Obsessive Surfaces Continued


But in Australia, there is no tradition to follow so we are free to choose our influences. Many Australian potters choose an Asian influence, following techniques from China, Japan and Korea; exploring ancient firing techniques and developing Australian Ash and Shino glazes. My colleague Bill Samuels, well respected Australian wood firer, explains that although the techniques have a long tradition, Australian wood-firing has its own language as results differ through different clays and wood being used, typical to Australian geology. The wood burnt in the kiln leaves ash that has a slightly different composition to ash from wood grown in other countries. This may be true and certainly it is impossible to duplicate this sort of work. Using Bill Samuels as an example, he came upon his recent work by accident. After building a road out of gravel to his bush studio a huge storm hit the area and washed away most of the clay that was mixed in with the gravel. He decided when he was building his kiln to use the extra gravel to line the floor of his kiln. After his first firing the floor had partly melted, it had fused together to form a glossy rock floor. Unfortunately all his kiln props stuck to this floor, but he could also see amazing opportunities to make work from this material. So this strange accident developed into a new form of expression for Bill, and in his last few years as a teacher he encouraged one of his students, Justin Cooper, to explore this language further in his own work. So a new way of expression begins.

However, I have not followed this journey. My influences came from UK and USA. So although I have titled this lecture Obsessive Surface – Hidden Boundaries it is really my own ceramics language as I make sense of the things that are important to me; and I am Australian. Since arriving in Pakistan I have discovered that we all have a lot in common. I hand-build my work and I press textures into the clay. I paint my work with slip and I sgraffito drawings through the slip to the clay underneath. I could be describing Pakistani ceramics here as we use similar techniques, but I use white clay, yellow slip and green glaze. So although our technical language is the same the results are quite different.

My own work attempts to make sense of the places where I live. I grew up in a farming community, amongst very practical people who were curious and were great problem solvers. I now live in the city and attempt to make work that connects these two quite different experiences. As a young girl I would paint with my mother and her cousins, I always chose farm machinery as my subject. I was never interested in the picture landscape. Years later I realized that those early experiences had formed the foundation of the subject matter that has continued to stimulate my ceramic work. It is easy to create a story that interests the public, as Australia is a dry continent; water is precious and storing it on farms and for urban use is extremely important. Australians don’t waste water. So as my subject matter developed from water storage tanks to buckets, I explored many ways to express these large containers; but really the story of water is of little interest to me, it allows the public to understand my influences, but for me I am just excited about large metal containers and the volume within. My investigation of the interior space as place for ideas has endless possibilities and continues to underpin my most recent work. Perhaps it is because they are quite private spaces, to be filled with precious ideas, often presented as drawings or road maps. Markers to places I have been or would like to go to.

My work has always referred to a variety of places stretching from Paris, France to southern NSW, Australia. A residency in the Cite International des Arts in Paris in 2006 created an opportunity to look at place from afar, looking at Australia from Paris, and on my return looking at Paris from Australia. Such experience takes time to develop into new work. Australian poet Michael Brennan who was also in the Cite at the same time states that ‘ideas need to settle and rust for a while’. It takes time for ideas to settle and for reinvention to take place in the studio. Sometimes I see images in the work that remind me of the internal structure in the Metro and RER in Paris, line work which comes directly from the painted pedestrian crossings in Paris are now translated into the interiors of tanks and buckets and take on new meaning as they combine with marks from my own landscape in southern NSW. My similar experiences in Korea and on a visit to China also need time to settle and develop.

A series of recent work titled Thermal and Coanda Lines refer to gliding and the nature and consequences of movement created by lift in the air. This is a way that I can connect with my experiences of flying with my father in my teenage years. It also connects with recent travel and how I view the earth below, finding interesting comparisons in line and mark to describe paddy fields in China or terraced farming beside the rivers in Korea. However, diagrams of wind lift, movement and how it affects aircraft wings can also be seen inside buckets and tanks. So the origins of the marks become blurred as ideas develop. But this only explains part of the work because many of the ideas and objects continue to explore the role of function in ceramics continuing to reference containers from the rural & urban landscapes. Containers such as buckets, and water tanks and silos that sit isolated in a paddock; but it is the combining of separate forms and bringing the work back into the home where discovery can take place. Pots are stacked on shelf or sink creating new relationships through serendipity or design. This continues my curiosity in connecting objects together in ways that explore mutual survival. The creation of one complete piece from two objects is part of the inventive process. This connects with my own family structure where we exist, dependant on each other for support; but family structures change as children grow up and leave and dependence changes to independence. As an artist working on a body of work, I see similarities, where pieces exist together; installed in an exhibition, placed strategically to create a relationship. But this is transitory as objects are removed to exist elsewhere in a different situation. The life cycle continues.

