Mary Conroy

I work with clay and ceramics.


What craft do you work with? 

I work with clay and ceramics. I have always made things from objects and materials that I found, such as clay, sticks, flowers etc. My mother often jokes that I always played in the mud when I was a child and now here I am, a grown woman, still playing with mud! These days I mostly slip cast my ceramics and use sgraffito and inlay for surface designs.

What inspires you to work with this craft? 

I love the endless possibilities of clay. It can be formed into almost anything and has such varied uses from fine art to industry. I think I’m a bit addicted to the excitement of opening the glaze kiln. That feeling of wonder and relief when I know it all worked out and seeing the alchemy of earth and fire. I think ceramics, in fact all craft, matters now more than ever. We are living in an age we are moving so far away from the physical world, living and interacting through 2D screens with augmented and virtual reality. The tactile nature and the physical materiality of clay is impossible to replace. Animals, including humans, have been constructing with clay for millennia. It is in our genes. This connection cannot be severed even though we are moving towards a more digital world. We must stay connected with this magical material. It connects us to our past and we can use it to build our future.

How do you start your creative process?

My Creative process usually starts with a walk. The purpose of this is twofold. First, it is to clear my head from any of the everyday tasks of life – family responsibilities, the to-do list, life admin etc. When this is achieved, I can begin the second purpose – looking at the world around me. Walking then becomes exploring, and this leads to discoveries of shapes, colours, forms, patterns, and surfaces. I photograph these, sometimes draw them, occasionally I pick up an object and I take all these new discoveries back to the studio to develop on paper and in clay. The most difficult part is finding the time to do this, the time to really switch off from the everyday and switch on to personal creativity. The most enjoyable part is always the making. Getting into the flow and sitting with only one task – confidently making art – is my Zen.

How would you best describe your workspace and what tools could you not do without?

My workspace is somewhere between a workshop, a shed and a studio. My practice includes multiple materials and processes, not just clay. It is generally messy with more than one project happening at a time. I work alone in my studio, it is small, but it fits me just right. Of course there is never enough storage space for clay, glazes, tools, materials and works in progress. However, I decided when I was fitting it out that what I needed was not more shelves, but less stuff. This decision has helped to be very careful about what I keep and realise what is important to me. The tool I couldn’t do without is a set of laser-cut polycarbonate shapes that I custom made on a digital fabrication course. They serve as templates, measuring tools and mark-makers specific to the forms I produce from my own plaster moulds.

Are there new techniques you would like to try?

I am always interested in trying new things. As a ceramic artist there are so many possibilities, so many things I have seen but don’t fully understand in terms of the chemistry and physics of clay and firings. I would like to try more experimental kilns and glazes using local materials. In this era of climate change, resource depletion and over-consumption I am exploring ways of making work that can be as gentle as possible on the delicate eco-systems that we call home. For this, I’m not looking so much towards new techniques, but hoping to rediscover old techniques that can be brought into a contemporary context.

What is the best advice you have received that you would like to share with fellow crafters?

One piece of advice that I got from a customer when I was working as a waitress after my graduation was to ‘find someone to champion your work’. I didn’t really understand the significance of this at the time but now I know exactly what he meant. We, as artists and makers, must wear a multitude of hats – accountants, salespeople, designers, social media experts, packaging specialists etc etc etc. What he meant was to find someone, an expert, to do this work for you. It may be a gallerist, a shop, even an influencer – someone who believes in you and your work to do the marketing and selling so you can get on with the making. Having someone like this and good support network around you with colleagues, family and friends is essential to keep you motivated to keep going on what might otherwise be a lonely and winding path. Working with others not only helps with motivation but it generates ideas, can sparks new ways of working and bring you to places that you may never have dreamed of. Yes, stay true to yourself, but take the time to listen to others around you, even if they don’t think like you, they too, have valid experience and knowledge in this shared world.

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