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Meet the Maker: Raglan potter Tony Sly (Video)

Tony Sly watches the water lap over the sand from his picturesque Raglan studio.

Potter Tony Sly connects with his creativity through tactile experience

A hands-on learner, Sly first put his hands to clay aged 20 at a night class. 

"It was love at first sight," says Sly. "I was mad keen. I never stopped."

Tony Sly makes pottery full time by the seaside in Raglan.

He picked up more skills through a series of unofficial internships, knocking on potters' doors and offering his assistance in their studios for free in exchange for lessons. 

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His studio-come-store for the last 10 years has been on the wharf of picturesque Waikato surfing town, Raglan.

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"I like to call myself a potter, not a ceramicist or a ceramic artist. I make pots for cooking and using and serving food."

Cooking, another creative act that requires one to get their hands dirty, is Sly's other passion.

Hands-on creation in Sly's studio.

"I love to cook and at some point in my potting life, I had a break and when I came back I was thinking about what I wanted to eat my dinner off."

"So that's my benchmark really - do I want to take this home and use it?"

Function is key. All Sly's glazes are made in-house but only those that make food look appetising make the final cut.

Tony's studio sits on the Raglan wharf.

"At home the kitchen is the testing ground, or the laboratory really, where things last and you use them, or they get pushed to the back of the cupboard," Sly laughs. "That's how I decide about introducing that colour or that shape to the range."

"My personality has always been to make runs of things, rather than one-off art statements," he says.

 He makes pieces in rotation, and when the next wave of making arrives, the same piece may change form; a lightly altered angle of a rim, a subtly different height.

Sly's take on a plain white plate.

"It's really more like an evolution than a revolution," Sly says.

Sly's studio consists of a team of four that works a bit like the kitchen squad of a high-end restaurant.

"I do hand-throwing on the wheel and press-moulding of clay into plaster moulds for oval platter shapes. We make about 100 pieces a day in the studio."

Sly makes pottery pieces to make food look good.

"That's with a team of four people, so I'm like the head chef and then I pass it along to the next person. So everyone works on every piece."

Like any well-seasoned creative, Sly's work benefits from the sum of his years. 

"It's like playing music, over the years you just get better at it. It's more fluid and more easy."

At the pottery wheel is Tony Sly's happy place.

"The hand-throwing takes me a minute or two on the wheel, but it actually takes one piece about four weeks and 23 steps to get it through all the different stages."

There's something immediately tactile about Sly's pottery, it asks to be held.

"I want the finished product to look like it's still soft clay, like it's freshly come off the wheel, and when you fire it; you're capturing a moment in time," says Sly.

A new piece of pottery is born.

He describes the pottery as "alchemy" gone right. 

"It's about how it comes together. Like a wonderful chef that somehow creates that flavour hit that comes from nowhere, that makes you think, 'Oh my god, that's beautiful.' That's what I aim for all the time, just to have that little x-factor."

The inspiration for Sly's work is often found in the past.

This azure glaze was inspired by the waters of Raglan.

"When I'm travelling I tend to fossick around for old pottery. You can feel the hand of the maker in there. Those simple shapes that were made for utility and for function and for reason."

"So then I'm sort of re-interpreting those shapes into a modern context."

Sly's studio makes everything by hand, without machinery.

Sly and his staff work full time in the studio to keep the shelves full.

"People always think it's arty but I'm 55 and it's a really physically demanding being bent over a potter's wheel all day."

"It's hard physical labour, but we're honest about that. We want to make an honest product, not something that's faux. I don't think I'll be retiring, I'll just make less as I get older."

Potting five days a week, a day in the studio begins early with gym or yoga as a warm up for a day at the wheel.

Making pottery is one long workout.

After one-on-one's with his team it's breakfast on the Wharf before starting the day's run. Sly's team consists of studio manager Amber Olsen, specialist glazer and kiln firer Gene Pospisal, and a young Californian potter by the name of Michael Nation who recently joined to help with the making.

The student becomes the master and then the teacher. The fun part for Sly is still just having the clay under his hands.

"It's still about the tactile experience," he says.

Sunshine glazes artfully arranged in the store.

"That's no different to that first night. I'm very lucky to be able to do that every day of my life."

Loving life at his Raglan pottery studio, Tony Sly doesn't plan to ever retire - just to make fewer pots as he gets older.

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