The Gulgong Experience… by a group who have never undergone it previously… The group consisted of Lauren Winstone, Brendan Adams, Jim Cooper, Steve Fullmer, Chuck Joseph and Matt McLean. We were to participate in the week’s events, make a joint work and take finished work along for an exhibition in a Gulgong venue and later at Mansfield Gallery, Darlinghurst, Sydney. That will open late this month. The exhibition consisted of what fitted in our suitcases.
The Gulgong is something of an Antipodean phenomenon, a bunch of invited offshore ‘masters’, (Usually from the northern hemisphere) working and demonstrating alongside another bunch of the homegrown and further assorted luminaries commenting, talking, observing and generally adding light to the proceedings and all interacting with the attending delegates – about 500 in capacity. It’s the longest ceramics event, of its type, anywhere in the world – not that there are many – and a quite unique experience.
This event pretty well takes over the small country town of Gulgong, a former gold mining, then clay mining, centre and now a supply town servicing local farms. It has gained some reputation as poet Henry Lawson’s base and that it is the only town featured in image on an Ozzie bank note. It seems that for much of the year it’s pretty quiet but when the clay festival comes to town, the joint jumps as several hundred clay folk take over restaurants, pubs and breakfast shops and add to the economies of supermarkets, antique and junk retailers and bus operators. Sleepy Hollow to Metropolis for a single week is quite an adjustment.
However the locals stay friendly and welcoming throughout and the visitors re-discover pleasures from their bygones such as pub evenings of gathered musical and poetic offerings – nothing glitzy but all very competent and thoroughly enjoyable as venerable, improvised and home-made instruments are plunked, strummed, plucked, tapped and drummed to some old, almost forgotten, tunes interspersed with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson verse by an assortment of locals. What a find! And it was not at all for our benefit, we simply stumbled upon a regular fortnightly gathering and they didn’t care if we were there, or not. It was a great, nostalgic, treat.
As for the event itself, it takes place on large grassy and treed grounds up a hill at the edge of the commercial area of town and mainly is housed in large marquees while the evening events take place in the town centre – mainly in the ‘Opera House’ although dancing in the street was encouraged on the first night accompanied by a lively band.
Each day all the masters and the Kiwi artist contingent set to work for a minimum of two hours each morning and afternoon. Here the Kiwis did us proud by putting in extra time at the outset so that Matt Mclean’s large grounding work was safely underway. Co-operation and guidance paid off handsomely here. After a couple of days each got on with their own contributions to the joint work which had a theme of migration.
Every day was filled with work and also with stopping for a while so as to observe the other demonstrators. There was great riches here with international artists of an exceptionally high calibre, in fact some of the best to be found anywhere with Torbjorn Kvasbo (Norway), Beth Cavener (USA), Rafa Perez (Spain) Alessadro Gallo (Italy), Alexandra Engelfriet (Netherlands), Jack Troy, John Neely and Pete Callas (USA) , Akira Satake (Japan) and Keith Brymer-Jones (UK) and one of the judges/commentators for the recent UK TV series on pottery. The ‘locals’ were also good value and included the tried and true such as Owen Rye and Merran Esson to some I had not met earlier like Paul Davis, Simon Reece and Ian Jones but all had something to offer.
Most luminous of the luminaries was probably Garth Clark and Mark del Vecchio from USA and C-Files but there were various writers and academics adding their bits here and there and Marta Donaghy, manager of the CPA shop in London – who brought a British exhibition. This had some fine work by Walter Keeler.
(remember her highly textured boat forms that won FCCA back in 1992?) Well this is current work.
and more whose names I missed
(apologies for poor focus) and more. But like ours, generally small scale.
There was a Trade Marquee with, along with the coffee machine, the latest in kilns, pug mills, tools and ready- made all sorts available and a book and magazine section plus a section where visiting delegates could sell work which was simply laid out on trestles with honesty boxes of all sorts and names scrawled on the butcher’s paper background. Seemed to work just fine and I snaffled a small group of Tasmanian, Neil Hoffman’s subtly altered salt-glazed bowls.
And so it went, work all day interspersed with observation stints with various masters or working breakfasts and business lunches then heading to one of the many venues around town for an opening of an exhibition, and by about 5pm wander down from the hill to the Opera House to hear a presentation of work, a film, a discussion, a panel session or a talk on some issue. There were always several of these each evening. It was full-on every hour of the day.
