Clay Modern at Gulgong
Article by Karen Weiss
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
is seldom seen in Sydney. Peascod handed around a couple of his platters
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
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.