Nobody warns you…

that choosing to be in a creative industry can be hell. Okay, maybe they did but I wasn’t going to listen because I was born to be a maker.


In a creative business there are no regular hours or pay cheque and definitely no guaranteed success based on merit and hard work. Mostly you have to self motivate, self encourage and as trite as it sounds “not sweat the small stuff”. During a low period of thinking “Why am I putting myself through this?” I read a book by Elizabeth Gilbert titled “Big Magic“.

Now I am a big believer that the Universe speaks to me via books. I can be seen at my local library casually roaming the aisles letting my fingers slide along the spines of books waiting for some greater power to make me stop and pull out a book. This time I heard Elizabeth Gilbert speaking on the radio about the book she’d written about living a creative life. Immediately, I knew I had to, not just borrow this book from my library, but own a copy.

Don’t panic folks I won’t get too evangelical even though my fingers are itching to type out paragraphs of praise. Surfice it to say, that if you are living or want to live a creative life then this book is a must read.

For the purpose of this post I want to focus on what Elizabeth had to say about perfection. In short, if you wait for something to be perfect it never happens. Now that’s not saying that you should be happy with ‘good enough’ instead you should get it out there and then keep refining your work.

I have been accused of being a tad ‘slap dash’ and at first I took this as a mortal insult; but upon reflection they were right however I chose to see it in a positive light. The bits I didn’t tidy up began the start of an adventure which took me off the ‘tried and true path’ of ceramics. I saw the dreaded dunting and bloating (ceramic terms, look them up if you’re interested) as beautiful and they became an intrinsic part of my work and a reflection of my ceramic ethos.


This bowl was made on a whimsy and stumped on how to decorate it I decided that, as an ode to “Big Magic”, rather than trying to eliminate its imperfections I would highlight them by brushing them with a copper solution. Must admit that it did make me nervous when I realised how many imperfections there were but I remained determined and kept going till I couldn’t find anymore.

When it came out of it’s firing I drew a deep breath and smiled. It was more than I ever thought it would be. It was the physical manifestation of my thoughts on imperfection and how optimistic I felt about my creative life after having read this book.

This bowl will be on display at the “Touch Ceramic Exhibition and Sale” at Brookvale Tafe.





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If you will permit me I wish to indulgence is a small act of hubris. In my kitchen there is a small bowl which is in constant use. This was one of the very first ceramic objects I made back in 2007. Holding it in my hands I think to myself “Look how far you’ve come.”.

It all began by completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts majoring in ceramics at Sydney College of the Arts.

Elisa Bartels ceramics, raku bowl, 2007

Elisa Bartels Raku Bowl 2007

When Mitsuo Shoji, who was still teaching at Sydney College of the Arts, saw this bowl and my dejected demeanour he made the comment that this bowl would be well looked upon in Japan. Those kind words gave me some degree of hope. Thank you Mitsuo.

Elisa Bartels ceramic sculpture

Elisa Bartels, Refuse The Refuse, 2008

So much of time at SCA was spent in contemplation of what emotion or message I was trying to convey through my work. It was all about completion and resolution. All the pieces had a purpose.

Elisa Bartels ceramic sculpture for final year at Sydney College of the Arts

Elisa Bartels, Colour of Crazy, 2009

This was the culmination of my time at SCA. A work which attempted to visually portray the schizophrenic mind of a gentleman I once met.

The world of ceramics is wide and varied in it’s techniques and outcomes. Some find their place quickly; others, like me, take time to discover what resonates. My initial aim with ceramics was to focus on functional ware; it made sense because of my previous career working with food. However, my talent on the wheel did not live up to the excellent array of pieces I saw online and in galleries. So I had a hard conversation with myself and decided to put aside any preconceived idea of how my ceramic practice would evolve and as John Olsen so eloquently phrased it “follow the line”.

The images that follow are all from the years that I have spent at Brookvale TAFE after graduating from university.

Elisa Bartels sculptural ceramics

Yes I have made some functional ware but mainly for my own use.

Elisa Bartels, Nesting Bowls

Elisa Bartels, Nesting Bowls

And finally, I find myself balancing a few different enquires of work. The first and most ambitious are my floating mosaics.

Elisa Bartels Ceramic Designs floating mosaic

Elisa Bartels; North Curl Curl Pool; 2013; H:1800cm, W: 1800cm.

The complexity of this work keep me equally intrigued and frustrated. At present I’m trying to complete a new floating mosaic which is driving me insane as it will not bend to my creative will. As a welcome aside to these big pieces I also make sculptural vessels which are slipcast and black fired.

Elisa Bartels ceramic designer black fired beaker

Elisa Bartels, 2014, Black fired slip cast beaker.

and with the left over coloured clay from my mosaics I fashion jewellery. Modern and simple pieces which are lightweight and easy to wear.

