unexpected guests: sarah kersten.
by Leslie Santarina comment

9/10/15

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

i’m delighted to introduce our next guest and one of my favorite makers: sarah kersten. i got my first glimpse of sarah’s work a couple of years ago at the remodelista holiday market in san francisco and i’ve been following and collecting her beautiful ceramics since. in addition to some of the top makers fairs (including west coast craft), her work is appearing in notable spots around the bay area. she’s continuously designing new pieces, including plates and bowls for restaurants and clients, but for the past six years much of her work has been focused on fermentation jars. originally from bainbridge island in washington state, she went away for college then moved to the san juan islands for several years before settling in california. she has called oakland home for five years.

i recently caught up with sarah at her new studio in nearby berkeley. located in the historic and artsy sawtooth building, it houses a talented mix of tenants including glass blowers, painters, jewelers, other ceramists, woodworkers and dance studios. what a treat to tour her beautiful space and observe her process up close. i truly covet every one of her pieces. her glazing and palette is reminiscent of why i love coastal living. i hope you enjoy this studio tour and her work as much as i do.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

How did you get started in ceramics?
I took my first class when I was thirteen because I wanted something to do during the summer, and never really stopped. In the beginning I was obsessed with the making, but it took me a while to develop a broad appreciation for pottery. I never thought I’d turn it into a career. I learned to really appreciate pottery and potters in my early twenties. Kind of backwards but that’s how it happened.

I never had any formal training beyond some classes at community studios and some part time work for a potter in the San Juan Islands. I’m a pretty determined person, so learning by doing and taking the occasional workshop felt easier than going to school or doing an apprenticeship. In retrospect I can see that I learned a lot of what I know the hard way, and I’m still trying to learn more.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

Is there a story behind your studio?
Yes! I’ve been in my current space for a year, and it’s my favorite place. From 2010-2014 I worked at a few cooperative, shared spaces in Berkeley, each of which I grew out of. In the beginning I made pottery part time and worked in restaurants; eventually I went full time and started working with other people to increase my production capacity. When the owners of my last space asked me to move, I was terrified; I had no idea how I would find a space, get a kiln, get the necessary permits, and fund the whole project. Luckily there was enthusiasm for my Fermentation Jars, so I was motivated to keep finding the answers to those questions, one at a time.

In September 2014 I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise some capital needed for the studio construction. I worked with a lot of really great people on planning and installation, and fired the kiln for the first time in early December. I’ve spent most of my time in the studio ever since. Even with all the hard work, I’m still pinching myself. I feel so fortunate to be pursuing this, full force.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

Who keeps you company in the studio?
My sweet pup Nellie hangs with me all day. She’s the best.

I’m have some cool assistants who are in the studio 2-3 days a week, and sometimes I start to feel like Ira Glass and Amy Goodman are my friends, too.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

What are some of your recent projects and upcoming ones?
This last year I made pottery for two restaurants: Tigerlily in Berkeley and Octavia in San Francisco. I also spent a lot of time making work for Kickstarter backers and orders!!

I’ve got a new set of pieces that are almost for sale; they’re bowls with lids and I call them “covered bowls”. I see them as an alternative to plastic containers, and I think they’ll be really useful in home kitchens. I’m still sending the first ones to some patient Kickstarter backers & pre-order customers and I’m honing a few glazes for them, but I expect that they’ll be for sale in November. I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

What inspires you…where do you go for inspiration?
My kitchen or other people’s kitchens. Most of my inspiration is simple and from everyday life, and most of my design and aesthetic is influenced by my materials and process. That might be my favorite aspect of pottery; it’s honest, simple and tangible. I tend to reflect on an idea for a while, and then spend more time than I ‘d planned on perfecting it.

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

What’s the most unique or strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to design?
Everyone has an idea for what I “should” make, so I’m not even going to start listing them. It goes with the territory when you’re a potter; humans are inventive and I get to hear everyone’s quirky ideas. It’s fun and sweet, but I usually say, “that’s cool, maybe YOU should make that….”

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

What’s unique about the fermentation jar and how do you use it?
The fermentation jars that I make utilize a “water seal,” which is a design feature that keeps oxygen from entering the jar, but allows gasses to escape during fermentation. When used properly, the jar is an airlock vessel. Additionally the glaze that lines the jar is durable, foodsafe and easy to clean.

The jars are useful for making sauerkraut or kimchi or other fermented foods at home, and they’re especially great for longer ferments. The water seal eliminates typical issues like mold growth and fruit flies, while also containing some pungent smells (from kimchi especially).

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

Is there another talent you’d like to master?
Basket weaving and cake making would be fun, right?

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

unexpected guests: sarah kersten / sfgirlbybay

Where can we find your pieces?
In San Francisco, the jars are for sale at March, Gravel & Gold, and 18 Reasons.

In Oakland, you can find them at Atomic Garden.

I also make Fermentation Jars in an exclusive glaze for QuitoKeeto.

Lastly I usually have work for sale at my studio in Berkeley; people can email me to set up a visit. I have a webshop and I list other stockists around the country there as well.

• all photography by leslie santarina.

13 responses to “unexpected guests: sarah kersten.”

  1. I adore Sarah’s work. I became the proud owner of one of her crocks last year and it has become a treasured part of our daily life.

  2. Sarah does great work so it’s heartening to see her featured in this article – recently we went to her seconds sale and had a fun visit not to mention delicious kiln fired pizza! I have to get back up there for a couple of cereal bowls – our fav bowl just had a deadly accident!

    • I believe she had it purposely setup that way. I can ask. Unless she’s checking comments and beats me to it:)

      • Hey Claire!

        It’s just a regular wheel sitting on top of some cinder blocks. Standing instead of sitting is a great way to save your back. Just takes a little getting used to, and a wall to put the wheel up against so that you don’t push it off the cinder blocks!!

  3. Enjoyed reading this! I have my eyes on the small white fermentation jar. It’s perfect since I make small batches of kimchi at home. I wonder if it will leave a red stain from kimchi inside…

    • Hi Selina! The jar itself won’t stain red from kimchi on the inside; the glaze is intentionally pretty solid. I had one customer once who felt that the water well (which is unglazed) discolored slightly but I’ve personally never experienced it using my jars. Thanks!

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