This was originally published in Ceramic Review 213, May-June, 2005, pages 29-31 as an introduction to an exhibition at Alpha House Gallery, Dorset, England
The Gulgong Connection
by Owen Rye
An exhibition which will visit the UK this spring reveals a surprising connection between six leading potters currently working in Eastern Australia, and the gold rushes of the nineteenth century colony of New South Wales. The small town of Gulgong was the location of an early gold strike and hosted many of the colorful characters and activities associated with colonial gold. Gulgong is situated, in Australian terms, a short drive of about four hours northwest of Sydney. The town is widely known as the setting for many a Henry Lawson story, Lawson being an early chronicler of bush life in Australia and an early inhabitant. More recently it became widely known in Australia as ‘the town on the ten dollar note’. Wise local decisions have resulted in the town retaining, visually at least, a pioneering character that makes it a desirable tourist destination. Four wheel drives, large beards and bushman’s hats now add to the character of the main street. From a potter’s viewpoint Gulgong’s major attraction for many years has been the massive resource of clay in the surrounding district, and these deposits have been mined over many years for industrial use. A contemporary resource of the district, which may be familiar to many in the UK, is wine from the rapidly increasing vineyards of nearby Mudgee.
Gulgong features in connections between the Australian potters in the upcoming Alpha House exhibition: Peter Rushforth, Janet Mansfield, Alan Peascod, Chester Nealie, Owen Rye and Susie McMeekin. Indeed, these potters have an interwoven network of connections not at all obvious through seeing their work alone, but only becoming apparent on delving into some recent history of Australian studio pottery. One important link is that all are in the mature phase of their careers and have each been working for between a quarter and half a century.
As well as being Susie’s father, Ivan McMeekin was one of the fathers of the Australian studio potter movement. With his great curiosity about Australian raw materials, McMeekin was attracted to Gulgong first as a source of clay and minerals, and later in his life as a place to live. Ivan and Peter Rushforth were two of the founders of the Potter’s Society of Australia (Rushforth was its first president). In 1959 Ivan began teaching a ceramics course at the University of NSW. This and the ceramics department headed by Peter Rushforth at the East Sydney Technical College, (now the National Art School) provided the only two formal courses available in Sydney at the time and there was a cooperative spirit between them. Rye and Peascod were contemporaries as students, Rye with McMeekin and Peascod with Rushforth. Earlier Janet Mansfield had also studied at East Sydney under Peter Rushforth.
Among contemporary potters in Australia and elsewhere Gulgong is known as the venue for a series of ceramic events involving local and international ceramists organised by Janet Mansfield and her team, beginning in 1989 with the second Australian woodfire conference (the first was organised by Rye in Gippsland, Victoria in 1986). Earlier events were located at Morning View, the Mansfield family farm and later workshop-style events in the town of Gulgong itself. These events have expanded the network of contacts which have led to the internationalisation of Australian ceramics. Mansfield swears there will be no more of these but everyone hopes she can forget the pain of organisation and remember the pleasures of the events. Janet now spends much time at Morning View and most of her editorial work on her magazines (Ceramics Art and Perception, and Ceramics Technical) is achieved in its peaceful solitude. Rye has had a long association with Janet’s magazines as contributor and editorial advisor.
Peascod and Nealie both live near Gulgong and have their studios and kilns there. Although he lives two days drive away in Victoria, Rye is a frequent visitor and close friend of both. Currently he and Nealie continue a long working relationship through their agreement to help each other with firings thus providing ongoing professional development of that process. Susie McMeekin is a regular participant in Nealie’s firings and includes some of her work in each. The working relationship of Nealie and Rye has produced a significant impetus for anagama and wood firing in Australia. Their shared sense of aesthetics, and combined knowledge in anagama firing has enabled a mutually beneficial interchange of ideas. Both gained their skills through experience and their shared curiosity has resulted in a willingness to experiment and take risks.
Peascod and Rye initially met in Canberra in the 1970s through common interests in Islamic ceramics, and they later taught together in the Canberra School of Art, and have maintained a close personal and professional relationship since then. Both have been significant members of the ‘second generation’ of Australian ceramics teachers.
Further connections revolve around the Sturt workshop. The pottery workshop at Sturt in Mittagong, about an hour SW of Sydney was established by Ivan McMeekin in 1952, when he returned to Australia after working with Michael Cardew. Les Blakebrough took over after Ivan left, and Alan Peascod studied with him for a short period after finishing his studies at East Sydney.
