Could you give a brief description of your current practice and the number of years you have been involved in ceramics?
I have been involved with ceramics since 1972. I was then living in Portland, Oregon in the USA and a friend asked me if I was interested in joining her at a 10-day ceramics camp in British Columbia. I was intrigued as I had wanted to try ceramics ever since seeing some hand-made work at the university I had attended. So, I joined the Canadian workshop and it changed my life. While there we dug clay, made pots from it, constructed a small kiln from hand-made bricks and fired it up to stoneware temperatures. I was totally taken in by the medium and processes. On my return home I bought a wheel, joined the local potters’ workshop where I learned to throw, mix and apply glazes and fire stoneware kilns. Following on from that I set up my own studio and made functional stoneware inspired by the Mingei tradition for the next 4 years.
A series of personal disasters in the mid 70’s caused me to reevaluate what I was doing and where I wanted to go with my work. I decided what I needed was to get some professional input, so I applied to various art schools and was accepted into the MFA Program at the Univ of Wisconsin in Madison. It turned out to be was very fortuitous as Don Reitz (the person who brought salt glazing into the ceramic studio movement) was there and proved to be a wonderful role model and mentor. I was also exposed to a great variety of artists who arrived in a steady stream from Chicago and New York. Installation was just taking off and soon I found myself experimenting with the genre. I began slip-casting forms from nature and combining them with a range of found objects and experimentally placing them into the landscape. The natural environment has always been enormously important for me as I grew up up hiking and skiing in the Pacific Northwest with its snow-covered volcanic peaks, its ancient forests and the sea.
After completing post graduate studies I was offered a position as Head of Ceramics at The Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart which brought me to the wondrous Australia. Arriving fresh from the mid-west with its 5 months of subzero and snow blanketed winters I was totally intrigued by the new landscape. The fresh and strange flora and fauna, the gorgeous coastline and untrampled wilderness areas of the west coast of Tassie and later on the central desert drew me in and became the inspiration for my work. One of my early installation works “Path Edge/Mind Edge” was based on the first track I discovered on Mt Wellington. There I took a number of plaster casts of portions of the track and recast them in white clay, producing a detailed impression of every stick, leaf, stone and animal spoor that happened to be there. These became the basis for a 10-metre-long track installation that wound through the various gallery spaces where it was shown.
Since then I have produced a number of other installations as well as numerous one-off pieces. The line that runs through my work is based on our relationship to the land. I love working with clay, partly because it represents and is earth, but also, I love its malleability and the countless ways you can work with it as well as all the complex technologies and surface possibilities associated with it. These are inexhaustible and their exploration will keep me working until I physically can no longer manage it. My individual ceramic works often cross the boundary between sculpture and vessel and utilize a variety of clays and processes.
When and why did you move to the Northern Rivers of NSW?
I moved to the Northern Rivers almost three years ago as both I and my husband, who is also a ceramist/sculptor as well as physicist, had retired from the University of Sydney where we both worked – he in the School of Physics and I as head of ceramics at Sydney College of the Arts. Living in a crowded suburb of Sydney, we were desperate for more space and a life in the country. So, we purchased a 4-acre property on the side of the Koonyum Range, where we currently are in the process of repurposing the old banana packing shed that came with it into studio space. This area really appealed to me as the lay of the land with its mountains and proximity to the ocean felt very familiar and is not unlike the area where I grew up. And we are very happy to have landed in a community of such creative people.
During my 25 years of teaching at Sydney college of the Arts I worked with many talented students and it gratifies me greatly to run into some of them again in this region and to see how their work is flourishing and contributing to this area – people such as Penny Evans who has become well-known for her beautiful indigenous based work and Samantha Collyer who continues her practice, teaches ceramics and organizes the Brunswick Heads Nature and Sculpture walk.
What part(s) of the Northern Rivers have you worked in and can you tell us about the type of work you have delivered?
As I have not been here long, my focus in the last two plus years has primarily been to get settled, do what is necessary to make our home functional and to get our studio workshops up and running. I have, however, also participated in the community through giving lectures and a workshop at Lismore TAFE, held a survey exhibition of my work and artist’s talk in “Project Space” at the Byron School of Art and participated in the Brunswick Nature and Sculpture Walk in 2018. I am also currently involved with the Mullumbimby Community Clay Workers and we have just completed refurbishing their gallery which should give the members new energy and direction as well as promoting their work within the wider community. On May 25 we are holding a Grand Opening which we hope will attract a wide audience and put the gallery and group on the map so to speak. As a curator of the gallery I’m involved in putting together and promoting a fresh program of exhibitions. In addition, I am planning to provide series of workshops for the members.
In June, I will be giving an “Art in the Pub” presentation at the Courthouse Hotel in Mullumbimby. It’s early days yet up here for me and I expect to be involved in the community for years to come, be it through teaching, presenting workshops or supporting a range of art activities. Once my studio is fully established, I plan on holding classes and possibly take on an apprentice.
Has living and working in a regional area defined your arts practice parameters? Have you considered your location restricting or motivating?
