A massive thank you to award winning lifestyle and travel writer Philippa Hennessy who has written a series of blog posts celebrating independent maker/designers for Trussle. Keep reading for the final entry of the series, an interview with yours truly :)

Meet Rebecca: Creating Unique Ceramic Giftware For The Home

7th June 2018

Homes are special places, each containing a unique story within. One of the ways we shape that story is by filling our homes with items that mean something to us, from family photos to living plants to designer furniture.

Recently we’ve been thinking about the people that craft those items - who are they, and why do they dedicate their lives to helping make our homes unique and special? In this short series, we speak with some of those people about their passion and why they do it.

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Our thriving arts sector is an important aspect of British culture. But what about our neighbours across the Irish Sea? The arts scene in Northern Ireland has never been in better shape, thanks to its fierce support for up-and-coming home-grown artists.

The action doesn’t stop in Belfast. County Down may have earned its fame as the film location for Game of Thrones, but visitors are also lured here for its galleries, exhibitions, and displays of vibrant arts and crafts. Contributing to this energy is ceramic designer-maker Rebecca Killen, who lives and works in the small coastal village of Dundrum.

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Producing moulds from exquisite antique bottles that once existed in past industries, she describes how she aims “to create ceramic products that can evoke memories, a sense of nostalgia, and serve as decorative pieces in the home to be used and treasured for years to come.”

Showing an early aptitude for art, her career path took her to the Belfast School of Art where she studied Fine and Applied Arts, after which she embarked on an artist-in-residence programme. With a short spell of teaching experience under her belt, she completed a business development course and it was during this time, in 2014, that Rebecca Killen Ceramics was established.

Now in its fourth year, she’s developed a number of collections of which the latest, the Homegrown Collection, sees the revival of the old fashioned milk bottle. This has proved so popular that she’s introduced the Bangor Bottle, cast from a mould of a rectangular pharmacist bottle. If only our medicine still came like this.

I’m intrigued to know more about her unique, handmade products, her penchant for experimenting with new surface textures and colours, and just why she’s drawn to local industrial history.

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You have an enviable flair for design. Did you discover art at an early age?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved art and it was certainly my favourite subject at school. I owe a lot to my art teacher (ironically, my husband Pol is an art teacher) who was a potter with an infectious passion for ceramics and introduced me to clay. I naturally took to the material. I found - and still find - the unlimited possibilities of clay fascinating. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on ceramics. I come into my own when designing pieces with a final vision in mind.

Taking the plunge and going into business on your own is a gutsy move - what spurred you on?

My fond interest in ceramics and a determination to turn my passion into a sustainable career. After university and studying business, I felt I was equipped with the necessary mix of skills, together with a material with potential and good surface integrity, to build a brand.

Business skills don’t always come naturally to creative people. How have you handled this transition?

My mantra is: ‘Work hard, dream big’. If you work hard enough you can achieve your goals. Everything can be learned, practised and improved upon. I’ve had to seek mentorship and act upon trustworthy advice.

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Oprah popularized the phrase: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Setting up a new business can be challenging - what’s been your experience?

I’ve relished it - the freedom it brings, the great sense of fulfilment and having control over my future. But I can’t deny it’s been without its hitches. I’m a one-woman band, so all decisions lie with me.

What do you believe sets you apart from other similar product offerings?

All my pieces are handmade which means that no two are identical. The distinctive blue and white palette gives them a unique hallmark.

Appealing to a certain audience helps to define my brand. I’ve seen a positive response from female homeowners age 25-plus based in the UK - although encouragingly, a few buyers in America have discovered me - often looking for gift ideas. That said, I’m keen to build up a wider range of products to suit a wider audience with varying price points.

Do you have any favourite products?

The new tall vessels from the Bay Collection, made of marbled coloured clay. And I’m extremely fond of the milk bottles, being one of my earliest designs.

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Given your surroundings, I imagine you’re rarely lost for ideas!

My work is influenced by the environment - living in such a beautiful part of the world gives me so much inspiration. The everchanging splendour of Dundrum Bay at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, where we live, was the starting point for my newest collection.

I’m also influenced by nostalgia. I vividly remember drinking from the tiny glass milk bottles at school. The conventional milk bottle is an iconic shape and, along with the traditional blue and white pottery, is reminiscent of my childhood.

Is the blue and white design your signature style?

It’s important to have a signature style and my brand is renowned for the blue and white designs, so I’ve purposefully not employed a wide range of colours. However, I do love colour, hence introducing the millennial pink.

What’s the most satisfying part of the design-make process?

I love it all and find it really therapeutic - from concept and design to forming and firing. The magic happens during the glaze firing when matt black transforms into a rich, glossy blue. Not much beats opening the kiln to see the end result.

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Through your creations, you aim to evoke memories and nostalgia – how do you achieve this?

By using traditional iconic shapes that give a nod to the past, but sit comfortably in today’s home - such as the milk bottles and old Irish mineral water bottles.

