The creative heart of Susan Simonini’s workspace is an old kitchen table topped with a slab of clay, waiting to be transformed. Nearby, shelves lined with a rainbow of paint pots and glazes sit alongside a desk piled high with orders to dispatch. In an adjoining room, floor-to-ceiling open shelving holds beautiful vessels, bowls and plates in various stages of production – awaiting a dip in a bucket of glaze, hand-painting or firing in the kiln.
This maker’s haven is a former garage and spare room, which together form an enviably large studio tucked behind Susan’s family home in a leafy Gold Coast suburb. “Our house by comparison is tiny, so I feel very fortunate to have such a large space to work and play around,” says Susan. The studio previously belonged to her eldest son Kieren, 24. When he moved out of home last year, she was quick to lay claim. “Now it’s where I spend most of my time,” Susan reveals, who is also the mother of Kyle, 22, and Thomas, 15. “Even after working in here all day, after dinner I often can’t help sneaking back for a few hours.”
Susan has a degree in fine arts and spent more than a decade print making and painting. Then a night class at a local potters’ group two years ago inspired a change of career direction. “I instantly fell head over heels for clay,”she explains, adding that after years of wielding a paintbrush, the new medium reignited an insatiable desire to experiment and expand her skills. “There’s something very meditative and tactile in using your hands to create beautiful and functional things from a slab of clay,” says Susan.
There were plenty of breakages during those early days but the unpredictability of working with clay never lost its appeal. “Whenever you try something new, there’s always an element of the unknown,” reasons Susan. “You never know exactly how it’s going to turn out, so there are many surprises when you open the kiln,” she adds.
There are pleasant surprises, too. Happy accidents, when something turns out even better than you imagined, are always a wonderful surprise. The only problem is remembering exactly what you did to produce a specific effect!” Susan laughs.
Drawing inspiration from her home’s surrounding coastline, Susan prefers hand-building techniques such as pinching and working with rolled-out slabs, as free-form touches lend themselves to organic, distinctly handmade shapes. “Compared to using a wheel, it’s a slower, more meditative process,” she says. “But with minimal tools involved, I feel I end up with pieces which are all me.”
Texture and contrast are defining features of Susan’s diverse ceramic range, which is made from gritty stoneware and terracotta clays and finished with various surface treatments. Handcrafted plates, serving bowls and teacups in her ‘Rustic Speckle’ collection pair earthy tones with delicate coloured patterns and glazes. Meanwhile, tapas plates and cups in her ‘Geo Floral’ range are decorated with Japanese tissue transfer and selectively glazed to highlight textural differences between glaze and raw clay.
Susan’s work has broad appeal. Her stalls in Brisbane at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art market and The Finders Keepers market sell out, while her Etsy store keeps her continually busy with orders streaming in from around the world. She admits the popularity of her pieces is gratifying, and a little overwhelming, but is keen to keep her artisanal business small and manageable. “Every facet of the process has my heart and soul in it, which is something I love and find incredibly satisfying,” says Susan. “It’s all-consuming, yet I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The only downside, it appears, is that it doesn’t leave much time to produce pieces for her own home. “My husband Richard often eyes off orders and asks why we don’t have any of my tableware for ourselves,” she admits. “I tell him, ‘One day… one day!’”