How a thriving ceramic studio was built on ‘lumps of clay’

2013-11-27 00:00

IT’S a brilliant Monday morning when I drive to Trayci Tompkins’s studio in the Midlands. The place is in full swing as she shows me around, and her large bouncy dogs settle on the verandah, a bright green millionaire’s view behind them.

“I’m happy working with my pets around me. It grounds me and at times inspires some sculptural pieces, too,” she says. It seems perfect, like a dream, although, as she tells me, it didn’t happen without a plan and a great deal of hard work. But first there were the years of learning and exploring.

After school, where she didn’t study art because it was over subscribed, she enrolled for theatre crafts at Durban Technikon before changing to drama.

She put herself through college with a range of jobs, from dressing up as the Oros Man to ticket collector in a theatre, then worked in newspaper advertising. In the early nineties, the U.S. beckoned and she left to become a nanny for the children of a racing-car driver, before landing up in a pottery studio in England being taught how to coil pots.

“I got totally hooked. It was like a plug had gone in,” she recalls. But this wasn’t the start of her career as a potter. First she travelled extensively throughout Europe in a converted VW Kombi, finding inspiration and life lessons along the way.

“Then my dad got sick and I came back to Durban.”

It was a trip to Art in the Park that changed everything.

“I realised I had to go back to art. There were no potters [at Art in the Park] then. I sold out at my first exhibition and said where do I go from here? Every year, I had to come up with a new body of work. My artistic journey began. I had to learn about things like kiln failure and glaze failure.

“Artist Errol Boyley helped me a great deal. He said that in order to be on top of your profession as an artist, you have to do [your art] every day, whether you feel like it or not. The early days were exciting and challenging. I was learning how to be disciplined.

“I had myalgic encephalomyelitis [ME] and had to work through it. I got to know myself and started to teach. That’s where you grow.”

Her husband, Stuart Tompkins, left the corporate world to help her launch their joint art business and first studio product, the Dlamini. “Every artist needs a plan. Stuart and I are very conscious of our plan. Our joint skills and experience ensure the continued growth and success of our business”

Trayci, the artist, produces her own work, which includes stoneware, raku, coiling, slabwork, wheelwork and sculpture. She also designs for, makes and runs Zulu-lulu Art House, which has a shop at Piggly-Wiggly in the Midlands. The shop includes a place for customers to paint blank ceramic items, a ceramic studio and gallery showcasing the work of other South African artists alongside their own, and Trayci is constantly adding new items to the inventory.

“I travel and my eyes are very aware of what’s out there, what’s selling in the retail world. How are people buying art? How do trends and lifestyles influence what we choose to surround ourselves with.”

It’s a combination of strategies that works for her. “As an artist, it is rewarding that I can make things I feel good about,” she says.

An important factor in how she runs the business is having good relationships with her five staff members.

“In a small business you have to believe in and respect each other,” says Trayci, adding that she finds jobs in the studio to match the strengths of the people working for her. “To make the business work, you have to be flexible. Courage, commitment, perseverance and passion are also important for survival.”

It’s this kind of holistic approach she believes makes running a business rewarding and sustaining. “Sometimes I think, this lump of clay has employed so many people for so long. That’s a proud thing.”

FINALISTS in The Witness’s True Stories of KZN competition will each receive a Dlamini statuette made by Zulu-lulu ceramic studio, which will be handed out at the award ceremony tonight when the winners are named.

Tompkins says the collectable Dlamini figurines have travelled to homes “the world over, and are growing into an iconic South African Oscar. They are the award of choice at many events and corporate functions.”

See tomorrow’s Witness for True Stories winners

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