Since moving into a new large studio in Sydney in 2001 I have increasingly explored larger work, which reacts to my spatial situation. The work continues to explore the contrast between the extremes of rural and urban and invite an exploration of inside/outside. The nature of clay to explore the structure of nature by impression through texture is a further study of a contrast between the environmental and the industrial. A fascination continues with aged and corroded metal as found in abandoned and damaged water tanks left to rust in farm paddocks with these becoming metaphors for persistence and survival. This is also my attempt to explore my traditions. These are not ceramic traditions, rather information about farming, flying and my Scottish heritage all combining to create a series of work.

In presenting this lecture to an international audience I make reference to the variety of ceramic work being made in Australia by established and emerging artists. I am the Subject Leader of Ceramics at the National Art School in Sydney, and so I have a role to play in educating the future generation of ceramic artists. I teach with a talented group of practicing ceramic artists and we present a broad knowledge through our combined skills and differing areas of interest. Most of my colleagues have a variety of other skills; many build their own kilns, and in some cases their own houses. Bill Samuels is also a pilot, and for many years flew small planes around Australia exploring his interest in landscape. Stephen Bird, recently relocated to Australia from UK, where his interests lie in the almost abandoned ceramic factories of Stoke-on-Trent and the history of Staffordshire figures and mementos. Simone Fraser’s work is thrown and altered on the wheel to explore cultures from ancient Greece and the ceramics from Persian countries, but as her work has developed she has refined her own Australian identity into tall elegant forms which could easily have emerged from rock formations in the northern Australian Kimberley region. Don Court is a practical potter, who digs his own clay and makes work that is totally at one with a rocky valley in which he lives. His truth to materials and his love of wood firing and ash glazes has developed into a mature body of work which tells its own Australian story. Tania Rollond and Lynda Draper are both relatively younger artists who have a distinctive style which explores a relationship between the design world and ceramic productions. Both work with porcelain to present work that is fresh and contemporary. Tania Rollond also lives in the Australian bush, but her work explores the minute detail that she sees when bush walking, making sense through line and mark of small traces of activity, either a trail left by a small animal or marks evident through light and shadow of her surroundings. This is translated onto the surfaces of exquisitely thrown porcelain vessels with under-glaze pencil, crayons and oxides found on her bush property and painted onto her surfaces as oxide washes. Won Seok Kim relocated to Australia from Korea, bringing with him his traditions in Punchong pot making; his Australian work combines the ancient Korean techniques with his new found Australian identity. Sandy Lockwood is one of Australia’s best known salt-glaze potters and works from a studio south of Sydney. She has been involved in education for many years and is a very generous mentor to graduating students. Sandy’s work reflects the dryness and colours of her surroundings and constantly changes as she explores new ideas. Bronwyn Kemp has many years of experience as one of Australia’s best respected potters, exploring both functional and installation work. She was the ceramics studio director at the Jam Factory in Adelaide for many years, mentoring younger artists to develop work for the market place, but in her own practice she plays with site and materials in ways that are forever challenging the viewer. At Clay-Sculpt, a triennial event in the small rural town of Gulgong in county NSW, Bronwyn set herself a task to create a small path in the bush which was then burnt to bake the clay surrounds and leave a scorched and man made mark in this environment. Years later, I walked on her installation which has now grown over with grasses and partly covered with autumn leaves, but traces of the baked earth remain and it felt as though I was exploring some lost civilization and a few remaining traces of human presence.

This is only a small and very personal selection of Australian ceramic work. In the slide presentation to accompany this paper, there are more examples; however, in conclusion, this exploration of traces of human habitation is why I make the work I do and why I have chosen the examples I have shown. We leave our footsteps and fingerprints upon this earth, and those of us lucky enough to work with the materials of the earth have the opportunity to make a language all of its own. Looking into a kiln during the firing of ceramic work is a bit like looking into a volcano. The extreme temperatures melt the raw materials that sit on the surface of the work to form a glaze and transform the once soft and malleable clay into a rock. These materials of clay and rock, combined with water and fire are the raw ingredients of imagination. From earliest time humans have discovered that to press a thumb into a lump of clay leaves a small hollow impression. The aim with my work is to make a slightly larger impression.

So much of contemporary ceramics is looking toward design with its clean-cut lines, but my aim is to retain something of the maker’s hands. The process of construction and illusions of materiality are evident here.

I hope that I am exploring the boundaries of what is familiar; confronting domestic functional scale and purpose, stepping outside what is traditionally recognisable in ceramics. I make this work because it creates a very direct link to the society I live in; to the way I think about my world and how we are drawn to create things that reflect our culture.


I also do it because I love it.




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Obsessive Surface – Hidden Boundaries | Merran Esson
June 22, 2013
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