Her down-to-earth ceramics have earned Katherine Smyth a devoted following at home in Aotearoa. She talks to Sharon Stephenson about what gets her fired up.
Visiting Katherine Smyth is a little like falling down a rabbit hole. At the bottom, you emerge in a haze of ceramics – colourful glazed vases, bowls and plates that look too nice to eat from.
I’m at the Wellington ceramicist’s studio, next to her Lyall Bay cottage, where you can smell the ocean but not see it. It’s the engine room of Katherine’s 22-year-old business: walls are lined with hefty bags of clay and neatly labelled buckets of glaze, a huge electric kiln – one of two she owns – anchors a corner, while in the other is an electric potter’s wheel. “It’s better suited to a high output than a manual wheel,” she says.
When we chat, Katherine is working 12-15 hours a day, battling to meet not only the usual pre-Christmas/wedding season rush, but also the post-Covid spending spree.
“Our darling prime minister told us to shop local, so that’s what people are doing,” Katherine says. “I can barely keep up with the rush, which isn’t a bad problem to have when you’re an artist.”
You might have seen Katherine’s colourful crockery in various homeware shops and galleries around the country – vibrant vessels that bring a contemporary element to ceramic traditions, with each piece individually crafted by hand.
“That’s why there are slight variations in colour and size between each one. It gives an organic, rustic quality that people seem to like,” she says.
Her pieces are intended for everyday use, but still feel like something you could impress guests with at your next dinner party.
Much of Katherine’s work is inspired by food, such as the hummus bowl, which came out of her travels in the Middle East, a deep pasta bowl and an even deeper vessel she calls the chow bowl.
“Food is an artistic expression, but I also became interested in what the food was contained in,” she explains.
It comes as no surprise that before Katherine was a ceramicist, the fifth of six children (five girls, one boy) spent much of her working life as a chef.
“I tried various things, such as university and signing up for a hairdressing apprenticeship, mainly to annoy my parents, but none of them stuck.”
When she spied an advert for a trainee chef at the legendary former Wellington restaurant Il Casino, she knew she’d found her groove.
That led to work at Wellington’s original Sugar Club with chef Peter Gordon, then seven years in Sydney, where she rattled the pans at a number of high-profile eateries.
Art, however, found Katherine early. As a child, she would sprawl across the floor of her parents’ Christchurch home, creating worlds out of squiggles and colours.
Later, Katherine signed up for the three-year ceramics diploma at East Sydney Technical College, where she learned how to turn lumps of clay into sleek vases and chunky domestic ware.
In 1993, Katherine got the opportunity to travel to Jordan and teach ceramics to young women. She fell in love with the Middle East, returning to cook for a team of archaeologists (she’s since been back on research trips). Keen to keep travelling, Katherine wound up in London, where Peter was about to open the UK version of the Sugar Club. She ended up staying there for three and a bit years, feeding everyone from Madonna and George Michael to Nick Cave and Sam Neill.
On her days off, Katherine kept busy in a rented studio alongside fellow artists, making, among other things, ceramic pieces for the Sugar Club and the prestigious Conran Shop.
In 1998, when her father was dying, Katherine returned to New Zealand. By then, she was ready to shelve the cheffing for full-time art.
People told me I couldn’t make a living as a ceramicist, but I thought, ‘I’ll show you!’
Swimming in a much smaller pond did have its advantages. “I rang Te Papa to see if they’d stock my work and had an order by the end of the day, whereas in London, it took a year before the Conran Shop even got back to me.”
Ceramics, though, involves hard physical labour and Katherine wondered how long she could continue to do it.
“I thought I should have another plan, another way to make myself more useful,” she explains.
So, eight years ago, Katherine signed up for a law degree, fitting in part-time study at Victoria University around her ceramic work.
“It’s hard being an adult student, but I love learning new things, especially about environmental law. I’ve got two papers left and I’m not sure what I’ll do after that, maybe policy work.”
It would have to be part-time, though, because Katherine has no intention of giving up her beloved ceramics just yet.
When she’s not studying or throwing clay at her wheel, Katherine can be found taming her wild coastal garden or walking Hadley, the SPCA rescue dog she shares with Philly, her textile artist sister.
“I look after Hadley during weekdays when Philly’s at work. Walking him along the beach is a great way to blow out the cobwebs and think about my next bowl or vase.”