Yello Interviews: Ceramic Artist Ronaldo Wiltshire, Owner of ‘Motions of Clay’
by Karen Rollins Dec 4, 2023
Barbadian creative and entrepreneur Ronaldo Wiltshire is the son of two potters, so you might think that his career path as a ceramic artist was smooth sailing.
But life, as we know, is rarely straightforward, and Ronaldo has had to overcome various emotional, mental, and physical challenges to find his own way back to the potter’s wheel and translate his natural talent with clay into a thriving enterprise.
Yello spoke to Ronaldo about his artistic journey. He told us about his childhood in Barbados, how he ended up living in the UK, what it was like competing in a national TV pottery show, and his plans to grow his business ‘Motions of Clay’.
Describe yourself using a few words.
Smiley, happy, chilled, friendly, and ambitious.
Please tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Barbados. I grew up in Sturges, St Thomas. I am the son of two potters, so I spent a lot of my early years around Pelican Village, which was a playground for me and my brother when we were children. I remember running around the trees and playing cricket down there.
My mum is British so from birth I went back and forth to the UK a lot. Eventually, we made the move to South London when I was about seven or eight years old, which was a bit of a culture shock. I went to two primary schools in England which was very different and a bit scary.
I came back to the island when I was 11 but they told me that I had to stay back a year because of the level of teaching in the UK.
When I was 12, I went to Ellerslie Secondary School, which was great. At Ellerslie I played a lot of football for the school, but I was quiet because I had a stutter. I was smart and getting good grades but also trying to be cool at the same time.
What was your initial career plan?
I never really knew what I wanted to do but I decided to study subjects that might come in handy around pottery like business, chemistry, and social studies. I was always told that I was good at art and music, so they were what I was really into as well.
When I was about 12, my cousins and I started working in my dad’s pottery workshop during the Easter or summer break to make extra money. He would pay us quite well so that was an incentive to get into it.
After secondary school I studied cupboard construction through the Skills Training programme, and I was also working in my dad’s shop full time. So, I was making stuff to sell as a potter, but I used to do other jobs as well like landscaping.
When / why did you decide to go back to the UK?
I was 19 or 20 when I went on holiday to England for a month to buy clothes to bring back to Barbados to sell. I came back in August and by October I was back in the UK again. I booked a return flight for six months but that turned into three years!
I ended up going to college and getting a job at Tesco. I was studying art and design at Croydon College. Within six months I had an apartment and was taking care of bills etc.
After college I went straight into studying product design at university, but it wasn’t a great experience. I really struggled. There weren’t a lot of black people there and I felt uncomfortable, so I wasn’t very sociable.
I ended up getting sick and taking a gap year. I think the stress got me in a bad way especially physically, so I came back to Barbados. In my mind I was finished with university and England.
During that year I was basically trying to figure stuff out. I started dabbling in movies and music producing and I built a recording studio. When I went back to England, I did the same thing. I built a studio, and I got a couple of people to come and record. I did that for a couple of years, just trying to start a label, even though I didn’t really know much about the music industry at all. In the end, I just wasted a lot of money.
When / why did you start your business ‘Motions of Clay’?
I actually went back to university in 2013 but I kind of became ill again and lost the use of my arm for nearly eight months. It was a really bad time and I got so depressed. My hand got smaller because I wasn’t using it, so I used to hide it and I was in a lot of pain. It was a dark time.
The university weren’t supportive or understanding at all, and I felt like they didn’t care about me or what I was going through because I am a black man. So, I quit, but luckily I had other stuff to fall back on because it could have really messed up my head.
I spent some time having physiotherapy, but I was home a lot because I felt weird about how my hand looked and I didn’t want people to see it. One day I told the physiotherapist about how I used to do pottery and he suggested working with clay to help my hand.
I bought some clay and made some pieces at home, but I needed somewhere to fire them, so I went to a place in Purley (Croydon) where my mother used to teach pottery and a lady there helped me because she really liked my stuff.
