Honesty has always been the best policy according to ceramicist Ruth Laird Spence. Having made her debut in the dining scene with 30 handcrafted Moroccan tagines made exclusively for Jason Jones’ restaurant B’Stilla in Melbourne, Spence has since designed and produced unique wares for MoVida Aqui and MoVida Sydney.
Working out of a tin shed in the back streets of inner-Melbourne suburb Richmond, she confesses that it’s a great time to be a craftsperson. Bearing a unique aesthetic style that lends itself so well to an era in which imperfections and natural processes are adored, Spence’s handcrafted tablewares are full of character.
“Having experienced evenings out where things were just right, from the food to the music to what we ate off, I just had this desire to make ceramics that people would use every day, with a handmade look and feel,” she says.
“I’m not really one for fiddly and intricate designs, I create ceramic wares that are chunky and rustic and that stand up to commercial kitchens. When you supply to restaurants, it’s all about allowing the food to take the limelight by providing a blank canvas.”
In the shed that Spence has transformed into a workshop for her fledgling business Fork Ceramics, she demonstrates the process of throwing a bowl on a wheel. Each hand movement is thoughtfully calculated, like a practiced dance routine – she speaks to the clay until it rises suddenly into life and form.
“I always wanted to work with my hands. I was always running around in the muck as a child and my dad was very handy, I really admired that,” Spence says. “Working with your hands and making something from a substance that has come out of the ground is so primitive, it just seemed natural for me to do this.”
As she spins the wheel, Spence speaks of the mental and physical challenges that come with the job, from working alone on large-scale restaurant orders to experimenting with shapes, glaze recipes and firing times.
“I’m discovering it all. When I moved into this backyard I wasn’t set up and I had a massive order and it was really tough. My body was aching and I questioned whether I would be able to handle this,” she recalls.
“If I worked for a company or a potters collective, I would have constant support, but working alone I don’t always have that information and support on tap. I’m problem-solving and learning new processes every day by myself, but I’m very lucky to have an excellent bank of mentors who are just a phone call away.”
Now equipped with her very own in-house kiln, Spence has the opportunity to experiment with new aesthetics, in preparation for upcoming restaurant collaborations. She says that chefs nowadays are looking far beyond their own creations and seeking tablewares that enrich culinary ideas.
“The chefs I supply to really like the fact that every piece of Fork Ceramics is different. Each piece expresses so much personality and tells people a little bit about the process of creation,” says Spence. “I think for any chef or person interested in food and dining, this exposure to the process of creation is fundamental. From suppliers to makers – from a farmer rearing a goat to another farmer plucking heirloom carrots out of the ground – it’s all about being hands-on and I think plates and bowls are now apart of this movement.”
As for the future, Spence says: “I’m currently working on wares for a Vietnamese restaurant that hasn’t opened yet, which sits very closely to my heart. I’ve been heavily involved in the creative process, working alongside interior designers, chefs and my lovely husband. I’ve been able to consider a wider range of colours, textures and glazes in relation to the restaurants imagined interior – it’s so fantastic being involved from the ground up.”