Inside her home studio, the ceramic artist Zoë Isaacs is quietly busy honing her craft: slicing, kneading, throwing, spinning, glazing and firing clay into vessels both functional and cerebral, subtly reflecting the natural world that surrounds her in Pōneke Wellington’s Island Bay. Her pottery is largely defined by her deep connection to place; she works with a variety of clays from Aotearoa New Zealand, which she then shapes using a manual kick wheel.
"I love using clay because I feel connected to the earth and the world around me," says Isaacs. Her work, which she imbues with texture through the addition of grog — small pieces of fired clay — has a rustic quality that mirrors the nearby coastal landscape. The supernatural force that drives her, however, is less easily defined: "I don't really know [why], but I just love it. I can't really explain it, but I just really want to do it.”
Another defining aspect of her work is the human touch she imparts to each piece. "Feeling a human element in the work is quite important," she says. "I think that's why people appreciate handmade work, because they can tell it's made by an imperfect person." Her journey over the last six years has been marked by a continuous pursuit of learning and experimentation, first beginning with night classes in Ōtepoti Dunedin, and later formalised with a year of study in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.
"Something I love about pottery is that it's kind of endless how much I can learn. I'll never really understand how it all works, so it keeps me engaged."
The volatile nature of clay and the kiln's behaviour keeps her on her toes, and she readily embraces the challenges this unpredictability presents. Her tableware, though seemingly simple in its form, is a means of contemplating a much more complex dynamic: the inseparable interplay of her vision, her material, and the processes she employs. A rigid adherence to any one of these facets — namely, her initial vision — often proves to be ineffective; instead, there’s greater satisfaction to be gleaned in relinquishing control and finding a balance between the unique tendencies of the clay, kiln and glaze to influence the final product, resulting in a more meaningful and expressive object.
The decisive step of setting up her own studio just a year ago, transforming her lifelong love of art-making into a viable business, has been perhaps the most significant milestone for Zoë. "A highlight has been getting to a point where I can make a living off my work and have enough support to do that," she says with palpable gratitude. “It seems a bit surreal, but it's quite amazing. It's been my dream for a while.”
Zoë's path has been shaped by her fellow artists, including her time working as a studio assistant for a fellow Pōneke-based potter who demonstrated that pottery could be a viable profession when no other models for success were visible to her. The broader camaraderie of the pottery community in Aotearoa New Zealand has also been invaluable to her growth. "I think the pottery community is very connected across the country," Isaacs explains. "Potters are generous with their knowledge, and we all figure out problems together, helping each other out."
To reach a wider audience and support her journey as a professional potter, Zoë turned to Squarespace to fortify her online presence. "It mostly just helped me be able to sell my work to people around the country," she says. “I've put more and more focus on it as I get more serious about my business.” Her website now not only serves as a platform for selling her products but also as a place where people can learn more about her. In a journal, she shares the thoughts that occupy her mind while her hands are busy at work in the studio.
Using Squarespace has also opened up Zoë's pottery to an international audience, who aren’t able to connect with her at the markets and fairs that are integral to makers running small, independent businesses. “It’s important to me because a lot of my work is about connecting with people through the objects that I make and they use. I think sharing perspectives is really important, and seeing the art that other people make [at markets] is a great way of doing that,” continues Isaacs, who will be participating in the upcoming Semi Permanent Aotearoa Art & Design Fair, powered by Squarespace.
Squarespace will also host a panel discussion, titled Freelance by design: Behind-the-scenes of Aotearoa's independent studios, as part of the Semi Permanent Aotearoa Festival of Creativity & Design. The one-hour session will explore the risks and rewards of establishing an independent design business as an extension of multidisciplinary practices encompassing branding, illustration, publishing and UX design.
As she looks ahead, Zoë remains committed to her craft and her belief that her vessels possess a power that surpasses their unassuming function: to help us pay attention to the details of the everyday, and in doing so, offer us a deeper connection to and enjoyment of life through their beauty. "I just want to keep learning and experimenting and making what I want to make," she reflects.
Visit www.squarespace.com/semipermanent and enter promo code SEMIPERMANENT at checkout by 11.59PM AEST on 16 December 2023 to receive 20% off your purchase of a new subscription plan for a Squarespace website. Discount applies to the first payment of an annual or monthly website plan, but does not apply to future recurring payments. Discount may not be applied to previous purchases, subscription upgrades, combined with any other offer or applied after 16 December 2023 to purchases made before expiration of this offer. Use of Squarespace is subject to the Squarespace Terms of Service posted at https://www.squarespace.com/terms-of-service.
Portrait courtesy of Flo Isaacs