The Bitter Blonde’s Art of Shaping Female Bodies
Olivia McDonald is based in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and is the woman behind The Bitter Blonde pottery. Made in small batches, she hand throws on the wheel using both stoneware and porcelain clay bodies. Each piece is hand-sculpted, making everything unique to itself. Although Olivia’s passion was originally photography, pottery is where her creativity was ignited. Bitter Blonde Pottery uses the human body as an inspiration for her work combined with her ironic sense of self.
What’s the meaning behind your handle “The Bitter Blonde”?
It incites a level of intrigue. It seems to be the first thing that draws people in and I like to think I live - and that my art lives, in-between.
How did you start pottery? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I discovered my passion for pottery in 2015, it was the summer after finishing my diploma program majoring in photography at New Brunswick College of Craft and Design I came back to PEI to work before starting my BFA at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University the following fall. I had been offered a job at Village Pottery, which is the longest-running pottery shop on the island. It was the position under a craft program that funded students within the arts to work at craft businesses on the island. Once I saw pottery being made at the shop I was just mesmerized by the process. I’m very tactile and like to create with my hands as a way to feel connected to my work. Watching the clay transform on the wheel simply by manipulating it with my hands, I knew it was something that I wanted to do and I was confident and determined to learn how. It is the idea of making something out of nothing with your own bare hands. Once I arrived at NSCAD, I took ceramic classes for my electives and gained more skill each summer returning to work at the shop. After I graduated I worked as a production potter year-round for Village Pottery. I did that for three years and as of January 2021, I am now self-employed!
Why did you start specializing “in the art of women’s bodies”? Why was it important to you?
I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. Photography is where I started and it will always be my first love, but after finding ceramics, I know this is my passion and what I’m meant to do. With photography, I couldn’t create the things that I could see in my head but with pottery, I could take what I had in my head and translate it into the clay I was working with on the wheel.
I gravitate towards shapes that resemble the woman’s body, possibly because of society's obsession and fascination with the female body, but also, the way it looks or is viewed by others. That is why three years ago I started making the ‘boob mugs’, it came from a choice to honor the female body. Through the process of making them I’ve learned more ways on how to convey that: shaping the mugs, showing different boob and nipple shapes, sizes, stretch marks, and glazes to represent diversity. They were pretty popular right away and as I began to sell more, I started to hear all these amazing feedbacks and stories of women feeling like they could see themselves in my mugs. How thinking about the mugs, waiting for them in the cupboard in the morning made them feel confident. Identifying as female, our bodies are such a topic of scrutiny and fascination that normalizing its many shapes, and normalizing its idea as a vessel and an object of respect through my work is empowering.
Can you take us through your process of creation?
First, I weigh and wedge my clay, each wedged ball of clay weighing roughly 500-550 mg. Then, after prepping my wheel and making sure I have my tools and enough water, I throw the ball of clay on the wheel and start making the body of the mug. I try to shape each piece differently, aiming to resemble the varying shapes of bodies. Once the cup is thrown on the wheel, I use my wire cutter to separate the bottom of the pot from the wheel and then pick it up and place it on my shelf to dry. When it’s dry enough for me to touch and handle without warping the cup I can flip it over to trim and finish the bottom on the wheel using a trimming tool. After trimming the bottom, the handle is attached. I pull the handles each by hand and let them dry to the proper stage while I’m trimming. Finally, after the handle is attached, it’s time to attach the boobs! I start by rolling out two small balls of clay that are similar in size and shape -they don’t have to be a perfect pair- then I prep the mug to make sure that they will bind with the clay body of the mug and not crack or pop off during the drying stage. Once this is done, I start to shape the boobs and when I feel they are shaped to completion I attach the nipples. When the cup is fully dry it goes into the kiln for 7-8 hours for a bisque firing, reaching temperatures of 1800-1900 F. After that stage, I can glaze it. This is where I will give my mugs a dunk in the glaze bucket, sort of like paint, and then after letting the glaze dry I can finally put it in for its final firing that will last roughly 9 hours and reach temperatures of 2100-2200 F. All in all, the process takes about 3 weeks from start to finish!
My favourite part would either be throwing the mugs on the wheel or lifting the lid of the kiln after a glaze firing. I love to get messy and be creative on the wheel but nothing beats the feeling of standing over a kiln full of beautifully finished mugs.
What is next for you?
Being an entrepreneur is a one-day-at-a-time adventure. No two days are ever the same, and that certainly keeps things interesting! I feel very grateful that the demand for my ‘boob mugs’ continues to be strong. I am also humbled that my work has translated into joy for other people and has encouraged them to celebrate their bodies. As for what's next, I plan to branch out soon and create other pottery items. I’ve experimented with making a few lamps, teapots and decorative vases for personal projects, and I’ve really enjoyed being more explorative and creative with my process. One thing is certain though, the message behind my work and the authentic process will always stay the same.