WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – SARAH MCKENNA, CERAMICS ARTIST

WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – SARAH MCKENNA, CERAMICS ARTIST

Sarah McKenna is not strictly in the food industry but in my book she is very much adjacent to it and her work can enhance your gastronomic experience so I felt she would be a fun and interesting addition to the more traditional chefs/ hoteliers/ food makers I’ve been featuring on the regular.

Sarah is a potter, she creates ceramic tableware which i think is lovely. Have a look at her website for yourself. I don’t know why but I find it joyful. Sarah’s work uses layers of messaging, created using patterns, bright colours and text which subtly say little things people want to tell each other without having to say them out loud. Each piece is lovingly handmade with consideration for materials and for the environment around us.

Basically, Sarah McKenna makes gorgeous stuff and I think you should all know about it!

How did your career path bring you here?

I am one of the unusual ones; from the moment I laid my hands on clay, I knew I loved it; finding a way to do that all day and sustain myself was a long journey. I studied ceramics in Duncan of Jordonstone in Dundee, and I loved it, but Art College is hard. It rubs more than the edges off. So when I returned to Ireland, I thought I would head to Dublin or Belfast; in my mind, it was highly unlikely that I would find what I needed in Dundalk, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Then, in December 1999, a spot became available in Bridge Street Studios, a group studio set up in 1995 by 4 ceramic artists. So, I jumped at the opportunity. 

At first, I focused my making on sculptural pieces , raku and smoke firing. However, by 2003 I had a few exhibitions under my belt, and my confidence as a maker was growing. 

In 2003 I worked on a body of work with line drawings of figures and decided to make some textured plates to draw on – these were my first pieces of tableware. It made so much sense; I love food, I love entertaining why would I not make tableware.

When I am designing, I like to make things I would like to use in my own life, like the impressed plates I made to fit in my hand or the cheeseboard, which is designed to be big enough to load up with goodies but still light enough to be passed around the table. 

I always think of the taste test done with identical chocolate brownies, the first in a paper bag, the 2nd on a napkin, the third on a chipped plate and so on until no 5 is placed on a beautiful ornate plate dusted with icing sugar. It all sounds too obvious, but how do they actually win a taste test!

I want my pieces to enhance daily dining – so we can feel yes, today is a good day, I am using the good china.

How does your career fulfil you?

I love making; I try to make sure I touch clay every day. However, that can be a challenge because there are so many more tasks other than making. 

The making and creating itself is sometimes enough for me. I do like to make things for myself. If no one else wants it, that can be ok. Especially since I just get to make more things. When I make something, and people love it and use it all the time, that brings the bonus fulfilment!

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Sarah McKenna?

I would like to be a name you think of when you think of Irish Pottery. For years, I have been selling through craft shops and galleries, and sometimes people might buy a piece and not know the story or even the maker behind the work. So, in 2020, when retail shops closed, I focused on my website, which allowed me to connect with the buyer and share my story. I really enjoy this connection, and the feedback is vital for designing the next pieces.

Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspire you and why? 

I met Kate Ryan through an online business group, and I am fascinated by her journey from law to food. She has such a love for food and west cork. It is so inspiring. She is proof it’s possible to find your passion and carve your spot. I have yet to get to one of her food tours, but it is certainly on my list.

What do you think can help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry?

It is so inspiring. I believe the rising tide lifts all boats, and it is great to see women sharing each other’s celebrations and achievements. But we need to talk to everyone about what the fantastic females in the industry are doing. We need to shout about it. So often, those stories get lost.

What was the proudest moment of your career so far?

Some really cool stuff has happened, my work has been selected to gift to Presidents and Taoiseach’s, and I have won some lovely awards. Still, the real pride I have in my career comes from the responses from my customers, the real joy that giving or receiving a piece that has meaning and memories attached. My goal is to create pieces that remind you of joy – so when you use a piece, it reminds you of the person who gifted it to you and reminded you of the fun and joy you have with them. Then, if you buy the piece for yourself even better, we need to be reminded even more of the love and joy we have in ourselves!

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t doubt that you are actually quite good at what you do and will get better and better. 

Focus, in my twenties and thirties, I really tried to do lots of things at the same time as time goes by. So, I now know my goal and focus on that.

What are the top skills required to do your job, and why?

Discernment, knowing when to add and when to take away. My design ideas can be pretty busy in my head. I have to filter and distil that down to what is essential to make the piece work. Of course, as an independent trader, I need to have a go at all the jobs. But even then, I need discernment to know when I need help.

Are you a savoury or sweet kind of person? Please tell us about a real treat.

I am a savoury kind of person most of the time, and I don’t like to be too complicated or take too long to prepare. I don’t think I have ever successfully pulled off a recipe that required more than one day. I am not the sort of person who would think to soak the chickpeas the day before. However, we have been having an international night each Friday between my sisters’s families during lockdown. We draw a name from a hat, and that person gets to pick the country, and then each family has fun with it and shares the photos. It has been great fun, expanded our repertoire and developed the tastes of my two boys. The biggest hits being sushi and tempura cod which we have repeated several times since Japanese night.

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