Ceramicist Vanessa Holle – aka Vanessa Bean – is known for her vases with sweet faces and crazy floral hair. And her spoons. They have faces too. So when I visited Vanessa in her Sydney studio last week, I wasn’t surprised to hear that one of the things she loves to do most is paint faces on things.
Like a lot of makers, Vanessa’s studio isn’t huge, so long shots are very tricky. She shares with another ceramicist and has a work bench, tall metal shelves and a wall of display shelves which together from an L-shape. I hope you enjoy learning more about Vanessa’s creative life and this peek into her work space.
Where do you live?
A semi in a quiet cul-de-sac in Bondi, just a few minutes walk to the beach, with my husband and three boys.
Where do you create?
I share a separate studio space with my ceramics buddy, Agatha, which is part of the Claypool Group pottery collective in Botany. We, as members, share resources, knowledge, techniques, experience, and inspiration. We also have exhibitions together, collaborate and drink lots of tea!
When do you create? Is it a full time job?
Ceramics has turned into a full-time job. I have three full set days I am in the studio (more if needed and if I can steal a bit more time from managing our busy household) and the rest of the time I work from home, balancing work and family. Sometimes, I sneak into the studio on the weekends. The boys are all in high school now and often keen to spend time with friends rather than us.
I still never seem to have enough time though…. between making, styling and photographing, publishing listings on my Etsy store, sending out orders to stockists, making for exhibitions and running the business side of things. But I love every aspect of it!
What path led you to this creative place?
I have always been a maker. My dream birthday present as a child was a craft box of goodies; scissors, tape, colouring pencils, crayons, glue and I asked for it every year. I did a four-year BA Design (Visual Communications) at Sydney College of the Arts and I have worked as a graphic designer for the last 24 years both in studios and from home.
Working from home was perfect when the boys were little but it can be isolating and I missed the feedback from other designers. As well as design, I have always made things; crocheted, illustrated and photographed. I did a community college course in porcelain jewellery around five years ago and kind of got bitten by the pottery bug.
It came at the perfect time as I was looking for a change from graphic design where I could be the client and create my own direction. I started slowly with ceramics, while doing design jobs at the same time, but just this year I have decided to focus full-time on ceramics.
What’s your elevator pitch? How do you describe what you do?
I do repeat the following phrase quite a bit as I think it sums me up perfectly: I am a graphic designer by profession and a maker of things by nature.
The name I work under; Vanessa Bean is a combination of my given name (Vanessa) and my childhood nickname (Bean). I have always loved figurative sculptures so have a tendency to put a face on most of the things I make and to give objects a human quality.
I also love colour and porcelain/stoneware is the ideal material to add vibrant colour to. I use a simple, decorative and graphic approach to all the pieces I make and I purpose glaze selected elements to highlight the contrast between matte and gloss. I also crochet and am always looking for ways to incorporate it into my work with ceramics.
How would you describe yourself in six words?
Exacting, optimistic, generous, determined, loyal, colouraholic.
I often find myself saying to my husband and boys “near enough is NOT good enough.” I think they find me much too much of a perfectionist.
Where do you find inspiration and motivation?
I am constantly learning and experimenting. I think it is very important to challenge yourself with new ideas and try out new things. That’s what keeps it exciting! I started making things that I felt a need for in my own home and my range grew from there.
I am driven to make things that make me happy rather than what I think will sell and I hope that my products bring a bit of joy into people’s homes and make them smile. Part of my process is a spirit of inclusion rather than just making and delivering, where the owner shares in the creativity. I love that people want to send me pictures of their personally-styled vases and planters.
What are the essential items in your workspace?
My moulds for slipcasting, porcelain and stoneware slips and clay, my mud tool for smoothing, sponges, sanding pads, a pencil for drawing on designs, underglazes and brushes for painting, skewers for all sorts of things, brush on clear glaze.
Do you have a favourite tool that’s essential to your work?
It’s really hard to narrow it down to one tool but since I love the hand-painting part the best, I would have to say my superfine brushes.
What do you love most about your creative space?
Is there something you don’t like, or would like to change?
My studio space was an office in another life so ripping up the carpet would be a start, otherwise getting around to covering it with vinyl would be the next best thing. I would also love a window that opens.
Do you listen to anything while you work?
I mostly listen to ABC Radio, This American Life or audio books.
Favourite work-time snack (or beverage)?
Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. But I have to limit myself so I don’t overdose. Otherwise I do keep a little stash of biscuits/chocolate which I try to ration for a bit of energy in the afternoons.
What would be your dream job or collaboration?
I have just been collaborating with another former graphic designer turned potter on some work for an upcoming group exhibition and it has been so much fun that we might try and do a solo collaborated exhibition next year…
Tell us five online resources or apps you can’t live without.
Etsy, Instagram, picstitch, This American Life app, ABC Radio app, Australia Post app.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
Making ceramics is a risky business. Often Murphy’s Law applies, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, particularly if it’s a commission, so I often have to make extra just to cover that.
As Deb Taylor at Claypool says “all the magic and all of the drama happens in the final glaze firing”. I still have to learn not to count all my chickens before they hatch. I am a terrible perfectionist and find ceramics a lesson in patience and letting go. I have learned to embrace the unique quirkiness that is “handmade”.
How do you work out the financial aspects of your business? What resources, tips and tools would you recommend?
I find pricing very difficult. I think most makers do. We are torn between wanting our work to be affordable but also not creating for nothing. You always spend more time than you can charge for. That’s why they are called love jobs. And then you have to factor in the wholesale/retail thing.
I feel as though I am still new to this business so it is a work in progress, constantly evolving. I love having an Etsy shop as the payment and e-commerce is all taken care of. I also have a husband who is very good at tax and helps with all the financial things I don’t understand. My advice would be do some research and get help from people with more experience.
What advice do you have for aspiring creatives?
Make what you love and as they say on all those reality TV shows: be true to yourself. Don’t try to make only what will sell. Also experiment and challenge yourself and don’t give up when you have a bad day. I can have days in the studio when nothing works and things fail. Sometimes it’s best to go home when that happens and try again the next day.
I think all creative people question their abilities on a regular basis. It’s the nature of being an artist. Also great things often come out of mistakes so be prepared to fail.
Do you have a dream that you’d love to fulfill?
More travel. I’m desperate to go to India.
You can purchase current works by Vanessa from her Etsy shop, connect with her on Instagram and visit her website here.
Stay tuned for more Space to Create posts. In the meantime, catch up on previous posts in our Space to Create series.
Photos by Lisa Tilse for We Are Scout (unless otherwise noted).