The Homegrown Collection is continually growing as I’m always on the lookout for beautifully textured bottles that give a glimpse into industries of the past. The quirky, millennial pink bottles and the white and dusky blue bone china bring a fresh approach.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve made?

One of my earliest projects was a ceramic garden water feature, based on the colours and forms of rock pools close to where I live. Next on my list is a range of functional tableware.

The business has been growing steadily since its inception - what are your plans for expansion?

The business is now at the stage where I can hire some help, and I’m incorporating a dedicated area within my new studio where my products can be displayed and sold.

Longer term, I want to increase my export markets by building on the success of trade shows and introduce my work to stores in Europe and the USA.

My dream is to see Rebecca Killen Ceramics become a worldwide household name. Ultimately, I can’t ever imagine not working with clay.

Let’s talk about your home. We all have different decorating styles and preferences - what’s yours?

I’d describe my style as relaxed, natural, and inspired by our coastal surroundings. I like to fill our home with handmade objects from local fairs and artists, which I enjoy curating in groups. Some of my husband’s art also hangs on the walls.

You’re clearly a country girl at the heart. Can you ever see yourself living in a city or another country?

I lived in Belfast for 10 years and really enjoyed my time there. I’m now drawn to the coast’s natural beauty. I was actually born in England but moved to Northern Ireland at a young age and, while I’d never say never no to living in a different country, for the time being I’m content where I am. It’s possible to manage a business that can have an international impact from a rural location.

This article was written by Philippa Hennessy, an award-winning lifestyle and travel writer and blogger. Photographs courtesy of Esther Irvine.

The lovely Jane from Culture NI got in touch to chat about my involvement with Tory Bush Cottages craft weekends and what has lead me to a career in ceramic design (making milk bottles for a living).

Making It in the Mournes

Newcastle ceramicist Rebecca Killen on finding commercial success for her signature crafts and showing South Down sightseers how it's done

Spring and summertime in the Mournes. It’s a tantalising prospect, awakening visions of green fields, lush blossom, glorious mountain scenery, all in an area where rural traditions remain an integral part of everyday life.

Nestled into sloping meadowlands, with Slieve Donard and the dense woodlands of Tollymore Forest Park rearing up behind, Tory Bush Cottages are a popular haven with visitors seeking refuge from stress, routine, hustle and bustle.

Over the next few months, proprietor David Maginn will be showcasing South Down's rich artisan history with three creative weekends, comprising accommodation, home cooked food, great views and expert tuition in ceramics, willow weaving and print making. In charge of the three ceramics courses is 29 year-old Newcastle born Rebecca Killen.

Killen is one of a new generation of exciting young Northern Ireland craftworkers who are establishing themselves and their work in the UK and further afield. A graduate in fine and applied art from the University of Ulster, she is achieving international recognition for her attractive range of bone china milk bottles, dishes and vessels, all featuring her trademark white and cobalt blue colour palette.

 

It is one thing for a young artist to aspire to setting up his or her own business and getting the work into commercial outlets, but it is quite another to do it. Killen has been exceptionally strategic and focused in pursuing her goal and achieving the skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. She is the first to admit that having an artistic talent is just the start.

'During university, I took a year out and did a business-related course at Monmouth College in Illinois,' she says. 'I learned a lot of new skills, like advertising, marketing, international economics. I came back home to finish my degree and, after graduating in 2011, I did an additional course at the art college, developing my work with the support of a studio space. It was a bit like an artist-in-residence programme.

'I always knew that I wanted to continue the making process. I was determined to earn a living out of my ceramics and I was aware that I would have to invest a lot of time and energy to make that happen. When I finished my course, I worked as an art technician at Down High School in Downpatrick, which was my first experience of working with children and taking workshops. I enjoyed it very much and it led to my working with clay in different ways.'

Killen was one of eight craftworkers, all female, who were accepted onto Craft NI’s Making It 2013/2015 programme. Her host organisation was the Southern Regional College in Newry, where she was given her own studio, together with professional mentoring in the practicalities of business start-up.

 

'It was great to get to know the others in the group,' she recalls. 'They were working in ceramics, jewellery design, screen printing, glass and textile design. We were all in the same position and were able to share our problems and issues, as well as doing some projects together.'

The relationship with the college has continued and Killen now teaches there on a part-time basis, while expanding her range and pitching to new outlets. She is in the middle of a hectic period in her life, making plans for her wedding and searching for a studio space in the part of world to which she feels so connected.

'Yes, I have a lot going on at the moment,' she laughs. 'I was recently invited to exhibit at the British Craft Trade Fair in Harrogate, along with seven other makers from Northern Ireland as part of Craft NI's Export Development Programme. It was a great show for my business, securing orders with new stockists across the UK. I now have five outlets in the north of Ireland and one in a new shop in Kildare Village. Plus I have a dozen or so in England and Wales - and one in Japan.

