manager with a team of five potters making sure they met all their costings.  This was quite a different task to the more creative side of a degree course, but both experiences helped her become the artist and business woman she is today.

Mary’s kilns go on every day and she might start packing them in the afternoon.  I wondered when she found time to be creative and design new pieces. She says this is difficult for her; her head is full of ideas but for two years now she hasn’t been able to make anything for herself.  However, when she gets commissions, she gets to do something different and design something new, which she enjoys. Her most unusual commission to-date has been to make an urn for a horse’s ashes.

Mary describes her work as about being about form; she is much inspired by Austrian potter Lucie Rie whose work she sees as being about form. Mary’s distinctive squared-off tableware started off as a joke at college – someone asking if she could make a square pot – which she did.  Her pots, whether round or square, all have consistency and flow.  Her inspiration comes from the mountains and lakes of her surrounding scenery and the colours of the seasons. The cool whites of winter, the fresh growth of spring, summer blues and the dark greens before autumn.  The grooves of the ploughed fields and stone walls, she puts on the pot using a rib made for her by her brother out of an old mower blade.

Her Interlude Ceramics tableware is produced en-masse for shops, galleries restaurants and cafes. But for the last six years it has been Mary’s ambition to develop one-off pieces under her own name. She has experimented, formulated glazes and come up with a lot of preliminary ideas. She has created and sold quite a few, but she says she has so much more in her head that she wishes to develop further. Her ‘Mary Chappelhow’ range, using porcelain clay, are these unique pieces. With her own pieces she is trying to represent the effect of industry on the landscape and includes grooves and certain shapes to create this impression.

You can view and purchase Mary’s work at the Evan Gallery and Studios in Penrith, Yew Tree Barn, Low Newton Sanook in Keswick, Becksteps Giftshop in Grasmere and Appleby Tourist Information Centre as well as visiting her at Brougham Hall. or visit Mary’s website where you can see details of the courses she runs.