Carla Sealey likes her clay naked. Instead of varnishing over its granular texture, she leaves the exterior of her mugs, jugs and bowls bare – glazing only the insides for practicality. “I love the feel of fired earth,” she says, cupping one of her signature matte black mugs. “The vessels we use are some of the few things we allow to touch our mouths, so we should love them.”
Inside Carla’s studio in the Bedfordshire village of Sharnbrook, the shelves are stacked high with mugs, bowls and plates. From earthy stoneware to creamy porcelain, the tones and textures are all derived from the natural world. “In a way, my process harnesses each of the elements,” says Carla, pouring a jug of liquid clay – the colour and consistency of double cream – into a plaster-cast mould: “Clay comes from the earth, it’s blended with water, left to dry in the air, then fired in the kiln.”
PROFILE: Naked Clay Ceramics
Owned by: Carla Sealey
Location: Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire
Bestsellers: Naturalistic stoneware mugs, jugs and plates
Other highlights: Tiny porcelain dipping bowls and vases
It’s a painstaking and unpredictable craft. Once the wet clay forms are dry, they are baked in the fiery heat of her 60-litre Rohde Kiln. Here, the stoneware will bake for three days, first “dancing and wiggling around”, before hardening up – but never conforming to the symmetrical uniformity of factory-made items. “It’s always exciting to open the kiln because you never know how much of a party they’ve had,” Carla laughs. “Sets of six identical objects make me shudder. It’s not natural.”
It was a degree in Geology and Chemistry at the University of Hertfordshire that first sparked Carla’s obsession with earth. She spent 14 years as a groundwater protection officer, “cajoling multinational companies to stop contaminating drinking water supplies”. But a “perfect storm of personal, domestic and work crises” proved a catalyst for change. “I looked at my life and thought, ‘Everything that I’m doing is what other people think I should do, not what I want to do,’” she says.
“I loved craft and owned several knitting machines, which I’d bought from older women who were too arthritic to use them. It was really sad: these women waited until they retired to do the thing they loved, then couldn’t do it. That spurred me on. I thought, ‘I don’t want to wait.’”
Selling up her Hertfordshire home, Carla moved to neighbouring Bedfordshire, lured by its big skies, pretty villages and more reasonably priced property. By downsizing, she saved enough money to return to her alma mater, this time to study Applied Art. Here, she discovered a love of casting with clay and glass.
“My mum wasn’t very impressed,” Carla laughs. “She was worried about me not having a proper job.” But ironically it was her parents who first encouraged Carla’s creativity. Not that they called it that.
“Growing up in south London to Caribbean parents, craft wasn’t seen as creative or a career choice – it was functional,” Carla says. “Dad gave me my first camera when I was seven, while Mum sewed all our clothes and taught me how to crochet. I made a patchwork blanket. It was mainly about making something that you could use.”
When she graduated in 2006, Carla was determined to put her degree to good use. “One of my lecturers said that if you want to exist as an artist, you have to have 10 fingers in 10 different pies,” she recalls. “And it’s true. I’m not just a ceramicist, I’m a PR person, packaging manager and distribution director.”
When she set up her first studio 15 years ago (specialising in cast glass, later moving into clay), Carla predominantly sold her work through shops and galleries, as well as craft fairs. “Events are great – because you get to meet other makers and, most importantly, customers,” she says. But when Instagram launched a decade ago, it proved a revelation – enabling interaction with customers without having to leave the studio. “The online revolution has been great for crafters like me,” Carla says. “Now we’ve got access to our own virtual shops, it’s easier than before.”
Crafting with conscience
Carla also gets plenty of one-on-one time with creatively minded students at her weekly ceramics and jewellery-making workshops. “They’re often attended by mature women – but also a growing number of young people and couples – who have spent their lives working and looking after their families,” she says.
“Workshops provide an escape and a space for people to focus on themselves…. It’s a meditative process. I feel privileged I can provide that.” Of course, 2020 presented many challenges: “It’s been swings and roundabouts: workshops stopped, but people started shopping online more.”
Then there was Black Lives Matter. Last May, in the wake of the seismic international movement, there was an influx of support on social media for black-owned businesses. Carla gained hundreds of new Instagram followers in a matter of weeks. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “In one respect, the publicity and support for black-owned businesses has been incredible – but for it to have happened because a man was murdered felt very hurtful.”
Still, she is optimistic that the movement is raising awareness. “Many people thought racism had gone away because no one was shouting at you in the street anymore. But it’s far more insidious than that. When you’ve got black skin, you have to navigate the world in a very different way.”
Every month, Carla visits Snowdonia, with her husband Paul in order to immerse herself in the countryside she loves. “It stops my head from falling off,” she laughs. “No clocks, television or microwave. Just walking, reading and cooking. I come back to work with more energy after going there.”
Back at base, she is still never far from the natural world. “Squirrels, rabbits, deer, chaffinches, robins and woodpeckers are all regular visitors to the studio. For the first couple of weeks of the spring lockdown, I had the company of a song thrush who greeted me each morning and serenaded me from the treetops,” she says.
Each day begins with a scenic eight-mile drive from her home on the outskirts of Bedford. “Just enough distance to get my house head off and my creative head on,” Carla says. Once candles are lit, coffee is drunk and music is playing, work can begin.
“I work in cycles, so on any day I could be rolling out clay, slip-casting, attaching handles to mugs or loading the kiln. It’s been a busy and challenging year but being in a studio surrounded by nature certainly helps.” And when life threatens to spiral out of control, there’s nothing quite like a steaming brew in your favourite mug to bring you back down to earth.
Carla’s top tips for success
Please yourself – Create what makes you happy, not what you think other people want to buy. If you like making it, there will be people out there who like it, too.
Break boundaries – Social media enables us to look beyond geographic boundaries for like-minded people who could be customers – try to be in the right place for them to see you.
Find your people – Don’t hide who you are or pretend to be something you’re not. If who you are puts them off, they’re not your people, but there will be plenty of potential customers out there who are.
Early 1980s: Student days –Takes a BSc in Geology and Chemistry before undertaking an MSc in Oceanography.
Late 1980s: Pottering about –Works in a series of roles including computer operator, NHS admin assistant, factory worker and PA. Also carries out a short apprenticeship with a jeweller.
1988-2004: Going with the flow –Works as a scientific officer for the National Rivers Authority, before becoming a groundwater protection officer for the Environment Agency – a position she holds for 14 years.
2004-2006: Model pupil –Takes a BA in Applied Art at the University of Hertfordshire. Begins working as a self-employed artist with a public exhibition of glass sculptures before she has even graduated.
2007-2015: Carving a career –Starts teaching silver jewellery-making, and sets up a studio, crafting hot glass sculptures.
2015-present: Top of the pots –Returns to ceramics, moving to her current studio in an old plant nursery.
2017: New beginnings – Launches Naked Clay Ceramics
2021: Instagram success – Naked Clay Ceramics garners almost 30k followers on Instagram and products sell out online faster than Carla
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