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Sarah Schembri

Studio Visit

13th June, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 13th June 2014

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Details from the studio of Melbourne ceramicist Sarah Schembri. We love the speckles! Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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Sarah Schembri working on the wheel in her studio. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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Sarah Schembri at work. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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Sarah's ceramics. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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Sarah Schembri in her East Brunswick  studio. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

One great thing about shooting FOOD so regularly these days, is that it gets me back in the stylist-seat (so to speak!), which means I've always got an eye out for new ceramics and interesting vessels to use in our Tasty Tuesday shoots.  A few months ago whilst sourcing for this awesome shoot, I picked up a number of beautiful locally made treasures at Craft Victoria, and it was here that I first discovered local ceramicist Sarah Schembri.  INSTANTLY obsessed.  I immediately stocked up on a range of Sarah's speckled 'Shino' tableware, which is just so incredibly beautiful, and, we have found, supremely photogenic!  (Which is why Sarah's work just seems to keeping popping up here again and again and again!)

So, really, it was only a matter of time before we tracked Sarah down for an in depth profile piece, and a closer look at her work. As it turns out, we were quietly chuffed to learn that Sarah is practically our neighbour - she works from a studio at Northcote Pottery Supplies, where she is an artist in residence, and also teaches weekend classes.

Sarah didn't start out with a creative career.  After spending most of her working life in IT and various management roles, she first took up ceramics in 2002 as a means to alleviate stress.  She loved it, and with encouragement from her husband, three years later Sarah enrolled in a Ceramics Diploma at Holmesglen Institute of Tafe in 2005.  After five years of part time study, she completed her Diploma in Ceramics in 2010.  Since then, Sarah has focussed fulltime on her creative practice, first taking on a lease at a shared studio space in North Melbourne, before being offered an opportunity to move to Northcote Pottery Supplies in East Brunswick as an artist in residence, where she is still based.

Over the past four years, Sarah has been concentrating on developing her current 'Shino' range - a growing collection of tableware with a distinctively Japanese aesthetic.  Much of this work is inspired too by Sarah's love of food and cooking - she is passionate about making pieces that are not only visually appealing, but are functional and tactile too.  She is certain that food tastes better on a handmade plate!

Sarah's work can be found at Craft Victoria, Mr Kitly, Lygon St. NurserySmallpieces Gallery at Northcote Pottery Supplies, and in her brand new online shop!

Sarah's next classes at Northcote Pottery Supplies commence on 19th July and run for 6 weeks. She also teaches wheel throwing privately from her own studio.

AND you can also follow Sarah on Instagram! (We do!)

Tell us a little bit about yourself – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing today?

I was born in Melbourne, however when I was three years old my family moved to a farm in Western Victoria. I spent almost 20 years growing up on a cattle and wheat property with my family. I bought my first home in my early twenties in Melbourne, where I was working at the time.

I spent the majority of my working life in IT, in various management and operational roles. In 2002, I was looking for something that would alleviate my stress and decided to try pottery classes. After some encouragement and much support from my husband I enrolled in a Ceramics Diploma at Holmesglen Institute of Tafe in 2005. I continued to work in the city, mostly part time, and also studied part time. After five years of part time study I completed a Diploma in Ceramics at Ballarat University in 2010.

After finishing at Ballarat in 2010, I took a studio lease at Danaher Lane Studios in North Melbourne where I stayed for 2 years. In 2012 I had the opportunity to move to Northcote Pottery Supplies in East Brunswick as an artist in residence, which is where my studio now is.

Recently I’ve been concentrating on creating a range of tableware that is functional and a pleasure to use. For the past two years I have also been a tutor at Northcote Pottery Supplies, which I absolutely love. I teach Saturday Wheel Throwing Classes, both morning and afternoon. I find it hugely rewarding working with students who have had no experience on the wheel, and seeing how they are inspired after a term. It’s like something ignites within them. I feel rewarded to be a part of this.

How did you originally become involved with ceramics? What drew you to it initially?

It was 2002. I was working in a demanding and stressful IT role. I remember reading an article in a local paper about pottery classes, and thought for a brief moment, 'wouldn’t that be fun?'.

After a few weeks I decided to enrol in Saturday morning throwing classes at Carlton Arts Centre, hoping to relieve my stress. I was there for a few months before I moved to Sydney for my husband’s work. I found a great Arts Centre that ran pottery classes there; the Willoughby Arts Centre. I spent 2.5 years doing classes taught by Ceramic Artist Barbara Campbell-Allen, who was such an inspiration to me. I loved the classes and couldn’t get enough.

I love the level of freedom you can have with clay. All clays have their own ‘personalities’. I enjoy the process of becoming ‘intimate’ with what I am working on, and yes I know this may sound strange! I love what I do! I feel so fortunate to have found a medium that takes me back to my childhood, not so much in the classroom, but it takes me back to growing up on the farm with my brother, mucking around in the mud, we had lots of fun. It was only a few years ago that I realised just how much that time influenced my work. It’s the energy and limitless possibilities that I love most about clay.

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Studio details. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
How would you describe the style of your work, and what influences your aesthetic?

I don’t approach my work self-consciously, in the sense that I don't feel attached to a particular aesthetic. I don’t think this particularly matters – I see my work evolving and changing as my experiences change, both artistically and personally.

I’m very drawn to textures and colours. I am inspired by places I have travelled to – natural beauty as diverse as Queenstown in NZ where the landscapes are breathtaking, and Broome in WA where rock formations at Cable Beach and the ocean are truly spectacular. These environments clear the mind and inspire the spirit. Alternatively, everyday activities such as visiting a restaurant, listening to a song or conversing with a friend can sometimes stimulate a thought that can be expressed through ceramics.

Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? Do you work alone, collaborate or outsource any significant aspects of your practice?

The majority of my pieces are created on the wheel. Functional tableware is where my focus currently is. I also enjoy making sculptural pieces and raku work (a type of traditional Japanese pottery). When time permits I would like to go back to working on some sculptural pieces. Occasionally, I will do some hand built pieces or use a mould, but throwing on the wheel is what I’m most passionate about.

At the moment I do all the creative studio work of designing, creating and glazing myself. I'm very hands on with my projects. For me it's not just about making a finished product for someone or putting it into a store, it's about the journey. I really enjoy this process. Sometimes it can become quite challenging as there are often several projects and commissions happening at the same time, however I choose the projects that are of interest to me, and ones that I'm passionate about; I think this is the key!

This year I engaged a good friend of mine, Ingrid Conde to manage my website and to do general administration work from time to time, like designing cards. We have a great working relationship, and we're also best mates, having met in Sydney over 10 years ago through a mutual interest in ceramics.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

It varies depending on what projects I'm working on, but most days I'm in the studio early in the afternoon and work to early evening, and later if needed. I'm not a morning person! Unless I have a class I'm teaching or a meeting I'm rarely up before 8.30am.

Some of my best ideas and solutions come to me just before I wake, so I just allow that to happen. It's also really nice that I can do that. After some bonding with my two adorable cats Oscar and Sabrina, I head downstairs to make myself a coffee and collect my thoughts for the day. I then spend time checking emails, social media, and following up anything that needs doing before getting ready to head over to the studio.

My studio is at Northcote Pottery Supplies in East Brunswick, where I'm a Resident Artist.  I really love it!  It's a great environment. It's my home away from home! I also work from home a day or two a week where I have my second wheel.

I'm fortunate that I can work the hours I like, so I try and manage my time as efficiently and effectively as possible, trying not to have too many late working nights. I used to work quite long hours, but I'm slowly learning the art of work/life balance; it's certainly not easy!

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Sarah making a bowl. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

1. Books - I love them! I'm always buying them! I love beautifully illustrated recipe books and ceramic books but appreciate all books.

2. The Design Files - of course!

3. Instagram - one of my favorite tools at the moment. It's a great way to market your work, connect with people and be inspired by others creativity.

4. Foxtel - I love the cooking shows, Jamie Oliver, Maggie Beer, Donna Hay. There's also a new Japanese channel which showcases ceramics and food that I enjoy watching when on – very inspiring.

5. My environment. There's so much going on around us all the time, so much to see, and feel. I'm drawn to landscapes, wide open spaces, textures and colours!

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

There have been many, however most recently having my pieces featured a few times in The Design Files 'Tasty Tuesday' column was super exciting. It was totally unexpected and such a tingly moment for me!

However, as much as it's wonderful to have your work recognised, for me there is also something quite special about inspiring others. I love teaching and find it hugely rewarding working with students who are new to ceramics.  I had three of my students from last term in 2013 enrol into Tafe this year, that was very pleasing to see!

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Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
What would be your dream project?

There are a few! But one that comes to mind is working with a notable foodie like Maggie Beer or Simon Bryant. I loved the energy and passion they had together on their show The Cook and The Chef. I would love to make a selection of tableware where I had scope to create what I wanted, perhaps with the guidance of a menu or two.

What are you looking forward to?

So many things! Learning new skills!

I’m passionate about working with restaurants/chefs and anyone in the food industry, particularly as I have a passion for food and the way it’s presented. It’s so immensely rewarding for me when I see one of my bowls or plates being used. It’s the importance and beauty of the handmade, using the ceramic form to enhance food, this is what interests me and something that I want to continue to build going forward.

I’ve also just finished creating an online store, which I’m very excited about. Nothing too big, but an important milestone!

I was invited by Ceramics Victoria earlier this year to participate in an exhibition – Still Firing at 45 Fresh Clay, which opens on 26th June. The exhibition showcases 10 selected emerging Ceramic Artists. I feel very honoured to have been asked to be a part of this. I'm really pleased with the pieces I've made for this exhibition and I look forward to seeing everyone's work on the opening night. All the work will be for sale.

I’d also like to have a solo show within the next few years.

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Ceramic tools in Sarah's studio. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighborhood and why?

Port Melbourne. It's where I live with my husband John and our two beautiful cats. I love what Port Melbourne offers. It's lovely to be so close to the beach (we are just a few metres away!), but also to be close to the city. It's lovely and quiet, something that I treasure. The amenities are great, good shopping, nice delis, eateries, great bike paths. I really like the beach end of Bay St, lots of new cafes have emerged over recent years and of course the wonderful South Melbourne Market is just around the corner. Perfect!

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Northcote Pottery Supplies mostly, as my studio is there and it's super convenient. The staff are terrific and full of knowledge, something I value a lot. Occasionally, I'll also go to Potters Equipment in Ringwood.

Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Bamboo House on Tuesday night. I've been dining there for several years and it's a favourite. The service is impeccable. Steamed dumplings, peking duck, sizzling beef, rice and greens... the peking duck is amazing and the best in the city!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

If I'm not teaching a class at Northcote Pottery Supplies I'm catching up on sleep, or having a late breakfast with my husband in Port Melbourne or Albert Park.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Patbingsoo, a new Korean eatery in South Melbourne. Great people, great food!

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Sarah Schembri ceramic vessel with miniature bonsai made exclusively for Lygon St. Nursery. Photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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