Bonsai Potter's Spotlight - Sara Rayner
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
As we swing into Spring, I'm excited to bring you my next potter interview, one of my favorites. The fabulous Sara Rayner. Sara has been making bonsai pottery for over 40 years and we had a great discussion on everything from her views on the American pottery scene to her thoughts on what it takes to be a great bonsai potter. I know you will enjoy this one!
PeaceLoveBonsai: Well, let me first start by saying I’m a huge fan of your work and I’m super excited to have this discussion today! I always like to start my potter interviews with the question, which came first, the tree or the pot?
Sara Rayner: Well, I guess that can kind of go two ways. Certainly, pottery came first. I've been doing pottery since 1976, but when it comes to bonsai pottery, the tree came first. I went to a BCI convention in Minneapolis, I think in 1987. My husband and I went up there. I saw the trees, and I knew they were in ceramic pots, but at that point, I didn’t really notice them. The pots were not of interest to me, you know, it was the trees! I got a few books at the library about bonsai and I went to a few meetings. I still didn’t connect the dots that I would want to make bonsai pots. At that time, there wasn't anything about that kind of pottery that was interesting to me. And then I thought for fun, for my own trees, I’ll make a few pots. I took some of those early pots up to our meetings. Those first pots were terrible.
PLB: Hahaha, I’m sure they weren’t that bad.
Sara: They were horrible, but people went bananas over them. And I was shocked. But I was interested in bonsai and I thought, let’s make a few more and see what kind of market there is. And it just kind of went from there. It took a really long time for me to stop making really bad pots. So, in a bonsai sense, the tree came first.
PLB: What got you started in ceramics?
Sara: I was not an academic, and I did not want to go to college. Even in high school, I mostly enjoyed art and music classes. I think it was a high school class at first, just feeling the clay and working the wheel and then I subsequently took some community classes that had a bit more instruction. And it went from there. I knew I didn’t want to go to college and my parents were very supportive of me and my pottery.
PLB: And at that time, was it a business for you?
Sara: No, no, I was just doing because I was super interested in it. I never made any money. I’d have to do art fairs and I’d put pots on consignment because I’d need money to buy clay. The only thing that drove me to sell pots was that I needed money to buy clay and glazes.
PLB: Sure. So, you started making bonsai pots in the late 80s then?
Sara: Yes, after that convention in Minneapolis, maybe 1988 or 87. I started making pots, but nothing any good until probably 6 or 7 years later.
PLB: Why did it take so long before you felt like you were making good bonsai pots?
Sara: It's extremely difficult to change gears. I was working with porcelain and I loved working with really odd shapes and bright colors. Copper reds and shiny glazes. It was extremely difficult to tone it down and understand what bonsai needed. I had to kind of get restricted, in a way that worked and be okay with it. It's pretty tough. To give up that freedom. But I wanted to…because I really love bonsai. There's a creativity that comes with making bonsai pots, as well. Mostly, because it's so challenging.
PLB: So early on, were there people that offered inspiration?
"I try to keep moving forward. I don’t want to look back."
Sara: Well, early on, I could only find two or three other American potters. This was pre-internet. Shows you how old I am! I would find catalogs or some of the early magazines and you could look on the back and find one or two potters. And I’m sure I wrote to all of them and asked about pottery or about how they marketed themselves. They all were very generous. Don Gould was one of the early ones and he was extremely generous with his time. I had heard of Max Braverman and saw his work in magazines, so that was inspirational. But really, the picture magazines, the Japanese convention magazines were really inspirational. To see those traditional and antique pots and see how they went with the trees was important to me. I got my inspiration from looking at hundreds and thousands of pictures of trees and pots.
PLB: You’ve been around the American bonsai scene for a while. Can you talk a little bit about how it's evolved over the years?
Sara: Well, accessibility is huge. We are so interconnected now. We have these shows, these conventions were people can see trees and pots up close. And of course, we have the internet now, so people can see what others are doing. It’s all so available. Before, it was just impossible to get any information. I had one book from the library, and that was it.
PLB: When you think about the evolution of American pottery, do you feel like it was step-by-step growth that felt predictable? Or did you show up to a convention one time, and thought, oh goodness, there has been a gigantic shift here?
Sara: I don't think so. I think the gigantic step, for me, was my very first convention. It was down in Memphis, Tennessee and it was huge. There were hundreds of registrants and it was bizarre, it was crazy, shocking, really. So, for me, that was a real eye opener. But since then, I think the growth has been more in increments, it hasn’t been an overnight thing.
PLB: I recently spoke to Pauline Muth for the blog and she mentioned that convention. They brought in (Masahiko) Kimura, correct? She said it was quite the experience.
Sara: It was. That's where I first met Pauline. Her and I go way back. I love her, she’s great.
PLB: Agreed, she is! Speaking of that interview, one of the topics her and I discussed was the role of women in American bonsai. This idea that bonsai tends to be a male dominated sport. What are your thoughts on how women are received in the American bonsai scene?
Sara: Well, that is interesting question. It's certainly traditionally always been men. And I’m not really sure why, it's hard for me to understand why, because it's certainly anybody can relate to bonsai, females can relate. They can relate to pottery, but I'm not sure why it's mostly men other than it was always traditionally that way. I know that, especially in the first few years for me, when people came up to my booth, they would ask my husband about the pottery. Then he would point to me and say, she’s the potter and they were almost like in shock.
PLB: Wow, that’s interesting. It does go to show how much has changed, especially for female potters, who are generally more accepted nowadays.
Sara: Yes, generally they are.
