On the 2nd of May 2007 a significant figure in Australian ceramics passed away. Although many will not recognise her name, Cecily Gibson was at the forefront of the cultural exchange between Australian and Japanese potters in the 1960s, a movement which not only contributed to the development of Australian ceramics but added greatly to the burgeoning relationship between the two countries.

Cecily Gibson was born and grew up in Yass, near the newly established capital city of Canberra which was to be her home for most of her life. She studied nursing in Young and then moved to Sydney to undertake specialised training at the Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, later working in Queensland and Victoria and even caring for the ailing John Curtain in Canberra. Curtain was impressed enough by her skills that he lobbied to gain her a place studying medicine in Sydney, an offer she eventually declined.

In 1955 after an extended stay in Europe, Cecily Gibson returned to Australia and took up a position at the Royal Canberra Hospital. She was a keen amateur artist and was first introduced to ceramics when she enrolled in part-time classes at the Canberra Technical College. It seems that her first teacher may have been Ivan Englund, but the post was soon filled by the influential Dutch émigré potter, Henri Le Grand. Ceramics, however, would remain a hobby for Gibson, until a serendipitous meeting with the wife of a diplomat introduced her to Japanese pottery. As she later described:

‘I was casually handed a small Japanese pot … and immediately felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration, impression and enchantment. For the first time … I was holding a pot for which the potter knew what was truly ‘right’ … its effect evoked in me a profound desire to become a potter.’ [1]

She began taking her studies seriously, and, encouraged by Le Grand, set her sights on going to Japan. She was greatly aided in this endeavour by her friendships with Japanese officials in Canberra, an undoubted advantage for a young Australian woman wishing to enter into the very traditional and male-dominated world of Japanese ceramics. By the end of 1959 she found herself boarding a plane bound for Tokyo, and although increasing numbers of Australian potters would undertake a similar voyage in the years to come, she was to be the first.

Cecily Gibson would spend four years in Japan, during which time she studied in Mashiko, Tokyo and Kyoto, eventually becoming a private student of Kenkichi Tomimoto, who had been honoured as a Living National Treasure in 1955. During this time she travelled throughout Japan and visited Korea, and her report on the Bizen pottery of Imbe [2] for Pottery in Australia in 1963 appeared alongside articles on Japanese pottery by Ivan Englund, Peter Rushforth, Les Blakebrough, Robert Hughan, Jean Higgs and Takeichi Kawai, placing her in the midst of a distinguished group of Australian potters who were exploring the rich Japanese ceramic heritage.

Cecily Gibson achieved a great deal during her time in Japan and in 1964 she was honoured with a one-person exhibition of her work at the prestigious Mitsukoshi Gallery in Tokyo, a rare honour for a foreigner. Together with Bernard Sahm, Alex Leckie and Milton Moon, she also participated in the landmark International Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramic Art, with her exhibit being accepted into the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto in 1965. [3]

On her return to Australia, Cecily Gibson’s familiarity with Japan continued to be recognised by the government, who were keen to foster relationships with a country that was rapidly becoming a major trading partner. She was a guest at a small private dinner hosted by the then prime minister Sir Robert Menzies for the Japanese Crown Princess Chichibu, having previously met the Princess in Tokyo through a shared interest in pottery. [4]

1967 would see two Australian potters, Cecily Gibson and Peter Rushforth, awarded Churchill fellowships for overseas study. As well as visiting Europe and the United States, Gibson travelled to Mexico and South America where she was particularly interested in pre-Columbian art. In 1968 her Canberra home and studio was enlarged to included a purpose built showroom and although she continued to exhibit her work, the emphasis shifted towards a more private engagement with ceramics. At a time when the Australian crafts were undergoing a rapid period of expansion, when membership of networks and committees, the attainment of academic positions and undertaking a constant round of high profile exhibitions were part and parcel of the growing professionalism in the crafts, Cecily Gibson quietly stood back from the mainstream.

In 2001, I travelled to Canberra to interview Cecily Gibson as part of my doctoral research into the history of post-war Australian ceramics. My work had been made considerably easier through reading her charming memoir The Gift of Fire and Clay [5] published the previous year. She was generous with her time, providing me with a folder of reviews, cuttings and invitations dating back to the early 1960s, as well as showing me a large collection of her work. This included some small, delicate porcelain pieces decorated in cobalt blue, which had been made in Tomimoto’s studio in Kyoto some forty years earlier.

As a researcher and practitioner who had grown up in the milieu of the Australian crafts, Cecily came as quite a surprise. In the 1960s, when Australian potters would spend a number of weeks in Japan and then return to this country to write articles and give well-attended lectures, she had certainly ‘been there and done that’. If she had embarked on a lecture tour, writing articles and giving illustrated talks to potter’s societies, she would have quickly gained a prominent place in Australian ceramics. Instead, Cecily Gibson remained in Canberra and worked away in her studio. She moved to Queensland in the 1980s but a serious accident put paid to any notions of continuing to make pots, and so she returned to Canberra.

In 2003, a final exhibition of Cecily Gibson’s work was held at the Watson Arts Centre in Canberra. Writing of this celebration of a long career, Francesca Beddie [6] notes that despite the exhibition’s success it was a bittersweet affair. There would be no more pots, and I think any of us who are makers might guess how that feels.

I am very glad to have met Cecily Gibson and I warmly recommend her autobiography, The Gift of Fire and Clay, published in 2000 by Canberra’s Ginnenderra Press. At the time this article is going to press, there are still a few copies available from the publishers.

The author wished to thank Anne Brennan of the Australian National University and Tony Rumble for help is assembling this article.

References

[1] Cecily Gibson The Gift of Fire and Clay Ginninderra Press 2000 p. 93

[2] Cecily Gibson ‘Bisen (sic) Yaki of Imbe’ Pottery in Australia Vol. 2 No. 2, October 1963, p. 14

[3] Leckie, Moon and Sahm were chosen to represent Australia through an Australian-based selection process, whereas Gibson, already being resident in Japan, was invited directly.

[4] see Bernard Leach Beyond East and West Faber and Faber 1978 p. 294 et al

[5] see endnote 1

[6] Francesca Beddie ‘Cecily Gibson’ Pottery in Australia Vol. 42 No. 3, 2003 p. 68