Interview with creator/founder Ian Minshull
Interview by Jo Blackened
Black Star Ceramics was established in April 2016 in Crewe, Cheshire and is now based in Baldwins Gate, Staffordshire. Everything they make is handmade using traditional techniques including hand throwing, mould making, blocking and casing services, slip casting and bisque products, glazing and hand painting to produce single one-off items as well as multi-piece collections, making their items unique, bespoke and original.
Hey, thanks for your time today. Let’s start at the beginning; how did you first get into pottery?
I first got into pottery when I was studying three-dimensional design at college. Pottery was not really something I thought about at the time until one day the lecturer said “okay everyone is learning pottery today”. So I sat down at the wheel and that was my first experience with pottery; and it was one of those days that kind of changes your life, where you find something that you’re just instantly at home with. The way you use your hands to sculpt the clay just felt really natural to me. The excitement of never really knowing what the finished piece will look like, and the jeopardy of it all going wrong, so pretty much from that day I’ve been fascinated by making pottery.
What kind of experience does someone need to create ceramics? And when, how did you learn?
I learnt a little bit at college but basically became self-taught. There was nobody at college that understood the full processes of pottery, so it was literally me and another student who sat every single day in the pottery studio teaching ourselves, how to throw different shapes on the wheel and fire the kilns. Anyone can learn how to make pottery. There are so many classes that people can go to, whether once a week just for fun, or clay clubs for people that really want to take it seriously. Pottery equipment can be really expensive, even second hand. So the best thing to do is find somewhere that does classes, and they usually provide everything you need and will fire your work for you.
You’ve previously worked for the world-famous Royal Doulton and Beswick ceramic companies, how did this come about and what made you leave and start Black Star Ceramics?
After leaving college, I went to work as a mould maker and then found work in Stoke-on-Trent. It was incredible to work for some of those big companies, they were always these big old factories, absolutely full of character. The people that worked in the factories were amazing, they were incredibly skilled workers. I loved working for them. After a few years, I was made redundant, and sadly most of the original places shut down. I spent quite a bit of time away from the pottery industry. Then came a TV series called the Great Pottery Throwdown. I was watching it with my girlfriend Kate and the conversation went “I can make that. I can do that”. Kate said it was such a waste of talent not to be doing it and asked what equipment I needed. I needed a wheel, a kiln, literally everything! She was the driving force behind it, by saying “if this is what you want to do, then this what we’ll buy”, so we saved up and bought all the equipment. This was just at the time where David Bowie had just released his last album. I’m a huge Bowie fan, so it just kind of made sense to name it Black Star Ceramics.
A lot of your creations seem to be quite alternative with a gothic/metal theme and style; do you have a background in music and the scene?
Yes, I’ve been a drummer for 35 years and played in lots of bands. I also play guitar, bass and I’m even teaching myself how to play the piano at the minute. I love bands like Rammstein, Nine Inch Nails and Dimmu Borgir, so there is a heavy influence from music in my artwork. Music is always on in the background in the pottery studio, and it’s always nice to link back into that, so you’ll see a lot of my more artistic pieces are named after pieces of music that inspired me or I was listening to when I was making it.
What is the process from start to finish? And how long does it take to make a piece?
Each piece takes normally about 4 to 5 weeks to make. There are many different processes in every piece, even in the smallest pieces. I’ll make the piece and dry it for a few days. Then I’ll start to work on the piece, carving, trimming or connecting different sections together. Then there’s more drying, depending on the piece, it can be up to another 2 to 3 weeks. It then gets fired in the kiln for about 36 hours. I’ll then glaze the pieces, each piece normally needs 3 coats of glaze and each coat must be bone dry before the next application. Then it goes back in the kiln for another 24 hours and all being well, the finished piece emerges intact!…. hopefully!
What is the most challenging piece you’ve created, and why was it so difficult?
I think the most challenging technique as a whole is raku. Raku, a Japanese technique meaning “joy”, is where pieces are literally set on fire. It’s very difficult but incredibly rewarding. Literally, anything can go wrong, but when it goes right, the results are spectacular. I built my own kiln for this process as it requires rapid intense firing which a normal kiln cannot do. The pieces go into the kiln and are fired up to 1000°C, and whilst they’re at that temperature, I take them out and drop them into sawdust and paper. The combustible material bursts into flames, it’s really quite spectacular. There’s lots of smoke and fire, like an acrid bar-b-que! Working at those temperatures is very dangerous, pieces can explode in your hands or crack inside the combustibles. Then you’ve got to get the pieces back out, you literally put your hand into a bucket of fire and try and find something to grab, hold the pot and lift it out. I’ve had a number for close calls. I lost quite a lot of my beard in a fireball, and set my mum’s hat on fire on another occasion!
