‘I’m 41 years in business and have absolutely no intention of retiring any time soon,’ declares Lowry Wasson of Moville Pottery. ‘I’m a potter and will always be a potter’. Originally setting up business in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland in 1976, Lowry relocated in the mid-80s to the village of Moville on the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal, at the very northern tip of Ireland. ‘Derry Ware Pottery’ was transformed into ‘Moville Pottery’, one of the creative enterprises from the West of Ireland who recently received support for a professional photoshoot.
‘I studied for 4 years at Belfast College of Art & Design. This sparked my interest in ceramics and when I graduated I was very fortunate to get an apprenticeship with the Swedish company Tilgman Keramic which relocated from Gothenburg in Sweden to Derry in the early 70s. I worked there for 2 ½ years and really learned my craft from the master Aage Fihl, who was among the top 2 or 3 throwers in Europe at the time’, says Lowry. ‘I’ve still got a very strong love for Sweden and have visited it many times since. I think Irish and Swedish people have a very similar sense of humour!’
‘Tilgman Keramic is where I got my training in intensive production pottery. You could be throwing 300 mugs a day there and it was a hugely valuable experience that really laid the foundations for everything I’ve done since. But, much as I loved it, I always knew I wanted to set up on my own’, he adds.
The early years: From Derry Ware to Moville
So in 1976 ‘Derry Ware Pottery’ was born. Originally established on the same site as his parent’s building company, it traded for 10 years. ‘During that time we got a lot of business from the Scottish market. We went to Trade Shows in Glasgow and other places and did very good business there. At the time, with the quality of the roads, it was easier to get from Derry to Scotland than to Dublin,’ says Lowry. ‘But when the recession (that’s the one in the 80s!) hit, Scottish buyers naturally became much more interested in supporting local Scottish producers, so that market dried up for us.’
It was around this time that Lowry started to consider moving location and when he did, the Inishowen peninsula seemed a natural choice. ‘For me growing up in Derry, Inishowen was like our back garden, it was where we went at the weekend to the beach, so moving to Moville seemed the perfect choice. This is such a beautiful place that sometimes I still have to pinch myself to believe I live here.’
The newly renamed ‘Moville Pottery’ began to participate in Irish Trade Shows and gained clients such as The Kilkenny Shop, Blarney Woollen Mills, Avoca and Trinity Bookshop.
‘But then another recession hit,’ says Lowry. ‘It hit the pottery sector very hard. A lot of Irish potteries were forced to close down. Those who did survive were really reduced in size and a lot of jobs went. You found that the ones who survived tended to be the ones who were around a long time. The market shrank dramatically and it became very difficult to sell into the Irish retail sector. ’
Finding a new direction
Then a fortuitous event at a wedding opened up a whole new direction. Moville Pottery supplied a number of local cafes and restaurants around Donegal and one of these was ‘Harry’s’ in Bridgend. A woman named Carmen O’Neill, who happens to run a restaurant supply business in Barcelona, attended a wedding at ‘Harry’s’. She was very impressed with the plates and took a look underneath to see who made them. When she got back home, after a quick Google, she contacted Lowry. Moville Pottery now supplies around 22 restaurants in Barcelona as well as others across Spain.
‘What means so much to me is that it wasn’t a situation where we were trying to sell. Our products spoke for themselves,’ says Lowry. This chance encounter has led to a whole new direction for Lowry. ‘We are very much focused on the restaurant business now. We supply to a whole range of places from two Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, to the local café down the road here in Donegal, and everything in between. At the moment we’re actually packing up an order for a restaurant in Manhattan.’
This year Moville Pottery attended CATEX, a Trade Show for the catering sector. ‘The catering market is very different to retail. They are more certain about what they need and can place significant orders, especially for clients who are groups,’ according to Lowry. ‘We can also offer bespoke designs for a restaurant client in terms of size, shape, colour etc, to fit with their needs. It’s great to be interacting so much with clients, responding to new demands and requirements. This new market has really got my design-head on again!’
On the Wild Atlantic Way
Another revenue source for Moville Pottery is tourism. Located on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, their retail shop attracts passing visitors. ‘People are really interested in the provenance of the pieces in the shop. Everything we do is handmade, the pots come in as bags of clay, and it’s all done on the premises. Visitors to the shop can take a look at the studio, and we also do tours if booked in advance. I love having the general public coming in, a chance to have a wee chat,’ says Lowry. ‘Though numbers could be higher, there’s huge potential to increase visitor numbers to Inishowen.’
‘In some ways we try to act as a tourist promotion centre, we always give visitors a bit of info on other local activities or archaeological sites. We’re also one of the members of ‘Creative Inishowen’ which is a group of craft producers. We have a leaflet and promote the other makers to visitors to our shop,’ adds Lowry. ‘We offer ‘paint your pot’ which seems equally popular with adults and kids and especially on wet days when people are looking for indoor activities. We also get school tours and could have 40 or 50 children in the studio seeing the process of creating the pot from scratch.’
Telling the story
There are five people working in Moville Pottery, a mix of full and part time. One works in the shop with the others working in production. Lowry knows from experience that small businesses need to be light on their feet and able to react and respond to changing circumstances. Keeping a broad range of income sources is key to this.
‘We are very interested in increasing our direct sales online. We currently have a pretty basic website with online shop, it shows the products and you can purchase them but it doesn’t tell the story of the pots or the pottery. We are going to rebuild the site with help from an Online Trading Voucher from Donegal Local Enterprise Office,’ says Lowry. ‘It is so important when selling online to connect people with the story of the products. How they’re made, where and who by.’
‘Capturing the soul’
‘Moville Pottery’ was among the 21 West of Ireland creative enterprises who recently had a professional photoshoot funded through ‘a creative momentum project’. The shoot was done by Donegal photographer Paul McGuckin. ‘We have mainly done our own product shots but what Paul has given us is something totally different. He has captured what the soul of the pottery is,’ according to Lowry. ‘What he has given is a true picture of the heart and soul of what we do here. He captured some beautifully framed shots of glazing of pots and shots of things that are not normally seen like our clay-caked roller. We’ve pieces of equipment here that we’ve been using for years, and feel very fondly towards, and he has captured that I think.’
‘I talked to Paul in advance to plan the shoot. We talked about what I really wanted the shoot to capture and we agreed on a very candid and natural shoot, not staged in any way. I love the shots where it is really obvious we have no idea we are being photographed,’ adds Lowry. ‘And with the website rebuild this couldn’t have come at a better time. I think these images so clearly show the story of who we are, how truly handmade our pots really are and hopefully, show how much we love it.’
Of course, the true star of the shoot was Lacey the dog, who was not content until she got the perfect headshot.