Handmade crockery is a practical way to introduce a little local artistry to your home. A tiny spice spoon, moulded under a careful thumbprint; a set of not-quite-matching coffee mugs with the artist’s initials pressed into the clay. In the clutter of Adelaide’s homemade crockery cupboard, there are three outstanding craftswomen: Susan Frost, Katia Carletti and Fruzsi Kenez.
You’ve probably seen their work at Bowerbird, Council of Objects or the Jam Factory. Remember the sharp, pastel lines of Frost’s meticulous stacking plates? The speckled textures of Carletti’s vessels, perfect for cupping between cold hands in winter? Or maybe the energetic sweeps of colour on Kenez’s statuettes and plates?
The trio is united by clay, but that’s about it.
Carletti studied painting at Adelaide Central School of Art. In her fourth year, she began incorporating clay in sculptural elements of her work. She concluded her studies with an exhibition of nesting bowls. In the bellies of these dishes were tiny paintings of the universe. This theme – finding beautiful and sacred meanings in everyday objects – continues to inspire her hand-pinched ceramic works.
In London, Frost took up drawing and painting classes as a hobby. She quickly tired of two-dimensional art. She took millinery and machine-knitting lessons before trying, with a friend, to enrol in a jewellery-making course. “It was full, so we had to do ceramics,” Frost says. “Halfway through the year, we started wheel-throwing, and that was the moment. ‘This is it! This is it!’”
Frost and her husband returned to Adelaide, and she’s done everything she can to keep her hands dirty, first taking classes at TAFE, than progressing through the Jam Factory’s associate program. For the past five years, Frost has been a tenant at the Jam.
Kenez is most well known for her paintings and illustrations, though she says her ceramics repertoire is “not as new as it seems”. Keen Kenez fans may recall Milk., an exhibition held at Urban Cow in 2011. “Ceramics have always been there,” she says. “I was like a little squirrel saving it for later.”
Kenez spent years working in every medium and craft she could – except ceramics. That changed in 2014, when she was working in Japan. She visited Seto, a city renowned for its clay, observed master potters, and collected handmade teapots, cups and other crockery from local makers.
When she returned to Adelaide for Christmas, she met Elizabeth Donaldson, the co-founder of Brick + Mortar. Kenez saw the chance to take her ceramics public, and moved back to Adelaide. “I love the tactility, and I love how [clay] really keeps you honest. It’s a forgiving material, but to an extent,” she says. “And it really shows the maker’s hand.”
For Frost, whose hallmark is precision, the sign of the artist is quite subtle. “I like the idea of making something by hand that could have been made by a machine,” she says. “But I hope people can tell there’s a human behind it.”
The distinction of Frost’s work comes through shape. Conical flasks, jugs and mugs. Steeply rimmed plates and bright, pastel glazes. Her first wheel-thrown pot was the same sloped cylinder that she produces today, albeit much less refined. “I believe everyone has a shape inside themselves,” Frost says. “For me, it’s this one. I’ve always made it. I can’t explain it.”
Her personal bible is a booklet with grid-lined pages, into which she has sketched and measured the last five years’ designs. As she refines processes, she adjusts the weights recorded in the book, and fiddles with heights and lengths until items are exactly as tall, short or angled as she needs.
“I’m the complete opposite!” Katia Carletti says, laughing. She’s an admirer of Frost’s work, but their processes could not be more different. “I never weigh anything, so everything always ends up different sizes. I remember making a few porcelain cups and thinking they would make good-sized coffee mugs, then – oh, no, they’re going to be espresso cups.”
Carletti loves opening the kiln to discover what she’s created. With no patience for consistency, Carletti’s style comes through visual textures. She experiments widely with clays, and takes joy in discovering how these base materials react with certain glazes.
Lately she’s been drawn to a woodash glaze, and the effects of this on porcelain, white raku and buff. The result is an earthen, speckled effect, with the freckles becoming darker or more numerous depending on how Carletti treats any given batch.
Carletti’s approach to glazing is the middle-ground between the other two. Frost has “no patience” for decoration; Kenez is “obsessed by it”.
“My primary interest, besides making the form, is what I can achieve on the surface of it,” Kenez says. “I’m like the Willy Wonka of glazing: extremely experimental. Very unorthodox. Susan is such a master of what she does. Her process is so strict, and her shades – those hues she gets with her glazes – they’re just so spot-on.”
Kenez holds tight to her painting roots, and Carletti is experimenting more. Frost, alone, is glad to be done with the canvas. “Clay, that’s it for me. This is the one.”