JO-ANNE KUTER: CREATING OUT OF THE BLUE
WORDS : SHIRLEY LE GUERN
“For me, it has always been about lines. Everything of mine has a line. Actually, I’m obsessed with lines and the millions of designs they create. I love the fact that I have never repeated a pattern and each piece is unique. a part of me that will be cherished and used by whoever owns it,” says Durban ceramicist and crafter, Jo-Anne Kuter.
Her signature blue and white creations – which extend from vases and jugs to plates and pots and more – probably grew out of her love for drawing and doodling as well as her own interpretation of both the distinctive blue and white pottery of the Chinese Dynasties and the intricate designs of more traditional Delft blue and white pottery that originated in the Netherlands but spread to England.
Chatting over tea in her eclectic and inspiring studio filled with everything from her pottery to her collection of books and the brightly patterned fabrics that she uses for her patchwork quilts, Jo-Anne admits that there might just be another twist to her fascination with blue and white.
When she was a child, her mother had a massive Dresden dresser full of blue and white Delft, some Chinese pottery and other pieces that she had collected over the years.
As a youngster, Jo-Anne pulled it over and broke some of her Mom’s collection – and has been replacing the items over the years.
“If I see something, I buy it and it is actually full now. I made her two big beautiful plates which are in the middle so maybe, subconsciously, that inspired me to work with blue and white,” she smiles.
On a slightly more serious note, Jo-Anne observes that all ceramicists go through a progression in their work and find their unique styles. Her journey, which started out with simply looking for a new hobby, began with evening lessons with well-known KZN potter, Corrie Hook, in 2010.
Despite having spent most of her career in the accounting field, Jo-Anne admits that she has always leant towards the artistic and loved all things creative. She explains that, from a very young age, she enjoyed sewing and was constantly looking for different ways to express herself through some form of craft.
“Corrie taught me the basics but, as with most things, I actually started to find my own style. Clay has been my ultimate fix. I am able to create something I like and can utilize in a functional way and, at the same time, decorate,” it she says.
Function and beauty are key but she is slowly trying to explore more sculptural pieces. This was evident in her work submitted to the KZN Regional Exhibition in 2021. It started out as a playful piece with which one could interact. Beautiful glazed ceramic “blocks” could be moved to create different ‘buildings’.
The exhibition was postponed due to the July 2021 riots and, during that period, she altered her original concept. It took on a new meaning where she created hundreds of small blocks representing the destruction that ensued. It was a statement piece and Jo-Anne enjoyed the process of deviating from the purely functional.
Patience has been another key ingredient.
“It has been a journey. I have had to learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work. Sometimes, the blue and white bleeds, sometimes I don’t get the right glaze consistency – but that is ceramics. Your error rate can be enormous,” she says pointing to a charming collection of blue and white bowls on a shelf outside.
They all stuck to the kiln shelf and broke which was a stupid error, she says. But they remain a lovely decoration in her beautiful garden.
Having made porcelain dolls 10 years earlier, Jo-Anne still had a small top loader kiln which she started using for what she still saw as a hobby.
“But, just like with a lot of things, you can also end up with too much. You can only use so many cups and saucers and give so many away to other people,” she concedes.
The next step was to begin selling her ceramic creations at local markets – the Wonder Market in Umhlanga, Durban’s I Heart Market and the annual Collisheen Christmas Fair Market.
She was mainly working in white porcelain as she loved the purity of the medium and the fact that it was a bright white which perfectly reflected her strong blue linear and geometric patterns.
But, a few years ago it became impossible to source her much loved porcelain and Jo-Anne began looking around for an alternative.
“There was a problem sourcing kaolin. You get white clay but it doesn’t fire white enough for me. I wanted that very stark white. I didn’t want cream and blue,” she explains.
She began working with “Raku” clay. It is created by Liddgeton based ceramist Lindsay Scott who sources his material locally and produces a beautiful biscuit coloured clay. It was through this that she says she fortuitously began to rediscover her love for colour.
“I started to play with it. My style changed a little and I started to use colour. I also realised that the black lines did this incredible thing, creating beautiful black shadows in the clay. I introduced some flowers that might be seen as more European and then added the geometrical shapes and colours that are more African. It’s a confluence of the two. I call this my African fun style with a modern twist. Most of this work goes to the KZNSA Gallery. I guess it has become my second signature,” Jo-Anne says.
She has also begun creating white on white designs which could potentially evolve into a third signature style. Her creations are either completely white or white on the outside with a colour on the inside.
FROM HAND TO WHEEL
Jo-Anne began making all of her work by hand. This was mainly slab work. Each piece is created by hand and is far more fluid than the more precise geometric forms that come from a potter’s wheel.
“This didn’t read well because my work was quite geometric and I felt that I needed to do things with a more symmetrical form,” she continues.
Although she learnt the basics of how to work on the wheel, the real change came when Jo-Anne and her friend and fellow ceramicist, Louise Jennings, came across Ivin Molefe, a highly skilled but unemployed potter who was, incredibly, digging trenches to earn a living at the time.
Today, he is peacefully throwing on the wheel just outside Jo-Anne’s studio.
“He is incredibly talented and comes to work for me for a week each month and then returns to Louise. He now throws all my work. I draw my designs and let him know the dimensions required. He is amazing and creates exactly what I want – sometimes with a few tweaks here and there. Some pieces are carved by me at the greenware stage to add to the final decoration and some are only decorated at the bisque stage. I am often overwhelmed by the number of items that can be thrown in a day and know that decorating these takes me a few days or weeks to complete. It is not a quick process”.
PATTERN VERSUS PLAIN
While much of the pottery that is found in shops and at markets relies largely on glazed combinations of colours, Jo-Anne’s is intricately patterned.
“Initially, I went through a stage where I thought people wouldn’t relate to my work because it was too busy. Then I realized that there are busy people and calm people. Some like everything white, grey and beige and some like colour. There has to be something for everyone and I have just learnt to embrace it. It’s a case of doing what you love,” she explains.
Accepting and embracing her own style has been an important part of her journey as an artist.
“It’s eclectic. It’s a bit out there but I can’t actually change it. I tried to simplify my work and keep it plain but that did not work for me. I have gone back to the fact that I like to decorate,” she says.
She believes that the many years that she has spent doing patchwork and quilting has also influenced her designs.
The Ceramic Society of Southern Africa has also played an important part in the development of Jo-Anne’s career as a ceramicist. She has not only chaired the KZN branch for five years but also earned a number of awards when showing her work at their regional exhibitions.
But, at the end of the say, what really remains central to Jo-Anne’s work as a ceramicist is her love for what she does. It is not only a creative outlet but almost a type of therapy.
There is a plethora of unique ceramic birds on her table top. “Whenever I feel like I need to get my hands dirty and play with clay, I make these birds as I love to decorate them. They are slowly filling the rafters in my studio. Every time I’m a bit stressed, I make them. They are made by hand out of clay. They are a combination of a little pinch pot (a very tactile little shape) to which I add some wings,” she explains.
Jo-Anne is passionate about the fact that South Africa has so many talented artists and believes that need to be supported.
For her, artistic work ranges from beautiful art to be displayed on walls to smaller functional or sculptural pieces. She would love to see local interior designers work more closely with these artists. She also implores the public to rather buy a beautiful crafted mug from a local market or artisanal store as a gift instead of another mass produced item from the East that adds no value to the local value chain.
“I love seeing unique pieces in someone’s home that speak to their personality. South Africans must become educated about the art that flows through this interesting country,” she says.