In My Studio: Wellington Ceramicist Deborah Sweeney’s Creative Space In A Peaceful Garden

By Leanne Moore
Ceramicist Deborah Sweeney in her Wellington studio.

In a studio purpose-built by her husband, ex-fashion designer Deborah Sweeney works with New Zealand clay to create elegant, organic forms.

“This absolutely feels like the right creative path for me,” says ceramicist Deborah Sweeney from her Wellington studio. “I wouldn’t change the time I spent in fashion — I

Deborah left her eponymous fashion label behind in 2017 and began making ceramics every spare moment she had. “It’s been a wonderful change of direction. The fashion calendar is relentless and we exported to Australia, the States and Japan, which involved lots of trips overseas.”

Her career pivot was sparked by a sabbatical she took to spend some time with her youngest before he started school. During this time, Deborah did a clay workshop and fell in love with ceramics. These days she works from a studio in her back garden, built by her husband Niels Meyer-Westfeld.

“I’ve recently become a gardener and grew lots of flowers this past summer. It was so nice to be able to enjoy the garden every day.” Working from home also allows Deborah to spend plenty of time with her sons, Lars, 13, and Romeo, 10.

Deborah’s studio was built by her husband Niels Meyer-Westfeld.
Deborah’s studio was built by her husband Niels Meyer-Westfeld.

What is it about your work that gets you excited?

The decorative pieces and light shades excite me the most. Every time I open the kiln it’s a bit like enjoying Christmas morning as a child. I see lots of happy studio days ahead.

Describe your studio and how it inspires you.

My talented husband built my studio for me two years ago. He’s a full-time artist, not a builder, but incredibly clever! It’s hard not to be inspired in this beautiful environment. We are lucky to live in a seaside suburb in Wellington. My studio overlooks the water and it’s surrounded by native bush. It’s an incredibly peaceful spot, I find it easy to get into a creative frame of mind. The colours that surround me are reflected in the earthy tones of my ceramics — sea blue, cloud, moss — and the sunsets here can be really stunning.

What does your making process involve?

I work with New Zealand clay, hand-blended with New Zealand volcanic sand, which creates a lovely random speckle when melted at high temperature. I’m pretty disciplined with my work. In fact, I generally need to focus more on switching off. If I have a new idea that I want to try, I find it hard to stay away from my studio. I work four or five days a week. Usually, I have a list of work to make for my lovely stockists and, alongside that, I work on a new release for my website every couple of months or so. My lighting pieces are available for pre-order, so working on those usually takes up part of my week as well.

Finished ceramics line the walls of Deborah’s studio.
Finished ceramics line the walls of Deborah’s studio.

Does it keep you growing creatively?

Yes, when I started ceramics I was only interested in throwing on the wheel, but when my studio was under construction during (Covid) lockdown in 2020, I had no wheel. I had a go at hand-building and I’ve been surprised at how I’ve taken to it. I never thought I would have the patience for it but I’ve really grown to enjoy the challenge. It’s a very slow process that cannot be rushed. I love the asymmetrical shapes and it’s exciting to see a piece evolve and become refined.

Any hurdles you’ve overcome?

I think one of the biggest challenges is achieving a balance between work and home life, especially now that I’m working from home. I’m still working on getting the balance right!

“I’m pretty disciplined with my work. In fact, I generally need to focus more on switching off,” says Deborah.
“I’m pretty disciplined with my work. In fact, I generally need to focus more on switching off,” says Deborah.

Have you ever had a business mentor?

No, I’ve mostly learned through doing and making mistakes along the way. My parents and my husband have always been, and continue to be, my sounding boards. I am grateful to them for their wisdom and encouragement. I often reach out to other more experienced ceramists, too.

Any tips for other creatives wanting to start a business?

Just give it a go and start slowly, even if that means doing it part-time at first. Most importantly, enjoy the process. When I started some very kind friends and family bought my early pieces. With practice, my work has come along a bit since then, thankfully. Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you start.

Ruffle Pedestal Bowl.
Ruffle Pedestal Bowl.

What inspires you?

Interiors, architecture, art, travel, shapes and colours in nature. One of my main sources of inspiration is vintage ceramics — the shapes, textures and colours. I particularly love Japanese and Danish ceramics, especially vintage.

Biggest life lesson?

Choose an occupation that brings you pleasure. I’ve loved my working life because I’ve always been lucky enough to follow my passions. It’s never felt like a grind.

What self-care strategies do you have?

Walking at the local beach or bushwalks with my boys, or alone, is my favourite way to wind down.

Did you ever consider giving up?

No, giving up was never an option for me. There are so many possibilities with clay. I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface. With so much more to learn and discover, I don’t think I will be giving it away any time soon.

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