The Complacent Elephant

The Complacent Elephant

Presented at Clay Push Gulgong on the education panel “the Elephant in the Fortress”. May 2013. Merran Esson


My contribution to this discussion is to add a concern I have about complacency in the education discussion..

It’s not about the individual colleges, or their very fine educators, or even about their, and our creative students, but it’s about how society and our politicians see us.

Garth Clark in his article Fortress Ceramica (delivered at Australian ceramics Conference 2006) suggested that we leave behind Renaissance craft guilds and the rural potters of the 19th century and meet the 21st century head-on with the same vigour, intelligence and sensitivity that we once embraced our past.

So lets for a moment look back to that past, I am happy to stop for a moment at the renaissance, embrace Bernard Palissy’s pots, which potters such a Janna Ferris has acknowledged with vigour an enthusiasm, however, if I asked you to name the most famous names of that period I suspect that Michelangelo and Leonardo would probably be high. We remember our artists, writers, musicians and inventors. Thankfully we forget most of our politicians. Maybe not a bad thing.

I doubt that Abbott and Costello will be remembered in years to come, and here I am referring to Tony and Peter, not Budd and Lou. I loved Midnight Oil and the Sorry T shirts at the Sydney Olympics – I hope Peter Garret is remembered for the right reasons, crazy dancer, but a memorable politician?

We are learning that we cannot rely on our governments to provide us with the education that we deserve.

I think they should, but they don’t.

NAS seems to be in and out of favour – so far so good.

So the first hurdle is complacency in Education.

I have heard Jane Sawyer talk before about her slow clay venture. I have visited her set up, which I understand is self funded and the public are responding. I have had a conversation with Ray Cavill about his venture into teaching in Queensland outside the government coffers.

If you want education, look for it everywhere, and while I am at it, its events like these that offer alternatives.

I am often directing students to you tube videos and its easy to talk about online teaching, but I am a sceptic, students also want part time education,

If you decide to go down that path you need to balance it with events like this at Gulgong, attend conferences such as Woodfire next year and public programs such as the ones we run at the National Art School.

There is a balance and the internet is a tool that has such benefits.


So as we bemoan the changes in education take heart from Garth Clark’s last line in his article Fortress Ceramica –

“Death does feed life”


What about complacency in our own production.

We bring our pots here by the car boot load and we hold an amazing swap meet. Some of us swap money for pots, some of us swap pots for pots. A round of drinks at the pub might get you a bowl or two if you play your cards right.

I don’t actually bemoan this either, I think its actually quite healthy, but a student said to me on day two, “if Owen Rye is only charging $450 for his work what hope is there.”

Well I say to that student, I had to pay over $2000 for an Owen Rye outside this fortress, so I suspect the problem of the lack of high prices is something that we have created within our fortress.

Not a bad thing, to pick up a bargain here, its one of the reasons that we come here.

I have picked up 5, and I am pretty pleased.

After all we need to get here, pay our transport, accommodation costs and registration fees, with any luck I have helped contribute to half a dozen people being here.

But what if we are the main buyers of ceramics outside these walls.

Are we creating a problem for ourselves?


As an educator I would like to add here, For those of you who put your work out and sadly are taking much of it home again, maybe there are more pots than buyers here, but also maybe your work is not good enough yet. This is a great opportunity to test yourselves against masters both past and present..

Would you like to be a master of the future?

Don’t be complacent

Be ambitious.

Seek out your educational needs, seek out a master who is running a gig somewhere, invest just a little to gain.


Finally, don’t be complacent in how you market your work, this is an era of communication. In a conversation with one of our well known artists here, he tells me that when he has a solo exhibition he employs a PR firm, they get an audience from outside the fortress and his works sells for the prices he wants and expects.


If you want to be outside it, you have to poke holes in the wall.. ouch….. too many holes and Garth Clark’s vision of a fortress in ruins may come true.