Given the location of this article some of you who know the history of the event, may cynically disbelieve that such a glowing tribute to Clay Modern 2004 was unsolicited. However, given that you are reading this magazine, dedicated to the art of ceramics, I trust that you share in the generosity of spirit that seems pervasive among those who follow and practice this art and will continue to read this letter of appreciation, with an open mind.
The sixth International Gulgong Conference, which regular readers will be familiar with through the fact that it is organised by Janet Mansfield, the editor of this magazine and owner of the Ceramic Art Gallery in Sydney, is held in her adopted home town of Gulgong, NSW. I was invited to it as the life partner of one of the master ceramists invited to demonstrate, Maren Kloppmann and so couldn’t claim to be a wholly unbiased observer. Yet having only known Maren for three years and bring totally ignorant of what ceramic art was all about previously, I think that I bring a uniquely objective perspective to the proceedings. For some parts of the week I desperately tried to relax, as this was the first ‘proper vacation’ I have taken in my adult life. I was visiting a new continent for me, a Brit who has spent the past 20 years living in America, free from the obligations of family that were usually part of my long distance trips. I certainly did not plan on writing an article about the event, I would have paid more attention to the details, but as a journalist (meaning that I keep a journal for myself) in the aftermath of the trip I found myself desperately trying to explain what a phenomenal experience it had been and wanted those who were responsible for it to know how much I had enjoyed it. So this is an open letter to them as much as anything else. I was blessed by being part of such a large group of people drawn from all over the world united by a common love and dedication that deserves documentation and celebration, especially during the desperate times that we find ourselves in, bombarded as we are by so much negativity and witness to so many examples of how depraved human nature can be.
There are perhaps several examples across the wold of such a conference which can attract more than a dozen renowned ceramists from all over the world and an audience of 450 enthusiast ‘potheads,’ but bear in mind while you read, that this one happens in Gulgong. Nestled among the gently rolling hills of the Australian bush country, perched on the edge of the outback to the west and clinging to the rim of the Hunter Valley wine-growing region to the east, it is a tiny town. Born out of the gold rush of the late 19th century it grew quickly enough to be proudly featured on the back of the first $10 note. Now it is the epicentre of a sheep farming community battling for survival, buffeted by years of a prolonged drought and this year’s locust invasion, by adopting wine production and actively preserving its heritage in hopes of legitimately claiming some much needed tourist trade. I mean it in the best possible sense when I say that a filmmaker could make a period piece by using the main street as it. Pristinely clean and tidy, it is quaint without being cheesy. But again this main street has only three tributaries of any length at all before the open countryside resumes.
The conference engulfed Gulgong taking up every available hotel room and filling a large campsite on the outskirts of town. The opening ceremony and dinner was held in the largest space available in town that could provide food and drinks to such a large crowd, the Bowling Club. Although it was a pretty hopping Sunday night before we all arrived, the locals were out numbered three to one by the conference attendees. In the first of many shows of support from the community, they gamely held off the weekly chicken raffle until Janet had introduced the artists on the makeshift stage.
Far from appearing imposed upon, the whole of Gulgong seemed to embrace the art of ceramics. Every available shop window was used to show pots, even a recently relocated pizza house otherwise empty and the auto parts repair shop where woodfired bowls sat beside batteries and tyres. Even the local bank manager was encouraged to set up a table in the lobby displaying his own collection of earthenware bottles that had been dug from the surrounding area. These were original examples of functional ceramics which marvellously melded the history of this small town, in the past immortalised by the words of its most famous resident the poet, Henry Lawson, with the reason why it has become the focus of an artistic community today—clay.
The most startling example of the town’s growing clay-loving community however is the newly-renovated town hall which houses the Cudgegong Gallery. Completed days before the event began after a torrid year of refurbishment and rebuilding, with such wonderfully delicate touches as a polished bamboo floor and expertly designed lighting, this space would grace any art gallery anywhere in the world.
