How ceramics taught Zoe Williams to let go of perfection

Being mindful of the process.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Tanya Monaghan
  • Photographed by
    Lauren Pressey

As a child, Zoe Williams always had a deep-rooted need to make. She was born in London into a “traditional family”—her mother was a nurse and her father a chartered surveyor. Zoe didn’t love the academic side of school, but she loved art. She took all of her art exams early and left high school at 16 to go to tertiary college, where she graduated with a foundation course in fine art.

She built a portfolio over two years before attending University of Brighton and completing a BA in printmaking. She won the printmaking award named after the late, world-renowned English printmaker Julian Trevelyan. She would go on to earn her master’s degree in Barcelona at age 22—an amazing achievement for someone so young.

Although she had racked up plenty of accomplishments, Zoe found herself at a place in her life with no guidance and not much support. She didn’t know what to do next, working odd jobs in London and then Barcelona where she took up a studio in an artist co-op. She paid her bills by working in a bar and teaching English as a foreign language.

Although she really enjoyed this time, she hit a block with her art. Trained by teachers who really pushed the concept that every “pencil stroke” had to mean something, she started to overthink everything. Art was organic, intuitive and instinctual—at direct odds with her extensive education.

While she was creating her own body of work, Zoe filled in as an assistant to a teacher who would critique the students’ artwork. Zoe couldn’t help herself from being influenced by what she was hearing and seeing during these assessments. The students were asked, “You used the color blue. Why did you choose blue?” And “Why did you use pencil?” Soon she found herself questioning everything she was doing within her own work too—without answers.

This mindset continued for about a year and half until she found herself staring at a canvas in her studio, unable to create anything. At 29, after living on boiled eggs and ramen, she packed up her studio in Barcelona and headed back to London where she didn’t touch art again.

She landed a job in London working at an architecture firm and met her husband, Matt. She was so blocked at the time that even when she was asked to do a watercolor rendering for the firm, she just couldn’t do it. She had stopped “making.”

New responsibilities took over, and Zoe was now a wife and working mother with a mortgage. She loved her life but also felt disconnected from the art world.

“As women we sometimes feel forced to change our identities,” she says. “At the back of my mind was the thought that I wasn’t ‘creative’ anymore, and there was always that part of me that thought I had let myself down because of that.”

In 2009 Matt won a project with Frank Geary’s office in the U.S., and they decided to move their family to sunny California. The move proved difficult for Zoe, going from a full-time working parent in a familiar city to knowing no one in a new country.

“The change in my life was huge,” she remembers. “As an introvert I found myself struggling living my daily life. I was extremely lonely for a long time.”

As the kids grew older and Zoe had more time to herself, she felt the need to reconnect with her artistic sense of purpose. Zoe signed up for a series of all-day Saturday workshops in lithography at the Josephine Press printmaking studio in Santa Monica, recommended by her artist friend from Barcelona.

Although the creative process was once again excruciatingly painful, she enjoyed being around creative people. Being in that artistic community reminded her about the life she once had. It was an awakening … she needed to be creative and “make” again.

Fate stepped in when a friend invited her to a class at the local community ceramic studio in Manhattan Beach. Zoe went in with very low expectations because it was not an art form she had much experience in.

It turned out that a fresh start allowed her to let go and feel free. It was the answer to her lengthy “block.” She had no preconception, no standard to meet, and for the very first time she felt the freedom to play and enjoy it. She found her artist community within her own local community and was hooked.

“Ceramics has taught me to let go of perfection,” she shares. “The teachers at the studio are fantastic. They helped me be more open to everything. I feel that’s how art happens—not by ticking the boxes or staying in the guidelines. You have to learn how to explore and push boundaries.”

Zoe has a very clear aesthetic: simple, no crazy glazes or carvings. The clays Zoe uses are pure porcelain, which is “like trying to throw cream cheese.” She also experiments with colored porcelain, where she mixes pigment into the raw porcelain and throws two different colors together.

Every piece she creates is a “one-off.” Zoe’s work is carried locally at Gum Tree, and the ongoing demand for her beautiful pieces has been so overwhelming that she is currently building a website to turn her passion into a small business.

“I am trying to be mindful in the process,” she says. “When I was trying to get back into printmaking, I was so focused on the end product I didn’t stop and allow myself to be absorbed by the beauty and feeling of just making. When I was having my artistic breakdown I didn’t have the clarity to see that. It wasn’t ever about why or how; it was about being lost in the flow of creating.”

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