In our new series, Behind The Wheel, learn about what inspires our potters, the challenges they've faced, and their favourite pieces.

Sandra Zuidema of aSpire Pottery

Getting Started

I have always had a fascination with mud. I grew up making mud pies in our play cabin, sloshing through the field to get to the back creek to play in the mud in the creek bed. Later I took a high school co-op with a local Raku potter, and dreamed of the huge buckets of clay I’d seen at the University of Guelph. However, it wasn’t until I completed my teaching degree and was pregnant with my second child that I actually thought of taking pottery seriously.

I had been teaching Grade 5, and after spending my days with 32 busy students, parenting two little boys was so quiet. To occupy my hands and mind through my maternity leave I knew I needed to have a creative outlet at home to get me through. I took pottery lessons with a local potter, bought a wheel and kiln, and unearthed this love I have for clay. I set up shop in our little apartment, converting our guest bedroom into my throwing room. I put my kiln on the deck outside the kitchen window and on firing days would thread the cord through the window, unplugging the stove for the day and firing my work.

Once my girls were born, I took a break from pottery since I couldn’t dedicate three afternoons in a row to it, and homeschooled my kids for the next 10 years. Now the kids are growing up and out, and I’m back at the wheel with new ideas and energy. To attain some balance (and because I was born for it) I still teach two afternoons a week - so part of my life is occupied with thinking, the other part with creating. One feeds off the other and gives me a joy I cannot find in doing one exclusively.


I have found my inspirations through the things I teach. For years I have been teaching a high school level History of Architecture class, and the designs, patterns, windows I’ve studied and subsequently taught are now pierced into my pots. I teach Nature Study to Grade 4-6 school children and the trees, birds and local plants we learn and love find their way into the shapes that come off my wheel.

However, the pieces of pottery that I love making the most are those with a story or memory attached. Last Christmas my husband was reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to the kids, and while I listened, I pierced a pattern into a bowl that was my take of the Elven kingdom of Rivendell, from the story. I love the bowl because it reminds me of those warm together evenings.

I also love a tea light carved with designs from my favourite church in Ravenna, Italy, one that I learned about while teaching an architecture course, and then went to visit to see if it really was as incredible as it seemed on paper. It was. Now I see the patterns I found on the impost blocks, on the floor tiles, on the Byzantine mosaics, in my pottery and am reminded of falling in love with this faraway church.

Likewise, a favourite piece of mine in my own personal collection is one by a fellow Hamilton Potter’s Guild potter, Craig Fairley. It is a mug that is made in matte browns and blues, so different from my own work. I love it mostly because it is really a perfect mug – it feels great to hold, is earthy but soft – but also because is it made by a friend and reminds me of the day in COVID where on a blustery autumn day five potters got together to sell our work from his idyllic backyard.

Overcoming Challenges

One of the biggest challenges I’ve found with selling pottery is that I’m a pretty terrible salesperson. I’d rather give pottery away than have to tell a customer the price. I’ve gotten over that somewhat, since it does feel like I’m giving a gift to each of my patrons as I hand over a gift bag of work that I’ve poured my heart and self into. I love knowing that my work gives people joy, and that what I love is loved by others.

COVID has challenged me to sell differently and this has been an unexpected learning curve that I’m grateful for. It has pushed me to consider selling online in a more intentional way.

First, I developed my website to include an online store, which has been incredibly simple both for me and for those looking to buy. Until this year I’ve steered away from selling online simply because I love to talk to people, share in common interests, hear their stories.  But seeing how effective my online store was, I signed on with The Northern Kiln.

It has been a great motivator in figuring out how to ship my pottery safely, something I was unsure about before.  An added benefit is that with The Northern Kiln, there is still a sense of community, a local connection, and a knowing that I’m not in this alone that has made this endeavor a fantastic experience.

Words of Wisdom

If I was asked what advice I would give to a new potter, it would maybe be the opposite of what you’d typically do. Normally, I think the first thing a new potter would gravitate to is looking online at what is out there for inspiration. I would say that the opposite has been the most instrumental in giving my pottery a unique flavour.

I was too busy trying to raise a busy family, teach outside the home, and dream of pottery, to lose myself on the internet. Instead, I put the topics I was immersed in onto my pots, thinking up my own techniques to make the things I envisioned.

Later, when I started hunting for others that do what I do, I was surprised to find there are very few.  I love that I’ve developed my own methods and designs that are not only unique to me, but also speak to what I love and was learning about while creating. I’ve learned that one way to keep happy is to have something that requires me to cater to the extroverted side of me –  I’ve found this in my teaching – and something that caters to my introverted self, where I can put what I love and learn into a three-dimensional form.

So my advice to those who are beginning, is to find what you love, create a balance in what you do, and pour your own self into it.

February 21, 2021 — Rhiane Heslop