As newly appointed head of JamFactory’s ceramics studio, Stephanie James-Manttan is kiln it.
On a cool Monday, a day Stephanie James-Manttan sets aside for firing, The Adelaide Review visits the ceramicist in her home studio. Mid-morning and the warmth of the kiln is still pleasant, but by the afternoon the 1300°C inferno blasting clay into ceramic will turn the studio into a sauna. James- Manttan, sensibly, takes Mondays off.
It’s been a year since James-Manttan converted the family’s backyard shed in Beulah Park into a studio, installing a kiln on one side of the room, a wheel on the other, fitting shelves and benchtops and populating them with clays, tools, glazes, and, of course, pots – both the triumphs, and the disappointments – lined-up, side by side. James-Manttan keeps her mistakes where she can see them to remind her where she went off course. Do these failed pots grow on her over time?
“No,” she says, “I wish I had an ounce of that in me, but I’m a very precise person. I have a clear image in my head of what I want the outcome to be. When I tried to be looser with my work, I wasn’t happy with the results.”
Such precision is the result of years working in larger studios – making work for exhibitions, for sale in design markets and stores, and taking on commissions for local restaurants. This experience will stand her in good stead this month as she begins a new position as head of the JamFactory’s ceramics studio, taking over from Damon Moon.
“I’m a mid-career potter, so I was totally blown away to even be considered,” she says.
The appointment is a major affirmation for James-Manttan who has quietly honed her craft – diligently, self-critically – over the last 12 years since graduating from art school. The former Sydney business analyst only learned to throw a pot after her family moved to Adelaide in the early 2000s. With few opportunities in her new city, James- Manttan began to think about turning a lifelong interest into a new career.
“My husband asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I immediately said, ‘I want to be an artist.’”
After completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Design at TAFE in 2006, she became an associate in the JamFactory’s ceramics department, and has continued to exhibit with the Morphett Street institution since. In 2009, she travelled to the Central Craft Centre in Alice Springs with then creative director Robin Best. They took with them some pots for Indigenous women travelling to Alice Springs for renal treatments to paint. One day, James-Manttan watched as the women made baskets.
“My early porcelain was based on that experience, watching them and observing how they created patterns and repetition in the weave. I’m a knitter so it really interested me. They would sit around and talk, catch up, as they made baskets. At the time, making a basket from a piece of string didn’t seem so different to making a pot from a ball of clay.”
James-Manttan wanted to capture the pattern and the texture of the woven baskets in her work. She spent many years mastering a technique that echoes something of the baskets, some of which hang on the walls of her home.
Using porcelain, she began a series of large, delicate and finely-balanced vessels etched with a layered, repeating pattern. The finished works have a coral-like quality and glisten in certain lights.
“It took me time to get it right. These remain my favourite thing to make.”
A long interest in art history, architecture and design often finds its way into James- Manttan’s work. When I arrive, she makes me a cup of tea in one of her mugs, a weighty object made of a gritty stoneware. The sides are carved with a criss-cross pattern that makes comfortable grooves for my fingertips. The series that this mug belongs to, she explains, was inspired by the patterns that recur in Islamic architecture.
Until 2018, James-Manttan continued to work in studios with other potters. For several years, she worked overtime at Six Hens Studio, which she co-founded with two other female potters, before they closed shop in 2016. She spent a year at The Barn in the Adelaide Hills, leaving when that studio closed at the end of 2017. It was then she decided to build her home studio and spend some time working in a more confined, solitary space with golden labradors Rusty and Champion to keep her company.
From January, James-Manttan will split her time between the JamFactory’s studio and her own, a balance, she says, that will give her the freedom to take on bigger commissions while also having time to continue to develop and learn.
“I’m over 50 now,” she says, “and sometimes women in my age group feel invisible. To be recognised by the JamFactory with this appointment is very meaningful. I know that I still have a contribution to make. It’s been so nice to know that they think so too.”