Master Potter Frances Palmer Shares the Life Lessons She Learned Behind the Wheel
The renowned ceramicist, gardener, and photographer gives us a glimpse into her creative process and explains how her new book, Life in the Studio, is a manifestation of her intersectional work.
"I started making pottery when I was 31, after the birth of our daughter," Frances Palmer—a trained historian turned master potter, gardener, and photographer—tells MarthaStewart.com. "I was searching for a métier and signed up for a throwing class at a nearby art guild. I loved the process immediately and from the start envisioned selling my pots as a business." Drawn to "functional work that people can live with every day," Palmer has been creating ceramics (she's known for her earthenware vases and bowls with whimsical pedestal and handles) ever since. "It is an ongoing exploration of material and process," she adds.
Though pottery is solitary work, Palmer has culled many life lessons from her time at the wheel and in the garden, where she grows beautiful flowers to photograph in her bespoke vessels ("I began growing flowers for photographing the pottery in order to give the pieces context and scale," she explains). She decided it was time, after long last, to funnel her learnings and musings into a book; Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity ($32.98, amazon.com), an opus that touches on all of the above, hits stands today. "The lessons and practices that I describe in my book are ones that I have consistently taught my children and friends through the years," she shares. "It felt strange, at first, to share my private thoughts and feelings with the world, but my agent and editors helped me articulate my philosophy on making ceramics and also a good life. I'm excited to share this with others to help them follow their own creative aspirations."
By far, the most rewarding aspect of putting Life in the Studio together, says Palmer, was "seeing the arc of my development as a potter, gardener, and photographer;" witnessing all three come together on paper confirmed that her countless hours spent in the studio were worth it. Though, she adds, she still has so much that she hopes to make. "I spend a lot of time looking at art in books, museums, and galleries," she says of remaining inspired. "I am consistently inspired by ancient ceramics, as they possess sophistication and simplicity that has yet to be improved upon."
While her book is an homage to her ceramics, the florals displayed inside of them are art in their own right. "I wasn't able to have a true flower garden until we moved to this house in Connecticut 26 years ago," she says, noting that her passion for florals began with her mother, who grew peonies for Palmer's New York City-dwelling grandmother on the rural grounds of their Morristown, New Jersey, home. "I had just discovered dahlias in a book and was determined to start growing these as well as other varieties that one could not find in a flower shop. I was learning how to use a camera simultaneously and the combination of pots, flowers, and photos evolved organically together." Today, the flowers "are equal components" of the final image, Palmer explains. "The flowers are so beautiful and I want them to be seen. The pots and blooms weave in and out of emphasis, depending on what I am trying to communicate."
Palmer says she feels lucky to enjoy every step of her creative process, from manipulating white earthenware, terra-cotta, stoneware, and porcelain ("Each clay has a different set of variables that can be emphasized; I enjoy the work that is produced by the different clay bodies," she notes) and glazing her vessels ("The chemistry and ash from the burned wood in the kiln create magical results that can never be planned," Palmer explains) to tending to her garden to photographing her masterpieces.
Her goal is to help others identify their own paths towards creativity, whether that happens on the wheel, in the garden, behind the lens, or elsewhere. For those interested in the first, the potter says to keep at it, either every day or as often as possible. "Push through if the work is not going in the direction originally envisioned. Sometimes my favorite pots are those that I initially deemed failures. Patience, consistency, and openness are important, as well as seeing the process through to the end," she shares. And remember that making work takes time, discipline, and perseverance: "It isn't always easy to put your fears behind you, but that this is necessary to forge ahead," Palmer says.