Fridah Kamau is the founder and lead artist at Udaka Pottery, an organization that designs and makes handcrafted ceramic pottery. She is also a trained chemist. Our chat illuminates how she uses principles of chemistry to make exquisite art pieces. Read on.
Chemistry wasn’t your first choice at the university? No, it wasn’t my first choice. Both my parents were land surveyors, so I wanted to be a land surveyor like them! Anyway, I ended up in BSc. (Sciences). I started off doing Chemistry, Math and Physics but later I chose to specialize in Chemistry. Initially, I really wanted to focus on mathematics. In math, there is statistics and pure math. I didn’t like statistics but then I also didn’t have the option of doing only pure math which I really liked. So I chose Chemistry. I later developed a passion for industrialization and had the dream of setting up a factory.
How you did you get into pottery? I was a collector, even while in campus and I developed a keen interest for art. I used to collect a lot of ceramic mugs. In 2012, I decided that I needed to leave employment and start a business. I was working in the pharmaceutical industry at the time but I didn’t feel like opening a pharmacy was for me. I was still collecting pottery and had just purchased a handmade tea set. And I thought, “can I make a living from handmade pottery?” And that is how I began pursuing it. I went to pottery school for one and a half years, started saving to buy the equipment, and then went full time into pottery.
You currently have two studios. Tell us about the process of setting them up. The first studio in Kitengela was full of challenges. It is in a 40ft container, which I had to purchase and transport. Then, I had to import all the equipment because it was not available locally. The main challenge setting it up was the whole idea of running around, not knowing the next step is. At the beginning, I had a budget just for the container and the equipment. Later, I realized that there were so many other costs that I had not planned for like stable three-phase electricity, security and so on. That is how I acquired the second studio in South C which had all the requirements.
Tell us about the process of making a pottery item and how science comes into it. We get the raw clay from Central Kenya and soak it in water for about two weeks. It is then sieved to remove any impurities and get very refined clay. We add our recipe of chemicals like kaoline to the clay. Every potter has their recipe. The clay is dried on a ceramic bed, so that the water can evaporate and malleable clay remains. Afterwards, the clay is formed, either on the potter’s wheel or by hand building. The pieces are dried naturally and trimmed to remove excess clay. Then, they are placed in the kiln and fired at 960 degrees to become a bisque. This type of finish is called terracota. Other types of finish can be done by glazing using metal oxides or smoking to give the pieces a black finish.
How does science come in handy in pottery? At first, I thought this was art, but there is a lot of chemistry and research in the product development. In smoking, for example, your finish depends on the carbon deposits, because we use a lot of firing by reduction. We are currently doing research on making glaze. The glaze is made by melting glass at lower temperatures than its melting point by adding impurities to it. Developing glazes incorporates a lot of Chemistry. To achieve a certain end result, you have to bear in mind the metal oxide that you are going to use, the reaction and at what temperature they are going to change, which is all chemistry. For you to come up with a certain result, you have to look at the chemistry behind it. Our research is currently dealing with a problem of precipitation of one of the ingredients, which is also chemistry related!
What two things you have learnt about being a leader. One, people have to learn from you. You have to be a role model and do what you expect your people to do. Start by yourself. If it is a matter of time management, do it yourself and they will learn from you. Second, it is all about risking. The more you take risks, you are a leader already!
What major challenges have you experienced as a female entrepreneur. Putting on a brave face even if everything is falling apart! I think as an entrepreneur, you cannot break down and give up in front of your team. Second, coming up with the business strategy. If you are running the business with no partners, you miss out on the power of brainstorming. As the only director, it has mostly been trial and error for me. Come up with the idea, try and make it work, maybe it fails along the way or it doesn’t. Sometimes making strategies on your own is not that easy.
Any role models or mentors in the area of pottery? Yes, I do. I have a mentor who is in the medical industry called Dr. Wambani. He has walked with me and encouraged me as I did my pottery. If you don’t have a mentor in the same field or someone guiding you in what you are doing, you can get discouraged because you are not so sure.
Are you mentoring anyone? Not in the same field. Though, I really support my team and I try to bring out the best in them. I always encourage them to be innovative. I used to do most of the designs initially. Nowadays, I encourage them to come up with their own designs, glazes and something that will stand out. I allow them to try out and be artistic because at the end of the day, we produce artistic products.
What is your favorite quote? My mum used to tell me ‘If you don’t feel like doing something, don’t do it. But if you choose to do it, give it your best!’ That is what I live by. Most of my friends tell me that I am very stubborn because if I tell you I will not do something, I won’t do it. But if I choose to do it, I will do it with all my heart.
What do you do to relax? I travel a lot. I am a tomboy so I do a lot of hikes. I love visiting the wild like Maasai Mara and the savanna, seeing animals in the wild. I also like watching movies.
Parting shot? At times when pursuing any discipline, you get to a point where you feel like it is not even worth it! Be patient, it will not be easy but it is just a matter of time. It may take time but it is going to pay in the long run and you will see results. And it will bring you satisfaction that you did not even imagine.
Special Credits to: African Women in Science and Engineering