When Milka Zaleska was young, in a playful creative gesture her architect father assigned her and her sister each a colour. Her sister got red and she a brilliant cobalt blue, a shade that would later become her chromatic talisman.
Growing up in an artistic family – her grandfather was also an architect and her sister is an accomplished illustrator – Zaleska dabbled in various disciplines including jewellery, drawing and painting, but none felt like a consistent creative outlet that was uniquely hers.
It was while living in Sydney in 2020 that she went to her first ceramics class – and three classes later, the city went into lockdown. With her schedule wiped free, “I hired a wheel,” she tells Broadsheet. “I bought probably around 30 kilos of clay. And with Youtube, I started practising all day, every day.”
When the lockdown eventually eased, Poland-born Zaleska returned home to Europe for the summer, where she did a week-long ceramics course with the noted ceramicist Eric Landon of Tortus in Copenhagen (the studio is now based in London). “It was a very frustrating, very challenging week, actually,” she admits, feeling at the time that she didn’t make much progress – but it turned out to be pivotal given that shortly after she moved to Auckland in 2022, she joined The Clay Centre in Ellerslie where master potter Peter Collis invited her to join him as an apprentice.
During her six-month assisting stint, Zaleska absorbed Collis’s know-how. Working alongside him, she began to find her flow. “This is what enabled me to find what I want to make. I went through an organic phase, a colourful phase – nothing worked. But when I finally got the skills that I needed to evolve, that’s what shaped it quite naturally,” she explains. “I started leaning towards very feminine silhouettes. These shapes just kind of come out of my hands.”
Alongside their saturated blue tone and rounded lines, her most notable recent collections of vessels, vases and “doughnut” bowls have a finely-grained surface texture, which she creates with a special glaze. “Personally, I don’t like it when things are too shiny,” she laughs. “Even when I eat, I like it when things have a crunch.”
From first sketch to final glaze, Zaleska’s process is exacting and lengthy. She exclusively throws on the wheel, which can take around 20-to-40 minutes – the fastest step. Once the clay is at the leather-hard stage, she refines the form (trimming) – sometimes in two or three rounds – with each modification pushing the timeline out by a day.
Once she’s happy with the form, the piece dries out to a bone-dry stage. Next, two rounds of low-temperature firing: a bisque firing and then the glaze firing – which requires a high level of care. “The glazes I work with now have this refined texture, and they’re quite hard to handle,” Zaleska explains. All in all, a single doughnut can take up to two weeks to create. And all of this is done after-hours, around her day job in events management.
What began as a pastime and became a lockdown coping mechanism is now a form of meditation for Zaleska. “Pottery really calms me down, helps me deal with everything that I have in my head. I found a bit of an introvert in the extrovert that I am, and I started to nurture the time that I have just with myself.”
Her practice is also a means of channelling the creativity that had been long in search of an outlet. Inspirations range from the female form to contemporary Danish design and the pink mounds of Pierre Cardin’s Bubble Palace.
Zaleska has released her pieces so far in small, limited collections. Captured by photographer Guy Coombes, her work caught the eye of beauty behemoth Mecca, which recently commissioned a custom order that saw her experiment with a tangerine tone. Is this indicative of a shift in direction, away from her trademark cobalt? “I’m leaning towards more of a softer side now,” she says. “Just as an experiment – because we have to evolve a little bit as well.”