For Kate Semple, a ceramicist based in York, working with clay is “magic”. Though she came to the craft relatively recently as a source of comfort and escapism, the connection she felt to the material was instant. “It's so simple,” she says, “But you can create so much from it.”

Kate started as an illustrator and graphic designer, living in London for thirteen years before relocating to York – a city she describes as “a really lovely, creative place to be.” She had been drawn to 3D forms throughout her career, experimenting with paper busts and figures in her twenties as an extension of her collage work. Though she attended the occasional ceramics night class, it wasn’t until lockdown that her passion for clay blossomed and soon superseded her other artistic pursuits.

“That was when I first started to work with clay at home,” she reflects. “And I wasn't really thinking about end goals or anything grand like that.” On top of the Covid-related stressors, Kate was busy caring for her terminally ill mother. “It was a really difficult time, but clay kind of carried me through it. It was like this positive energy.” As the lockdown rules loosened, she realised it wasn’t just a pandemic hobby; four years on, she has evolved her skills through classes and self-teaching and now works at the craft full-time.

Kate uses pinching, coiling and slab-building techniques, appreciating that all she needs to create beautiful objects are clay and her bare hands. “I’ve never been drawn to the wheel,” she says. “I’ve always just wanted to sculpt.” These traditional hand-building methods award complete freedom to the maker – Kate now runs clay workshops and is constantly in awe at the boundless potential of the material. “I love the idea that anyone can create with clay. We all start with the same lump of clay, but every single person will make something so different.”

Clay pieces are a reflection of their maker and for Kate, years as an illustrator and collage artist continue to inform her ceramics. There are clear references to her drawing work in the hand-drawn motifs which decorate her vessels; a technique which sounds more intuitive than pre-planned. “I work fast and don't tend to sit down often. It's kind of quite energetic and fluid.” She uses a cobalt glaze to create striking blue lines on the chalky dolomite glaze, which she makes herself.

Inspiration comes from myriad directions: from her visually and culturally rich city (which happens to be home to the largest studio pottery collection in Europe), the like-minded people she has met there, and from fellow creatives. “Rosemary Vanns is an applied artist and painter, and her work is incredible,” she says, reeling off a list of artists past and present whom she feels a kinship with. “Omega Workshops produced from the 1920s and ‘30s in London, demonstrating that sort of freedom and expressiveness that I relate to.”
However, establishing a unique identity is important to Kate, who views the TOAST New Makers programme as an opportunity to refine her practice. “I want to develop to a point where everything I do looks like my work. People say it already does, but I still feel like I'm honing it.” She has created five vessels for TOAST, ranging from a small bowl to a large vase, though no two forms are precisely alike due to their hand-built nature. Kate designs her pieces on paper first in another nod to her creative roots, deciding on the shape and decoration before the building begins. “I think it is all transferable,” she explains. “Whether cutting out paper to create a collage or designing a clay vessel – it's thinking about shapes and textures.”

Kate has loose plans to relocate her studio to a spare room once her eldest son moves out, but for now, she is happy alternating between the kitchen, her adjacent kiln room, and the garden – though the latter is weather-dependent. When working on a larger piece, Kate begins building her coils before sunrise and tends to her pieces at intervals throughout the day. This set-up suits her slow-building approach and allows her to move between different creative and personal projects. “People say, ‘Oh, you need a studio, you need to hire a space somewhere.’ But I couldn't bear the thought of not having my work here,” she says with a smile. “It feels very organic.”

Kate wears the TOAST Buttoned A Line Organic Cotton Dress in Artichoke and our Seersucker Check Cotton Dress.

Words by Bébhinn Campbell.

Photography by Alice Kemp.

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