Discover Karen’s beautiful bird houses

Image of Karen's Burkina Faso bird house

The pottery community brings lots of surprises and nice friendships. Karen Mistry and I met in 2019 at Sundragon pottery studio. We both joined as members and took an advanced throwing class together. Karen is an amateur potter and I was impressed by her throwing skills and ability to build complex shapes. During the lockdown, we stayed in touch and exchange ideas and techniques.

In February 2021, Karen asked me if I could fire a couple of bird houses she made that were not fitting in her pottery kiln. I welcomed this opportunity to help and discovered her wonderful bird houses.

After the firing, Karen kindly accepted an interview to tell us more about her bird house project.

How did you come to pottery?

I chose pottery because I’ve always loved making things and ceramics also seemed to give me the chance to express myself artistically.

About 4 years ago, I took classes at the Midlands Art Centre, which is local to me. I slowly became immersed in the challenge of making pots on the wheel.  I loved the speed and feel of the clay running through my fingers. It’s almost magic turning a lump of clay, into a beautiful object. 

How did you learn?

Like everyone who has gone before me, it was a long process of collapsing pots, oddly shaped pots,  many small bowls, glaze fails, and occasionally a pot that’s just right, fine and even-walled with an attractive glaze.

I practised and practised, watched others in classes and online, learning techniques, what I liked and what worked for me until I could make what was in my head.

I can easily lose myself in the process of designing, building, failing, learning and the satisfaction of finally succeeding – it’s a journey.

Due to the popularity of pottery, getting a place on the Arts Centre course was difficult; and time and access were restricted so it was an important turning point when I joined a small community pottery, where I could come and go; learn from others and socialise in a casual atmosphere.

Being part of the community is so motivating – being inspired by what others were making – supporting each other with positive comments – having friends who are interested in pottery and of course learning from each other. 

What are your favourite techniques?

I make my pots using a variety of techniques – initially, I focused on learning to wheel throw pots, but have recently spent a lot of time trying out different ways to form, build and decorate my pots. 

Lockdown has had a profound effect on my pottery as I didn’t have access to a pottery wheel at home – our community pottery ran zoom sessions on hand building. Up to this point, I was a confirmed wheel potter and never really wanted to hand-build – but the zoom session made me look at this technique again; and I realised the huge value of taking courses, in making me try new things, and appreciate the range of techniques for objects, shapes and decoration in pottery.

Can you tell us where your bird houses inspiration comes from?

In spring 2020, during the first covid lockdown, the weather was very warm and I spent a lot of time gardening. I got the idea to make a birdhouse for an old plum tree, which turned into a series of birdhouse projects.

The first birdhouse wasn’t a great success but I learnt from my mistakes in technique and style and moved on from there. It struck me that it could be interesting to make a birdhouse based on local buildings in Birmingham as I’ve always loved buildings. The result was a series of unusual birdhouses based initially on Birmingham buildings and then from other parts of the world.

The first birdhouses were based on two local buildings in Bournville, Birmingham – the Rest House (medieval copy) and a Tudor building, Selly Manor.

I then made a representation of the iconic Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham City Centre using a coiling technique. I used slab building to make a simple box-shaped birdhouse representing a fascinating traditional building made of mud from Burkina Faso in Africa. This birdhouse was different in that it was highly decorated; with traditional patterns painted on the front, an African fabric and animal print on the sides.

What clay and technique did you use to build the bird houses?

I learnt a lot about slab building, making joins and working with the strengths and weaknesses of clay slabs, supporting some of the heavier components. I made them on my dining table and in the garden, with whatever tools I could find, even with this basic set-up I found it fairly easy to make interesting designs. 

What is the next challenge you are working on?

For the future, clay is such a flexible medium, the possibilities are endless. Ideas for new projects keep occurring and I’d like to try out a couple more birdhouses.

I am making pots recording Covid and this very strange year we have just had, and perhaps other events; lettering on ceramics; also develop my own glazes… 

If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go.

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