Features

Thou Shalt Covet

Whether it’s sculptural hand-built vases or textural mugs and bowls to use everyday, the beautiful works by Slab Ceramics are all highly covetable. We check out Suzy Granger’s home studio in Pāpāmoa.

Whether it’s sculptural hand-built vases or textural mugs and bowls to use everyday, the beautiful works by Slab Ceramics are all highly covetable. We check out Suzy Granger’s home studio in Pāpāmoa.

A stretch of fine Pāpāmoa sand is granting artist Suzy Granger creative and personal gratification.

The former primary school teacher and Slab Ceramics founder produces a range of hand-built and wheel-thrown ceramics in her garden studio, five minutes’ walk from the ocean’s edge. Dune contours and textures inspire her. So do the shapes carved by waves. Sometimes, she will whip locally-gathered sand into liquid clay to create Japanese-inspired yunomi cups or speckled vases and vessels. Several pieces feature a raw, grainy exterior that showcases the sandy clay. “The beach is a big influence. It’s quite precious. We always wanted to live here and it’s my place.”

This particular edge of the Pacific Ocean is also her playground. She swims in the sea most days, surfs often and walks the family dog Yoshi along kilometres of coastline as she dreams up new designs for retail outlets and markets, or her online store.

Cover image is the Handbuilt Vessel #1 in Cream Speckled — ideal to use as a vase or to simply admire. Cream Speckled Colander and Pasta Bowls, and the Diner Cups in Cream Speckled and Basil.

Suzy with her Yunomi Cups and the Tri-Coned Vessel in Brown with a hydrangea from her garden.

However, the journey to Bay of Plenty living has taken decades and involved another continent as well as matching uniforms. Both Suzy and Warren, her husband-to-be, were wearing lifeguard outfits the day they met, on duty at London’s Fulham Pools in England. Eventually, the Kiwi traveller and her British beau booked flights for a New Zealand holiday.

The visit was in honour of her father’s sixtieth birthday but Warren, an outdoor education graduate, convinced his girlfriend they should also embark on a bicycle tour of the North Island. “I remember riding the Desert Road, swearing and crying out ‘what the hell am I doing’.” Their journey ended prematurely in Palmerston North, when they discovered Suzy was six weeks pregnant.

The return ticket was cancelled and they stayed put. Suzy’s sister was already living in the city, they found work, raised two daughters and grew fond of the rugged western coast’s Foxton Beach.

A decade ago, the Bay of Plenty’s east coast waves and sunshine lured the couple north to buy their basic Kiwi bach. “We’ve both always loved the sea and it’s wonderful living here,” she says of their Pāpāmoa life. “We feel like we’ve come home.”

Daughter Poppy and her husband Jake currently reside on the property, awaiting a more affordable time to buy their own place. The potter’s wheel and workbench have been installed in a converted lean-to, on the edge of the garden.

In lieu of permanent walls, the studio has clear plastic cafe blinds that are rolled up in summer to admit cicada song and a skiff of sea breeze. The vegetable garden lies just beyond mass-planted marigolds, and there’s ready access to the outdoor shower and the surfboard rack. In colder months, blinds come down, the heater goes on and the studio is a cosy bubble.

Chilly weather is never a problem though, thanks to the physicality of her chosen pursuit. It’s tough on her hands and back, and she practices yoga daily — Suzy previously taught Iyengar yoga — to counteract the stresses on her body. There is constant movement: bending, lifting, rolling coils of clay or smoothing and sculpting it at a wheel
or on the bench. Mixing glazes is heavy work, so is hefting a 10kg clay pack onto the workbench where it’s kneaded to release any air bubbles. Every mug or pot or jug is carted out to the dedicated kiln shed on a small trolley, to be fired, before being carted back in again. Her clothes and short-clipped nails are consistently caked in a milky film and her brain whirs with ideas.

In fact, the artist has to reign herself in and remember work is not her sole focus. She’s determined to make time for coffee with friends and holidays with family, and space to branch out creatively rather than repeatedly churning out orders for matching pieces.

“It’s amazing up here. There really are lots of opportunities for ceramics and there’s so much support for small business and local business. People contact me all the time, wanting to stock our ceramics and that’s wonderful but I have to be a bit discerning. I think it’s important, as an artist, to have time to explore, to have a little sabbatical.”

The business is very much a family affair. Warren is a former sport and recreation lecturer who now provides student support at Toi Ohomai when he’s not helping man the Slab Ceramics stall at The Little Big Markets. Poppy manages the accounts and looks after social media pages for her mother, while studying graphic design. She and big sister Zhoe, who is an Elam art school graduate and New York-based artist, are also heavily involved in branding and marketing decisions.

A work table at Slab with essential tools Suzy uses for throwing and trimming.

Son-in-law Jake is a picture framer in a Tauranga gallery and provides periodic hands-on help in the studio. He and Suzy share a love of Japanese ceramics and of that culture’s wabi-sabi philosophy that celebrates imperfections. When a kiln firing recently went awry and several pieces cracked, it was Jake who took charge of reinventing the works. He used gold dust and resin to highlight rather than hide the cracks, using a Japanese process known as kinsugi. “I love that. It’s really important,” says Suzy. “I think we’ve all got imperfections and I love that side of the philosophy.

“And Jake’s so good with details. I’ve taught him to make hand-built butter conditioners and he’s picked it up really quickly. I trust him. I make 99 percent of the work but it’s really nice to have that support.”

Suzy’s mother was an English art school graduate who studied interior design and painted watercolours throughout her life. Her father’s parents were also British, though he grew up on a Sri Lankan tea estate. When the couple emigrated to New Zealand and bought a dairy farm overlooking the Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland, they gifted their daughter an idyllic, bucolic, horse-riding childhood. Suzy’s first brush with formal art training happened later in life when she was a mother of two embarking on a teaching career.

Much as she relished her work as a specialty literacy teacher — “the children made me laugh every day” — her creative pursuits became increasingly important. Initial interest in painting gave way to curiosity about ceramics. Feilding’s pottery club members generously shared their knowledge, exposing the novice to varied styles and techniques, and setting her up with an old pedal-powered potter’s wheel. As her confidence grew, she experimented more and found a style she liked.

The Monolithic Curved Vessel is hand-built with a rough exterior consisting of volcanic grit and local sand.

Admiring friends began asking if they could buy her work and Slab Ceramics was born. These days, her own kitchen is dotted with “wonky” rejects and seconds — a planter and a cutlery holder, a colander for eggs, the fruit bowl, a jug.

Paper Plane store in Mt Maunganui is her largest commercial customer; owners Tim and Krista Plews visited the Pāpāmoa studio early on and have continued to be especially supportive. Suzy also supplies design stores in Whāngarei, Hamilton and Taupō, as well as an online store based in Wellington. She accepts some commissions and is currently finishing hand-built lamps for a local interior designer.

“The markets have been amazing for us. We love going. We let people know we’ll be there on social media and it’s so lovely when you have people coming down specifically to find you. We have our regulars now. “Like any creative outlet, you’ve got to have that audience, that feedback and connection.

I do get quite surprised when people like it or love it.  You always make yourself kind of vulnerable when you’re putting it out there, see it in a shop and think, ‘was it good enough?’. But I’m just making what I want to make, not trying to fit into anywhere.”

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@slab.ceramics

Story by Sue Hoffart
Photography by Alice Veysey