'The Tory Bush Cottages weekends will be a new challenge for me. Participants will be able to experience the complete process from beginning to end and will make the same things as me. At the end of the weekend, everyone will take away their own bespoke bottle that they will have made and decorated - just the same as mine.

 

'The cottages are right in the middle of the Mournes. It’s a magical place, a really creative environment, where people will be able to switch off and try something new. If I could find a studio around there, I’d be very happy.'

The country traditions of her home patch provided the backdrop to Killen’s earliest exhibited work. For her final year show at the art college, she produced a series of plates based on Downshire Pottery, the oldest pottery in Northern Ireland, which was set up in the 1700s.

They, in turn, prompted her to develop the more commercial range, which is now proving so successful. It is inspired by the nostalgic blue and white china she grew up with at home, as well as by her own love of all things retro.

'I collect old bottles and vintage things,' she explains. 'I remember when we used to get glass milk bottles delivered to the doorstep and those little bottles of milk at school. Their shapes look really great in bone china, especially with different surface patterns that are modern and abstract. The blue and white adds to the sense of nostalgia and reminds me of the past, of growing up in this special place.'

Tory Bush Cottages Creative Weekends will take place on 13 to 15 May; 24 to 26 June; 2 to 4 September. Places are limited. For more information on how to book visit www.torybush.com. To see more of Rebecca's work go to www.rebeccakillenceramics.com.

- See more at: http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/crafts/making-it-mournes#sthash.IpSnmoPn.dpuf

Export Profile – The British Craft Trade Fair 2016: Rebecca Killen Ceramics

Export Profile – The British Craft Trade Fair 2016: Rebecca Killen Ceramics

Continuing with our maker interviews ahead of the 2016 British Craft Trade Fair, we're delighted to chat to Rebecca Killen, one of the eight NI makers attending with Craft NI, about her process, her work and her plans for the future.

Hi, Rebecca. Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you get into making?

I am ceramic designer/maker living and working in County Down creating blue and white bone china products for the interiors and gift ware market. I was first introduced to clay by a very passionate teacher and potter at school and have been using the material ever since. Whilst studying Fine and Applied Art at the University of Ulster I specialised in ceramics and also took a year out to study business at a college in America. After graduating I was keen to combine my making and business skills to create a business in which I could produce and sell a contemporary range of ceramics, so I applied for Craft NI’s making it 2013-2015 programme to help me achieve this goal. Having recently completed the programme I am now selling bottles, vessels and dishes in craft galleries and design boutiques across the U.K.

Could you tell us a bit about your making process?

I am currently working with bone china, a beautiful material to use. Its smooth and high quality fine finish provides the elegance and delicacy which I use as a foundation for the hand painted decoration. I use the industrial technique of slip casting which involves casting liquid bone china in plaster moulds that I make from turned models or found objects. The surface pattern is then applied, whether it be a hand painted pattern, ceramic decal or dipped cobalt glaze. Each piece is then finished with hints of gold lustre.

Every day in the studio is different (one of the reasons why I love what I do) but depending on what deadlines are looming, I could be doing anything from making moulds, hand painting the cobalt designs, glazing to packing and shipping the work. I usually cast first thing every morning to build up stock and the rest of the day is consumed by all the other elements involved in making my work. I allow time during the week to work on the business side of Rebecca Killen Ceramics where I am making calls, answering emails and marketing my products – time-consuming activities but a surprisingly enjoyable part of my business. I am also a part time lecturer at the Southern Regional College and help take a variety of workshops at Mount Ida Pottery, so the weeks tend to be very busy. The process of making is the most enjoyable part of what I do. I wouldn’t exactly say it is relaxing, however when you get into a rhythm there is something strangely satisfying about working with such an unpredictable material.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to maintain a healthy lifestyle so I try and get to the gym as often as I can, but after being inside the studio most of the week I love to get outdoors at the weekend. I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the country beside the sea and at the foot of the Mourne Mountains so there is plenty to explore. I am also getting married this year so does planning a wedding count as a hobby?

Where can people currently see or buy your work?

Locally you can find my work in Kiln and Loom and Coppermoon in Belfast, The Kingfisher Craft Gallery, Killyleagh, F.E. McWilliams Gallery, Banbridge and Synergy Studios in Newcastle. My work is also stocked in a range of galleries and design boutiques across the U.K and I have recently sent an order of work to an Irish design shop in Tokyo called Stor. I am excited to be exhibiting some new pieces at the British Craft Trade Fair in Harrogate this April along with 7 other talented maker/designers from Northern Ireland. You can find us at stand 400.

Where would you like to see your business in a year's time? Do you have any big plans for 2016?

I hope for continued growth of my business, to be fulfilling orders for existing customers but also reaching new markets with my products. I would love to have my work in some larger retailers in the U.K and Ireland this year and also expand on my product list. I am hoping to take part in a couple of major selling events in the U.K and also intend to exhibit at another trade fair (early 2017) to introduce my brand to new audiences.

Find out more about Rebecca Killen, as well as her work and details on where to buy it, on the Craft NI Directory.