In the early 2000s I was coming to the end of a curatorial project which involved chaperoning an international touring exhibition of contemporary Indonesian art around Australia. I had spent the last few years going to and from Indonesia, initially on an Asialink residency, researching, raising funds, and generally just doing whatever it took to get 'AWAS! Contemporary Art from Indonesia' seen by an audience in Australia, and subsequently in Japan, Germany and the Netherlands. AWAS! was a great show and well worth the effort but by the time it arrived at its final Australian destination at the Cairns Regional Gallery I'd had enough. On the first day in Cairns I did my back in trying to move a crate in the loading bay and for the next week I supervised the install, attended the opening and conducted the floor talks in considerable discomfort. Arriving back home in Adelaide I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to relax, stop travelling as much and get back to basics, which for me has always been ceramics. It was also a period where a bit of self-reflection was in order, as the years I'd spent working with contemporary art had shown me that it was not a world I wanted to be immersed in as a permanent career.
Since I didn't feel ready to jump straight back into full-time making I decided to do a PhD in art history, looking at aspects of the development of Australian ceramics in the post war period. This was also a way of trying to make sense of my family history, to examine and order the experiences, people and images that had made up my childhood and see how they could be situated within the wider history of the crafts.
What could be easier, I thought? Lots of reading, a bit of writing (well, actually a couple of hundred thousand words of writing ending up as an eighty thousand word thesis with a thousand footnotes) three years of a university stipend - my God, I'd be so relaxed I could barely keep my eyes open.
Anyway, in the lead up to all of this, and despite the fact that I wanted to do the PhD purely by thesis, I began, in a very low-key manner, to make some pots. There were a few reasons for this, one being that my forays into the world of contemporary art had left me missing the simple act of making, and I do like making. Secondly, I began to explore the use of local materials in making functional work, as this philosophy was a part of the Leach/Cardew and subsequently McMeekin et al approach and this was something that informed my PhD research. It proved to be quite fascinating, and it was somewhat of a revelation to find out that that one could go for a drive in the hills with a pick and shovel and some empty buckets and sacks and collect useful, lovely materials with which you could make pots. Friendships were made with people that owned quarries, maps were marked with the locations of mineral deposits and wood ashes were sourced from different plants. It was like having a lovely hobby and the results - after several false starts - began to be worth the considerable effort this way of working entails.
Around this time I was contacted by the well-known chef and author Gay Bilson, who had just moved to South Australia after a high profile career in New South Wales, where she had variously run the restaurant at the Sydney Opera House and the famous Berowra Waters on the Hawkesbury River, a restaurant so exclusive that one had to access it either by boat or make a rather spectacular entrance by seaplane - as you do.
Gay was in Adelaide to work with the avant-garde American theatre director Peter Sellars, who had been appointed director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Sellars, an eccentric figure who looked for all the world like a character out of an early David Lynch film, had promised a festival that would truly live up to the rhetoric of being cutting edge, innovative and challenging. Much to the concern of all involved it rapidly became apparent that he wasn't just saying this would be a festival like no other, but that he actually MEANT it. Sellars would eventually resign a few months before the festival opened leaving a large hole in the budget and a sort of anarchic cultural echo which has the effect of rendering every subsequent festival more predictable than the last, not that anybody notices in the midst of pop-up hipster venues and thousands of dreadful Fringe comedians.
As part of Sellar's proposed program food would play an important part in the proceedings, with a mix of events from gastronomic symposiums (rather like writer's week but with balsamic drizzle) to conceptual projects exploring the intersections of food and society. Gay - another person who definitely doesn't conform to expectations - came up with a project whereby she would supervise some meals for patients at local hospitals. She was looking for a potter to make work for several of these events and she ended up with me.
Two sets of work were finally made. Some plates for a symposium dinner and a couple of hundred small bowls for the hospital project and in the process of making these things I found a renewed passion for the functional, the simple, and the real. Not art, not 'Ceramics' with its capital C, just bowls and plates for food. Simple enough, or maybe not.
Jump forward thirteen years and I'm working as Creative Director of the Ceramics Studio at the JamFactory in Adelaide, where 2014 ended with us having made at least three thousand items for local restaurants and the domestic table. These were based on our 'Thrown' product range (featured in JAC Vol. 53 No. 3 November 2014 pages 78, 79) designed in house and made by local craftspeople in the JamFactory studios from local clays made by a local company and not, I repeat not, 'Made in China'.
In addition to all this activity, there has been one commission that I have been working on myself out of the Jam studios, for Scott Huggins and Emma McCaskill, the executive chefs at the Penfold's Magill Estate Restaurant, and it is this work that I want to end this article by discussing. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they spent time working in Japan, where they were exposed to the the myriad aspects of Japanese ceramics, a far cry from the ubiquitous white-ware which 'plates up' so much Australian food. And there is also an element of fashion, where adventurous restaurants and cafes are more and more wanting to have individual, bespoke ceramics to match their food. There is also the fact that Scott and Emma, like many other chefs, are interested in the local, the seasonal and the variable, they want their ceramics to reflect this and by working with a potter they have the chance to explore textures, shapes and colours designed to really compliment the food.
Over the year, fitting it in with my other responsibilities and having more than a few failures along the way, I have been slowly making and supplying Magill Estate with nine sets each of thirty items for their degustation menu that are quite unlike any 'normal' white wares, and some of which might even push the boundaries of what is expected of hand-made ceramics for the kitchen or table. Using the ash from their kitchen braziers where they burn the prunings from Penflod's vineyards, to utilising hand dug kaolins which, when un-sieved, still contain feldspar and quartz inclusions, to plastic black, sodic clays gathered from the vineyards and olive groves that surround the little town where I live, I have tried to make work for them that is absolutely suited to their needs whilst truly reflecting the landscape, because it is from the landscape. I think we have similar aspirations, Scott and Emma and I, albeit in different fields, and I hope that the relationship will be ongoing, because nothing delights me so much as when they unexpectedly send through an image of food they have arranged on one of my - their - plates or dishes or bowls, so making it complete.
Honestly, who needs art?