We leave in morning light
for a valley of misted hills.
Yellowed poplars flank gridded fields
as autumn turns towards winter.
Riffles of white light
dance on black river water,
as colours blur
caught in reflective liquid blend.
I come for the stone that waits
drilled and pinned,
curvaceous in slow erosion.
Crushed, milled, and fired
iron-rich viscous melts.
Mixed with dolerite
two stones in endothermic coupling.
In a time before time
this dark river valley,
witnessed the slow traverse
of ancient tribes in seasonal migration.
Now ochre bleeds seep
as the rocks erode,
marking the red stains of history.1
My physical place on earth—my home—is the coastal edge of Tasmania, the island state of Australia. Here the eroding edge of the land falls towards the Great Southern Ocean as the swells generated from Antarctica break against and wrap around the land. I grew up nearby and came to this particular area when I was making surfboards—I came for the waves and stayed for the clay. The saltwater lagoon formed in a basin of “pipeclay” is a visual constant in my daily life; its tidal rhythms and reflective surface are markers of wildness to me as I continue to explore place and making. Writer Ian Nairn expresses this primal connection with place: “It seems a commonplace that almost everyone is born with the need for identification with his surroundings and a relationship to them—with the need to be in a recognisable place. So sense of place is not a fine-art extra, it is something we cannot afford to do without.”2
The timing was right because there was still an emphasis on using local materials. While studying at the ceramics studio at the University of Tasmania School of Arts in 1979, I went on a field trip around the state collecting clays and glaze materials for later processing and testing. The trip was the last of its kind the university would offer; a year later I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. The time was one of developing environmental consciousness and activism in Tasmania. Olegas Truchanas, an immigrant from Lithuania who found the rugged southwest of Tasmania mysterious, a place of undiscovered and wild beauty, urged Tasmanians to value and protect the area: “If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet; if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror; if we can accept the view that man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole, then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, and largely artificial world.”4
From these influences, I developed my thinking about pots and their making in ways that were reflective of and relevant to my western culture. I wanted them to be formed using the materials of my place and appreciated for their usefulness. It seemed obvious to me then and still does now that the Asian influences on my learning, while intensely relevant, needed to be expressed in translated form. Twenty years later, I returned to the UTAS School of Art to undertake master’s studies because I wanted to examine my place-based making approach and lay foundations for the next stage of its development. The structure and discipline of an academic framework was valuable, and that value came in unexpected ways as my thesis project, A Journey in Place, including photographs and journal poetics alongside my woodfired ceramics.
During my master’s study, I was strongly influenced by what I experienced in a wilderness studies undergraduate unit structured around a series of three-day field trips to areas of both natural beauty and contested human impact. Many of the trips were to the wild and rugged west coast of Tasmania. I came to see this area as a crucible—a place where the conflicts between environmental activists and mining and forestry interests are deep. I confronted the issue of our place within nature, saw the damage done to fragile areas by extractive industries, and realized that in some sense we (humans) are all complicit. It was an intense, compressive experience, and the creative decompression may last a lifetime.5
This way of thinking, of gathering and processing both local materials and ideas, is now fully integrated into my creative practice. At the time, though, I worried that I might be creating a trap, a prison for myself, that I would be able to produce my work only at home, where I had access to these local materials. Although home is the place where I can work at the deepest levels of making, I came to the conclusion that we live our lives with varying mixtures of natural and industrial inputs, and I decided that place-based making could operate on many levels and in many places.
I recently had the chance to put this idea to the test with my friend Josh Copus. Together, we taught an “Out of Place” workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina that challenged us to respond to the materials found in the area, which was neutral ground for all the participants. The workshop was certainly aided by the fact that soda feldspar, one of the main ingredients in stoneware glazes, occurs naturally in that part of North Carolina. As part of the workshop, we made simple triaxial glaze blends using that feldspathic material, which we could source during a visit to the mine and processing plant, along with local clays and wood ash. To see on social media how workshop participants have gone back home and begun to gather and use local materials in their work is very gratifying and has confirmed many of the thoughts I had about the potential and scope of place-based making.
Placement, or how my work is placed and seen, has increasingly concerned me. A few years ago while writing a paper for a ceramics conference in Australia, I decided to create SWIPE, the Slow Working Institute for Pragmatic Expressionism. The Institute is a fictional entity of my own imagining and was conceived as a vehicle for framing and presenting my ideas. I felt that by accepting and using the description of pottery as functional and utilitarian we had consigned ourselves unwittingly to a ceramic ghetto of implied, boring functionality and conceptual barrenness. I wanted to present my work as a story of pragmatic expressionism with the same force and depth as any other expressive endeavor but having the added creative potency of engaged usefulness.
Recently, having my work used in fine dining restaurants, where the work can be seen and enjoyed fully within a theatre of dining, has been a powerful force. Once the disconnect of slow food presented on commercial tableware is realised, it’s hard to ignore. The leading chefs in Australia have embraced working with local potters who produce expressive contemporary tableware that complements the chefs’ creativity. My aim is not merely making work for restaurants. It’s more that the restaurant acts as a virtual gallery, presenting the work in a way that subsequently generates more sales to the dining public. Articulating an example of how this has worked might make the case for how place and placement work together.
Near where I live is a rural cooking school, The Agrarian Kitchen, that uses local ingredients from its gardens and explores cooking in response to the seasons. It is located in the Derwent River valley, and in making wood-fired tableware for them, I used glazes made from the feldspathic sandstone and dolerite of that area (see poem above). I was able to connect the ceramic materials of place with the produce of place, and not only have my work in the school’s classes but also featured with acknowledgement in its cookbooks. In the past year, I have gone on to make tableware for four of the top ten restaurants in Australia, including Attica, the number-one restaurant in Melbourne. The chefs and I work together to develop forms that provide a stage for their food, to create and present a symbiotic relationship between tableware and food in contemporary dining.
While responding to place has been a constant in my making journey, it is placement that has provided the opportunity for change in how the work is seen. I sell all my work from the showroom attached to my workshop, so customers come in contact with place and the material and aesthetic influences on the work. The story of making can unfold through our conversations. I don’t think there really is an effective alternative to this direct contact as a means of developing understanding and appreciation of the influence of place. Often, customers have already become familiar with my work in a restaurant, café, or cooking school before they visit me. The work is quite simple and restrained when not in use, but their dining experience has set the stage for their visit to the workshop showroom.
1. Sandstone, Autumn, 2004. From Pyropoetics, an unpublished collection of poetic writing from my Masters of Art Design and Environment studies at the University of Tasmania, 2003-4.
2. Ian Nairn, The American Landscape, Random House, New York, 1965 p. 6.
3. McMeekin had only three apprentices at Sturt; the third was Col Levy.
4. Olegas Truchanas and Max Angus, The World of Olegas Truchanas, Hobart: Olegas Truchanas publication committee, 1975.
5. See “Placed-Based Making,” Studio Potter, Vol. 34, No. 2, June 2006, for a more detailed account of my thesis research.
, Vol. 34, No. 2, June 2006, for a more
detailed account of my thesis research.