holding recycled clay

Do you believe in signs?

Greenbushes is a tiny town in the south-west of WA at the end of a road that leads to nowhere.

The relic playgrounds are dotted with old machinery hinting at its past glory as a bustling mining hub. My husband Robbie and I went there for a weekend escape in the summer of 2016.

We went for a walk to explore and it took fifteen minutes to see it all.

The school (population of 7), the old mining pit, the bakery, a consignment shop and two pubs. In the three days we stayed we saw one other person – aside from the guy working at the pub and the owner of the bakery.

I literally saw tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street. I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to make a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, this would be a great set.

After a long, uneventful weekend we were heading out of town and I saw the consignment shop was open. Never one to pass up the chance to rummage through second-hand junk (ahem, “treasure”), I told Robbie, ‘give me ten minutes I’ll be right back.’

Five minutes later I was running to the car, babbling and beaming with joy, ‘I found one! You’re not going to believe it!! I found one! – let’s grab it – and start the car! Start the car!’

The summer before was the year I started pottery. I’d missed the boat on learning pottery at school. My first introduction to it was a weekly class at my local art centre when I was having my ‘dark night of the soul’, a deeply lonely and miserable personal crisis.

I’d just quit my career and felt like I was floating, untethered into the void of unemployment. I was trying to find the purpose of life without my job to anchor me. My Thursday morning pottery class was the one thing that got me out of bed. Aside from getting my kids to school. But that was a blur of trying to sneak in and out of the classroom hiding my teary swollen eyes behind sunglasses that I wore like a plate of armour.

My pottery teacher could see I was in a dark place and he was kind and empathetic and patient with me. He told me his son had suffered from depression and he could see the pain I was in.

Some days I didn’t make it to class, some days I spent the two hours crying into the clay, making awkward mud puddles instead of vessels.

It was messy.

I was learning wheel throwing and I wanted to make a bowl, thin and flat bottomed, with no footer carved into it. The shape came into my mind's eye, I had to make it.

It was a shape that I could cradle in my two hands, and I knew before I even held it, that it would give me a sense of inner peace. I couldn’t achieve that style on the wheel so I played with hand-building and I found my groove almost immediately.

I created the shape that is now my everyday bowl. I posted it on my personal Instagram account, it was unfired, unglazed and I was totally enamoured by the rawness of it.

A couple of days later I got a DM on my Instagram, from a friend of a friend. ‘I love this bowl! My boyfriend is starting a restaurant, he’s looking for locally made, handmade plates. He wants to talk to you about making the dinnerware for his restaurant’.

We met for a chai at the local Saturday farmers market. My kids orbiting around gathering free tasting samples from everyone they could – the salami stand, the cheese guy and the apple juice lady.

We chatted and I showed him the bowl, fired now, but still unglazed. He asked me to make a couple hundred of them, and could I make plates too?’ Nowadays, with a few years experience under my belt, and knowing how long it takes and the work involved, I’d take a few days to weigh it up. But back then, filled with beginners optimism and with the feeling of having hit rock bottom and nothing to lose, I said, ‘sure, I can totally do that’.

I had no kiln and no glazes developed, but what I lacked in experience I made up in enthusiasm and grit.

In those early days, my studio was in my backyard. Actually, 'studio' is a very generous description, it was a blue tarp thrown over some wooden posts. My equipment was jerry-rigged from things I had around the house and in the garden.

Not having a hundred dollars spare for a banding wheel (a heavy metal spinning plate used to hand-build ceramics), I used an upturned bucket on a lazy-susan.

I was rolling out slabs of clay with a rolling pin from my kitchen. Hand wedging for hours to blend the clay bodies and then going through a process that took a whole day to recycle clay scraps (which I was accumulating in 11-litre buckets on the pavers all around me).

If I had to work in those conditions now, I wouldn’t last a day. But it was all a magnificent learning curve, and I revelled in the thrill of figuring out my processes, having a purpose and getting my hands messy in the clay every day, creating beautiful shapes.

One thing was certain. I needed to invest in some key equipment if I wanted to make my venture sustainable.

I researched and found this thing called a ‘pug mill’. Designed to mix the clay, recycle old scraps and make the clay like new again. It would save me days of prep.

I eagerly hopped onto google and plugged in ‘pug mill’ and sagged like a punctured tire when I saw the price, upwards of $7,000 for a new one. I checked eBay, Gumtree and pottery forums on Facebook for a secondhand one. Nothing, nada, zero. I came up empty, not even a shadow of a pug mill to be found anywhere online.

I set up email alerts on all the marketplaces and got not a single notification in six months. I was growing more despondent with each day. I can’t make this work. I’m kidding myself, it’s too hard.

And there it was, in that tiny town in the back of a junk store that doubled as the post office. Laying dormant like the fuselage of a defunct Boeing in an airline graveyard, there was a pug mill. Sage green, a little worn but complete with a decompressor (that did the bonus job of de-airing the clay when it mixed it!).

I felt like I’d discovered a unicorn.

I was bewildered and trying to play it cool when asked the store clerk. ‘How much?’ “Oh that thing, I don’t even know what it is, it’s something to do with pottery. It’s taking up so much space, how about $100’.

And I knew then, in that room, in the middle of nowhere-town, I was on the right path.

In the Hollywood retelling of my life (just quietly, I nominate Cate Blanchett to play me) a sliver of light pierces through the window at that moment, illuminating the metal carcass, and the soundtrack plays, da-dah’.

It was a little nudge from the universe, saying, ‘I got you Sim, and you got this, don’t give up’.

I unpacked all the pieces at home and realised, I have absolutely no idea how this thing works. I did a bit of sleuthing and figured out, by happy coincidence, it was made in a factory about 25km from my house.

I called them up and spoke to an elderly gentleman called Craig and gave him the serial number. ‘geez, she's an old girl! ... I reckon' I made that around thirty years ago, she'll last you another 30. I’ve got the manual here somewhere, I’ll post it to you’. A stack of papers arrived, that I’m sure had been sitting in a filing cabinet since 1983.

Between my Dad (conveniently a builder) and Robbie (conveniently an engineer), they got it cleaned up, reassembled and working within a weekend.

Not long after I moved into a proper studio, (with four walls! and a kiln!) the one I’m still in now, and my pug mill is a treasured workhorse. Well-loved and well used.

It sits in my studio as a beacon of those early days when I was finding my feet and my reason for being, and it reminds me of this journey I’m on. And when I want to give it up because it’s hard and the devil's advocate is sitting on my shoulder whispering, ‘you’re crazy to forge your own way’, I’m reminded that it’s ok, ‘I got this’.

In these uncertain times, it reminds me to stay hopeful and that it's OK to stay true to yourself.

The prized pug mill, a few weeks after I'd moved into my new studio.

the pug mill is a well loved, well used machine in the Winterwares studioRecycling clay in my pug millThe original studio was a tarp jerry-rigged in my backyardThe early days of Winterwares, making bowls in my backyardAesop bottle repurposed in the studiomakeshift tools