Friday, July 19, 2024

Under a set of railway arches in the Haggerston neighborhood of East London, a pack of clay dogs was ready to be brought to life. A Boston terrier and a cockapoo were among the pack, the work of the ceramist Alice Johnson, who makes bespoke sculptures of people’s beloved animals through her business, Pottery Pets.

“I feel sort of very lucky that that’s my job,” said Ms. Johnson, 29, who had the small dachshund she was dog-sitting curled up on her lap. “I hope that it’s something that they will treasure forever — that’s sort of the whole point.”

Ms. Johnson was studying illustration at the University of Brighton when she began experimenting with air-drying clay, which doesn’t need to be fired in a kiln, and, during a summer holiday, completed a three-day pottery course that included making clay versions of her two pet spaniels.

When she returned to school, she said that her friends asked if she could make replicas of their pets. “It just sort of happened quite organically really,” she said.

She graduated in 2017, and kept making the creatures on the side while working on a Master of Arts in ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. As “people seemed to be interested,” she said, she established the business officially the year she graduated, 2020.

She had been using a small space in a communal studio, but in January, Ms. Johnson moved into a larger area of a shared space of some 160 square feet; on this drizzly October day she was already working through Christmas orders. News of her business has spread by word of mouth, she said, and now orders come from far beyond Britain.

For Kendra Stautz, who works in mental health in Colorado, having a pottery version of her Border collie was a way to remember him “while he was still as healthy as possible, so that I wouldn’t associate it with losing him,” she wrote in an email. He was diagnosed with kidney disease last year and died this past summer.

According to the 2023 annual report of Pets At Home, a British retailer specializing in pet supplies, there are more than 30 million pets in Britain alone. And accessories represented 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) of the estimated £7.2 billion value of the pet care market in Britain during 2022. Indeed, some of the latest pet-centered innovations are dog showers for the home, built-in bowls, custom crates and concealed cat bathrooms. Hotels are increasingly catering to pets as well as their owners. And there is a booming pet portrait market on Etsy, as well as one in the jewelry world.

Ms. Johnson said that she first asks a client to share photographs of the pet, and then discusses both the pose for the sculpture and any significant markings on the animal that should be included.

“The eyes,” said Ms. Johnson, “are the most important bit,” so they are done first to get “their main character.” She then dunks the figure in a transparent glaze, so the final version will be shiny, and returns it to the kiln for a final firing.

The statues are hollow, to allow them to be fired without damage. But it also means one could be used as an urn, if the ashes were put inside and the opening on the underside sealed with a stopper.

Ms. Johnson said it takes her from four to eight weeks to fulfill an order, although she will do drawings that can be given as a kind of promise of a statue to come if something is needed immediately. Her prices start at £280 for a sitting figure from 12 centimeters to 15 centimeters (or about 5 inches to 6 inches) high. Pedestals, different positions and accessories for statues are extra.

Ms. Johnson said that, recently, she has found herself working on a lot of accessories, such as a pair of ceramic sunglasses or a fabric bandanna, or adding favorite toys. She typically makes such items separately, so they can be added or removed from the statue.

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