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Girl on fire

In ways both subtle and obvious, temperature and weather determine the daily behaviors of many. If it's a warm, sunny weekend, perhaps a day at the beach, a forest hike, or a lazy, languishing picnic are in order. Grey and rainy Sundays, on the other hand, call for blankets and page-turning novels. We don wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses to protect us from the sun’s scorching rays, or turn to slickers and rain boots when puddles abound.  What we choose to engage in, or refrain from, is often borne out of consideration for whatever climatic conditions the day brings. Ceramicist Clair Catillaz understands the demands and dictates of moisture all too well. The rhythm of her days is guided by it, or, perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof.

After rising early, brewing a pot of coffee, and checking email, Catillaz turns to the skies, and to her creations, to see what the day holds.  “Everything very much depends on how dry the clay is.” The degree of dryness of the vessels she’s fired factors considerably into her daily routine. If they’re dry, it’s time to trim and glaze. Otherwise, throwing a first batch, and then heading on to a yoga class might be the plan. Of course, a gorgeous morning and the potential it holds for a “good beach day” might just trump everything. Such are the pleasures of being one's own boss. 

This what-the-day-brings approach to work wasn’t always the case for Catillaz. A degree in public policy was followed up with stints in both brand strategy and entrepreneurial work. A self-described “angsty, impossible teenager,” Catillaz took a ceramics class with her mother at age 12. She took to it immediately and continued throwing clay on the side for years.

In the early days, Catillaz maintained a “casual” approach to making ceramics, focusing more on learning technique, taking her time to truly hone her skills. Her own aesthetic came later, developing over time, and has been largely influenced by a sense of place. Living in Brooklyn, NY, using an electric kiln and selecting the particular glazes that she does, has informed the vessels she creates, she feels. “My style might be quite different in a different setting, like a big rambling farm in the country.

Inspired by a dual interest in mid-century ceramics and the hefty, sturdy china characteristic of diners, Catillaz places heavy emphasis on the tactile nature of her creations. Though she appreciates texture and pattern and feels she might one day employ decorative motifs in her work, for now, her form-focused, humble approach gravitates towards objects intended for daily use, making “things people actually want to use.” She also intends to further explore the technical side of ceramics before tackling other aspects of the trade. “I’m still learning so much, about how to do simple, basic things really well, like how to use clay well, and recycle it, and still make it look good and intentional when it’s recycled.

So what inspires the elegant yet utilitarian pieces she crafts? Unlike the concrete absolutism of whether a vessel has dried thoroughly or not, the well from which her creativity springs is harder to define. “It’s hard to pinpoint a constant inspiration point, it’s more of a collective; a great deal of my brainstorming process happens in the studio.” A personal mission to continually improve and refine her skill is largely what compels Catillaz to fire up the kiln and return to the kick wheel, time and again. “A lot of people make very nice work, but they aren’t necessarily trying to get better, they’re not trying new forms, and keep making the same thing, over and over again, making only one type of vessel.

For her, it's all about staying motivated and exploring all aspects of ceramics, from new glazes, to new forms, to individual one-off pieces. In fact, her most beloved part of the process of making occurs when the kiln is unloaded. Viewing the results of a firing, she serves as her harshest critic, holding each piece to the highest of standards. A vessel “can’t be wobbly without intention, can’t have cracks or naked spots on glaze that aren’t supposed to be there, and can’t have any debris from the kiln.” It’s such scrupulous attention, wherein the human behind each piece is made manifest, but only in its best possible incarnation, that truly distinguishes Catillaz's work.

To the on-the-side, on-the-fence maker currently considering taking their passion full-time, she offers some time-honored pearls of wisdom. "Don't make a major career leap unless you really love what you’ll be doing, and then get really good at it." Truly enjoying what you’ll be doing, and being eager to do it, is imperative. Furthermore, she encourages would-be makers to become particularly adept at using the internet (for commerce and marketing), as well as honing their chops at photography. “People buy from photographs alone.

When she’s not sitting at her wheel or lifting items out of the kiln, Catillaz enjoys pursuing what she refers to as the 'simple life'. Yoga, dinner parties, live music, farmer's market excursions, weekend getaways, observing and learning about how things grow-such activities fill up her beyond-the-studio hours. That said, it's when the heat is on that she truly thrives. A blazing kiln, a dry vessel, and a personal temperament driven towards employing fire to craft her wares make Clair Catillaz one hot ticket, come rain or shine.

Words by Ashley English.

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