At the opening of the masters show the mayor, Percy Thompson, stood blinking in the track lights, almost lost for words as he tried to welcome everyone to his proud berg, he could not fathom the beauty on show in such a glorious room filled with visitors from every corner of the globe.
The five-building campus of the Red Hill school serving as a dormitory to some of the attendees and student assistants who helped the artists during their workshops could not contain all the masters demonstration areas as well, but fortunately the glorious weather allowed some of them to set up ad hoc working areas outside.
Every day two or three of the visiting artists gave slide presentations in the beautifully preserved Prince of Wales Opera House theatre to standing room only crowds. The most celebrated performance had previously been by Dame Nellie Melba. Every artist led the rapt audiences through interesting exposes of their lives exploring ceramics, detailing their inspirations. A few, perhaps inspired by their surroundings, even delved into vaudevillian burlesque modes of presentation befitting the theatre’s history.
This whole event could not be possible without Janet of course, inspiring her team of dedicated volunteers to run such a huge endeavour. She was quoted as saying “never again, this will be the last time” yet I have a feeling that many in attendance, like me, will do everything that we can to make it happen again, so that we can bask in the aura that pervades the entire town. We all need affirmation at times, happenings that serve to remind us of why we devote our lives to an art form. Without such rejuvenating events to attend, it would be hard to make the necessary sacrifices and remember this comes from a partner of a ceramic artist who only occasionally glimpses the depth of dedication that united the majority of the artists in attendance. Every time that I wandered without an agenda on the campus at Red Hill, the joy and enthusiasm and reverence was palpable. Students and working studio potters alike packed into the small demo rooms, craning to watch hands mould clay or fingers design a stencil on the keyboard of a computer. Seasoned professors playfully dug moulds in the ground, built temporary tiny kilns fed by a conveyor belt driven by a water wheel to fire tiny clay figures pressed by the hands of the attendees or laced their enclosed pots with gunpowder to make petal-like exploding pots. They were trying things that they had never done before in front of an audience of hundreds or uncovering secrets of their processes that it has taken them years to perfect.
All week, everywhere we went, any need was met and any question was answered by one of the willing team members volunteering their time and energy to help foster this supportive environment. Some, because they were potters themselves, buoyed by the chance to learn more, but some were landowners struggling against the drought and locusts who perhaps found solace and strength to continue that struggle by being surrounded by this ever-present generosity of spirit.
The seeds of this article were sown at a dinner gathering towards the end of the week, when a group of 25 of us ate before attending the final slide presentation. It was a mixed group with six of the masters, several team members and student assistants and a few registered participants who were staying in the dormitory. We were encouraged to make a short speech at the end of dinner to try to encapsulate our experiences. Although feeling a little like an outsider, but buoyed by the pervasive air of inclusion and few beers, I tried: “I have only known Maren for a little over 29 months, but I have been fortunate enough in that time to come into contact with many masters of this art of ceramics, and I use that term in a non-gender-specific way. I have observed what I believe to be a unique quality in these people as practitioners of a high art, a humility and generosity that is seldom found anywhere today. Tonight is a great example of that spirit at work as we eat food prepared by two of the invited international artists and watch while two others help clear the table and serve the guests. I have a pet theory for why this is. As artists you all spend hours and hours, days and days working on a piece and then you submit it to the fire, where you give up a certain amount of control and take the risk of it being destroyed entirely. This is a unique situation for an artist’s ego and helps explain the wonderful generosity of spirit that has permeated this entire event. I am privileged and honoured to be a part of this community, thank you all.”
Thank you Janet and all of those responsible for making this a trip of life time that will help fortify our spirits until the next time. I dream that everyone reading this will do whatever they can to ensure that it happens again so that more people can feel the warmth, strength and spirit that surrounds the growing clay community of Gulgong.
Mark Wheat works for Radio K, Minneapolis, US.