Peter Rushforth is one of the two surviving grand old men of Australian ceramics (Milton Moon is the other; both are in their eighties). Rushforth and McMeekin were extremely influential in NSW ceramics and much that has happened there since the 1950s originated with their influence, enthusiasm and dedication. Both at times concentrated on woodfiring. McMeekin can be credited with the modern development of the Bourry Box kiln and Rushforth developed distinctive and sensitive uses of woodfiring.
Peter Rushforth is one of the last of the pioneering generation of Australian ceramics still making pots. He could, with considerable justification claim to be connected with everyone in Australian ceramics (although his modesty would never allow him to do so) via his pioneering role in establishing Asian ceramics as a potent source of inspiration for Australian potters. His formal studies began in 1946 and after some years of independent work he began teaching at the then East Sydney Tech (now National Art School). Since retiring from his position as Head of Ceramics at NAS in 1978 he has worked full time as a potter at Shipley in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney (close to Katoomba where Susie McMeekin lives).
His aesthetic acknowledges Sung Dynasty Chinese glazes such as the Jun and Temmoku, and elements of Japanese folk pottery. Peter Rushforth has investigated the possibilities of several different firing techniques, and now utilises gas firing as well as woodfiring in two kilns including an anagama he built in 1987. He seeks enduring values by the simplest of means, using ashes and local rocks, or industrially prepared materials in simple combinations. This approach and the attitude it engenders towards materials is an inevitable outcome of his early experiences in the 1940s to 1960s when in Australia technical information was limited and access to commercial materials almost non-existent. For the few potters in Australia over that period this meant constantly experimenting with materials and technique and their aesthetic consequences.
Most of Peter Rushforth’s work over the past few years has used Jun glazes with the consequence that this branch of his work has developed considerable subtlety through nuances of glazing technique and placement in the kiln, as well as the profoundly informed relation of form and surface.
Peter Rushforth says: Each stoneware pot is unique in its form and glaze quality. I am influenced by Eastern aesthetics and philosophies but nevertheless endeavour to express in my work the character of my own environment. I believe fervently in the value of handcraft expressing human values in a technological age and my teaching has been strongly weighted in this direction.
Janet Mansfield is a rare combination of working artist-potter (her pots are included in public collections in many countries), writer, editor and publisher. She publishes two international journals, Ceramics Art and Perception and Ceramics Technical, and has written six books about ceramics. As vice-president of the International Academy of Ceramics based in Geneva she can also be described as diplomat and in this role she is unequivocally the most important figure in Australian ceramics, working as an agent for international exchange. She travels widely, taking part in international juries, symposia and workshops. Her friendly personality facilitates worldwide contact with prominent ceramicists many of whom are subsequently invited to Australia to participate in workshops and conferences.
In summary, she has achieved prominence as a potter and also as a cultural ambassador for her country. In recognition of this she has received many awards , most notably the Order of Australia medal for her services to art (1987) and the 1990 Australia Council Emeritus Award for services to art and ceramics.
Her work as a ceramic artist ranges from large elegant vessel forms to smaller pots intended for everyday use. The forms are generous and unpretentious. “I enjoy making works that can be used, works that show individuality and the processes in their creation, and I hope that others find the same level of enjoyment using these pieces each day”. She works mainly in two firing styles: salt-glaze and anagama woodfired vessels. With a choice of several kilns to fire, each vessel takes on a unique character of form and surface. Her anagama kiln was built in 1988 and she has worked in that medium since then. Mansfield is aware of the high risk and danger in the anagama process where the pots move, ash flows and clay can melt and pots fuse together. Working on the edge like this is exciting to her, and allows her to ignore safe options and work at the boundaries of the potter’s art.
Alan Peascod was born in England. Probably as a result of his father’s work as a painter he decided to study painting but ended up with a ceramics qualification from East Sydney Tech in 1965. He later began teaching at the School of Art in Canberra and in 1972, by process of a fortunate accident he developed a life-changing interest in Islamic ceramics through meeting Said el-Sadr, the Egyptian who was experimenting with reduced lustre ceramics.
This contact eventually led to travels in Iran, Iraq, Egypt Turkey and Europe to study Islamic ceramics, and to a complete departure from earlier Asian stoneware influences. He could be said to be the only potter (as opposed to collectors or curators) in Australia taking a profound interest in Islamic ceramics and studying this work intensely as a source of understanding. He has since become a prolific exhibitor in many countries and most recently his interest has been in studying and working with majolica at Gubbio in Italy.