Elisa Bartels Ceramic Bead Necklace with Neoprene and Sterling Silver Chain.

Elisa Bartels Ceramic Bead Necklace with Neoprene and Sterling Silver Chain.

As you can see I’ve come a long way in 8 years and the exciting part is that I can’t say for certain where I’ll be when I next decided to collate a retrospective of my work.

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Look, no dust…….

Pardon about the radio silence but I’ve had my ‘making hat’ on and there hasn’t been much time left to say hello to you all. Hello.

Elisa Bartels designs studioYou’ve all seen photos of my shed where all the grotty tasks (and there are many) of ceramics are performed. Up until a few months ago all the clean work had been done on the dining table and we all know how tiresome it can become having to clean up at the end of the day. Well for me those days are over. I snagged this tiny room as my studio where I can dream up new projects and put together the components of my pieces.

My room is quite bare at the moment but that’s ok. I like the slow and steady accretion of objects, many of which have a story. Take my desk – I dreamed about this very desk and then a few weeks later found it in an antiques store in Black Heath in the Blue Mountains. ‘Sold to the lady with the gaping mouth and the big bug eyes.’

Elisa Bartels Designs studio chairOr this chair which is one of six. It was handmade by my Dad. It was the family trade back in Italy and with his father and brother they would travel from town-to-town, farm-to-farm fixing broken chairs and making new ones. Not only did he make the chairs but he had to make some of the tools needed because he couldn’t find them in Australia. Looks like I have inherited his artisan gene.

Elisa Bartels studio shelvesLastly, I have a place to store my finished products and diaries and other components of my work which I want to keep clean.

I will so enjoy keeping an eye open for a rug and some paintings and am looking at making a giant cork board for either the wall above my desk or the one above the couch. Oh yeah, did I mention the couch. Thanks Gumtree – one perfectly new sofa bed for $50 so that my studio can transform into a guest bedroom when needed and yes, I will tidy up for guests.

PS: I discovered Instagram a while back. I know, late adopter, but am loving taking everyone along on my crazy ride. So if you haven’t already, come over and have a look at @elisabartelsdesigns.

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Unsung Heroes…. I want to read about them.

Today I wanted to write about a subject that is constantly being raised amongst my creative friends. We become frustrated, disillusioned and despondent about our chosen paths when we read in magazine articles or blogs about the instant and meteoric rise of artists/designers/artisans.

The scenarios for these stories are fairly standard but here is one. Firstly they give up their day job, or start a family and decide to work from home, or have just finished a degree in visual arts. Then they begin to make __________ (insert a product) and show their friends and family the finished product. Friends and family promptly begin buying from them; this rapidly escalates to orders being placed from stockists, all this resulting in them having a viable business which affords them a comfortable living in a fairly short span of time.

Anyone in a creative industry will tell you that it is a crowded market and highly competitive. There is no such thing as overnight success. The people who rise to the top and have longevity are those who are diligent with their making and marketing; possess faith in themselves and their products and those, most importantly, who don’t give up.

So I am writing this post to congratulate them. Congratulations to those who have a day jobs, look after their families and still manage to create beautiful handmade products. To those who work on their creative careers on weekends, late at night or early in the morning. To those who run their business not from an airy all white studio but from the kitchen table or garage. To those who have sent in countless images and pitches to magazines, blogs and galleries only to be rejected time and time again. You are the unsung heroes who demonstrate a stubborn persistence to success in your craft when it would be easier to just give up and have a cup of tea.

To the makers who overcome fear and focus on the optimism required when you put yourself and your products into the world for scrutiny. I am in awe of all the creatives that never take ‘no’ for an answer and just keep knocking on doors. I wanted to give voice your stories and let you know that you are seen and valued. I applaud your striving to build a business which is financially viable and emotionally sustainable.

I hope that readers understand that behind every story of success there is always a tenacity which doesn’t allow failure to deter that person’s ambitions. Maybe magazine editors and bloggers believe that writing about the difficulties encountered by makers does not make for good reading. Let me disavow you of that notion. I for one, would find it aspirational to read about a person entire journey. To learn what difficulties they encountered along the way and how they have not only survived but thrived.

Those are the stories I would like to see more of and I truly believe after talking to people that I am not the only one. So I’d like to send out a challenge to editors and writers at large to consider when they next are writing or commissioning a story about a designer to give us the ‘whole scoop’ warts and all; so that we as readers can cheer them on because we have been privy to their vulnerability as well as their successes.

PS: When I read stories about makers I never make assumptions that they have had it easier than anyone else in their industry. What I object to is the one sided picture that we as readers/fellow artists are given by the writers and editors of these stories.

