Based in the small town of George in South Africa, pottery studio Wonki Ware have worked with over 100 local South Africans, providing them with skilled training in pottery. Their strong yet light pieces for the home are made from locally dug raw South African clay, each with an intricate, hand painted slip border.
We talk to Wonki Ware's founder Di Marshall about her journey, her inspirations and the role of nature in creating.
What does the name Wonki Ware mean and how did it all begin?
Wonki Ware was such a spontaneous name. A few of us in our studio were looking at a bowl on the table. We were looking at the particular method we had used, an age-old method of slab-rolling out clay, which is then draped over a bowl to give it both its shape and form.
The way it dried had left the bowl all wonky, so it was as simple as that. We said, it looks like a bit of a wonky bowl Wonki Ware, that will be the name. There wasn't any sort of think-tank, it came very intuitively.
Before we had our studio, Wonki Ware started as a place where people could drop by, buy a plate and paint it themselves. I would go home at night to fire them and bring them back when they were ready. On the side, I also had a small business supplying clay and raw materials, and the two together all took off very quickly. From this small project, Wonki Ware has evolved and has grown into a collective force of creativity and energy. We now have around 100 people working together, it has been a journey of miracles.
Were you formally trained in ceramics when you started Wonki Ware? Where did you learn your skills?
I was never formally trained, but I have always been immersed in a creative world. I worked for advertising agencies prior to Wonki Ware, and I was a creative thinker, but I had never been creative with my hands.
The actual skill of starting to work with clay began when my children were very small. We used to live out on a small-holding and I had lots of time to explore the different parts of the area. I started going to pottery classes and was hooked from the minute I touched clay. I started working on the wheel, started hand-building and started more sculptural work. I applied myself to the material and learned what clay could really do.
Can you describe George Town and its landscape?
George and its landscape are wonderful. The green and the mountains and the beaches make for an incredible environment to both work and live in. It is also a wonderful to be able sun-dry the product.
What kind of skills do you teach to your artisans? How is each piece at Wonki Ware made?
We are very authentic about our processes at Wonki Ware, from the very beginning to end. We teach traditional pottery techniques, and work with clay that has been dug out of the ground. Everything is done by hand - creating a result that I believe can never be replaced by machines.
Most of our pieces are created using a slab-rolling process, which is easy to teach and doesn't have to be perfect to look brilliant. The process of working with clay can be really revealing, it tells you a lot about each of the artisans, how they are as people and the subtleties to their characters.
The only machines we use at Wonki Ware are the kilns to fire our pottery, which we pack and load efficiently - a skill in itself!
Where do you source your materials?
All of our materials are sourced locally. We are very proudly South African, and so we have a commitment to our country to use as many local raw materials as possible.
Most of our clay comes from East London in the Eastern Cape. It's an extremely versatile clay, and you can make many different patterns and shapes from it all in one day.
We are savvy where we can be, and recycle as much of our clay as possible. We even collect rain water to use in the studio!
Does nature play a role in the process of creating your pottery? What is the importance of nature to you?
All of our pieces are left out in the heat of the sun to dry, which is why the climate in George is perfect for making pottery. Wonki Ware is indigenous to George, so it thrives here.
My natural surroundings are extremely important to my creativity and to my mind too. I am my happiest and most content when I am out in the open, experiencing the wildlife, sunsets and natural beautify of Africa.
In what ways has the community of George Town come together? What does community and family personally mean to you?
Community and family are the wellbeing of the whole town. If our town is happy and the people are feeling stimulated, it means the community is safe.
My family and my staff are my priority in keeping a flow of good energy, and we all support each other. Pottery has done all of these things, and it has given the makers at Wonki Ware a real sense of pride and purpose.
Without family, we do not have a support system, so if families are together and stable, that makes for a happy community.
You have helped so many people over the years at Wonki Ware, what has driven you to do this?
It has come naturally for me, and I have enjoyed every part of helping the people around me. But most importantly it has helped me as a person. Simultaneously, as they have grown, I have grown alongside them.
It gives me pride to think that Wonki Ware was born out of such a small idea. I have seen it flourish and change the lives of so many people. We have had the opportunity to show the better parts of ourselves, and improve the lives of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, which has been really rewarding and encouraging to see.
What is the best advice you have been given that you could pass on?
The most valuable things I could pass on are the things that I have observed, felt and learned from my journey. From financial advice for small businesses, to the power of positive thinking. But my most obvious advice would be, have a sense of humour, and always be open to the flow of life.
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