Walking into Roger Harley’s shop is like walking into Aladdin’s cave. On shelf after shelf, beautiful shapes and colours glisten. The senses are nudged awake by a myriad of patterns and silhouettes – no two exactly the same.
The gorgeously named ‘Absolutely Pottery’ sits perched on Quay Hill, itself sweeping like the upwards arc of a jug handle, leading visitors and locals out of Westport town towards the sea. Inside, you’ll not only find a treasure trove of lovingly hand-crafted ceramics, you’ll also find a dedicated potter with an easy, infectious laugh, more than likely throwing clay on his potter’s wheel just behind the counter.
Roger’s deft hands shape everything from cups, plates, bowls, jugs, teapots, tea-light holders and lamp bases to one-off pieces, such as beautiful vases with contours and colours that defy the ordinary. His distinctive domestic ware has almost become synonymous with Westport, so often does it pop up in the town’s fine restaurants and cafés, not to mention the homes of those with a discerning eye. And in those homes you might well spot one of his ‘one-offs’ too, standing regally, in its own dedicated spot – placed just so, so that the light might catch it best.
Roger (44) fell into the trade quite by chance. Born and raised in Claremorris – “from nipper high ’til I finished secondary school” – he went to St Colman’s College in the town. Unhappy with his Leaving Cert results, he wanted to repeat the exams, but he was told he’d have to do all seven subjects again. This did not go down well.
“I thought ‘Ah Jesus no!’, I don’t want to go through all that again in one year!” he says, chuckling. Accordingly, he found a way that he could repeat just two subjects, and he took Art, which he hadn’t previously studied, as one of them. To his surprise, he discovered he had a flair for it, and he went on to complete a two-year course in design ceramics in Galway RTC.
When he finished, Roger got invaluable hands-on experience at a busy potter’s workshop in Clare. A year-and-a-half later, he went to work at Judy Greene’s pottery business in Galway. He got faster as the years went by, and his throwing skills were honed. “I was ‘potter doodling’ the whole time – making different pieces and trying out different things as I went along.”
By the time he reached his mid 20s, Roger had the confidence to strike out on his own, and he rented a unit in the car park of Foxford Woollen Mills. He opened in January, but it was a long wait until he saw a punter. “My first customer was in April. When I saw them come in the door, I think I got too excited and scared them off,” he says, with a belly laugh so hearty the pottery on the shelves can’t help but tinkle and clink along. “So I had to talk to myself, tell myself ‘Calm down when you see someone coming into the shop!’”
It was a great lesson in the seasonality of the trade. There are only two seasons, he explains, summer and Christmas. A few years after opening in Foxford, a summer like none before came along, however. “Business was dead as a doornail. It was a scorcher, and everyone had headed to the coast.”
Roger decided to do the same. Permanently. He had always intended to move Westport, for several reasons. The town was lively in the summer months, no matter what the weather, so it made sense. It was beside the sea, a definite plus for a man who was an All-Ireland swimming champion as a teenager. It felt like a home away from home too, as his mother’s side of the family, the Craddens, was from the town.
That was 17 years ago, and he hasn’t looked back. Since moving to Westport, Roger has exhibited all over the country and overseas. His technique is constantly evolving, constantly growing and changing. Forever pushing himself on, he loves to pore over ceramics magazines, attend shows and pottery festivals, get inspiration from others and strike out in new ways of his own. He has a keen interest in how different ceramic traditions develop in different countries too – the Japanese approach is a particular source of inspiration.
Roger’s main muse, however, is the world around him. He likes to narrow his focus to a tiny amount of its elements. “If you take your picture, and it’s got say 5,000 pixels, well I might pick out three and I’ll interpret them on a subconscious level … There’s lots going on, there’s the colour, the pattern, the distortion, the texture… That’s like life really – there’s lots going on, and subconsciously I’m getting the pieces to reflect that.”
Over time Roger has developed his own particular style, incorporating coloured ‘slips’ into his one-off pieces. These slips can be applied to a thrown piece by hand, with a knife or with a sprayer. He distorts the shaped clay while it’s still malleable, to create unique, undulating shapes. He also ensures his domestic ware evolves too, tweaking and subtly changing its design over time. “You just constantly have to keep moving on,” he explains. “The past is past, the present is now, the future is God knows what.”
And it is from this insight that Roger’s advice for any young potter springs. “If you’re starting out, remember that developing skills is a long, long process,” he says. “Two words: Be patient.” Then he looks up, smiles, and adds: “And always work from the heart.”
Absolutely Pottery, Quay Hill, Westport, is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5.30pm (closed 12.30pm to 1.30pm). Roger Harley is also the Chairman of Craftworks Mayo, a non-profit network of the county’s crafts workers and designers.