Peascod taught at the Canberra School of Art from 1971 and to1984. In 1985 and 1986 he taught at the Glasgow School of Art and from 87-98 he was Head of Ceramics at Illawarra Institute of Technology. He was awarded a doctorate in creative arts in 1995 for his research at Wollongong University.
Peascod has through his career shown a great technical diversity, and he has been able to develop new technologies to precisely match his aesthetic and expressive ambitions. During the 1970s for example he developed an entirely new type of surface treatment with his dry glazes, notably the barium blue which inspired copyists the length and breadth of Australia. He has recently begun to reevaluate this style of work. In the 1980s and 90s his work on reduced lustres reached a high point and his friendship and collaboration with the English master Alan Caiger Smith has been extremely fruitful. Recent work with Giampetro Rampini in Gubbio (Perugia) inspired his emerging interest in majolica. His subsequent search for suitable surface qualities for his figurative work has resulted in a variety of powerful but subtle resolutions unseen elsewhere in ceramics.
As a person Peascod is distilled energy, contradictory, obsessive, analytical, intuitive and often unpredictable. These qualities, along with an unusual disposition for risk-taking, have led to a repertoire far more broadly based than other artists in ceramics. His range includes from a technical perspective dry glazed vessels, lustres (reduced and resinate) alkaline glazes, majolica, and saturated metallics as well as a variety of post firing finishes. Some of these technologies are uniquely his. All reflect the work of a mature artist at the height of his powers.
Susie McMeekin lives in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains about 100 kilometres west of Sydney, Australia. She started training as a potter in 1978 in the workshop with her father, Ivan McMeekin, and has since continued in a traditional manner to develop the McMeekin aesthetic and sensibility developed from a blending of Chinese (especially Sung) and mediaeval English ceramics. This family generational continuity is rare in Australia. Susie considers that it has allowed her the luxury of a concentrated aim at the aesthetics she wishes to achieve – a simple and elegant line.
Initially as her skills developed she found that she did not consciously design the forms for which she is now well known. Rather, her classic bowl and jug forms grew from the decision to make functional pottery, and a feel for what was right. This no doubt derived from a kind of ceramic osmosis, absorbing through her pores qualities of her father’s work throughout her early life. So her childhood imbued notions of form, stability, balance, weight, capacity, utility and beauty, which subsequently found unconscious expression through her fingers.
She works in both porcelain and stoneware using few glazes (Jun, Celadon, Tea Dust and Ying Ching). The glazes are based on found materials such as suitable rock types crushed and milled, and she adds to the range of materials periodically. Her glazes show the benefits of long development from their origins in the Sturt Workshops in the 1950s where Ivan McMeekin began his lifelong work of developing clay bodies and glaze formulae. This experimentation continued when he left the university and established a workshop and materials processing plant at Beryl, near Gulgong. This workshop and its equipment is still used by Susie to prepare bodies and glazes. She makes all her clay bodies, mostly but not always to her father’s formulas. Susie’s dark iron rich stoneware body is made with a mix of clays from the Gulgong region. This dark body works to stunning effect when combined with one of 24 Jun formulae developed by her father.
As a child Susie was exposed to the excitement and dramas of the Bourry box kiln developed by Ivan at Woronora. So there is a further continuity in her recent return to wood firing. In addition to using her gas kilns, over the past couple of years she has had pots fired in Peter Rushforth’s kilns, and has participated in firings at Gulgong with Chester Nealie who has encouraged her to develop larger forms. It may be a consequence of Nealie’s influence that she is now developing a more tolerant aesthetic that allows some irregularities and blemishes in the work.
Owen Rye was inducted into the world of ceramics in the 1960s by Ivan McMeekin via the UNSW course in Sydney. He has since early student days been enthusiastic about woodfiring (albeit allied with a very wide interest in ceramics). Ivan taught the theory of woodfiring although at the time he was experimenting with oil and gas fuels. So Rye’s investigations of woodfiring were delayed. After finishing as a student he worked in archaeology in various countries. In the 1980s he returned to ceramics as a maker, and after experimenting with several woodfired kilns began long firings in an anagama. He also began teaching first at the Canberra School of Art and then for 20 years at Monash University in Gippsland. Here he developed distinctive postgraduate courses allowing advanced students to study from home, and many from Australia, New Zealand and the USA did so. He has conducted numerous workshops in Australia and the USA. He retired at the end of 2003 to concentrate full time on his work as a maker and a writer; he has published two books and many articles in a variety of magazines including those edited and owned by Janet Mansfield.
