From Environmental Scientist to Pottery business owner

Naked Clay Ceramics is a collection of tactile, minimal style tableware and is owned by Carla Sealey. Using a combination of handbuilding and slip casting, everything is made by hand in Carla Sealey’s studio in Bedfordshire.

I started this business because I wanted to make something that was special and intentional. I am all about being intentional “, explains Carla. Her passion for art can be seen in her exquisitely handmade home-ware, which she sells online.

We spoke to the woman behind Naked Clay Ceramics to hear about her background, starting Naked Clay Ceramics and her passion of ceramic.

1. What is your background?

I originally qualified as a geologist and chemist followed by 14 years of working in the environmental sector. In my earlier years I worked for a private water company based in the West Midlands, where I was the only black woman and 1 of only 3 women who were in a non-clerical role. I later moved to the Environment Agency, where again for most of my employment I was the only black woman until another black woman was employed as a PA a couple of years before I left. In my scientific and managerial position, I was responsible for the prevention of pollution of groundwater supplies for drinking water.

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2. How did you get into that profession and what was it like?

This was back in the 80s, so it was a very bold move by the guy who hired me at the water company in the West Midlands. I was an anomaly on so many levels because I had come from London, lived in a house share and I was not married, which was very weird for them back then.

It wasn’t a hostile environment but people were certainly ignorant and would say stupid things, which made it challenging at times. You just had to take it in your stride and deal with the ignorance as best as you could.

I enjoyed my time working at the National Rivers Authority. I loved getting out to the countryside. As field officers we spent our time driving around the country talking to farmers, landfill owners, scrap yard dealers and I loved it.  However, after merging with several organisations, we became part of the Environmental Agency. I realised that I was the lowest paid middle manager despite the fact that there were other people with less experience and qualifications than me.

[Read: How this black business man started his business during a recession]

3. When and why did you start Naked Clay Ceramics?

I had what they call a perfect storm where all things fell apart, so I took that opportunity to rebuild and refocus. In 2003 I decided to go back to university to train as an applied artist. Following that I started a glass studio and also did ceramic sculptures. In 2015 having moved to a new studio, I realised that I needed to rethink the commercial side to my business. I had been buying handmade mugs for 20 years and so I thought ‘You spend money buying them, why don’t you make your own?’. That’s why I ended up developing a range of ceramic cups, plates and bowls in 2017.

We all have our little morning rituals around food and drink that ease us gently into the day, whether its tea, coffee, juice, a favourite breakfast. I wanted to make something so that first thing in the morning you have something that pleases your senses. Something that was tactile, so that it feeds into your senses. For example, it looks beautiful when you see it, feels beautiful when you hold it, you use it when you are eating something that tastes good or smells good. My homeware products provide this peaceful experience.

Carla Sealey

4. How did you start?

After graduation from my Art degree I started making glass and jewellery in my utility room but eventually found studio space where I could also do ceramics. A friend kindly lent me some money which I used to buy a kiln. The equipment you need can be expensive, so I had to adapt my way of working to what I could afford in order to get things done.

5. How did you market your products when you started? Is it different from what you do now?

I do most of my marketing through my Naked Clay Ceramics Instagram page. Before the pandemic, I was doing a number of regular selling events where I could catch up with my customers face to face. I keep my community updated on all my events and my online shop openings via my newsletter. I have also used paid advertising, in a magazine called 91 Magazine, an independent interiors and lifestyle print magazine that’s very supportive of small businesses. Thanks to the work of a photographer friend, I was also featured as maker of the month.

Recently, since that start of Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a sudden interest in black owned businesses and a lot of free advertising for my business. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great that small black owned businesses are finally getting the attention they need. Especially given the difficulties in getting support from institutional lenders, and the lack of access to other traditional funding sources that black businesses have to overcome when they start out. On the other hand, it hurts my soul that it took the very public murder of yet another black man for people to wake up to the racial inequalities that are still very present in our society and institutions.

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6. What makes your ceramics different?

I don’t glaze the outside of my pieces and I am one of a few people who work with black clay for functional objects.

With glazed pieces there is a shiny coating that Is placed over the clay. With my pieces you are touching the actual clay that’s been fired in the Kiln. I do glaze the inside as it makes it more sanitary, especially as people use these products with hot food and drinks. Hence the glazing inside makes it easier to clean and makes it more functional.

7. Where do you get inspiration for your pieces?

I would say nature. My products are minimalist so as to create a soothing and meditative feel to them, just like being outside. I’m fortunate that my studio is on an old plant nursery in a slightly wild but lovely, peaceful, natural environment and so I use this to inspire me.

Naked Clay Ceramics

8. What is your most popular product?

There are two products which I find are popular among my customers. The mugs, (there’s always room in everyone’s kitchen for another mug!) and miniature vases, which are used for small wild flowers. They don’t take up much room and they can be collectables

[Read: Female restaurateur, from working in a bookshop to owning a restaurant and property portfolio]

9. How has your business been impacted by Covid 19?

Initially I thought it was a disaster. However, because I have my online shop, people continued to buy my products as they were at home, still getting paid and clearly wanted to treat themselves as a bit of a cheer up. Also, as a result of Black Lives Matter, I have seen an increase in orders especially from America. From product sales side, my business has fared well during the pandemic. However, I do pottery classes in my studio and due to the pandemic, they all had to be cancelled.

10. Where can people find your products?

I have an online shop and I am able to ship products internationally. My products are also stocked in Thrown Contemporary Gallery in London and the Kettles Yard Shop in Cambridge. As I mentioned I also provide pottery workshops. During the class we make functional products by rolling out the clay, forming it around shapes. The workshops last for half a day and at the end of it you have made a pair of mugs, a candleholder or a breakfast set which I then fire for you

11. What are your plans for the rest of 2020 and 2021?

My plans are to get a bigger kiln, move to a bigger studio and hopefully add to my product range. I would also like to get back into doing more sculptural work and installations.

Thank you for sharing your story with us Carla. See more from Carla on her website and Naked Clay Ceramics Instagram page.

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