SMILES. The dormitory door creaking as people try to sneak in quietly after a late-night firing. The sight of potters all around this small town, hurrying from talks at Cudgegong House to attend others at the Opera House. Everywhere you go, the bakery, the coffee shop, the pubs, the bowling and sporting club, the dormitory kitchen, is buzzing with conversations ranging from technical tips to discussions comparing the situation of ceramics in different countries to gossip and friendly catching up on sessions missed. Because, as always, it is impossible to see and do everything.
At the Redhill Environment Centre rooms have been emptied and floors lined with black plastic for the workshops taking place there. In one room Michael Keighery (Australia) is seated at a computer explaining the ins and outs of transferring a scanned image to a CNC milling machine which he uses to rout a positive high-relief impression. From this he makes a negative plaster mould which in turn can be used to create a positive slipcast or press-moulded piece. Working at the keyboard with the whining rattle of the milling machine all day is enough to make anyone feel tense. A true artist, Keighery uses his emotions to create art, exploding a pot a day. With fascinated and mystified bystanders placed well back, he puts a small charge of gunpowder in a leatherhard pot. There is a loud bang. And the newly created art work is left to dry in the sun. There is a distinct ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ feel to this small ritual.
The majority of the artists presenting at Clay Modern were handbuilders rather than throwers, although sometimes throwing is used as an adjunct to handbuilding. This seems to reflect the current favouring of handbuilding for the opportunity and flexibility it offers in making an immense diversity of forms. This suits the forays that ceramics has been making over the past 30 or so years into the art market, mainly through producing sculptural nonfunctional forms. Interestingly, many ceramic artists still remain fascinated by the possibilities of the vessel form, suggesting that vessels have as strong a resonance within the human psyche as the figurative.
Daphné Corregan (France) and Maren Kloppmann (USA) share another room. Both are handbuilders, both are making vessel forms. Kloppmann is making boxes, thrown and then painstakingly altered (she jokes that she has a reputation in the US as ‘the box lady’). Corregan who is handbuilding a huge four-sided vessel form, is elegant as always even when gesturing with hands covered with clay. The crowd that has pushed into the room is silent, watching intently as the two women work while explaining their process, telling stories, exchanging jokes and comments with each other and the crowd.
Down the hallway comes the sound of a jigsaw cutting through masonite. Steven Heinemann (Canada) is cutting out the bases for the moulds of his slipcast bowl forms. One is more than a metre long. He will spend the next days with infinite patience, smoothing down the surface of the clay masters which have been formed from clay laid on top of foam rubber. The moulds, because of their size, are reinforced with steel mesh and paper pulp for lightness and strength. Again, because of the difficulties slipcasting work of this size, Heinemann has developed a casting slip mixed with nylon fibre and grog. He decorates the slipcast pieces while in the mould, painting on white and iron slips and then scratching through. The pieces are left to firm and removed from the mould while still soft. This is accomplished by placing foam inside each piece, so that when carefully inverted, the piece will remain supported. The pieces that emerge are simply beautiful, with harmonious proportions and decoration, space defined by a thin shell of clay.
Outside, the weather is cool but invariably sunny. Gulgong, like much of inland NSW is in the middle of a drought and locusts spring up from the green circles of grass created by the bore water sprinklers. Taking advantage of the sunshine, Li Jiansheng (Jackson Lee) from China, is working on trestle tables set up in a garden pergola. He works quickly, assembling chunks and slices of clay into tightly grouped forms. These have the monumental quality of rough-hewn rock sculptures, with an ambiguity of meaning which teases the eye. Formations which are first read as figurative merge into larger ideograms. Later he will splash them with plaster, white and iron stained, which has the effect of giving them a silent gravitas, like statues resisting the indignities of time.
At the end of a raised playing field adjacent to the Redhill Centre, there is an area fenced off with sagging cyclone wire. Pass through the gateway and you will be invited to add ‘bricks’ of clay to Neville Assad-Salha’s buildings. Bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement, the mercuric Assad-Salha is directing the manufacture and placement of the ‘bricks’, checking every metre to ensure that the walls are going up straight. The clock is ticking. It is 9 am on Monday morning and Assad-Salha has until Thursday to complete the project, leaving only a day for drying out before firing. He has two tonnes of clay specially prepared for him by Clayworks mixed with coarse grog from Hallam’s fireclay and sawdust to make a body that will be strong enough to build quickly and open enough to fire damp. Gradually the structure appears. It is a two chambered rectangular building approximately 1.5 m x 3 m with an opening for a small firebox at both ends. By Tuesday, the walls are just over a metre high and Assad-Salha is concerned about sagging. Pieces of timber are put into the chambers to support them internally and work continues, making the two squared domes that will top the structure. Work has also started on a second smaller building a few metres away. This is square, about 1 m x 1 m with a single chamber and firebox and a similar squared dome and an eccentric chimney. It looks like a playhouse version of the larger structure. The walls of both are pierced with holes at regular intervals to facilitate drying. On Wednesday morning, we find that the structures have both been spray-painted red and blue with pseudo-arabic squiggles, stripes and polka dots. Obviously the work of potters, it was probably the same potters who arrive with hangovers next morning.
Under Assad-Salha’s instructions we build an external support with crossbracing of stripped pine saplings tied together with fencing wire for the larger structure. Then we cover both structures with layers of magazine and newspaper pages dipped in slip and leave them to dry until Friday’s firing.
