Kōrero with Esther McDonald, Owner, Maker & Designer of Thea Ceramics

October 26, 2023
We spoke with the very talented Esther McDonald (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Pukenga), owner, maker and designer of Thea Ceramics about making mistakes, staying focused and dedicating her mahi, to her whānau.

Kia Ora my name is Esther McDonald (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Pukenga and Pākeha) I am the owner, maker and designer of Thea Ceramics. A small but busy ceramics studio on Waiheke Island. I am a production style potter, specialising in wheel thrown ceramics, intended for everyday use.

Esther McDonald (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Pukenga).
Photo credit: Vanessa Green.

My Nan Althea Kypers was a potter, and the business is named after her, my craft is a nod to all my whānau who work with their hands. I was lucky to be taught pottery by my Uncle Shane McDonald in 2011 while living in Australia.

Before I was a ceramic artist, I was an early childhood educator, and when my son Koa was really little I was looking for something different in the way of mahi. With the support of my whānau and friends I started selling the pots I was making, and it just grew from there.

I knew that ceramics had to be more than a hobby for me to spend the little energy and time I had free, while my son was little. I focused on just making tumblers at first (which I still make today) and worked towards making as many as possible.

It has been intentional for me to slowly grow my business as I really wanted it to support itself. 

The trickiest thing is knowing what to say “yes” to and what to say “no”, I am a lot more confident now and have had experiences making the wrong choice, so I know the warning signs and more convicted in my decisions. My advice would be to know your target audience, create your ideal customer in your mind and speak to that customer. If you have goals, only spend energy on things that move you towards meeting those goals or customers, that makes the choice between “no” and “yes” a lot easier.

I have had many mistakes and wrong turns and most of them have been because I have given too much energy towards something that didn’t serve me or my business moving forward. The best thing to do is cut your losses and move forward knowing you learnt more about your values. 

I made a massive technical mistake once, it wasn’t my fault entirely, it was a calamity of errors that made a huge manufacturing issue. I was naive in my knowledge, and it took me a while to fix the issue with support from ceramic mentors. I had to replace a lot of product for customers and the studio was at huge loss.

I believe that my response to my customers was the most important thing, giving them a solution and dealing with it with a positive attitude (even though I was really struggling). My customers were so kind and happy and continue to support me. Mistakes happen, it’s how you respond to them that matters.

I am really instinctively motivated in business; ceramics is a long process and there are always lots of jobs to do. I’m really satisfied by ticking off my list and meeting production goals. I really love getting into the flow of throwing on the wheel and making board and boards of pieces. I’m always pushing for that time, as I know if I’m at the wheel the business is moving forward. I really get a kick out if seeing pieces all lined up.

I try to be intentional about noticing my privilege and being grateful for my opportunities and the parts of the job I really love. That helps you push through the trying times. I’m not great at balance all the time but keeping a work/life balance is really important. The best thing about having a small business is being able to be flexible and taking time away from the business when needed and to spend time with whānau and friends. My business has also given me the opportunity to connect and to give back to organisations that are making meaningful differences in our communities. 

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