After that I went to the job centre and told them that I wanted to start a pottery business. They told me about an enterprise programme which gave you a grant or loan at the end of it. I wrote a business plan, joined the programme, and that’s how it all got started. That was 2014.
How did your pottery business evolve over time?
Well, it was kind of stop start. In the beginning, I turned my spare room into a studio and the woman who my mother used to work with was buying a lot of my stuff because she owned a place where people could go in and paint pottery.
Then I found out my girlfriend was pregnant. So, we had to turn the bedroom into the baby’s room, which meant that I didn’t have anywhere to work from for about a year. The business went down a bit. Then my father-in-law gave me a spare room to use, and I was working part-time in Boots as well, so I would work and then go to the studio to make things and I’d be there until really late at night.
I wasn’t even selling anything at that time. I was just making things, trying to get better, figuring out my style, and planning in my head. I didn’t even have access to a kiln. I contacted loads of potteries around London, and they all had different reasons why I couldn’t use their kiln.
Then I found a pottery in Kilburn, run by a guy called Chris Bramble, and he became a sort of mentor to me. He really pushed me to keep making things and would fire my work for me. He wouldn’t even charge me much.
So, I started doing some craft markets and I also approached Hampstead School of Art for teaching work, and I started doing that on Tuesday evenings.
Then Chris asked me to do a demonstration at Kensington and Chelsea college (now Morley North Kensington College) because he couldn’t do it, and from that they asked me to become a technician. Before the term ended in 2017, I was teaching there as well and within a few months, I started managing their ceramic department.
I worked there full-time for about two years before I stepped back to manage a pottery studio which I had kind of invested in, so I managed that space for a company that was looking to set up art spaces. I also did a couple of exhibitions which is when people started to notice my work.
And then you appeared on the TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’, what was that like?
Yea, we filmed that in 2019 and it aired on Channel 4 in 2020. They actually asked me a couple of times to take part, but I didn’t want to do it, then the third time they asked, I thought ‘yea, let me do it’.
I was a bit reluctant because of my stutter and its TV. I also had two friends who had been on the show, and I knew the struggles they went through. But I needed the exposure to be honest.
I also like to do things that are scary and uncomfortable so I can push myself. It was terrifying. The scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was great, scary, stressful, every emotion you can think of.
What did you learn from going on the show?
Mainly that I can work a lot faster. My pottery journey really started out being therapeutic. It helped me to be calm, chilled, and not think too much, so I used to take my time with the work and enjoy it.
The show made me work a lot faster and made me realise that I could produce a lot more in a short space of time.
It kind of gave me the exposure I wanted but afterwards we went into lockdown, so a lot of shows and appearances that I had planned ended up being cancelled, and for a while I was just at home feeling sorry for myself.
Where did the business go from there?
What actually boosted the business again was the George Floyd story and Black Lives Matter kicking off. From that, people started asking for stuff and sales increased, so that motivated me again to take it seriously.
I was also featured in an article in the New York Times and that brought in sales from America and up to now I still get more sales from America than England.
And now you have your own studio space in London?
Yes, I got my own studio space just over a year ago. So now I run courses in the evenings, and I sometimes do taster sessions at the weekends as well. I have two other tutors who teach here as well.
I also run a studio membership where professional ceramicists or independent makers can come in and book the space for a month and use it as their own.
How do you plan to grow the business over the next 12-18 months?
I’ve recently opened a bigger room here, so the business space is expanding, but one of my main goals is to spend more time in Barbados and to grow the family pottery business over there. I’d really like to bring the business that is there, and the one in the UK, under one umbrella.
What advice would you give other creative entrepreneurs / small business owners?
You have to take risks. Yes, you have to think about money, but don’t worry so much about the ‘how’ just take steps in the right direction and it’ll fall into place. Make plans, but don’t always worry about how you will execute everything. Just don’t be scared because you have to take risks.
What do you miss the most about Barbados?
Everything! My family and working alongside my dad in the workshop. I feel like I missed out on a lot of time with family because I spent most of my 20s in the UK.
What is your philosophy / approach to life?
Just be yourself and there’s nothing wrong with changing. Continue to reinvent yourself.