Studio Spaces: Peter Hugill

Where it all happens: Peter Hugill works on a bowl on the turning wheel in his studio. Photo: Scott Calvin.
Where it all happens: Peter Hugill works on a bowl on the turning wheel in his studio. Photo: Scott Calvin.

With a whir the turning wheel comes to life.

Potter Peter Hugill sits at the machine he built himself and throws a piece of clay onto the wheel, pumps the pedal and starts shaping the blob into a bowl.

“I made the wheel out of an old exercise machine - you know the one you stand on and it vibrates?” he said.

“We had one here for years and we never used it and I thought it’s probably got a little DC motor in there. 

“I flipped it upside down and there’s this two horsepower DC motor and I thought, oh beauty. So I put that into it and pinched the electronics out of it.”

To get the wheel to move he bought a wah-wah pedal (used for electric guitar effects) from the guitar shop in Taree, modified it a bit and wired it in.

“It’s great, it works really well”.

Video by Scott Calvin

For the former engineer who ran his own business in Gunnedah for many years, creating the turning wheel came easily. 

It is housed in a studio shed at the Mid Coast property he shares with his wife Yvette, who is also an accomplished artist with her own separate studio space in another part of the shed.

The shed was already there when the couple moved in about eight years ago but needed renovations and modifications to make it suitable (there was originally a lean-to at the side of the shed and Peter’s kiln had been sitting out in the weather). 

“I had to extend this slightly to make up the difference. 

“It’s a bit different than Yvette’s side. A couple of kilns and some of the bits and pieces I’ve been making,” he said.

The clay he is using to demonstrate with is about 15 to 20 years old with a yellow orchre colour. He found it sitting in a bag and wet it down a few days earlier and made a small pot to test it.

He throws this bowl “off the hump”, which means putting a large amount of clay on the wheel but only using the top section. The clay underneath can be used to make more pieces afterwards.

As the turning wheel moves, he centres the clay and the bowl starts to take shape. He draws it up to give it height, stabilises the top and keeps adding water as he goes.

He has a little mirror that sits on the end of the potters wheel so he can look at what he’s making without needing to put his head around the side of it.

On the wheel: Peter shapes his bowl off the hump. He often listens to ABC radio as he works.

On the wheel: Peter shapes his bowl off the hump. He often listens to ABC radio as he works.

Peter pulls out a credit card, which he likes because of their flexibility, to take the excess clay off the outside and finish off the shape he’s after.

Then he uses ribs to get the final shape of the bowl. “Hundreds of years ago they used to use animal ribs to get the final shape of the bowl,” he explained.

Peter stabilises the bowl and uses a small piece of leather to finish off the rim. “It’s very slippery but just stabilises the lip to make it smooth.

“Then you use a piece of cord, wet it slightly, and just take the rim down to where you want to chop it off, put the cord through there and that’s it, done.”

He lifts off the section and holds up the completed bowl.

”I like throwing,” he said.

“I like my bowls to be quite thin, and I generally throw to shape, I don’t generally do much shaping after I’ve finished. When they’re hard I don’t do much with them.”

After he has thrown his pottery, Peter sits it to dry. “Sometimes it gets too hot, sometimes it will shrink and crack, so I have to slow the drying process down.”

The clay is quite brittle and when it is dry enough it will be bisque fired. This is where the pottery is dried and then fired in a kiln to 1000 degrees Celsius, hardening the clay and making it porous so it can start absorbing glaze.

I like my bowls to be quite thin, and I generally throw to shape, I don’t generally do much shaping after I’ve finished. When they’re hard I don’t do much with them.

Peter Hugill

“There’s lots of different colours that you can get from glazing.” 

Once glazed they go back in the kiln to be fired at 1300 degrees Celsius.

“A lot of this clay shrinks. You get about 13,14,15 per cent shrinkage, so for every 100mm in diameter it is going to shrink 15mm.”

Peter has two kilns, one large enough for his larger pieces. “It’s ceramic fibre lined, has got all the shelving, is gas fired, has four burners at the rear of it and all the excess heat goes up the chimney and out. It’s controlled by electronic thermostat.” 

Shelves in the studio display some of his recent creations, a collection that has resulted from the use of different techniques and experimentation.

He has to be careful what he uses when. “Of the chemicals and minerals and stuff I use to make the glazes, some are very poisonous. You have to be very careful what you put onto your ceramics. If it’s in contact with food you have to be very careful with what is touching the food.”

Peter also collaborates with Yvette. “I throw (porcelain) especially for Yvette. I bisque fire them then she draws these birds with ceramic pencil, then they’re re-fired and that’s the result. It’s a permanent tattoo I suppose.”

Peter also uses different types of clay, showing some that has been sourced from Wingham’s Lincoln Brickworks, fellow potter Steve Williams from Dollys Flat and clay based dirt dropped off by another artist, Naomi Grooteman.

“I’m going to experiment a bit with that. I’ve broken some of it down, sieved it and wet it down and soaked it for a while. I think it will be a good throwing clay. I won’t know until I fire some of it.” 

He has a pugmill, which he recycles his clay through. “It actually mixes it back up and makes it more pliable and more usable again.”

Adjoining: Yvette and Peter Hugill at the doors to their respective studios. Their dog, Roxy, often runs to the pottery studio when she hears the turning wheel start.

Adjoining: Yvette and Peter Hugill at the doors to their respective studios. Their dog, Roxy, often runs to the pottery studio when she hears the turning wheel start.

It all started in a tin shed

Peter Hugill started his pottery side of life in a tin shed at the showground in Gunnedah, mainly after work.

It was 2006 and his wife Yvette had been encouraging him for years. “I used to say to him for years, I think you’d love pottery. He builds, renovates and machines and I said I really reckon you’d love it. But he said he didn’t have time.”

His engineering business didn’t allow for a lot else. “It was pretty full on,” he said. “We were doing mine stuff and pumps for mining companies and we built large irrigation pumps to pump 200 million litres a day.”

A couple of years before he retired he signed up to a pottery course. He attended once a week over four terms and didn’t have a kiln or a wheel. “We’ve moved on from there.”

While still in Gunnedah, Peter invested in his small kiln and it had only been fired once before the couple moved over to the Manning. “I’ve set up this small pottery and it’s going very well.”

When they first arrived the shed where they have set up their adjoining art studios was nothing like it looks today, including rotting and droopy hessian in the ceiling.

The Hugills did some work to the main house initially and then four months after their arrival Peter got to work fixing up the studio space for Yvette, including gyprocking the interior and recladding the exterior. Then he started work on his own studio space, which included an extension to the shed.

They are dedicated Friends of the Manning Regional Art Gallery, with Peter the current president.

Peter’s collaborate exhibition with wife Yvette is currently showing at the Manning Regional Art Gallery.