Living in a regional area most definitely affects what I do work wise. Almost without exception where I work impacts my work, however I would not say it restricts it. One works within the parameters of the possible, which may be affected by access to technology, an accessible gallery infrastructure, or ease of travel and shipping. Here I found that access to 3-phase electricity is almost prohibitively expensive. So, one finds ways around it, which is not always easy, but it can be done – one buys a good generator, fires with gas, or builds a wood fired kiln, or all three, which is our plan.
In terms of subject matter my work intimately relates to where I live, work and travel to. In Tasmania my work was closely connected to the local landscape, as it was in the USA. While in Sydney I traveled to and spent time in the central desert and made work inspired by that as well as aspects of farming communities outside of the city. For example, my work “On the Table” was inspired by the farming community around Dubbo that came about as a result of an invitation to exhibit in the regional Gallery there. The work consists of 8 corrugated farm sheds and water tanks made of porcelain and filled with sand from the central desert. What interested me was farm practices and the impact they were having on the landscape, wildlife and the indigenous community. The name “Dubbo” in the local indigenous tongue means red earth. And it is not uncommon in that area to get dust storms blowing in from the desert. So, the sheds are filled with red sand from the central desert and carry first-contact-images of local fauna and indigenous people. Another major work having to do with the land shown in Sydney’s Customs House, is an installation titled “Wanderers” which consisted of a 7.2 X 3.6m area covered with red ochre slip that was allowed to dry and crack and on it were placed 13 white boat/creature-like forms on tendril legs traveling across this dry landscape- a reference to white immigration. Yet other work is reminiscent of the brilliant colour and dry fragility of the desert landscape.
Travel is so easy in today’s world that no matter where you live, it is fairly simple to get out into the wider world, although living here, it takes a bit longer getting to the nearest international airport. So, I do not feel restricted. Motivation has to come from the self. My main difficulty is having too many projects on the go and getting a bit distracted from the main act of art making. More than anything I feel impatient to be able to get back into my art work.
Has your practice undertaken major changes/challenges in your more mature years?
That waits to be seen. I expect that making large work will become more difficult as I am not as strong or energetic as I once was, and I tire more quickly. I also also do not have the ready access to large kilns and materials I had in the city or easy access to galleries. However, I do not see these as major problems as I am still healthy and do not see myself as old. And we are in the process of getting our ceramic facilities organised. So I expect to be productive for a while yet. Living in this community, there is certainly plenty of inspiration both in the landscape and locally among the artists. And it is easy enough to stay in touch with the wider world through the internet, journals and conferences.
How have you maintained your passion for your practice over the years?
While I was teaching it was easy, as I was constantly in touch with makers of art, new work and developing ideas. Now I am more dependent upon my own devices, however I am a maker and always have been. I’m very connected to the earth and am continually engaged in making one thing or another, which feeds my passion. I love natural materials – clay, stone, wood, natural fibres. Here they are all around you, and the vast range of plants in the rainforest provide a myriad of shapes and forms to inspire you. And this is a very artistic community with lots of creative people. I also make an effort to stay in touch with what is happening in the wider world of art through the internet, journals and exhibitions.
Do you use social media platforms as a useful resource for your work as an artist?
Not much. Over the years I’ve tried various platforms – Facebook, Linked-in, Instagram, Flikr, Skype, a website. The most useful was having a website, but that suddenly and mysteriously disappeared off the web. At the moment I do have a Facebook page, but stopped using it because of all the ads and nonsense that people post on it. And I have an Instagram account, but am not very good at keeping it up to date. One of my friends told me to make good use of it you have to post to it daily. But who has the time for that? Mostly I find social media a distraction and waste of valuable time.
Are you concerned about sharing your skills and knowledge with the next generation of artists in your field?
Yes, very much so. However, I feel I have done that through the many years of teaching. That was my main motivation, aside for allowing me to live, doing something I’m passionate about. I am however concerned about all the cuts to TAFE and tertiary ceramic art courses all over the country. Through such cuts much of the expertise gets lost – In depth understanding of the technologies of clay, glazes and firing techniques for instance and the history of our practice. I am concerned when talking with young ceramic artists of today that they seem never to have heard of people such as Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, Robert Arneson, Betty Woodman, Rudi Audio etc, people who were the pioneers of contemporary ceramics.
Today most ceramists tend to be content with using off-the-shelf clay bodies and glazes- materials that are easily available through shops and on-line. This of course limits the results that are achievable. There are of course still some real experts of the field around, and a few young people with interest in this area – however it begs the question – for how long – or perhaps it will come back.
How do you see the future development of your arts practice?
That is something I really cannot predict. It depends on what is coming at me. I regularly have ideas for work, but until I have access to the facilities I require (which should not be far down the road at this stage) I cannot carry them out. I do however expect to continue working in clay and most likely a range of other materials. Living and working in the country and in beautiful surroundings will no doubt have its effects.
Any other comments you would like to make?
What I worry about the most is our environment and the effect that climate change and pollution will have on the world and future generations. I just hope that the world will get it together quickly to make the major changes that are required to stave off the worst of what is coming at us.