Hole & Corner visits potter Jono Smart to talk materials, process, why throwing is his zen and the power of Instagram.
Jono Smart has thrown himself into ceramics over the last two years (yes, you may have noticed we’re suckers for an obvious pun) but nonetheless in this case it’s an apt description of how he approaches life – from the nightly viewings of pottery videos to his extensive clay and glaze testing – all meticulously recorded in an Excel spreadsheet and finally produced as clay tester in a spectrum of coloured clays and glazes. Every measurement, shape and material is pre-mediated in order to produce a considered whole.
How did you get started? Have you always been a potter?
No. Previously I worked in London in garden design for seven to eight years for a man called Luciano Giubbilei. He’s probably one of the top ten in the world in his field, so I spent a lot of time in London as well as travelling the world learning to manage big installations. The gardens would take three or four years from design to being finished – and then the client says 'thank you' and you’d never see it again! I was getting tired and 'Londonised', so I took up pottery as a hobby to de-stress about 18 months ago. I actually took up a few things as hobbies: silversmithing, carpentry, but I was collecting ceramics too – although I hate being dirty, so I thought I’d never be able to do pottery.
How do you get over that?
It was weird. I got to a point where I’d watched so many videos that I had to go and try it. I was watching them nightly on a website called Those Who Make, which features different craftsmen in beautifully shot videos. Eventually I signed up to a course in Haggerston at a studio called Turning Earth. I went there and just sat down at the wheel and realised that I knew how to do it – sort of by proxy.
You mean how to use the wheel?
Yes, I wasn’t great or anything, but I understood what was going on. And it just felt so relaxing. I’ve never really made anything with that amount concentration, and when you speak to potters and painters they say how time passes – three hours can just disappear. It relaxes a whole part of your brain, you haven’t made any decisions or forced yourself to do anything. Everyone I was learning with had the same experience. Four hours later, we would ‘wake up’ from this trance-like state and be like, ‘what on earth has just happened?’ We’d finish and everyone would feel this same elation.
I had about 10 hours of lessons, but with the Turning Earth membership you can also have up to 15 hours a week in the studio. I ended up cleaning for them and building a garden so I could be in there for 50, 60, 70 hours a week and I just loved it.
How long was it before you started to think of it as a career?
I was at Turning Earth for about four months and then went to work for Billy Lloyd for a couple of months. After that, it took off and I started getting orders. It was 12 months ago this October that I got my first big order, the job paid for my kiln, and I just went for it.
Was the cup the starting point?
Completely. I made them in two directions, tapering in at the top then flaring out at the bottom… I wanted everything else to go around it. The plan was that every piece lined up and you’d get the gap in-between. I really like it when you can line up the entire dinner set and you can get 10 bowls and 10 cups, and the gaps go in and out all the way along.
Do you work with particular clays?
I work with a lot of different clays. Most potters in studios work with one clay, because it’s quite tricky to manage different clays going through studios. They shrink and dry out at different rates, which makes it quite hard work. I work with four clays – and I tested 100 that you can see on the wall over there…
It looks lovely. I’m going to call it your ceramic pantone chart.
Yes that’s exactly what it looks like! At the beginning of the year I set myself a challenge to make 100 cups in a couple of weeks to test out all the different clays. I bought in a couple of kilos of all of the clays I could get my hands on and mixed them with different oxides, so where you see the colours going from white to black, that’s me mixing in iron oxide, black stain and copper. I made them in a spectrum of colours and laid them all out and picked out the ones I wanted to work with, which are the five with a really neutral palette. Then I sent out the remaining cups to people who I thought would like them.
Do you have a favourite tool?
I use lollypop sticks and those sticks that you use in gardens to show you which plant it is. It's not like carpentry, where tools are expensive and important and really difficult to replace. For 90% of the time you're using your hands. And the finishing is using car sponges, so they're not really precious things – to me anyway – I'm sure they are to some people. I could replace all my tools for £70 tomorrow if I had to. I don't really see my tools as too important.
What is the favourite part of the process for you?
The throwing, without a doubt. The clay is just a lump of nothing before it goes on [the wheel] and it's really hard to describe, because the clay goes through such a tiny gap. You have to keep your hands locked together because if you keep them separate they wave around too much – you have to keep them really steady. Even the slightest bit of pressure makes a huge difference to the thing you're making. You can't really talk about it with other potters, because there aren't really the words to describe these tiny movements that create these things that can grow really tall, very quickly.
It’s a pretty impressive transformation, isn't it?
Yes! With carpentry you buy timber and it is beautiful already. It’s the same with fabrics, but clay isn't beautiful. But after five minutes on the wheel, it’s an object with character. That feeling still shocks me. And that’s my favourite bit.
Tell us about your success on Instagram. It seems like a big part of your business model.
Completely, I miss it if I don’t post on Instagram everyday. I miss all the nice comments that keep me going during the day. People write to me from Denmark, Australia, Canada, the US… and I'd say I’ve met every single one of my stockists through Instagram. In fact I’d probably be really struggling to maintain a studio without Instagram, which seems kind of ridiculous.
What's your hole-and-corner?
It goes on from what I was talking about throwing earlier. There's this Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who disclosed a state called ‘flow’ where your skill level and your concentration level are at the same point – and this goes for tennis players or whenever someone says that they're in ‘the zone’ basically. It’s was really interesting to find out that it’s an actual psychological state -–how you can no longer register time passing, and that for me is just an unbelievable feeling. That’s my hole-and-corner.
Photographs Emli Bendixen
Words Julia Jarvis