Photo credit: Myburgh du Plessis
When Jacques Erasmus first opened his famed Hemelhuijs restaurant in Cape Town, he couldn't find the black crockery he wanted anywhere, so he collaborated with local ceramicist Noleen Read to create it. The plates they crafted together formed the basis of the much-loved homeware collection that evolved at the eatery and that's now also sold at Jacques' new store, Basalt, in Parkhurst, Joburg.
Here we chat to Noleen about making stoneware with Jacques and about her love for ceramics and its cathartic power.
What first drew you to ceramics and what do you enjoy about this medium?
I don’t recall being ‘drawn’ to the medium. I was young and going with the flow and the opportunity to work with clay presented itself to me, so I took it. I liked the spinning wheel and fluidity of the process, with something tangible being produced as a result. I particularly like that there is no end to it - you can carry on learning about clay your whole life and not know all there is to know. I also learn about myself and life through it, which is useful!
Could you tell us more about how your collaboration with Jacques came about?
I first met Jacques through ceramicist Ella-Lou O’Meara. We all worked together initially on a lighting collaboration for the refurbishment of the restaurant at La Motte wine estate. During this time, Jacques mentioned he was opening a restaurant and wanted the crockery made by hand. He drew some of the designs he wanted on these huge pieces of paper and brought them to me to chat about it. He knew my style from the lighting project and we knew we got on and naturally have a similar philosophy. It slowly and organically developed from there.
We understand the first plates you created with Jacques were immensely popular. What do you think the appeal of black stoneware is?
The black clay is striking and different (although it has become more common now), with an attractive harshness to it that demands attention.
Are you still doing work with Jacques for Hemelhuijs and now the new Basalt store too?
Absolutely. The work has matured (as Jacques says) and it's wonderful to be on this journey with the products and to see the changes that happen. The pieces we've made for the stores are primarily functional, from plates, bowls and tea bowls to a selection of vases. The current range is made in porcelain and there's also an exclusive range in gold and porcelain. We may develop a smaller collection of other work that Jacques will sell for a time - he usually has an idea that he chats to me about and then sees what I come up with as a result.
How would you describe your creative style?
Personal, fluid, introspective, organic, imprecise, searching.
Could you tell us more about other work you've done outside of your collaboration with Jacques?
For six or seven years I worked on my own line of functional stoneware, where I transferred writing and personal images from my history and everyday life onto pottery. I enjoyed making this work, but it eventually came to a natural conclusion. Now I am working on non-functional wall pieces. They're very different from my earlier ceramics in some ways, but they're still an extension or expression of my thoughts.
Could you tell us more about the writing you transferred onto your work? Why did you decide to include phrases on your pottery?
When I first returned to South Africa after living and travelling overseas about 10 years ago, I was all over the show in my mind, trying to start afresh but not knowing where I was. I used to write stream of consciousness on little pieces of paper to clear my clogged mind of all the confused thoughts blocking it up. It was a huge release and great clarifier. During one of these sessions I tried writing it onto the pottery, and when I re-looked at what I'd done, I knew I wanted that. I think it took about seven months for the idea to materialise properly.
What inspires the imagery on your ceramics?
The life I see around me, and nature up to a point. A desire to understand more about the stuff of which I am made. I have an inquiring mind. There was nostalgia in my older work, but I don’t think it’s here in my newer work.
Could you talk us through your creative process?
Well, that is a process in itself! Creativity is not something that I always use to make ceramics. It’s not necessary. What is important, as far as the throwing goes, is practice. The more you practice, the more spontaneous and fluid your work becomes, and that feeling is creativity expressed (kind of like it’s something that happens outside of your thoughts). There is monotony in this process, huge repetition, but huge rewards too.
How do you stay innovative in a field that now has so much competition?
I have Jacques for that! The most effective way for me to produce work, in my experience, is to listen to what it is I want to express and then try to decipher that. The difficulty is, this is not something that happens whenever you would like it to. I was afraid to stop my own line of work because I hadn’t developed a replacement for it and I needed the income. But ultimately, I did, without knowing what would happen next. It was at this time, fortuitously, that work with Jacques increased enough to cover the loss of my own work. The development of my new work is slow, but it is happening.
You can buy Jacques and Noleen's beautiful crockery at both Hemelhuijs in Cape Town and Basalt in Joburg.