His initial aim in woodfiring was to study work that came out of the anagama kiln and develop the best of it, using intuitive and personal judgments to decide which was most worthy of further attention. This method of discovering a personal aesthetic often involved aiming to make ‘deformed’ pots with a multiplicity of surface qualities, each piece a dictionary of woodfiring and a rejection of concepts of flawless beauty in favour of imperfection. “I have studied ceramic history for most of my life. Like many woodfirers, I have taken a particular interest in mediaeval Japanese woodfired ceramics, especially Iga and Shino, and also Islamic pots using the principles of man’s imperfection. Having seen these masterpieces it has at times been a struggle to avoid trying to replicate them, and to do something that makes contemporary sense. Solutions mostly come from observing what happens in the kiln, and from developing making techniques that suit unusual clay qualities (such as using very crude clays in order to escape symmetry on the wheel). I modify pots extensively after they come off the wheel, and work on them also after firing as though they were raw material for sculpture. I try to ignore historical precedents when working and am most pleased with internalised processes rather than outside references. The basis of my practice has always been curiosity, accepting the risk in the ‘what if’ question and knowing that the answer will sometimes be a dead end or a temporary ,but at best noble failure”.
Now, Rye is beginning to reinvestigate the nature of beauty achievable through the woodfire medium, specifically exploring glaze colours: red, orange, pink, blue, green; but still retaining some looseness of form. He experiments with using saggars to protect some work from ash. Soon this will necessitate a different kiln although he is still amazed at the sheer variety of work that can be obtained from the anagama.
Chester Nealie has exhibited internationally and lectured and conducted many workshops all around Australia, and in New Zealand, Japan, Korea USA and Norway. He has curated exhibitions, notably the New Zealand Expo Pavilion of 1988 in Brisbane and has twice been a winner of the Fletcher Challenge International Ceramic Award held in New Zealand.
Nealie was born in Rotorua, in New Zealand. He studied science and mathematics from 1959-63 then began working as a self-taught potter in 1964, working with anagama firing from 1978 onwards. After a series of exchanges where he worked in Australia and several Australians including Rye worked with him in New Zealand, he moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives and works near Gulgong. He has developed strong working and personal relationships particularly within the ‘Connections’ group. He has committed a considerable investment in his Australian context, building a house, kilns and workshop from scratch on his bush property outside Gulgong. To him this environment is more ‘on the edge’ by comparison with New Zealand, with inspiring colours and textures. It is also a source of raw materials such as clays and wood for firing.
Nealie’s love of collecting evidence of both man-made and natural history is important to his art. ‘Digging up old bottles, collecting scraps of weathered driftwood from the mangrove swamps or absorbing visual delights in fossils and artifacts in musty museums are often stimuli behind my work. My shapes are a synthesis of an emotional link with past objects and the accidental play with clay in its making. I like to use a slow turning wheel with a minimum of water so that all the honest marks of the making remain to be seen.’
Nealie says that one lifetime is not enough in the endless search among the variable and accidental elements of anagama potting; he is never in a hurry to finish a vessel. His overriding delight is in handling the work after it comes off the wheel: rolling, squeezing, stretching, and fondling the life force into this sensuous medium. Larger vessels are coiled and thrown over many days, giving the form the freedom to dictate its own growth. ‘I make pots to interrelate with each other and the shape of the anagama kiln. It is in the stacking that further phases in the pots’ narrative are dictated. The seemingly chaotic bundle-stacking and wadding of an anagama kiln is calculated and strategic, yet must be loose and carefree in execution. The size and placement of the wads leave marks in memory of their placement as the flame’s palette paints its complex patterns on the pots.’
Parts of this article have been adapted from published writing by John Freeland; Ian Mackay; Jan Irvine-Nealie; Anna Maas and Mary Kyriakides; Janet Mansfield and Owen Rye.
The Gulgong Connections exhibition was held at The Gallery, 54 Shepherd Market London W1 from 17 to 22 May 2005 (preview), and at Alpha House, Sherborne from 28 May to 25 June.