But this is only one of the activities in this busy area. In one corner Tony Franks (UK) has dug circular holes in the earth, lined them with handfuls of grass and leaves and then smeared it with a thick layer of clay. He is crouched over one of these earth moulds, smoothing the inside clay with great care, shaping a symmetrical bowl. The contrast between the irregular texture of the outside and the smooth exactness of the inside of these bowls is satisfying.
Peter Lange (NZ) is building his tabletop conveyor belt kiln from 50 kiln bricks, a large skim milk tin and a small tin, a dozen small buckets with holes in them, a wheel thingummy which the buckets fit on, a garden hose and a large plastic container full of water, a small electric pump, 2 LP burners and of course, a chain link and ceramic conveyor belt. And a length of PVC pipe sawn in half. Every passerby has been invited to make as many small figurines as they wish for Lange’s project. He’s hoping for thousands. I think the final count is hundreds but it didn’t matter, there are sufficient. The figurines are left to dry out and then they are loaded one by one, on to the conveyor belt and drawn into a miniature tunnel kiln. The buckets on the wheel thingummy act like a Middle Eastern water wheel. Water is pumped via the hose into the top bucket, the weight makes the bucket drop down, turning the wheel which turns the conveyor belt. You get the picture. At the other end the figurines emerge, fired to nondescript shades of grey like escapees from some low-grade hell and fall down the chute into the water. Remarkably, most survive.
They keep on turning up throughout the rest of the week. Firstly swarming up a brick temple structure outside the Scout Hall, then being refired with much conviviality late at night in another miniature tunnel kiln climbing up the hillside. And finally grouped in clandestine gatherings among the thistles at Morning View on the last evening of the conference.
All this activity is taking place in front of the Scout Hall, a large cement brick shed inside which Robin Best (Australia) and Eva Kwong (USA) are working at a leisurely pace, happy to field questions from the viewers who drift in and out. Best is making moulds for large slipcast vessels and Kwong is making a variety of forms, from her signature thrown and altered domed forms decorated in bright underglaze colours, to serpentine forms uncoiling over the table, to thrown and altered Oribe style dishes.
At the other end of the playing field and down though a back yard, there is the Masonic Hall in front of which Cameron Williams is giving his impressive throwing demonstration making large pots on the wheel. Inside, an enormous pile of thrown pots waits under plastic sheeting. This is William’s Pot Project. Select a pot. Decorate it - black and white slip, brushes and a few tools are provided – and leave to dry. On the last day bring the pot with you to Morning View to place in a pit firing.
From here, a few minutes’ stroll takes you along the main street of Gulgong (called Mayne Street) and from here you can visit nine exhibitions, including work from the talented students and staff of Canberra School of Arts and the National Art School, the Clay Modern Masters, Barbara Campbell-Allen’s Out of Ana anagama fired work, and Chester and Jan Nealie’s shared exhibition, not counting the pots exhibited in shop windows.
You might chose to go to talks given by demonstrators and other artists such as Alan Peascod, Catherine Hiersoux, Phil Hart from the Jam Factory, Gail Nichols, Ichi Hsu, Andrée S. Thompson and David Jones.Evenings are marked by exhibition openings, a performance and bush dance at the Opera House, wine tastings, more talks, and firings.
The last day is spent out at Janet Mansfield’s property, Morning View. Janet has generously thrown the property open for further demonstrations, a pit firing, talks, and a chance to look through her extensive ceramic and art library. The day ends with another wine tasting and a truly delicious tandoori meal cooked in tandoor ovens designed and made by Cameron Williams.
High points for this writer were:
· Participating in Cameron William’s pot project and Neville Assad-
Salha’s building project. It is wonderful to be able to do something
hands-on oneself in the midst of all this excitement.
· Seeing the pinpoints of fire outlining Assad-Salha’s structures
as I hurried towards the firing from the far side of the playing field.
· Attending Alan Peascod’s talk. Regrettably the work of this remarkable artist
is seldom seen in Sydney. Peascod handed around a couple of his platters and
a small figurine after his talk. It is a rare occasion on which one gets to handle
an artist’s work, rather than just looking at slides.
· The talk on education facilitated by David Jones in the woolshed at Morn-
Rather than a seated panel giving their opinions and half an hour being left for questions, Jones offered a series of questions and then broke the audience up into small discussion groups who in turn fed back their conclusions to the larger group. From these conclusions, Jones drew forth another series of questions which were further discussed. There was lively debate over topics such as, ‘How can I use what I learn in ceramics to make some money?’ in which some unexpected directions were explored.
The final high point was Neville Assad-Salha’s talk about his work, with introduction and commentary by Michael Keighery. Michael Keighery could quite easily change his line of work from ceramics to stand-up comedian. The audience was literally in tears of laughter. The two of them worked the audience like a professional comedy act, even topping Peter Lange’s hilarious presentation of two nights before.
On Saturday, there is the ceramic market with ceramists spreading out work for sale on rugs and tables at the Redhill playing field. People wander round, wondering if they can stuff yet another pot in their backpacks or find space in cars already crammed with suitcases and Mudgee wine. Goodbyes are said and email addresses and phone numbers exchanged and the departures begin, some leaving to follow the Ceramics Trail, visiting local ceramists who have opened their studios for today. It has been an exhilarating experience. Janet Mansfield and her team have provided the opportunity for ceramists from across Australia and the world to experience for themselves the diversity and richness of contemporary ceramics, to inspire and enrich their own practice.
Karen Weiss is a potter and writer who teaches and lives in Sydney, Australia.