Nam and Susi are the co-founders of Cernamic pottery studio, a welcoming and homely studio in Stoke Newington built on the belief that every person has an innate desire to create that we are often unable to nurture in modern life. The pair believe that pottery is a rich, fulfilling craft that becomes more than the sum of its parts when we use it as a vessel for expression and imagination. We sat down to discuss the journey so far, harmoniously running a business as a duo and the importance of community.
Your work combines characters and elements from gaming and animation with the ancient techniques of pottery. How and when did you first think to combine these formerly disparate worlds?
Pottery is easy. Anyone can pick up the basics, given time. The real question is how to use the medium to represent you, in a way that stands out. I only make objects that I would want to collect myself. If I can’t picture it in my home as something to look at and enjoy, I don’t make it. Gaming is something that I love and do a lot, so exploring it through the medium of pottery feels like an authentic extension of my self.
There is a strong sense of humour to your work. What makes you laugh?
Seeing an adult instantly turn back into a child when they encounter something from their past.
As partners in both life and business, how do you maintain a healthy balance (if at all) between work and play?
We treat the studio as if it’s both our home and our baby, so that’s a strong shared bond. We’ve had our ups and downs together — long hours in the studio working on projects, worrying that we’re making wrong decisions — but it’s only ever made us stronger. Whenever we can, we look back to see how far we’ve come. When everyone’s gone home and the studio is empty at the end of the day, we only have each other.
You have playfully described yourself as a ‘modern day Geppetto’, making companions to keep you company. Do you ever find it difficult to part with work?
Most of the things I make I keep for myself, though some pieces do slip away due to the necessity of paying rent. I never really want to part with my ceramics, though. They’re a personal statement, made from a material that will last the test of time. When civilisations collapse, the ceramics always endure. Roman vases, the Terracotta Army. The pieces I make are my record of what made me me.
In the relatively short time since opening Cernamics, you have amassed a large and devoted following. How did you go about building your community?
Just being nice, being open. A lot of potters are quite reclusive and shy and like their personal space. Which is totally fine! But by offering a very open and relaxed environment, we have found that a lot of likeminded people are attracted to our studio. People with passion who are willing to share and exchange knowledge. Over time it’s becoming more and more like a hangout with a bunch of friends, rather than a traditional pottery studio. Which is great. I don’t want to be stressed in a work environment — I want to talk about people’s lives.
You are very candid on social media about the grit and courage required to set up your own studio, not to mention questioning the validity of your own work and pottery itself. What inspired you to be so honest?
It was just the situation. Being evicted from our small studio during the mist of lockdown and forced to set up another one without any help. It was either go for it or quit and get another job. It was extremely hard. When we found our location in Stoke Newington, there was nothing inside, not even a plug socket or a tap, which was very daunting. Susi and I panicked so many times, worrying that it wouldn’t work, as the lockdowns and restrictions kept coming. The studio went into the red a few times and we used our wedding fund to pull ourselves out. Then, after months of paying rent without income due to the lockdowns, we resorted to crowdfunding. That really saved us and showed us how much people cared and were following our journey — all our effort and hard work. The studio is a statement. We’re an open book on how we got here, no smoke or mirrors. What you see is what you get. You have to be honest.
How do your differences harmonise together to create the uniquely collaborative and dynamic environment that is Cernamics?
Susi is more serious and organised. She keeps me in check regarding ordering the materials, paying rent and organising the classes. She’s also amazing at aesthetics, knowing what will make a piece work. I’m more muscle, bone and head so I do the messy parts — lifting things, moving them around. That’s what balances the studio — our harmony of yin and yang.
Do you have any mentors or inspirations that have helped you navigate starting your own studio?
About seven years ago, one of the technicians from Central Saint Martins, David Cooke, passed away and bequeathed his studio equipment to me. That helped a lot — his belief in me. David was an awesome guy. He believed in an East End kid with dreams too big for his boots. When other people just laughed and looked away, he was one of the few who actually believed in me.
How do you balance making your workshops affordable and inclusive with running a viable business?
We actually don’t have too many overages beyond the rent and vet bills, so we just reinvest everything back in the studio. We treat it as a growing creature that deserves the best, which in turn benefits our community members. Our studio is run by two makers — myself and Susi — and honestly we’re not great business people. We prefer to make decisions based on people and situations rather than money. We’re about community. I realise we’re never going to be millionaires but if I can make a space for people to share that makes them feel happy and calm, while getting to make my own work, I’m winning.
How did you experience the lockdown, both as business owners and as artists?
It was pretty bad, to be honest. We were evicted from our old studio by a housing development project — more expensive apartments in Bermondsey! And the galleries were closed so no one was buying. It was precarious.
Has there been an increase in the number of people pursuing pottery for the first time?
Yes! From classes of 5 to 8 people, we now run workshops throughout the week and have up to 80 people coming through the studio on weekends. Our growth is completely down to word of mouth and the kindness of our community because I’m rubbish at marketing.
What do you wear to work?
Nam — Jeans, t-shirt.
Susi — Jeans, jumper.
We’re simple people.
Finally, this year we ask all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase:
You Must Create… A representation of oneself in the present moment, in order for people to look back and understand what that moment was.