Words by Leigh Patterson
Photographs Justin Chung

Zoe Dering

Inverness, CA

Zoe Dering
Inverness, CA

Zoe Dering is first to admit she didn’t expect to become a ceramicist.

Born in Sonoma County, Zoe started cooking and baking at a young age, working for a decade as a pastry chef in restaurants in San Francisco; it was a career that felt equally an obvious fit and marked with a timestamp.

At a point of feeling restless, Zoe started taking ceramic classes; a way of putting herself "out in the world in a different way than I had been engaging.” The medium held subtle qualities that deeply resonated: a slowness and tactility, a way of making decisions as you encounter them, a means of finding creative freedom within set boundaries. At the time, Zoe was living in Oakland, rent was cheap, and the weight of responsibility felt light. With awareness of the moment’s rarity, she took a risk and hedged her bets. She'd go all-in on ceramics.
Fast forward a decade, where Zoe is now living in Sebastopol, and we meet on a sunny afternoon at the garage-turned-studio she’s renting (in the months since, she’s relocated her studio to a former dairy at the foot of Sonoma Mountain). Admiring the rows of freshly-glazed pieces that line her studio shelves, clear themes emerge in Zoe’s work: straight lines, milky white finishes, subtle speckling, textural details that recall the box pleats of a Victorian-era lampshade, moments of dimension and jettisoned form, a range of both the streamlined and the unexpected. Zoe’s pieces ask to be picked up, to hold their substantiality, to be interacted with. The work is neither precious nor inanimate; it feels alive. And while her approach has evolved slowly and organically through the years, it’s an ever-ebbing refinement that’s less reliant on strikes of inspiration and more about the repetition of practice. “I think the work is in continuing to show up and weather the storms,” she explains. “Even when — or especially when — it feels uncomfortable.”
Moving from the city has provided spaciousness in all the obvious ways. Pastoral quiet. Clean air. A commute that weaves along the Tomales Bay, past oyster shacks, migrating White-tailed Kites, and makeshift produce stands selling baskets of plums. It's easy as an outsider to romanticize the specificities of this way of living, with all its wild beauty and elemental expanse. But inevitably, as Murakami wrote in South of the Border, West of the Sun, “No matter where I go, I still end up me.” The undeniable feeling that spaciousness affords newly discovered freedoms only to bring you back to your own juxtapositions.
Zoe invites us to lunch at a nearby fish market, and on the drive back we talk about the difference between instinct and realism — and what it looks like to doggedly trust in the throughline of intuition while admitting that no matter where you are or how bucolic things may appear, “the road is long, and you can decide whether to stay on it or not.” Actually maybe the word for this is bravery. It’s starting somewhere, being patient with the hard edges of being a beginner. It’s sitting with something mediocre until suddenly you see a new direction it can take. It's making mistakes and destroying plenty of pieces on the way to new ideas…and then it’s showing up the next day to do it all again.



Full story available in Making Sense Vol. 1 Book

Making Sense is a publication series with Le Labo Fragrances that is a study in distilling life to its essence, as told through the stories of 12 individual who have fearlessly hand-crafted lives of their own making.

Read more about the series here.