Pottery Beyond Beauty: The Art of Sustainable Ceramics

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

Ceramics is an art form that dates back as far as 30,000 years ago. Our early ancestors discovered the potential in mixing clay and water, molding it into shapes, and firing their creations to use as both practical tools and also beautiful decorations.

Throughout the years, the materials and techniques have changed and evolved, but ceramics has maintained its place in art museums, as kitchenware, and for decoration. 

In our modern era of Marie Kondo minimalism, the Swedish concept of Lagom, and the growing concern for our planet and sustainability, more and more people are turning to ceramics not just for the aesthetics, but also under the impression that it is an eco-friendly choice.

But as I looked into buying ceramic pieces for my own home, I began to wonder if all ceramics are created equally. And if the materials and processes are really as sustainable as people make them out to be.

Not long into following the Instagram account of Garden Study Ceramics did I realize that its founder, Janet Kim, would be the perfect person to ask.

Janet’s creations fit the minimalist aesthetic, but they go a step further. There is a clear intentionality and artistry to her designs that seemed to embody mindfulness. When I learned she was taking a break to experiment and research how to reduce her impact on the environment, I interviewed her to find out more about her process and sustainability efforts:

 What initially drew you to pottery making?

The stillness. As a mom who left her career to raise little ones, I was just looking for time to myself. I found a course catalog from a local community program mailed to my house, flipped it to the arts section, and decided to dive into something new. The practice of centering and forming a piece of clay on the wheel is both creative and meditative. The concentration it requires often quiets a frazzled mind!

 At what point did you feel compelled to create your company, Garden Study Ceramics, and is there a story behind the name? 

 Friends and family would offer to buy the pieces I made in class, or commission me to create something for them. I tried to make a few things to sell at a local art fair to gauge interest in my work at the end of my ceramics class. I ended up making enough money to furnish a full studio (kiln, wheel, furniture, work tables, and materials!) and thought it was a sign to give it a go.

As for the name, I was inspired by the nature that surrounds where I live. My studio sits on a mountain and opens up to a wildflower canyon that explodes with bright colorful florals every season ... my own majestic garden!

Would you say that ceramic making is a mindful practice? Can you walk us generally through the process from beginning to end?

 It is! You start with a mound of clay on a wheel and feel it wobbling under your fingers. It's easy to get frustrated trying to center yourself while centering the clay—it takes a lot of concentration and stillness to guide it to where you want it to go. Clay often tells you how you are. If you try to center the clay with little patience and brute strength, it'll get wobbly (and could fly off the wheel!). 

 Once you've made your vessel or form, you let it sit for a few hours before you can trim the bottom. Then you add your maker's mark, and let them dry for up to a week. Sometimes, longer, if the pieces or details are delicate and need to be covered—since clay can crack if not dried evenly. Then it's headed to the kiln to bake for up to 12 hours, with several more hours to let it cool. Your work still isn't complete! It's just been biscuit fired, or made hard and porous for the next step: glazing. I'm learning to make my own glazes at home, similar to how a chef creates their own recipes for a meal. Once glazed, the piece is fired again to set the glaze like glass. Pottery isn't something you can rush, it's the process of learning patience!

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

You’ve shared that you have a background in TV news reporting. What, if any, is your background in art and design?

 TV news requires collaborative and visual storytelling, which, in a lot of ways, requires an artist's mind. Journalism has helped me grow as a creative, and I've always been a visual artist in different mediums for as long as I can remember. I'm innately curious about how things are made, so with the help of online resources and local workshops, I've steeped myself in learning different skills and hobbies: from furniture making, sewing my own swimsuits and cocktail dresses, to deep sea fishing and cooking multi-ethnic meals. I love to create! 

 You call your work botanically inspired and made by the sea. Can you elaborate on your design process and do you feel that where you live has impacted your process?

 My studio sits in a beautiful canyon in a mountain, which has inspired everything from my floral designs to the earthy clays that I use for my work. I'm also raising a little garden for my children to learn to be natural explorers. Living in San Diego and near so many beaches, it's almost second nature to adopt an attitude of conservation and respect for nature. 

 You are taking extra steps to reduce your impact on the Earth, like creating your ceramics in small batches and shipping them in eco-friendly packaging. But many people are under the impression that ceramic pottery is already one of the more sustainable options for kitchen and dinnerware. Would you say that all ceramic pottery is sustainable or that there’s more work to be done?  

 It's true - ceramics is one of the most natural materials you can use in your home, since it is directly derived from the Earth. But there is still room to be greener in ceramic arts. Simple steps like reclaiming, reusing, and recycling materials in my work is a start for my studio. My kiln is solar powered, and I've also started working with a local company that takes in my glaze and clay waste to reuse as aggregate in building materials for roads and highways. 

 What should consumers be mindful of when shopping for sustainable ceramic pottery?

 Work that is not only beautifully designed and made, but also environmentally friendly and socially responsible. A lot of energy is required to fire a kiln, and toxic materials are added to the clay or finish that can leach into your food if not manufactured properly. The FDA has a list of 650+ products that have tested to have lead contamination from tableware factories across the world. If you're buying handmade, feel free to ask the maker about how they strive to work sustainably in a creative way!

 You call yourself a habitual hobbyist (which I can very much relate to). From TV news reporting to ceramic making and the future dream you mentioned on your Instagram stories of becoming a modern alpaca farmer, do you feel you are led by your passion to learn, your itch for a creative outlet, your motivation to reach a goal, or some combination of the three? 

 I'd like to think I'm a lifelong learner and researcher, which helped carry my career for nearly a decade in my former life as a reporter. I think it is that natural curiosity that gets me into so many hobbies, but also allows me to immerse myself into growing my business. I'm not just learning about the pottery process, but expanding into areas like creating my own glaze recipes ... which has now evolved into creating modular dinnerware that challenges the way we use and stack our dishes. My ceramic journey has been steeped in learning, creating, setting and reaching goals!

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

Photo courtesy of Garden Study Ceramics

 Where can people find your ceramics?

A handful of local shops carry my goods, but I mostly sell online by releasing seasonal, small batches to give me the freedom to evolve artistically— and also work on my modular dinnerware project... coming this winter!

-

It’s inspiring to see how Janet has been able to combine artistry with sustainability. She is proof that we can always improve upon an existing system—even one that we already feel is the best option. Her efforts to reduce her studio’s waste, minimize toxins, and reduce energy-use deserve recognition and hopefully will become the standard.

Janet has exposed why it’s important to ask questions and educate ourselves on the products and practices we invest in. And what better way than to support small and local businesses doing their part?