Thomas Baker is a ceramicist and woodworker from New Zealand. His work is showcased in McLeavey Gallery's exhibition Joy, which brings together seven artists and makers from varying stages of their practice in a bountiful and generous-spirited celebration of objects.
Thomas began his journey with clay in Auckland nearly a decade ago. Along with long-term friend and fellow potter, Jamie Smith, he founded Kiln Studio in Nelson. The idea of this studio was to serve as a creative space where people could run workshops, but has now become a full blown ceramics studio. Since then, Thomas has ventured to Japan to study ceramics working with Sensei Seppo.
He talks to us about being in the moment, collecting rocks, and life as a jazz legend.
What does a typical day look like?
A typical day starts in the studio. I’m a slow person that takes a bit of time to warm up. Post third coffee, I'll usually begin the day with wedging and reclaiming the studio clay. This is a good way to make contact with the clay without any stresses of actually making, but allows me the time to ponder on the day’s potential works. I'll then check on pieces that are in the drying process. My work has to be very slowly dried to avoid cracking. The middle of my day is often lost to some unknown time goblin, never really sure where the hours between 12pm and 3pm go, miscellaneous somethings. It's not until the afternoon that I'll sit down to throw on the wheel. I tend to throw in groups, so one day will be vases, next cups, etc. I’ll let these set for a short time before I start the process of manipulation. With overly loud jazz playing, the messing up of work only takes an hour or so, its key that it is done quickly. Very lame, but it's important for me to be in the moment. I'll look at the new distortions for a bit, and will cull any that I'm not gelling with. Finally, clean up the chaotic mess I always create, and out of the studio around midnight.
Describe your creative process.
My creative process varies but will often begin with a play on the wheel, working in smaller amounts, trying out different forms. Slightly random, depending on my mood will determine how loose they are thrown. I’ll make a dozen or so pieces, and let them sit. I'll then work quite sporadically, in multiple ways to achieve different surface and form, but always through some applied force, via slingshot, toss, punch, etc. Approaching them and working with haste – I like to work quickly without much thought. If I catch myself overthinking the action, I will walk away and return to it later. So, instinct plays a large roll in my creative process.
Left: Thomas Baker, Drop Glob, 2023, Stoneware, 190 x 140 mm. Photo courtesy of Russell Kleyn. Right: Thomas Baker, 2023, detail.
Who are your biggest influences?
Ron Nagle is usually the first to pop into my mind. His work has humour, and has a great way of creating tension between materials. Lee Ufan, he has a way of finding the materials speak for themselves, he has a way to give life or movement to an object. Peter Fischli and David Weiss, absolute stack lords. Always unexpected compositions with twists of humour. Peter Lange, his humour seems constant throughout his work, and is often pushing the exceptions of materials and perceived functions. John Mason, and Peter Voulkos, expected I know, but the way they pushed the clay through expression, involving more than just thinking and making, but focused so heavily on the process, which really showcased the true nature of clay.
What's the most indispensable item in your studio?
I have this rock that I found whilst on a bush walk long ago. It’s almost a perfect sphere, with colours of reds, ochres and greys. It has this great bumpy texture where it looks like it’s been rolling around the ground for a very long time, slowly collecting little quartz pebbles along its way. I use it to texture my work all the time, I roll it over the clay and it leaves a nice natural surface. I’ll quite often be staring at it in awe.
Do you collect anything?
Rocks, so many rocks. I like to go for walks, and it’s rare for me to return without a new found rock. I’m attracted to the surface and shape, but will often go for the ones that are unique compositions, suggestions of past impacts or a good ‘hard mush’ resulting in odd combinations and contrasts. There’s something about the life that rock has lived, and the process it's taken to get to where it is now. That thought definitely finds its way into my work.
What were you like at 15?
An absolute loser. I was short and plump, and far too whiney. I spent a lot of time on my own, mostly in the art room. I was a big dreamer, often convincing myself that I had the full ability to be a pro surfer, or film star, or jazz legend, totally dreaming. Not so short and plump now, but still spend a lot of my time alone in the art room
What did/do you want to be when you grow up?
I wanted to become an architect; I think the idea of being able to create your own space really stuck with me when I was young. I had no real concept of what was possible so I think my plans were always a little off the wall. I still dream of building my own home in the future, only slightly off the wall now though.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had two really valuable pieces of advice given to me. One from great ceramic artist Peter Hawkesby; it’s simple, but he said to be always having fun in my work, when I’m bored move on to the next. The other was from my Sensei Seppou Iida, he often mentioned instinct. Always trust your instinct, when making, it is important to not think, as it would cloud the action. I practice this every day.
Thomas's work is showcased in the exhibition Joy, showing at McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, 14 April – 6 May.