Words and images by Georgia Blackie.
We travelled to Newcastle, NSW to spend time with Jen Lanz, who runs Good Grief Ceramics. Known for her unique glazing, clean, precise style of wheel pottery, and smiley face drainage holes, Good Grief Ceramics planters are stocked by four design-focused boutiques across Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne. Jen told us how in just a few years, she turned her hobby into a small business while raising her son, and how she keeps happy and healthy working in her studio.
ALAS: How long have you been working with ceramics?
J L: In 2014 I joined an open studio near my house called Clay and Glaze while my son attended one half day of kindy to prepare for his first year of primary school. My first day in that studio I threw three cylinders based on foggy memories of pottery at uni ten years earlier and they weren't half bad, so naturally I was totally amazed and instantly hooked on clay. I spent my Tuesday afternoons at Clay and Glaze until sadly it closed as a pottery only six months after I started. With the benefit of hindsight I see that the studio's closure is what grew my clay hobby into an obsession because I'm stubborn as hell which is only intensified by adversity. The organisers of the studio encouraged me to buy a wheel and I converted the spare room in my house into a studio. I continued to acquire studio equipment with what little I had left over working as a barista and would use any spare moments to work on new ideas in my little home studio.
During this time I was reading a lot about ceramics, constantly researching different glazes and I was really excited by the idea of creating a unique glaze. I held a few market stalls hoping to break even and buy more clay. It wasn't until I agreed to make a few planters for friends and shop owners High Swan Dive that my work settled into a true direction. The High Swan Divers have been there for me from the beginning and are endlessly supportive; they've tirelessly promoted my work which allowed new stockists to find me.
Late last year it became clear that my home studio could no longer keep up with the volume of work I needed to produce, and I was also wearing thin as a single mum working a day job and starting this micro business. I dug my heels in that tiny bit more, and by January this year I had upgraded my kiln, moved into a private studio, and am dedicating myself to my craft by making it my full time job.
ALAS: You operate your business solo, and work alone in your studio - do you keep any objects in the studio, or have any studio rituals, that you draw support from?
J L: Above my sink are a few photo booth photos of my son and I when he was two years old and he looks down on me when I'm quietly contemplating a day of work being washed off the tools that I have become so accustomed to. Every area of my studio is full of motion and progress spilling into my car park outside most days; everywhere but the sink where my eyes turn downcast and my body comes to a pause each day and my heart is reminded what I'm here for. Just beyond the roller door to my space precast concrete blocks are forklifted from one area to another all day long and this hive of activity sets a real pace for my own workflow but the industrial appeal ends there for me. Within my walls I need a bit of abstraction to feel like I can create freely, so to soften my workspace I keep a few plants in flawed planters of mine and staring back across from my pottery wheel is a new painting I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it, by Xander Holliday, who bought some of my early work years ago. I'm lucky enough to be able to bring my dog Phoebe to work with me and I regularly make a new playlist or listen to podcasts - between dance breaks and pup pats you can't feel lonesome!
ALAS: What are your strategies for staying well in Winter?
J L: Throwing pots en masse is pretty physically demanding and I'd go as far as saying it's on par with working on your feet in hospitality. I'm very lucky to be healthy but it's essential that I maintain my health because the whole of my business and my family is my responsibility, so avoiding illness is a very high priority year round. One way that I support my wellbeing is to run a few mornings a week which does as much for my body as it does for my cluttered mind. I've recently been drawn to running because of the solitude and brutality that shuts out all inconsequential thoughts and helps me to hone in on a vision. I'm a bit of a secret runner because the historical models of artists' appearance would have us all look like Jane from Daria (who lives on pizza). Getting good stuff in via my primarily vegetarian diet, cooking at home most nights, and packing our lunches contributes to me feeling good. I think tea is really vital too and your best bet to keep well is having a herbal tea (Liquorice root and Camomile for me lately) before bed while the weather is cold.
ALAS: Can you recommend something that you think is generally underrated?
J L: I'd recommend practicing patience. As adults we are conditioned to believe that we don't need to practice anything. We believe everything worth doing comes naturally and oftentimes we give up too easily when we don't master a new skill overnight. I realised this when I found myself saying to my son regularly ‘you've got this, just a little more practice and you'll have it figured out’. Even though I can give sage advice to my boy, it dawned on me that I hate practicing things and I always want to be an instant expert. I'm more impatient than a child because of some false authority granted by adulthood, but I'm reminded that you have to be patient with yourself and I find comfort in what Chuck Close has to say about art in practice: “You don't have to invent the wheel every day. Today you'll do what you did yesterday, tomorrow you'll do what you did today, eventually you will get somewhere”.