AJ Simpson

In Series 5 of The Great Pottery Throw Down on Channel 4, AJ Simpson was a contestant after their university lecturer Matt Wilcock (winner of Series 1) encouraged them to apply, with AJ going on to win the series. AJ started their online Etsy shop in 2019 selling their pieces, and since graduating from Gray’s School of Art last year, they now have their own website featuring blobs and blob-themed household items for purchasing with new products going live at the end of this month. Alongside five other ceramicists, AJ is working on setting up an open access ceramics studio in Aberdeen, and is currently looking for premises. We caught up with AJ about winning Series 5 of The Great Pottery Throw Down, selling their pottery on AJ Ceramics and their upcoming pottery plans.

Had you seen The Great Pottery Throw Down before being a contestant on Series 5 and was there anything that encouraged you to apply?

I had watched the show every year before applying for it! I enjoyed going over to my friend’s house to watch it every week whenever it was on during university term.

My ceramics lecturer at uni, Matt Wilcock, encouraged me to apply during lockdown as we neared the end of term. He won Season 1 of the Throw Down back in 2015 and said it was a great chance to learn and grow as a potter. Up until then, I had decided that I didn’t want to apply, but I had a lot of spare time on my hands in 2021, and I figured filling out the application would be good practice at writing about my ceramics. I’m so glad I applied!

How was your time on the show and working alongside your fellow potters?

Getting the chance to work alongside all the amazing potters on The Great Pottery Throw Down has definitely changed my ceramics for the better! They are such a brilliant bunch of talented people and I have definitely made friends for life in all of them. Taking part in the Throw Down was one of the best experiences of my life and I have come out of the experience much more confident in my pottery and in myself! I am less afraid to try new, bigger, and more challenging things, and getting critique from Keith (Brymer Jones) and Rich (Miller) was such a privilege and has definitely made me see my work in a new light and given me lots of ambitions for my pottery and how it can improve as I practice more and more. Since the show, all the potters continue to inspire me every day, and we all keep up with each other on our WhatsApp group, sending pictures of what we have been working on to each other.

What was your favourite challenge of the series and what do you feel you learnt from being a contestant on the show?

My favourite challenge has to be the Gnomes episode. I was dreading it so much before the filming day, because there was so much to do in such a short space of time. There were so many small elements to make and put together for three gnomes! But once I got in there and started making, there was such a fun vibrant atmosphere in the workshop that day and I had a brilliant time sculpting my crazy beachcombing gnomes.

My other favourite days were the episodes where we filmed the alternative firings, like making raku pottery and building our own sawdust kilns. I learned so much from those experiences and it has made me want to try more pottery techniques.

Do you have any stand-out highlights from your time on The Great Pottery Throw Down?

It sounds cheesy, but I loved the time in-between filming when I got to hang out with all the other potters and get to know them properly! It was such a busy time, we were always going from one place to another, so having those moments where we sat and had a meal together, played games or shared ideas was really special.

Can you tell us what the experience is like waiting to see whether you’ve made it through to the next episode and hearing the judges’ comments on your pieces?

It made me so nervous every time! I just wasn’t ever ready for the experience to end because I was having such a great time. As a group, we had become so tight-knit so quickly, it made me sad every week to think that one of us had to be sent home. I’d often forget that someone was going home at the end of the week until we were called to stand in front of the judges, it always hit me like a brick wall.

You made the Final of Series 5 and then went on to be announced as the winner, how did this feel and what was it like seeing the viewers’ response to the series?

It felt totally unreal! Filming the final episode felt like both the longest and shortest day ever. It was so exciting having my family and my partner there, as well as all of the potters and crew. Christine (Cherry), Anna (McGurn) and I couldn’t wait to finish up our makes and see everyone again. After the announcement, it was a total whirlwind of emotions, I think I am still in shock. Everyone who watched the series and responded to it have been so lovely. I have received so many amazing messages and emails from people telling me how the show has impacted their lives, and although I can’t respond to each and every one, my partner and I read them all and appreciate every one.

Where does your love of pottery come from and how did you start?

Originally I went to study 3D Design at Gray’s School of Art with the idea that I would come out the other end with a degree in product design. We had a great range of disciplines to explore within the umbrella of 3D Design; namely jewellery, ceramics, digital design, 3D printing, woodwork and much more. However, clay quickly began to steal me away and I found myself firmly set on ceramics by my third year of uni. If I had to pin it down to one project or experience that drew me to the medium, it would be a ceramics trip to Guldagergaard, Denmark that I went on between my second and third year with a small group of students from my course. Meeting all of the amazing artists there, seeing them thrive in their work and being immersed in the world of clay 24/7 for two weeks was enough to tell me that I wanted to do this forever.

Do you have a favourite aspect of being a potter and what advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?

I love working with ceramics. I have always been very crafty and as a kid I wanted to try everything but struggled to maintain an interest or passion in an art medium other than drawing. Clay seemed to stick differently though, there is so much to learn within ceramics and so many different avenues to go down within the one medium that I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with it.

