Lichfield designer maker Carla Murdoch’s passion for pottery sees her create stylish, contemporary ceramics – as well as share her skills with others. Amy Norbury discovers more
The instant Carla Murdoch got her hands on her first lump of clay, she was smitten. As a teenager studying A Levels in her native Sheffield, Carla took the bold decision to ditch traditional academics in favour of more creative pursuits. And that step has paid off in spades.
Today, Carla is passing on her love of all things ceramics to groups of students, teaching pottery and sculpture at South Staffordshire College’s Lichfield campus. And when she’s not in the classroom, Carla can be found creating her own brand of stylish, contemporary ceramics from her studio at the Burntwood home she shares with her partner Pete, an interior designer, house bunny Florence and ducks Henrietta and Ferdinand.
The garage workshop houses Carla’s precious kiln, where her creations are transformed from raw clay into beautifully fired and glazed pieces. Shelves are adorned with pottery in each stage of the making process; clay drying out ready for the kiln, items which have gone through the first – or biscuit – firing and, finally, all glazed and finished.
A sunny conservatory provides a second workspace, which is home to Carla’s potters wheel and which also showcases a variety of her makes. Something of a pottery magpie, Carla also collects other potters’ work, proudly displaying her own pieces alongside works from her favourite makers.
“I’ve got boxes of it dotted around the house too,” laughs Carla, who’s a member of the Midlands Potters’ Association. “There’s a lot going on at the moment.”
A whirlwind of creative flair, Carla always knew she was destined for an artistic career, although her first foray was not pottery, but graphics.
“I was studying graphics, psychology and biology at sixth form – a real random mix – and I just didn’t enjoy it,” the 30-year-old explains.
“I needed to be doing something completely creative; as much as I love science, and psychology interests me, I just can’t apply it academically.”
So two weeks before she was due to return to sixth form, Carla headed down to her local college to see what was on offer. She signed up for a graphics course, which also included tasters of other disciplines, including fashion, textiles, woodwork and – fatefully – pottery.
“About eight weeks into the course we did pottery; I touched it and that was it, I loved it,” says Carla.
“My tutor was fabulous; she was absolutely crackers – most potters tend to be a bit loopy. She encouraged me to apply for a university course, which is something I’d never considered.”
Carla’s undeniable talent saw her beat off some 500 applicants to land one of just 12 places on a glass and ceramics degree course at the University of Sunderland.
“It was meant to be,” says Carla. “I do believe in fate; I don’t tend to plan too much, I prefer to let things happen.”
By the time her course had finished, Carla was hooked. She bought a kiln and set up a small studio at her parents’ home in Sheffield, making “lots of porcelain bits and pieces” and connecting with other local makers.
But six years ago, after a stint travelling, Carla made the move from Sheffield to Burntwood to be with Pete and took on an admin job which zapped her of all her creativity.
“I just wasn’t making,” says Carla. “Other than for friends’ birthdays and Christmas decorations, I had no inspiration and I couldn’t get myself back into it.”
As an attempt to get the creative juices flowing, Carla signed up to an evening course at Lichfield college – the very same course she now teaches.
But her making block didn’t seem to shift and, during a period where she had completely had enough, Carla sold her potters wheel. But that niggly feeling that pottery was her true calling wouldn’t leave. On a trip to Scandinavia with Pete, Carla was enamoured by the abundance of stylish ceramics and returned home with renewed enthusiasm.
She decided to sign back up to the college course but was told it would be starting late because they didn’t have a tutor available. It was Carla’s lightbulb moment.
“I thought that maybe I could apply for the teaching role,” she says. “When I went online I discovered I didn’t have a qualification they were asking for but there was also a technician role so I went for that. I also asked to apply for the teaching role anyway but never received the application form.
“I got an interview straight away and they asked me why I hadn’t applied for the teaching role and wanted to interview me for it too. I ended up getting both jobs.”
While her teaching and technician jobs make up a full-time role during term time, Carla has found herself fully reinvigorated creatively.
“Since then I’ve got back into it, and now I can’t stop,” says Carla. “I’ve had to go back and re-teach myself certain aspects like learning the wheel again. I wasn’t great on it anyway because I didn’t focus on it at uni, I did more slip-casting, so I’ve had to self-teach so I can then teach my students.
“I have all kinds of people coming through my classes; they’re aged from 20 to 95! And everyone has a different reason for being there. I’ve got people who’ve been coming for 30-plus years so it’s just part of their everyday routine, and there’s a group of ladies who come along on a Wednesday afternoon really to socialise. They make fabulous things and they’ve got such good skills, but since they’re all retired it’s more about keeping the brain switched on and keeping in touch with the community.
“My Wednesday classes don’t involve much teaching; I’m more of a facilitator and the students come in to use the space and just get on with what they want to do. They may ask me a few technical questions but they really know what they’re doing.
“A lot of people have joined up to class because a few other colleges locally have stopped doing pottery classes, which is a huge shame. We’re now one of the few local colleges which offer pottery. I have 80 to 90 students a week, so it’s a task keeping track of where everyone is and what everyone’s doing.
“It’s also a very physical job. You’re carrying bags of clay and buckets of clay around, and then there’s the wedging (which is working the clay to remove air pockets before you can use it) and working on the wheel – it’s all great exercise.”
Carla has also seen a spike in students in the wake of popular BBC show The Great Pottery Throwdown. Hosted by Sara Cox and with master potters Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones as judges, the show was filmed at Stoke-on-Trent’s Middleport Pottery and became a surprise hit.