Do you work alone, or do you have a team to help?
There’s two of us in Black Star Ceramics, me and my girlfriend Kate. Whilst I make everything, Kate helps with a lot of the glazing, she also does a lot of the social media sites, so while I’m busy making stuff, she’s busy answering questions and taking orders from people.
Do you hand paint every item?
Yes, I do. Every single piece has a minimum of three coats of glaze on it. Some of my pieces can have up to maybe 13 or 14 different layers of glaze. With an hour drying between coats, you can imagine how long it takes to glaze some of those pieces!
What temperature do you fire to? Do you need to use and wear special equipment?
I fire the clay up to 1000°C for raku and 1060°C for earthenware. Stoneware goes up to 1240°C. I only really need to wear safety equipment when I’m doing the raku firing. I wear a special mask, almost like a gas mask! I spent a few years just shutting my eyes and holding my breath. I discovered the benefits of vision and breathing does help the process. And I use welding gloves when I’m putting my hand into the fire and special tongs to lift pieces out. Other than that, it’s pretty much shorts and trainers. I should probably wear something a little bit safer….. but hey!
What kind of clay do you use?
Lots of different types of clay, depending on the piece. But the main clay I use is from a local company called Potclays. I mainly use studio white earthenware clay. It’s a really high-quality white body clay perfect for throwing, versatile with a really wide firing range, so I can use it for many different techniques. I also use a specialist raku clay which is designed to withstand the intense firing process. It’s more gritting and feels like you’re throwing concrete! Working with raku clay can be quite hard on your hands, in fact, it wears away my fingerprints. It’s difficult to explain to a rather larger security guard at Las Vegas airport why I don’t have any fingerprints. Luckily he finally agreed to let me into the country.
What is the best pottery-related and most expensive purchase you’ve made?
When we first set up Black Star Ceramics, I needed a wheel and kiln. So off we went to my local pottery suppliers to buy them along with all the clay and glazes. All of that in one go was about £4500. Five years later, I’m still using the same wheel and kiln, which have helped produce thousands of pieces. So they have more than paid for themselves, it’s just a very expensive initial outlay
Do you recycle?
Yes, as much as possible. There’s actually very little waste from Pottery. Most of the waste clay gets reused. All of our packaging can be recycled, including the bubble wrap and airbags we use. That’s something really important to us. Pottery can last a lifetime. So by buying, for example, some of our pottery Halloween pumpkins, instead of plastic Halloween decorations, or using a nice pottery mug every day, is better for the environment, than disposable cups with plastic lids.
Have you had any exhibitions or entered any shows to showcase your work?
There’s not many that are on during the current time, so we showcase everything on our social media. It’s definitely something we’re looking to do in the future.
Where do you source your products? Do you support other local businesses?
I source everything literally 6 or 7 miles up the road! As a potter, there is no better place to work than Stoke on Trent, everything you could possibly need is here. There are so many glaze and clay manufacturers in the area, hence it’s locally named “The Potteries”! There are people who build kilns and supply raw materials. We also support lots of other local businesses and we do lots of products which are sold in local shops. There is a local Harry Potter shop called “Potteries Potions”, we do all of their bespoke merchandise, their own branded mugs and potion bottles. I do brand cocktail ceramic cups for a local bar called Reggie‘s which is just up the road. So we try and support as many local businesses as possible.
Where do you get the inspiration to create new ideas?
New ideas quite often come from my customers. They’ll come to me with an idea, whether it’s bespoke dinner service or an item they want but can’t find anywhere else. My ideas tend to come from different crafts. So I’ll look at woodwork and metalwork techniques and think about how I can incorporate similar things into my designs. I’ve used tree bark to replicate wood, imprinting it into the clay so the ceramic looks like real wood.
Do you have a new theme in mind you want to work on?
I’ve always got 1 million ideas running around in my head. Sometimes it can take months or even years to actually start to develop and produce a new product. I find I’m maybe a few months ahead or even years ahead of what I want to do. But I’ve got lots of ideas that I’m planning for, maybe some clocks or something like that will be something to look at soon.
Where are your products sold? Do you ship worldwide?
We have our own website; www.blackstarceramics.co.uk, which is very popular with our customers. We try to keep it updated but products sometimes sell out quicker than we can make them! Often we can release a product, and it sells out completely in 2 hours. We also advertise across social media where people can order direct. We have our products in several shops and galleries around the country and we also stock specialist horror genre sites too. We ship all over the world. We have pieces in America, Australia, New Zealand, all across Europe and all over the UK!
How do you feel is the best way to advertise?
