A wonky old trough brought out my sentimental side

Julia Atkinson-Dunn is the writer and creative behind Studio Home.

Last week, I visited my aunt to collect an enormous ceramic trough made by my great-grandmother.

My aunt, a long-time inspiration for me with her passion and talent for gardening and flower arranging, had retrieved it from her temporary position at her former golf club, to instead keep it in the family with me.

When I was offered it in passing at a family gathering, I immediately said yes despite no memory of what it looked like. I am sentimental to a fault at times, and the thought of this piece being lost in the world with strangers was too much to bear.

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So, I gratefully bought it home, jammed it full of chicken wire and walked my summer garden, attempting to channel the ‘rambling rural homestead garden’ vibe I imagined my great-grandmother might have enjoyed as a child in the late 1800s at Waitangi Station in the Waitaki Valley.

It’s fair to say that perhaps ceramics weren’t her thing, as “rustic” would be a generous word for the craftmanship of the trough, but I found simple pleasure in the gentle time spent building something within her vessel, finding a nostalgic sense of connection in combining my creative work with her own.

My sentimental streak and respect for artistic creation extends beyond wonky, family-made troughs.

An arrangement by Julia Atkinson-Dunn, in a vase by Pip Woods.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Supplied

An arrangement by Julia Atkinson-Dunn, in a vase by Pip Woods.

As a continuation of a life spend in admiration of artists, I have given myself permission to collect ceramic vases and vessels made by local talent at leisure. I justify each purchase as both ‘art collecting’ and ‘work supplies’, relishing the process of combining my homegrown stems with someone else’s art. In a sense, it’s a fleeting and enjoyable collaboration!

I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my favorite ceramic artists.

The divine, curvy creations of Wellington artist Pip Woods captivate me and the single vase I own of hers gets a regular work out.

A simple but beautiful design by Nelson-based maker Martha Blanche Sidonie.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Supplied

A simple but beautiful design by Nelson-based maker Martha Blanche Sidonie.

Wairarapa-based Felicity Donaldson, who produces ceramic goods under the moniker Wundaire, turns her hand to many useful objects for the home, but it’s her occasional release of large sturdy vases which really excite me.

Nelson-based maker Martha Blanche Sidonie creates beautiful vessels that are decorative but un-fussy, while SOS Ceramics in Marlborough deliver a terrific balance of bold design with noticeably handmade form.

Raglan-based Tony Sly produces beautiful, chunky pottery for the home including jugs and vases that beg for rambling arrangements. In a similar vein I relish scouring Trade Me and antique stores for pieces by Hanmer Pottery. While no longer in production, I gain the added nostalgia of growing up down the road from their studio.

Vintage pieces, like this vase by Hanmer Pottery can still look fresh and contemporary.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Supplied

Vintage pieces, like this vase by Hanmer Pottery can still look fresh and contemporary.

Christchurch artist Tamara Rookes regularly exhibits her ceramic work in local galleries and I would count myself as an obsessed fan. Currently a large bowl featuring her signature ‘face’ detail is a favorite of mine to play with.

Bigger isn’t always better. I can’t go past a sweet bud vase, one that will cradle that single stem at a loose end. Fashion-designer-turned-ceramic-artist Deborah Sweeney produces a constant flow of small creations that have achieved cult status, while closer to home I love browsing the selection in the studio/store of Lyttelton’s Ata Ceramics on Saturdays.

The signature face detail on a vase by Tamara Rookes, based in Christchurch.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Supplied

The signature face detail on a vase by Tamara Rookes, based in Christchurch.

I enjoy the challenge of working with a little footed pot I own by Christchurch artist Samantha Elise and incessantly check the website and stockists of Mark Coomey for new releases of his outrageously popular forage bowls.

Given I have managed to twist my vase collecting into a shaky ‘necessity’ (one I am sure my husband questions on a daily basis), I have at the very least forced myself to be discerning in what makes a functional vessel as opposed to one for display only.

By far the most user-friendly shape is the hour glass, offering a nice base of support for water and stems and making arranging easier with the narrowing at the waist. This form lets the flowers fan naturally and lock each other into place with the interlacing of their stems through the length of the vessel.

A footed pot by Christchurch artist Samantha Elise creates a challenge.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn/Supplied

A footed pot by Christchurch artist Samantha Elise creates a challenge.

The opposite, a bulbous type form that tapers at the neck and base, is easy to use too – however there is a risk of toppling once the weight of water and flowers are added if the bottom is too narrow for its height. I have discovered this in the messiest ways possible.

I have really enjoyed playing with handmade vessels with large open necks. These resemble bowls, pots or urns and with the help of a pillow of chicken wire and some florists tape, they provide great scope for a flower lover to get creative.

Regardless of whether you choose to collect handmade vases from New Zealand artists or swipe a great option from the shelf of your local homewares store, the biggest lesson I have learned as flower arranger for fun, is to keep a library of vessel choices in all different sizes.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn says it's worth having a range of shapes and sizes of vessel.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn

Julia Atkinson-Dunn says it’s worth having a range of shapes and sizes of vessel.

I can concretely assure you that if you think you’re no good at arranging it is only because you don’t have an appropriate choice of vase to support the blooms you have harvested. If we consider the basic aesthetic guidance that your finished arrangement should be 1-1.5 times the height and size of your vessel, you will naturally feel better when your short stemmed dahlias hover disappointingly over the top of your “too tall” vase, or your long but delicate stems of Ixia flop around with little finesse in a vase with a large opening.

Consider this permission to grow your collection.

You can follow Julia on @studiohomegardening or www.studiohome.co.nz

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