Some of the highlights were…
Before we left Sydney for Gulgong, we all visited the Grayson Perry exhibition at MOCA Gallery. This was a huge show covering mainly his ceramics but also tapestries and iron sculptures. Most valuable, apart from seeing it up close and personal instead of with four corners on a screen or page, was the movie showing him at work. I have read of his regret that these days his ‘making’ is “too perfect” and that he chose clay because of its “happy amateur and naf status”. However the film (speeded up as it was), clearly showed him using a wooden profile and speed surforming the surface. That’s the main way you get perfection of form when hand-building, so I wonder about the lamentation?
Then, Jim, Lauren and I took the tram out to Leichardt and the Gallery NSW off-site storage facility. I had arranged to see Justin Paton’s recent purchase of four Ron Nagle works, and very fine they are. Unfortunately while I could photograph them I am not permitted to publish the images. However, this is probably the first ceramics purchase of contemporary ceramics (I am told since the 1950s) in recent times. Amazing what a starring role for the USA at the Venice Biennale can do for your status, prices and the collections in which you can be found.
At the Gallery of NSW as part of the 20th Art Biennale there was a clay slip plastered room by Taro Shinoda (Japan) that was best viewed from a tatami mat covered platform projected into the space. Not new but again process in slow motion.
Initial VIP welcome evening at the Mansfield farm, Morning View, where the NZ contingent were included and we met the other guests and visitors. It was nice getting reacquainted with many of the guests and meeting some previously unknown. Great hospitality by the Mansfield Family. Gorgeous countryside and kangaroos, cockatoos and rosellas.
The great turnout for the opening of the NZ show – I counted about 100 squeezed in to our small shop (completely empty shop that is to be turned into a museum)and spilled onto the pavement and the road outside. Garth Clark had insisted that he and Mark open the show and they did us proud. The small exhibition looked fine and thanks must go to two partners who came along – Robin Fullmer and Louise Rive – who worked hard setting it all up. With inspired window décor “pots from a suitcase” (by Louise) over the next two days about 350 folk walked in the door to look at the work, check the documentation and chat with the minders.
The Brits, the Japanese and we made representative exhibitions. Other shows were from a variety of groups including the ‘Masters’, the woodfirers, just friends and others. Shows were all over town in every conceivable space.
Torbjorn Kvasbo’s talk recounting his career which included each of his Fletcher entries and his work for my show in Taiwan. It was inspiring stuff and in my view cemented his place in the top level of current makers anywhere.
Keith Brymer-Jones was a real find He first came to attention dressed in drag and singing as he threw, in a u-tube clip on C-Files. He gained further traction as, along with Kate Malone, he was on weekly British TV as part of The Great Pottery Throw-down. Trained in a British commercial pottery he could throw porcelain like it was a soft toothy stoneware…. Four pulls and he had a substantial 25cm bowl, two swipes inside gave form and then he just cut it off and casually set it to one side and got on with the next – pretty impressive. He was great fun but at the same time was humble in the company of some of the masters there and gave full thanks for his commercial throwing training as opposed to an art school. He talked of throwing 1000 cups a week. He now gets all made by small potteries in China and visits them regularly. His outlets are UK and European design retailers such as Heals and Conran Group.
The Spaniard, Rafa Perez who cut and sliced and layered a variety of clays then began a stressing process that would be completed by the kiln upon firing. It was work only about the material and its processes and the sort of thing that only those involved in ceramics at making level could ‘get’ on first encounter. I loved his pieces in the ‘Masters’ show.
Merran Esson, recently retired head of ceramics at the National Art School, Sydney, made some striking and large scale vessels redolent of those corrugated iron structures seen corroding away in country landscapes, in stunning and evocative glaze colours.
Beth Cavener brought her small child along and there was no shortage of carers. She made a Hare caught in a wire that, despite its scale, was very animated.
Amazing to hear that when dryer, it would be cut into small sections and each section hollowed to a meticulously even thickness before firing, then reassembled and painted. She completes two or three only, each year.
The last day out at Morning View Farm was one of celebration, picnics on the ‘lawn’ and Alexandra Engelfreit very physically coming to grips with a wall of clay and a ‘fashion parade’ with clay costumes modeled by competing teams. A delight was Janet Mansfiled’s own collection of pieces acquired over years – mainly wood-fired but samples of almost everything in its own museum building.
That almost needed its own half day along with the library. Some details…
There was more, much more, far more than can be covered here. Best answer is to go yourself next time and take full part in the week. It’s a grand thing to have such an international event so close at hand, and all in English!