The best advertising for us has been word of mouth from happy customers. I can’t say how many people have got in touch with bespoke orders because they’ve been told about us or seen one of our pieces in a friend’s house! We have also built a very strong following online. We started with Facebook and Instagram and in five years we’ve amassed over 25K followers across all platforms. We engage regularly and show people the process. People can watch me throwing, glazing, carving! We’ve even done live raku!!
How do you feel about sharing your pottery and glazing techniques? Do you think it’s important to share and allow others in the same business to know or do you feel it’s better to keep some things secret due to competition?
It’s 50-50! We quite often help out other potters if they’re struggling with something and need some advice. It could be anything from firing temperatures to glazing techniques or types of clay. We do lots of live videos where people can watch and ask us questions. We love doing that as people can watch their piece being made and see it come to life. We also do lessons (not right now!) where people of all different levels will come to learn something, it could be someone who has never thrown before or someone who is skilled but needs a refresher or wants to learn a different process. On the other side of it, there are lots of things we keep secret and don’t show. It might be something two years into development or a technique that I’ve been working on for a long time which is our unique product. I’m willing to share some things certainly, but equally, some of the things we do are kept secret. I’m sure everyone would do the same when they’ve put so much effort into it.
How the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic affect you and your business?
Right at the very beginning of the pandemic, everything closed at the same time. So we couldn’t do lessons, all the galleries shut, the markets stopped and we couldn’t have people coming to collect pieces from us. We quickly switched to completely online sales and in the first month we noticed the sales had increased, the second month increased drastically and then very quickly we tripled sales. For the past year and a half, since Covid happened, our sales have gone through the roof. It’s been absolutely incredible. It’s mainly because people are now shopping almost completely online. They’re shopping more with local businesses. At times, (and even now) it’s hard to get hold of materials, and prices of materials have increased. We always have to plan further in advance now and at times called in lots of favours from our suppliers and from our friends. But we’ve got through it and we’ve come out far stronger than we were at the beginning. It’s completely changed my business and has changed some of the products that we make. But it’s looking very good for our future!
What motivates you the most to keep going and coming up with new ideas?
I’ve always got ideas spinning around my head of different things I want to make, or different techniques I want to try. I think that’s one of the things with pottery, that you can make literally anything out of clay. If you think about the things we use on a daily basis, mugs, plates, toilets, tiles, even our houses are made from clay bricks. Clay is so versatile you can make almost anything out of it. Every day is different, one day you can be making a dinner service for somebody the next day you could be making a load of clay pumpkins to send off to America.
You often do giveaway competitions; do you have any coming up that our readers can enter?
Yes. We do an annual birthday competition at the beginning of May where we’ll have a special one-off piece available and give away 4 or 5 pieces. We do a pumpkin carving competition every Halloween where we give away some of our pumpkins or poison mugs. We tend to do one or two others at random times in the year where we’ll give away different pieces. fact, in the next couple of weeks we will be doing something, so if your readers follow us on Instagram or Facebook, they’ll see one or two of the events we’ve got coming up.
What other interests do you have aside from making ceramics?
I’m a keen musician. If I’m not making pottery, I’ll be on my drum kit or playing the guitar. I love playing music and used to play in bands and do session work. I used to teach music as well, but now it’s just purely for fun. I have my own recording studio at home and spend quite a bit of time having fun recording with friends. A couple of beers and we just record some songs. We love to go to gigs and festivals. Hopefully, things will get back to a little more normality and we can start to watch bands again.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
We’ve always got so many secret projects that we’re working on, but I can’t tell you. One project that we’ve just done is a film that will be released, I think towards the end of the year. It’s called “The Colour Room” starring Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgeton) and Matt Goode (The Imitation Game), which is about an incredible ceramicist from Stoke-on-Trent called Clarice Cliff. I was an extra in that, so I had fun for a day dressed up as a 1920s potter. Fingers crossed, you might see me in a couple of scenes, as long as I don’t end up on the cutting room floor!
What goals do you have in the future?
I think just keep on making pottery and enjoying it. I’ve got to meet some amazing people, do things I never thought I would and made pieces for loads of really cool people. I literally never know what could happen next….. but I reckon it will be fun.
What advice would you give someone wanting to do what you do?
I just do it. If there is something that you really want to do if there is something that you really want to learn, put the time in and just do it. I think sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Look how the world has changed, literally overnight, with the pandemic. Don’t regret not doing something when you had the chance. Plus, it’s great fun learning, you can’t do much damage with a piece of clay! Have fun learning and practising, have fun making all kinds of things.
Thanks again for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add or say to our readers?
Thank you for the opportunity to engage with your readers, we really hope you’ve found it interesting. Do come and say hi on our social media and if anyone would like to know more, or order anything, then please do get in touch.