Artist Charlie Mahon’s career in ceramics has been a long and winding road that began in Cork and now thrives here. But in the intervening years, he travelled further afield and also experienced the brunt of the recent recession.
A Clare native, he attended college in Cork but found few opportunities here after graduating.
“I studied sculpture in the Crawford back in the eighties but there was nothing happening here in Ireland at the time,” he said. “Everyone was disappearing to England and the States so I ended up applying for a scholarship to America.
I got a scholarship to the University of Mississippi to study ceramics. I went over at the end of the eighties and studied there for two years.” By comparison with 1980s Ireland, the southern United States seemed like a dream.
“It was the best time. It was hot, when you got up in the morning there were always blue skies.”
The sense of optimism extended to his craft: “I learnt so much, It was a different environment, a total immersion in making and creating. It was a new culture, totally different from what I was doing here. They made sure that you worked hard and fulfilled whatever you were trying to do. It was a brilliant time.”
Family reasons meant a return home at the start of the 1990s and Mr Mahon ended up working in a rehabilitation unit that made pottery in Clare. A meeting in Lisdoonvarna led to him setting up home in Cork and roles with other companies led eventually to his own business.
“I came back after meeting my wife in Lisdoonvarna, although we weren’t there for matchmaking!” he said. “She was from Cork. I came back to work with Stephen Pearce, in Shanagarry as a production coordinator and then as technical manager in Carrigaline pottery.
“Then I went out on my own. But we took an awful hit in 2008.” Like so many, the recession hit the business hard and it hit fast.
“In 08, in about eight weeks, I lost 12 or 13 shops,” Mr Mahon said. “We knew from Paddy’s Day, when we didn’t get the orders.
“You are relying on the orders coming in and then 30 days later the cheque. All of a sudden to have nothing coming back - we had a young family at the time so it really was frightening. I had to fold my business.”
He used his previous experience in the care industry to find alternative employment but kept up ceramics work on the side. A decision to get in contact with Cork Craft and Design (CCAD) has helped turn his sideline back into a growing business.
“Last year I got in contact with CCAD and I joined up with them to see if I could put some work in there. I put in some stuff in May 2016 and it got a good reaction.
“CCAD is great for trialling work to see if the market is there, rather than going to shops. You get the feedback both from other craftspeople and the clients. It got a great reaction in the run up to Christmas, sold out nearly all my stuff.” Charlie was then asked to attend Showcase, the trade-only annual exhibition in Dublin, with other members of CCAD.
“Six of us went up to to show work as a group and I won an award. I got accepted for EDIT and I ended up getting so many customers from that.
“Since May 2016 it has just ballooned for me. I won an award with Irish Ceramics in August last year which helped on the art side and that’s why I have the solo show in the Mill Cove Gallery, on the Beara Peninsula.” Mr Mahon divides his work between functional and artistic pieces.
“I’m hitting on two fronts, one the art ceramics and two the production ceramics - the platters and bowls I am selling to shops. Everything is handmade but I might sit down and make 30 bowls whereas with the art ceramics I will sit down and make one figurative piece, a one-off.
“For the production ceramics, they will be all hand painted but I might use a similar fish motif on them, and have similar colours.” Given his experience in 2008, he is slow to make the move back to ceramics full-time and is utilising all the support available to ensure his business is on a sound footing.
“Back in the 2000s, I did a business course with the southern Enterprise board and I am getting more help from the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) now,” Mr Mahon said. “They were so helpful, and they supported me to go to Showcase and are again for next year.
“I am getting mentoring from them and it is incredibly helpful, really pointing us in the right directions. My mentor is putting me on the right track. We were offered one big order but she called us and said you are putting too many eggs in one basket. It is easy to get focused on one thing whereas she is helping keep us in line. The LEO has helped me with PR and if I can get things right I might get some other help as well. Ecommerce will be important down the road too.” As well his own caution, he said changes to the way shops operate are also helping this time around.
“In my previous business you could get an order after Paddy’s Day and the next one could be coming up to Christmas, leaving a huge gap,” he said. “But now there seems to be a newer model of smaller orders but more constant, it is nearly once a month or six weeks we are getting orders. I’m not holding too much stock because I am beginning to gauge the levels.
“I don’t want to undercut myself, I want to get my accounts ticking over constantly.” In addition to his exhibition at the Mill Cove, Charlie Mahon’s work is being showcased at the Lavit Gallery, East Cork Creates, Configuration at City Hall and Birds, Berries & Beasties, Etain Hickey, Clonakilty. For more of his work go to mahonpottery.com.