It is so tactile, and it can be so quick to bring the shapes and forms in my head into reality.

I would say to someone starting pottery for the first time, enjoy it! Try not to worry too much about everything being perfect first time because even people who do pottery every day find it difficult to control what comes out of the kiln. If you give your clay a little bit of space to decide what it wants to be, you can get some beautiful results. There is so much to learn from clay and so many different disciplines within it and avenues you can go down. If you don’t enjoy one technique, such as throwing or coiling, there are hundreds of other ways to create with clay. Get out there and try as many as you can!

How did your AJ Ceramics shop come about and can you tell us about it?

I initially started my AJ Ceramics online as an Etsy shop in 2019, which was great at the time, but after graduating from university I wanted to create a more professional space where I had more room for growth and could tailor my shop to look how I wanted it. So I now have my own website! You can find it at www.ajsimpsonceramics.com. I love the freedom that having my own platform for my pieces gives me. With my own website, I also have a subscription list where if you enter your email I can send out updates on when my next shop update will be and what to expect. This has been a brilliant and exciting step into the ceramics world for me.

What upcoming plans do you have for AJ Ceramics?

At the moment, I am working on lots of blobs and blob-themed household items. Everything coming out of the kiln is so colourful and characterful, I hope that my joy in making them comes through in my work. Amongst this, I am also working on a series of blob dinosaurs which are growing bigger and wilder every time I sculpt them. There is one in particular that I am working on at the moment, which is the biggest piece I have ever made in my studio to date. I am very excited to see where this series goes.

I am also working on setting up an open access ceramics studio in Aberdeen with five other amazing ceramicists. We have been working on the Aberdeen Ceramics Studio project for over a year now and we are in the midst of searching for a property before we can open our doors. We can’t wait to get started and provide classes and a ceramic workspace for people in and around Aberdeen.

Where do you get the inspiration from for your pieces and how do you come up with the designs?

My blob creatures originally started out as drawings! These drawings are often inspired by everyday experiences and feelings, so you could say my biggest influences are the people around me, and things that make me laugh. In 2019, I was inspired by a trip to Denmark’s international ceramics centre to try some handbuilding and sculpting, my blob drawings became 3D and the first ever blob was born. Since then, I’ve been working on them beside other projects until they have become what they are today! They have gradually gotten bigger over time, and more refined. They have slowly become more cartoonish and more expressive. They have also become very colourful! It wasn’t until after the Throw Down that I discovered a love for underglazes, and blobs finally found their colour. I imagine they will continue to grow and change with me into the future. I love making them and I hope that comes through in my work.

How long do you spend working on pottery each week and roughly how long does it take you to complete a piece?

Myself and my partner Celda would be in our studio all day every day if we could! We often say we are in our studio more than we are home in our flat. We love what we do and want to put our all into it, but it is also important for us to take time away from creating to keep our lives running smoothly and to socialise! Keeping this balance is often quite difficult, but as we gather more experience in working for ourselves, we are getting into a healthier routine.

With ceramics, it can take me around two weeks to complete anything start to finish, with all of the drying times and firings, it is a really long process! This is why I like to make things in small batches. My smallest creations like my blobs usually take around one-and-a-half to two hours start to finish, and my larger pieces like my dinosaurs can take days!

How do you like to spend your time away from pottery?

I like to spend my time away from pottery with my fiancée Celda and my friends and family. Celda and I like to go out to eat, go for walks at the beach, go to the cinema and do fun projects together. We love to play video games in our cosy flat and play with our mischievous pet rats Caramel and Latte, who are always mooching for whatever we are snacking on.

Are there any other talent competition shows you enjoy watching and do you have any favourite TV shows and films to watch?

I love watching creative competitions on TV, I have always found it so inspiring to see crafters and makers at their best. Since filming the Throw Down, I have a whole new perspective, having been behind the scenes, and I still love to watch them. I am so excited to see the next season of The Great Pottery Throw Down, all of the contestants are going to have such a blast!

Celda and I love to watch all sorts of TV shows and films in our evening time together. Recently, we binged the glassblowing competition from the US, Blown Away. My favourites to watch are always fantasy shows like The Witcher, Stranger Things, The Dark Crystal… and I am so excited to start watching The Rings of Power. I am a huge The Lord of the Rings fan.

What was it like attending and graduating from Gray’s School of Art and how has the experience been studying during the pandemic?

I graduated from Grays in July 2021, not long before filming for the Throw Down started. I loved my time at university. It provided so many opportunities for me to grow, learn and experience new things, and I met so many wonderful people, including some of my closest friends and my partner Celda.

Studying during the pandemic was really difficult. I really struggled to pursue my passion for ceramics whilst studying from home, without the access to all of the great resources and workshop equipment at Gray’s. In hindsight, it was both a good and a bad thing, because it pushed me to be adaptable and to start looking into getting my own equipment. After a lot of saving, I bought my first kiln! I borrowed a throwing wheel from a friend and threw outside in the cold, dried pots out on my bedside table, mixed (and spilled) glazes in my bedroom. It was a wild time, but one that has helped to shape me as a maker.

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