In conversation with ceramicist Tara Shackell

Known for exquisite forms which evoke a sense of quiet meditation, Tara Shackell's pieces have an alluring tactility. Louise Meuwissen, textile artist and member of the Craft team was lucky enough to spend a tranquil moment with Tara, learning more about how she uses small, intricate details to inform the creation of her works.

Tara Shackell

You are someone who is well known for creating refined forms which evoke a sense of quietness, space, and meditation. Your pieces have an alluring tactility. Could you share with us more about the development of your unique aesthetic?

 I think a lot about form, surface and touch when making. I initially studied photography, which helped me to develop ways of looking and of framing space. When I moved into ceramics, I learnt to consider the three-dimensional; the tactility and purpose of what I was making. I make simple forms which are functional but I want them to be more than just useful.

You have spent a lot of time developing glazes which texturally interact with the high-fired stoneware and porcelain clay-bodies you work with. Can you share with us a little about the way you develop forms and glazes?

I use a lot of dark, iron rich stoneware clays as well as porcelain. I’m interested in the depth that different clays can provide when layered with the right glazes. So much of the colour and texture of a finished piece comes from the interaction of clay and glaze in the kiln.

Sometimes, I have a very specific idea of the glaze surface I want and do a lot of testing to find the right colour and surface feel. Other times I will experiment with new shapes on the wheel then find a glaze recipe I tested years ago which feels right for that form.

Your collections are quite distinct from one another, but share a focus on simplicity, balance, and subtle colour and texture variations.
Could you speak to how you develop your collections, and how these speak to each other within the breadth of your practice?

When making a new range, I will often start with an idea about one aspect of a pot which I find interesting, like the shoulder of a vase or the foot-ring of a bowl. I then work to explore how varying that small detail changes the whole form. I usually spend a long time refining shapes, then testing different glazes to find the right fit.  This experimentation can be the hardest part of my practice, but it’s also the part I enjoy most. 

Tara Shackell

You have a background training in both photography and ceramics. Could you share with us a little about some of the influences on your practice?

I completed a bachelor of Fine Art, majoring in photography, at the VCA, right after finishing school. The teaching there was very focused on development and interpretation of concepts. There was a lot of emphasis on being able to justify the ideas behind a piece of work. At the time, I found that really challenging because I knew what kind of images I wanted to make but didn’t have the language to explain what I was trying to do.

When I began studying a Diploma of Visual Arts (ceramics), the focus was much more on skill development. I was so excited to focus on making beautiful objects that did not have to be justified in an art context. Towards the end of that period of study (I studied at TAFE over 4 years), the need for more depth and meaning in my work crept back in. I’m still not great at explaining my work, but I am better at thinking about what I want my work to be.


What sort of studio or making environment do you have?

I have a tiny garden studio. The small space forces me to be very selective about what I make. In cold or wet weather pots can take days to dry out enough to fire in the kiln. I have very limited shelf space so I have to be strategic about what to work on and what orders need to be completed quickly. It can be frustrating when I have a lot to do, but it forces me to be very organized.


What does a typical day at work in your practice involve for you?

The way I work on the wheel is very procedure based, so my workday is defined by where I am up to in the making process.

I often start the day by taking some photos of finished work before the studio gets covered in clay. Then I unload and repack my small bisque kiln. If I’m organized, I start the week working at the wheel. I will usually throw until I run out of drying space, then move on to turning (trimming) any pots that have already had a few days to dry.

I recycle all the scraps of clay in my studio, and work mostly with custom clay blends, so I will spend a few hours blending clay or mixing glazes in the afternoon.


Tara Shackell
How would you describe the evolution of your practice over time?

The first collection I made was a breakfast set of simple, flat based forms in a bright white glaze on iron-rich clay, for a group show at Craft  (Breakfast Club) in 2009. That led to an ongoing series of tableware based on that work, which I still make today.

 Over the years, I’ve made several different tableware collections, but have become more interested in making more individual, unique pieces.  The repetition throwing required for making tableware sets has improved my skills and as my skills improved over time, I think my work has become more refined.

The current work I’m enjoying most is my Dawn and Bronze vase series.

The Dawn series comprises cups and bowls in shades of soft navy, creamy pink and brighter, almost lavender blue. The cups are small, footed, tulip shapes and are all similar sizes so can be used as sets. The bowls all stand on a foot-ring, but the size and shape of each bowl is unique.

The Bronze vases share metallic bronze external and glossy olive green internal glazes.  I am enjoying experimenting with form, so no two vases are the same.

The work in both series is designed to sit together in groups. I think a lot about the way collections of pots share space and the way these interactions change the way we see them.
Tara Shackell

 Would you share with us the story of one of your most precious collected objects or tools?

Every year, I share a studio sale with jeweller and artist, Anna Varendorff and every time, we have a mad scramble to collect our favourite pieces of each other’s work before the sale begins. I feel so lucky to have a collection of her beautiful work.

Tara Shackell

What are you looking forward to?

 I teach a short course in wheel throwing at SoCa (School of Clay and Art) in Brunswick. I teach a ‘Beginner’ class but students are welcome to return so I have a wonderful mix of beginners and students who have been coming to class for 1-2 years. It’s so exciting and rewarding to see the students develop their skills and find their own style. We have had a break during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I am looking forward to returning to teaching.

Images:Tara Shackell Portrait: Eve Wilson, Vessels photographed by Tara Shackell.
Interview by textile artist, Louise Meuwissen 

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