Exploring the creatives in The Business of Art


It’s not hard to miss the bright yellow brick house on Upper Wainui Road in Raglan, the colour on the outside is a hint to what’s on the inside of ceramic artist Sarah Bing’s home and workshop gallery.

Known for her large and small quirky sculptures, keep-cups, candles and other homeware, Sarah’s work pops with colour.

Bing Ceramics is an arty business Sarah has been organically shaping for several years and it is her only paid job, after having given up work as a creative director for an Auckland property developer. The likes of Seth Rogan, Serena Williams, Brad Pitt and Johnny Vegas are throwing a pot or two and waxing lyrical about the meditative benefits of ceramics.

It might be a dirty business but clay has been enjoying a surge in popularity as an artistic medium in the past few years, and Bing Ceramics is riding the pottery wave.

It seems even the Hollywood A-listers are getting in on the act, building their own pottery studios in their mega-mansions and hitting the potters’ wheel.

Sarah is definitely benefiting from the renewed interest in this age-old art form.

While it took a few years to wean herself off the certainty that her Auckland income provided, she hasn’t looked back.

“I was doing three days’ work, two days’ pottery, then two days’ work, three days’ pottery.”

A six-month family trip to India saw Sarah quit her Auckland job with the intention of getting stuck into the ceramics business when she returned.

That was three years ago and she’s happy to say it only took a year of potting fulltime before she was out of the red.

“I remember when, halfway through a Raglan Arts Weekend a couple of years ago I totted up the day’s sales and it meant my spreadsheet had broken even and I had finally paid for everything. I was so, so excited! We had a massive celebration and cracked open a bottle of champagne,” she laughs.

Despite the success, Sarah admits that being an artist is something you do for love rather than financial gain

“It’s definitely a passion thing. Some artists are getting amazing money for their work but it still doesn’t work out that great, when you consider how much effort, time and love you have to put into something.”

And she knows she’s in a privileged position with husband Dave Duffin working fulltime as a videographer at the University of Waikato but the ceramics pays its way.

“The way I work it is if there’s enough money in the Bing Ceramics account, then I’ll pay myself 600 bucks a week. And if there’s not, I won’t. But like the last four or five months, I’ve paid myself every week.”

Sarah reckons her ceramic sales are a really good indicator of how the economy is doing.

“The Raglan Arts Weekend is my biggest weekend of sales. In previous years I’ve sold bigger pieces but not as many. But this year, people were obviously feeling the pinch. I still sold the same amount, but it was all smaller pieces. I think it shows that people still really want to support even if they don’t feel loaded.”

When it comes to her homeware range, Sarah can’t compete with the cups and plates at stores like K-Mart and The Warehouse, but she believes people are more discerning when it comes to where and how their purchases are made.

“I definitely think we’re much more aware of where things come from and the impact that choosing to buy from corporate has on the world and the environment and society. There’s definitely a growing class of educated consumers who want to buy things that have integrity, and are prepared to pay a little bit more for that. They value the handmade story.”

Starting out without much of a business plan, Sarah knew she had found the thing that lit her creative fire, and she was determined to make a living making ceramics.

It was only recently that she took part in a Creative Waikato course for artists called Elevate.

The free online programme is designed to help creatives unlock the skills to build a sustainable career in the arts.

“I used to feel very conflicted about the role of money and making art. Like, if you make money off your work, you’re a sellout. Obviously, I want this to be a sustainable income, I still pay the same bills as everybody else, so I do need to make money. And I’m super passionate about the process of making, so I need to be able to pay for my materials and other costs. The Elevate course removed a lot of that conflict and made me just pull my head out of my artistic arse,” she laughs.

The myth of the starving artist who only makes it big when they’re dead isn’t appealing to Sarah and as well as selling her own, she does clay workshops and commissions – it means she can play with clay and make some money at the same time.

“I would say about a third of my earning comes from workshops, a third from sales and a third from commissions.”

Recent commissions include tiles for an Art Deco hotel in Melbourne and tile edging for a skate bowl in Tauranga.

“A Melbourne construction company got in contact with me and they needed to replace the heritage tiles like for like, in order to get heritage approval. He said I was the only person in all of Australasia and he could find who would do custom tiles, which I don’t think is right, but maybe I’ve just got the best SEO,” she laughs.

Sarah’s own home is decorated with Bing handmade ceramics and tiles. She is her own guinea pig when it comes to trialing new products.

“We’ve been renovating our house for a long time and I have very expensive taste in tiles. I was killing myself over these beautiful tiles that I really wanted to use in the bathroom. And I thought I have clay and a kiln. Why don’t I make them myself and then I can have exactly what I want,” she says.

Through Instagram she was able to gain customers who liked what they saw and commissioned Bing bespoke tiles for their own homes.

A keen DIYer, Sarah also did the tiling herself having first practiced and perfected her tiling skills in her own home.

She credits her grandad for her can-do attitude; wherever the creative urge took young Sarah, her grandad was there to help her gain the skills to do it herself.

“The Spice Girls were super popular when I was a kid and I really wanted platform shoes. I came from a pretty poor family and we didn’t have the money for a $100 pair of Pulps. So grandad helped me make me this pair of platform shoes with wood from the firewood pile, and we drew around my foot and cut out the platform soles. Then we nailed leather on and I hobbled around the house for ages on these 15cm tall blocks of wood,” she laughs.

Combining her creative flair with the practical skills she learnt from her grandad is something that Sarah is able to add to her business acumen.

As an artist she’s not afraid to do the less glamorous work like banging out 50 keep-cups on the wheel in a day or slogging away in someone’s bathroom installing Bing tiles because in the end she knows it pays off.

“Making the production work I know people will buy definitely supports my sculptural work for now, and that’s a balance I’ve learned to be ok with.”

And whilst it might sometimes seem like production line work, every piece Sarah creates is uniquely Bing, awash with colour and joy, and handmade with love.


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