Leah Jackson creates ceramics that make you smile. A pattern of seemingly random, yet perfectly detailed squiggle and dot paintings, matched with a vibrant, contemporary colour palette, results in a collection that calls forth your inner child – and yet there is a sophistication to these pieces that discloses Leah’s years of ceramics practice, arts education, and ability to merge form and function.
Growing up surrounded by the Australian bush in Victoria’s Gippsland, Leah began her foray into ceramics early on, deciding at just 16 to explore the medium as a career. A degree in ceramics, coupled with years working in a commercial art gallery and a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada provided Leah with the perfect balance of business acumen and creative skill to commit to her artistic practice full-time.
From her Albert Park studio, Leah creates domestic ware, often mixing materials and referencing multiple art mediums. While she commits to daily list writing, and is methodical in her practice (ensuring that admin stays outside the studio, along with meal breaks and replying to emails), the end goal for Leah is to create ceramics that fuse into one’s everyday, becoming a vessel for treasured experiences.
Leah is currently preparing for the Big Design Market (Melbourne) in December.
Her distinctive ceramics can be found at Craft, Mr Kitly, High Swan Dive, ACMI, Guild of Objects, Gathered, Quince, Boom Gallery and Third Drawer Down.
Tell us a little about your background. What did you study and what led you to what you are doing today?
I knew during high school that I wanted to pursue a creative career. At the time I thought it would be more along the design route, but in the later years I felt I was beginning to have a command over ceramics as a material. (I laugh at this looking back, as I really knew nothing about it, and even now feel like there is so much to learn, but at 16 that naivety and confidence can work in your favour.)
My Studio Art teacher was a ceramicist, and she guided me toward the ANU School of Art Ceramics Department. I studied at ANU then took a couple of years off and worked in the arts. Being around artists gave me another education. I learned that being an artist (or designer, maker etc.) was also about running a small business. It was a bit of a light bulb moment for me, and seamed together my creative inclinations, and my desire to work for myself. So I left my job, travelled, and as most people do, just started to bumble through what would be the true beginning of my practice.
I have only been full-time in the studio for a short time, and I love it. I had worked part-time for many years, slowly winding back from 4 days, to 3, to 2 in another business. This allowed time to understand my intentions, my practice, the cost of production, how I could be making more efficiently and effectively, and setting realistic growth expectations. Now that I am full-time, I can’t believe I was wearing two hats for so long! I was such a crazy person, but I am also glad that I took the time to create what I want.
For a ceramics homewares business to be successful there are so many small pieces that constantly need to be juggled and slotted into the correct place, so they can’t feel like obstacles. For me it is problem solving. That is design really, problem solving.
How would you describe your work, and what influences your subject matter?
Primarily, I would describe the work as functional, and function is also a primary influence. It’s very important to me for the work to be sound. I love it when friends and family use my pieces and provide feedback. Now that the work has a wider reach, when I meet someone who owns a mug or a bowl, and they tell me they love using it, or they specifically use it for a special coffee in the morning, those moments are really delightful.
Beyond function, I am attracted to both vernacular and maximalism design, and I think my work dips into both of these two extremes.
Your style differs a lot to other ceramics in the market in terms of colour, shape and design. Has it been a conscious decision to differentiate?
It hasn’t been conscious – it’s just the outcome of how I work. I find a lot of inspiration outside of the world of ceramics. I am always interested in reinterpreting non-ceramic pieces or ideas with ceramic materials. It might be the surface of a painting, such as the Bram Bogart that inspired a glaze development project while on a residency in Banff, or a character from a film, or architecture, or fashion – it’s almost like a very useless synesthesia, where instead of colours becoming sounds, it’s a chair becoming a pot!
I was always interested in alternate endings for ceramics, and diverting away from purist concerns. Perhaps asking ‘why not?’ comes easily to me. It’s a question that can lead to a disaster (“nuts and gum” to quote Homer Simpson), but can also lead to something interesting. It was the early 2000s when I was beginning my study, and fresh design objects were hitting our new millennium, such as Hella Jongerius’ ‘Long Neck and Groove Bottles‘, which I absolutely loved at the time. Thankfully, while thinking about ‘why not?’ I was simultaneously receiving a thorough technical training, which always grounds work.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
I look, read and listen and find inspiration generally in unexpected places. At the moment I am obsessed with gifs, the idea that by isolating a few seconds and repeating them you can truly understand nuance. This speaks to production pottery, as you are constantly repeating your process, but by doing so can perfect your technique. I write down ideas, literally little point form notes, or just words jotted down. Artist journals are incredible personal documents. The romantic myth tends to be that they are filled with elaborate sketches and long-form scrawling (and some are of course), but mine are literally black pen words, like ‘cobalt/pink/yellow’, sometimes accompanied by a small outline sketch of a mug or a teapot; just little triggers and reminders.
