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Studio Visit: Martina Thornhill on Creativity and Managing Expectations

STORY BY RACHEL SCHWARTZMANN – SHOP Martina Thornhill– PHOTOS BY NICHOLAS PETER WILSON FOR THE STYLE LINE

Sincerity is top of mind for Portland-based ceramic artist Martina Thornhill.

Whether this idea extends to her professional work or her personal style, our featured interviewee is all about keeping it real. Coupling these efforts with her distinct artistic point of view, we’re not surprised that Martina has found success in all aspects of her life. As she explained in our interview below, “The physical objects of art we create should be an extension of the art of living. They can emphasize the good parts or the bad parts or whatever feels most true at the time, but if they are separate or disparate, I think it the insincerity is noticeable. When working on new pieces, I try to keep the importance of sincerity in mind. Am I trying too hard? Am I forcing the work in a direction that doesn’t feel natural or organic in order to fit in with some certain trend? Listening to that inner voice is so important…”

Speaking more to the above, this has proven to hold true for Martina, as evidenced in her beloved collection of plates, mugs, and other interior objects – all of which are tied together with signature design elements including a neutral speckled pattern and her unique play on textures. Not to mention that Martina’s consistently thoughtful design process has helped to cultivate a growing online following of individuals around the globe who constantly champion her work. Even still, Martina remains grounded and contends that at the end of the day it’s all about doing what feels right as an artist. “I feel like many new makers start from the other direction, and I know that I did at first too,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I ‘gave up’ on trying to force it and just started playing with clay for the fun of it that it organically grew into a business.”

To learn more, we recently visited Martina at her studio where she kindly showed us more of her process firsthand and shared her advice for the next generation of makers. Without giving too much away, discover our full conversation with Martina below, featuring exclusive images from our time captured by Nicholas Peter Wilson for The Style Line.

Formally, I’m a ceramicist

based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on hand built functional ware primarily using slab and coil construction, but in reality, I spend the vast majority of my time chasing my toddler child around. I enjoy spending as much time as possible outside and with my family, reading old sci-fi books, digging through thrift stores, gardening, obsessively throwing myself into new projects, and being creative wherever and however I can, whether it is creating art or helping Dodge make the most insane train track we can. I’ve always really valued the importance of actually living your life. Having it be comprised of the things that make you happy and filled with intentional time spent with family, friends, or alone. It doesn’t always work that way and much of the time I feel like I’m failing to meet the normal markers of what a successful adult person should be doing or have at this age, but becoming a mother really amplified how essential that intention and freedom is for my happiness and the happiness of my family. I heard the phrase “it’s important to be a human being, not a human doing” a few months ago and it’s become my new mantra for whenever I get caught up in the trap of being busy.

Portland is home to a huge community of makers. What is your favorite aspect of being based in this particular city, and why do you think it’s the perfect place to maintain a creative business like yours?

I’m Pacific Northwest born and raised so I feel physically connected to this place in a way that I haven’t felt anywhere else. We got really lucky with our home and have a huge yard with fruit trees, veggie and flower gardens, chickens, a skateboard ramp and my studio so it feels a lot like having a country compound, while at the same time having access to a large creative scene and being able to walk to grab coffee. This place really allows me to fulfill both of those sides of my personality and maintain that sense of grounding that can be so difficult to find in the city.

We love that you “treat your clay like fabrics” and with that said, would you say that fashion or style plays a role in your process?

Not necessarily. I try to source my inspiration from non-contemporary sources as much as possible. I think it’s incredibly important to make a concentrated effort to sidestep the easily accessible barrage of images we can find on the internet, and instead, physically look at books, movies, and the world around us for inspiration – otherwise, we risk just regurgitating the same ideas that are already out there. That being said, current style definitely does play a role in my color choices for pieces and the simplicity of their shapes and the current trend back towards accumulating less, but higher quality, heirloom pieces, in general, has created a larger appreciation for handmade ceramics like my own.

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What are your thoughts on the synergy between interior and (sartorial) personal style and how has your work as a ceramic artist inspired your outlook on each?

I think my personal style inspires my ceramic work rather than the other way around. I’ve always had a pretty simple and functional style that involves a lot of borrowing clothes from my husband’s closet. I don’t wear much jewelry or makeup, I’m usually in beat up chucks and vintage jeans. The pieces I feel most drawn to are pretty timeless and tend to be in earthy colors. The same applies to our home. It’s full of thrifted treasures, art made by friends, antique rugs and bits and pieces collected on road trips. The pieces I create definitely mirror that and I think it’s important to embrace that tendency. The physical objects of art we create should be an extension of the art of living. They can emphasize the good parts or the bad parts or whatever feels most true at the time, but if they are separate or disparate I think it the insincerity is noticeable. When working on new pieces I try to keep the importance of sincerity in mind. Am I trying too hard? Am I forcing the work in a direction that doesn’t feel natural or organic in order to fit in with some certain trend? Listening to that inner voice is so important, in the same way as when you’re not feeling your outfit and it throws off your confidence for the whole day.

What is one question you wish people asked you more often?

“Do you have a good cinnamon roll recipe?” Yes, I do and I’ll gladly share my sourdough starter so you can make it too.

How would you advise the next generation of business owners, creatives and makers to leave an imprint in the world simply by doing what they love?

I would say that it’s important to do what you love and makes you happy without expectation of financial reward. If a business grows out of it, that’s awesome, if it doesn’t, then you’re still getting joy out of being creative. I feel like many new makers start from the other direction, and I know that I did at first too. It wasn’t until I “gave up” on trying to force it and just started playing with clay for the fun of it that it organically grew into a business. That’s not to say that I didn’t put concentrated effort into it once it started growing, but I let it reach that place on its own. It’s okay to just create art for the joy of it. To give it to friends, put it out in the world just for the hell of it and see where it goes from there.

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How do you think creativity contributes to some of the world’s bigger conversations and what role is Martina Thornhill Ceramics playing in this movement?

I think we’re are in a really unique period of time where all the typical norms are up for questioning and re-evaluation. How do we really want to live our lives? Who and what do we want to support via our financial purchases? What choices do our privileges allow us that others do not have and how can we responsibly wield that power? Starting this business and choosing to focus on it, and all the insecurities that come with it is a conscious choice that my family made. I wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with my son during these early years and working for myself and from home allows me more flexibility than a normal job. I choose to donate portions of my business income to charities that work towards social justice. I choose to sell work primarily through my own site so that I can use the extra income to afford to pay my assistant a better wage. The same thought process that my customers go through when choosing to shop small, is one that I reciprocate in how I spend/vote with my own dollars. Taking back control over where we spend our money is a privilege and I feel incredibly grateful to get to play a small role in that.