“The only thing that annoys me about the Throwdown is that it gives people such an unrealistic expectation of what can be achieved in a two-and-a-half hour class,” says Carla, who confesses she never watched the show herself.
“You see people on the show rolling out their pieces, which might only take ten minutes, but then they have to leave them to dry for three hours before they come back to work on them for another two or so hours.
“In class, people have to remember that they won’t be coming back until next week so I have to tailor people’s expectations of what they can actually do within our class timeframe.”
Patience, says Carla, is the key to learning pottery skills. Her courses focus on the simpler process of hand-building to start, before students are let loose on the wheel to hone their throwing skills.
“At least with the hand-building, people have something tangible to take home,” says Carla. “When they’re on the wheel, it can all go wrong in seconds. With hand-building you have much more control.
“And people wonder why they don’t ‘get’ the wheel straight away; throwing is an incredibly difficult skill and it takes a lot of time and practice to get it right.”
Carla’s wheel is her pride and joy, and her current creations focus on throwing, rather than hand-building.
“I’m mainly wheel-based at the moment; it’s a skill I want to work on, and I want to be able to throw big,” says Carla. “I’ve been building up my size, so I’m at around five to six pounds of clay on the wheel at the moment, and it’s very hard to work that much clay.”
“On the wheel I like to make the functional stuff like the tableware. I love food; I live to eat and I like to incorporate the two with some nice food in a nice bowl – it makes your food taste better!
“Plates are so hard though, that’s the one thing I’m still trying to master and I won’t let it defeat me! There’s one potter I follow on Instagram who has been doing it for three or four years and is only just starting to sell plates.
“They take up so much space in the kiln; they take up a whole shelf so you can’t get anything else dotted around them. And I go up to quite a high temperature so if your base isn’t quite right you get a wobbly plate which warps, or sometimes they even just tear in the middle.
“They crack when they’re drying before you’ve even put them in the kiln, they crack in the biscuit firing and then they can crack in the final firing. So until the final piece comes out I never get too excited!”
As well as being a rather therapeutic pursuit, pottery can be highly emotive, explains Carla.
“Potters often meditate before they get on the wheel, especially in Asia,” she says. “I don’t meditate myself but sometimes when I’ve been at work under niggly bright lights all day I get headaches, or if I’m not feeling 100 per cent I just can’t be on the wheel. It just doesn’t happen. If I’m not in the first frame of mind or in a positive mood it’s a disaster. So that’s when I do my coiling instead, which I can do no problem. But when I’m in a good frame of mind I can’t do coiling, I need to be on the wheel, so it’s a good balance.”
Pottery has helped Carla to develop a thick skin and a resilience when it comes to things not going to plan.
“There’s so much failure,” she laughs. “I’m at a point that I can put a firing on and if it goes wrong and doesn’t come out properly it doesn’t matter. Things might break in the kiln, or when you glaze things if you haven’t tested the glazes properly they might be a disaster.
“It’s all a process. If it does work you learn things from it, and if it doesn’t work again you learn things from it, perhaps to try a different temperature or to cool it down slower. It is just one big learning curve, and even as a teacher and professional maker I’m still always learning.”
The latest project has involved testing different glazes which, Carla says, appeals to her scientific side.
“I’ve got one base glaze which is very reliable and you add a few different oxides to it and it comes out nicely. But if you get a weight slightly wrong it will come out differently, or if you dip the brush in the wrong oxide it will change that glaze,” she explains. “And glazes turn out completely differently on different clays too.
“I just did some testing and I’ve managed to get pinks and purples, which I don’t want – I was hoping for turquoise! I used cobalts and coppers in there, so the green and the blue together should’ve made a really nice turquoise but because I’ve used a dolomite-based glaze, cobalt goes purple or pink in it. So I’m back to square one.
“I do my glaze testing on a very small scale to start with so if it goes wrong I’m not wasting too much, then if it works I do it on a bigger scale. It’s all a science, which I really love. I get to be a scientist and be creative; the two come together.”
Carla is currently making stock for her next craft fair, the inaugural Hepworth Wakefield Contemporary Ceramics Fair in her native Yorkshire which runs from May 5 to 6. And closer to home, she will be running a pop-up shop at Bore Street Bakery on July 7 with fellow Lichfield designer-maker Katie Figiel of Copper and Solder to coincide with the Lichfield Festival.
And you may have already spotted some of Carla’s wares around the city; she was commissioned by coffee shop Melbourne in Lichfield to create a range of 12oz coffee cups.
“It was a good thing for me because I’ve never thrown with such a requirement; I usually just get on the wheel and see where it takes me and what I can do,” explains Carla. “But this made me be able to repetitive throw and get a specific size from something which shrinks as it dries, shrinks in the first firing and shrinks in the glaze firing.
“It was a total challenge – but in a good way. And it’s nice to see the people of Lichfield drinking from the cups I’ve made.”
Bore Street Bakery already use some of Carla’s pieces to showcase their baked goodies, and she is currently working with Lichfield chef Liam Dillon to potentially provide items for The Boat Inn.
“It’s so lovely to be a part of the Lichfield community. There’s a real creative, foodie hub in the city now, which is really exciting.”
For more details visit Carla’s website at www.carlamurdochceramics.co.uk or find Carla Murdoch Ceramics on Instagram.