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Fire Away (no need to dial 000)…..

Cones at the end of a firing.

Cones as evidence of Elisa’s first firing.

It was a miserable wet Sunday in Sydney and the perfect day for firing my kiln for the first time. As many long time readers of my blog will know this has been a long time coming. I bought this kiln in an Ebay bidding frenzy a few years back, before I had a studio, and it has been stored in my Mum’s garage until late last year when it was installed in my little shed.

I have already admitted to be a ‘fraidy cat’ when it comes to firing and to honest I don’t know why I was so fearful about this side of ceramics. At university students had to organise their own firings whether going solo or fitting in with a group firing; at TAFE it’s a little different, you can book kilns but there are always a variety of firings happening and all you have to do is leave your objects on the appropriate shelves and they will be stacked in the kiln by our wonder studio technician Danni.

My escapade started on a Saturday afternoon when I finally pulled out the manual that came with the kiln. With a cup of coffee next to me I began reading and almost immediately shouted “WTF does this mean?”. I could write a whole post about manuals and the people who write them; surfice it to say when writing this instructional tome the author didn’t bother taking into consideration the (I’m assuming large) proportion of readers who just want very simple instructions for a very simple kiln.

I put the manual down and reverted to Professor Google and his sidekick Dr Youtube. Both gave me minimal success with some bright spark posting a 29 second video of the controller of their Duncan kiln. Boring cinematography and of absolutely no use to anyone.  After 3 hours of searching the net and trying to understand the manual I temporarily gave up on my quest and went to have a glass of red wine.

Fast forward to the following Wednesday and I’m at TAFE having a whinge to my friends about the woes of  kiln firing. Tann pipes up with “Have you tried “Help For Australian Potters – Advice & Tips on Facebook? Maybe post a picture of the kiln and controller and see if anyone can help.” So I did that and amongst the few good folk who answered my cries for help was Jocelyn Hee. We have never met but Jocelyn has my exact kiln and she not only went to the trouble of typing very specific instructions on how to fire it but also gave me her mobile number in case I became stuck. Jocelyn Hee you are my own personal kiln angel and I thank you.

What were the results?  After 8 hours the kiln automatically turned off, way too early for the firing to be successful; but at the end of it I felt like Leo DiCaprio on the Titanic shouting “I’m king of the world.”.  I had 3 shelves inside the kiln with temperature cones on each shelf so I could understand how the kiln fired and if there are cold/hot spots. The image above shows how the cones looked at the end of the firing.

I don’t really care that it didn’t work because it was a learning exercise and now I understand how the controller operates. It’s wonderful when you conquer your fears because even the small ones can keep you from achieving your goals. and yes Vicki Grima, I feel free, free free.

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Table Talk 2

Elisa Bartels at Kerrie Lowe Gallery

Hi Folks, you all know how passionate I am about welcoming handmade tableware into your home as I’ve previously posted the contents of my sideboard. Table Talk 2 rejoices in the beauty and rich narrative history of handmade tableware and so I was very happy to be asked by Kerrie and Elizabeth to participate in this exhibition. My bowls are certainly amongst illustrious company. Opening night is next Friday, 1 May. Hope to see you there.

PS: There are some perks to having your surname at the top of the alphabet. I’m first on the list of participating artists. Woot Woot.

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Tassels are so Downton Abbey…..

Ok I’m going to start by outing myself as a Downton Abbey tragic. Just last night I was screaming at the television “What do you mean it’s not on tonight!!!!!” All I could say was thank god ‘Vikings’ was playing otherwise there would have a been a prize winning tantrum.

Ceramic ornament by Elisa Bartels

Ceramic Ornament

I enjoy Downton for so many reasons other than the storyline. Actually, there are only two other reasons – the clothes and the house. I spend the good part of an hour sighing at the beautiful garments the women wear and the grandeur of the manor. Now whilst I would not be pleased to live in a time where women were seen as light-headed ornaments; the ornaments within the house have my blessing.

So I pondered to myself, “How can I bring a slice of Downton into the 21st Century? This line of thought ended up with a small production of ceramic ornaments. They are perfect for draping over a lamp or hanging on the sideboard.

Ceramic ornaments designed by Elisa Bartels

Ceramic ornament on my lamp

The balls have been hand-rolled from coloured clay and some have been glazed to add a little sparkle. They are the modern equivalent of the tassel, a very popular embellishment during various times last century.

Ladies and Gents, I’ve just added them to my store if you fancy adding a piece of modern Downton to your home.

PS: Small confession: I’d love a lady’s maid – someone who would put away my clothes at the end of the day and go to the village to buy me prophylactics for a forbidden tryst. Aah the ‘good old days’.

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