Then there is a process of prototyping the 3D-shape, which will generally be a mixture of wheel throwing, slip casting, and hand building, as well as colour testing. There are a lot of recipes, instructions, and kiln records in my journal tracking this process. Creativity is only a part of the process with ceramics, because you are simultaneously considering function, and refining within the limitations of the materials you are using.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
A normal day will involve a little bit of admin in the morning before leaving for the studio, and packing or picking up a lunch. Once I am in the studio I prefer to work solidly for several hours, so I try to eliminate some distractions by emailing, printing out orders, and sorting food before I arrive.
The first and last day in the studio week are less demanding, so it is important to take advantage of the extra time for material collection and preparation, packing and sending work to stockists, cleaning, and other non-productive activities. The interim days are much more demanding, as I will be both making work, and finishing leather hard (slightly dried) work begun the day prior.
Upon arrival in the studio I write out a list of what will be made that day. This serves a dual function; I work well to a list, but it is also a useful way to ensure I haven’t forgotten to make a component for a piece. There is nothing more frustrating than assembling mugs in the morning and not having the correct amount, or colour, of handles to attach.
Regardless what time I enter the studio, I always seem to really hit my stride in the early afternoon, and have my most productive hours between lunch and early evening.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Kirsten Coelho – Kirsten is one of Australia’s most celebrated ceramicists, and with very good reason – her work is pure technical and visual perfection. She has the same command over her materials as a master dancer has over their physical being, and the works are equally elegant.
Naomi Eller – Naomi is a very interesting artist, who works with ceramics without traditional ceramics training. She treats the ceramic surface with wax, shellac and oil paint, creating truly unique work.
Shelly McLeod – I was about to say Shelley has a gentle touch with her ikebana, but that would be totally incorrect! There is a strong, gestural quality to her arrangements.
Can you tell us the top resources you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
World Food Books has a fantastic collection of books and magazines. Their limited opening hours mean that I rarely get there, but when I do I can’t walk out without a purchase.
My parent’s garden in Gippsland, especially during late spring and early summer. They are native plant fanatics, and my dad has created a vast and sprawling living sculpture from plants he has propagated from seed, set amongst ginormous basalt rocks and winding stairs up and down the banks for different viewpoints.
My friend Zahra has been teaching me primordial sound meditation techniques. I am literally the worst at meditating! But even just trying is lovely, and great for refreshing my perspective.
Angela Brennan’s Instagram account is a perfect eclectic collage of colour, the current, and the historical.
Shepparton Art Museum is an easy day trip from Melbourne, and it houses an excellent collection of Australian ceramics.
What has been your proudest career achievement to date and why?
Being able to do what I love full-time, and having the patience to do it without compromising.
What are you looking forward to?
A collaborative project with one of my closest and oldest friends, Taloi Havini. We studied ceramics together, and are both still practicing today. I am making tiles for the kitchen splashback for her family home in Buka, Bougainville. We will travel to Bougainville and install the tiles together. I can’t wait to see how the colours react in the dense tropical light.
What’s your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood?
I love the inner south. It is home, and it is where my studio is based as well. Highlights for me include Prahran Market for groceries, Da Noi for special dinners, the Botanical Gardens and the bay for walks and fresh air, the Como, Jam Factory, and Astor for film. Also, a lot of the older apartment blocks in the area have camellias planted in the yards, which makes winter a bit more beautiful.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
Misuzu’s is between home and the studio. If I need a lunch while I am at the studio my favourite is selecting tasty little pieces from the take-home counter. I also love dinners at Misuzu’s Umami; the baked scallops and cloudy sake are regulars on my bill. And, although it’s not a full meal per se, Bibelot’s ice cream counter is a regular destination!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
‘Saturday’ is a fluid concept when you work for yourself! But if I am not in the studio I will generally be at the Prahran Market, stocking up on the most delicious and fresh groceries at Pino’s, or en route to the gardens walking our dog Gavo with a coffee. I always try to find a bit of time to be with my ceramics collection on the weekend, having a tea out of a special cup at home, or picking out flowers for a specific vase. That sounds so indulgent (and it is), but using the pieces I love teaches me a great deal about functional ceramics, and what works best.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
It’s not much of a secret, but I don’t think the bay gets the credit it deserves. I am lucky to have it within walking distance of my studio. I find the expanse and stillness of it calming and refreshing. I think we shrug it off a little because it is often compared with Sydney’s beaches, but it is just something different, and all the more special for it.