PLB: Turning back to the American bonsai pottery scene, are there things that you think are missing or you would like to see more of?
Sara: People are very experimental now. There's a lot of different approaches to making pottery, some I like, some I dislike. It kind of depends on how traditional you are. I think you need to have some experience with growing bonsai to understand what works. The components of bonsai pots are so subtle. One little change, one little part will make the pot or make the tree. Again, the components of bonsai pottery are very subtle, and I think to be a really good bonsai potter, you’ve got to be a good bonsai artist.
PLB: I think that's very insightful. Tell me a little bit about your bonsai journey. What types of trees do you enjoy working with?
"The components of bonsai pottery are very subtle, and I think to be a really good bonsai potter, you've got to be a good bonsai artist"
Sara: Well, I’m from Minnesota, so we have limited options. I didn’t really like the Japanese maples or black pines, things that needed to be babied. Most of the stuff I worked with was very winter hardy. White and red cedars and some needle junipers. I think my favorite variety to work with is the yew. Because it's it is so tough. And it responds well to heavy pruning and back buds on old wood. You can carve on the hardwood and it bleaches out. I think it’s gorgeous and it’s very winter hardy.
PLB: And do you still practice bonsai?
Sara: I do not. I did bonsai for a really long time. Lots of trees, like everybody. My pottery work is tedious and up close. It’s intense at times. It takes small motor skills and concentration. And when I would go up and start working the trees, it was the same exact thing. When I wired, I wanted the fine wiring and the profile that came with it. I wanted it to look perfect. I found that it wasn't fun anymore because it was like doing more work. It wasn’t relaxing after a long day of making pottery. I love them and I love working on them, I just don’t like owning them.
PLB: As you know, I’m a big fan of your work. When I think of the typical “Sara Rayner” pot, I think of subtle tones and glazes. Beautiful ovals and gentle lines. I think of pairing well with maples and deciduous trees, not all, of course, but just in general. Given that the hardy conifers and the yew were some of your favorites, did you ever feel compelled to make slab-built squares and unglazed rectangles with masculine lines to fit the types of trees you like the most?
Sara: Yeah, yeah, well I think it depends on where your pottery interests lie. I love slab pots. I love traditional Japanese made pots, but, you know, those don’t hold the interest for me and provide the most creativity. I can still do some rectangles, but they are not gonna be like you said, the masculine, sharp corners. There’s freedom when you can experiment with round shapes and you can still get a masculine shape. And there's a lot of people that do work with slabs, people that are very good at it and for me, it doesn’t make sense to compete with those. There would be a lot of time and energy into something that I couldn’t sell for the time it would take. And I’m not good at it. I like what I’m doing now, if that make sense.
PLB: That make sense, absolutely. Pottery is a full time gig for you, correct?
Sara: Oh, God, yes.
PLB: What would you say to someone who is thinking of making bonsai pottery a full-time business?
Sara: Well, it's helpful to have support of some kind. I went from living at my parent’s place, to getting married, having a family, and then starting as a full-time potter. It wasn’t a scary jump for me, but I think for other people they might want to have that support. As for what it takes, you know, 12 hours days, just about every day of the week. Which can be both good and bad. I mean, you miss some things because of all the work, but it does allow you to focus full time on the pottery. Really hone in on things that make your pottery good enough to sell.
PLB: How has your work evolved over the years?
Sara: Well, I keep working on refinement. I go back and look at older pots and sometimes I really like them and sometimes I really don't. Balance is a huge thing I work on as well. Balance in the pot and balance in all kinds of ways, so that the pot works with the tree and it works on its own form. I keep trying to evolve. I loathe, absolutely loathe, repeating past forms. I’ll revisit them and use ideas, but I don’t want to reproduce them. It’s one of the reasons why I find making custom pottery so difficult. People will ask me to make something like I’ve done in the past and I find it hard to repeat. Whatever the variables were at that time, the clay body, how the clay was working that day, what my fingers were feeling like. It’s hard. I try to keep moving forward. I don’t want to look back.
PLB: What’s the biggest challenge for you as a potter?
"You can't always have things work out exactly the way you want them to. It's pottery. It's artistic work, and sometimes it just fails. But that's okay."
Sara: Well, it's not the technical stuff as much anymore because, like I said, I have done this so long that I've figured some of the problems out. It's trying to keep things fresh and not have them look like they did 10 or 15 years ago and not have them look like everybody else’s. Trying to stay unique and be interesting for myself. My biggest challenge is keeping it fresh.
PLB: Do you feel like you’ve been able to overcome that challenge?
Sara: Oh, no, no! Sometimes I fail miserably. I’ll have a series of firings in a row that are just really disappointing. And I have to scratch my head as to why, and some of that is technical, you know, maybe the fire wasn’t right. Maybe the clay body wasn't mixed right. Maybe I was a bit too fast. Other times, it's just the work mode that I am in. Things are just not clicking. If I'm having poor firings and things aren't working then I can get in a hole and it’s no fun, but that’s part of it. I mean, you can't always have things work out exactly the way you want them to. It's pottery. It's artistic work, and it's technical work, and sometimes it just fails. But that’s okay.
PLB: Yeah, it’s like how we can’t appreciate the Spring without the Winter.
Sara: Exactly. Yeah.
PLB: Fantastic. Well, listen, I thank you so much for your time today. Your perspective and thoughts have been amazing. Truly an honor. So, thank you. And I know we can find you and your work at sararaynerpottery.com. I encourage all my readers to check out her page and buy all her pots!!
Sara: Thanks, appreciate it!