Gwyn had an early interest in art and gained a B.Arts (in art history) from Melbourne University in 1954. While a student she developed an interest in pottery and read Leach’s A Potters Book. In 1955 she apprenticed with Ivan McMeekin, who had established Sturt Pottery in 1953 at Mittagong in NSW, as a production and teaching studio modelled after the St Ives and Winchcombe Potteries in England. There all clay bodies, unavailable as commercially pre-mixed products, were made from hand-processed raw ceramic materials. McMeekin emphasised the use of local materials and she learned an appreciation for materiality and process that stayed with her always. After two years at Sturt she went to England and worked at Winchcombe under Ray Finch, then moved to the Leach Pottery at St Ives. In 1959 she went to Wenford Bridge to work for Michael Cardew and remembers it as ‘a fine time and, I guess, my graduation’. Following that she spent time at Aldermaston in Berkshire under Alan Caiger-Smith.
By this time she had married Louis Hanssen, theatre designer and writer, and together they moved to London and established a basement studio in Westbourne Grove, near Portobello Road from which she also attended some evening classes at Camberwell taught by Lucie Rie, who was a near neighbor and friend. It was Rie who helper Gwyn set up outlets at Heals and Liberty and together, Gwyn and Louis made large bowls for the famous vegetarian restaurant in Soho – Cranks – and they exhibited at Henry Rothschild’s Primavera gallery. Emmanuel Cooper began his potting career under her tutelage here. In London, Gwyn’s five-year marriage to Louis Hanssen ended but they remained firm friends until his death in the late 1960s.
In 1966, after several visits, sometimes with American potter, Warren MacKenzie, she moved to Archeres, near La Borne, France where she set up her own studio. There she bought a small house and built a three-chambered wood kiln with modified Bourry fireboxes, ‘more McMeekin than Cardew in design’. By this time she had developed a reputation for her pots and was teaching at Harrow and West Surrey College of Art and Design, at Farnham in England. At Archeres she worked with stoneware and porcelain and also salt-glazed. Like Cardew, she never produced a standard line, published a catalogue or made a vase. Every piece was important – jugs, teapots, cups, bottles and beakers and always, the bowl. Simple forms, clean lines and only the decoration of process foretold her later mature works. ‘The domestic pot is considered to be an inferior object. For me there is no distinction between repeated and individual wares’. She made, according to Tanya Harrod, ‘some of the most beautiful ceramics to come out of the studio pottery movement’ and they were justly celebrated in a large show at London’s Crafts Centre of Great Britain in 1971.
1973 was a watershed year for her. In her words,’… something happened to change the focus of my life. I stopped potting for a while in order to absorb my discoveries and walked away from my French Idyll taking only what I could carry in my bag’. It was time to return to Australia, and home, via the USA. By this time she bore one of the most distinguished CVs and lineages possible and she returned first to teaching.
Australia at that time had progressive arts policies and grants were made possible for a variety of activities including studios and apprenticeship training schemes plus expansion into craft courses at art schools, societal formations and gallery growth. Gwyn received a grant to create a workshop in Tasmania, established Linden Rise in Kingston and began again. John Pigott, a student at East Sydney Tech while she taught there, joined her and they built the studio, a kiln and entered research into the local materials. He became her second husband.
Again the ware centred on domestic needs and John Pigott’s lyrical decoration, based on Japanese Oribe style, enlivened the production. From 1974 Gwyn taught at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart alongside Les Blakeborough. She also taught in women’s prisons and special needs schools – experiences she valued highly.
In 1980 she moved to Adelaide and a residency at the Jam Factory leaving John Pigott to continue making pots in Tasmania although they later exhibited together. She moved to Queensland where she continued to develop work at a residency at the Queensland University of Technology and from here was also a regular teacher for the Australian Flying Arts School outreach programmes. From here, between various journeys overseas, for finally she was beginning to gain some financial independence as her pots sold readily for increasing sums and she was picked up by good galleries, she moved to Netherdale in sugar cane country in central Queensland in 1989. It was isolated, surrounded by, as she told me, sugar-cane workers and she embarked also on her most productive period, not necessarily in numbers of pots but in solo and group exhibitions all over the world. Despite her increasing recognition across all sectors of the art culture, her confidence meant she never succumbed to the attitude that her work should only be seen in a fine art context and she happily acknowledged her roots in craft and was comfortable showing anywhere that was prepared to display her work as she wished. On this she was meticulous, sent carefully prepared maps and notes as to placement plus instructions on height for viewing and lighting.
‘I have come to a point in my work where I am almost exclusively making work for exhibition. The content of my work, although always rooted in a tradition of wheel-thrown vessel making, has deepened, and I feel the work, still always domestic in scale and purpose, is best seen only by itself; presented as still life, or installation, to give strength to its voice’… ‘They are as much for contemplation as for use. They are as much for use as for contemplation’.
Later, over the 1990s she worked and taught in Cambodia and exhibited in Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Tokyo, Barbican in London, Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, Faenza in Italy and Garth Clark Gallery in New York. Her first major survey exhibition was at the Queensland Art Gallery and she was part of several group shows of Australian ceramics that toured to Korea, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Urugay and Chile as well as inclusion in the seminal Raw and the Cooked in London curated by Martina Margetts and Alison Britton.
Honours have been numerous. In 1993 she was awarded a three-year, Artist Development Fellowship from the Visual Arts and Crafts Board. In 1997 she was presented with an Australia Council Emeritus Award and in 1998 was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship. Throughout these years she has been in residencies in many centres around Australia and off-shore and received several grants so that her work might progress.
She moved to Ipswich in south-eastern Queensland in 1999 and the exhibitions and honours continued. Besson in London, LACMA in Los Angeles, 8th Frankfurt Triennale, Germany, The Powerhouse in Sydney, New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia in USA, Helsinki in Finland, Toronto in Canada, Icheon in Korea and Gifu in Japan. She held a major solo show Caravan, at Tate St Ives in Cornwall in England.
In 2005, a major survey show, drawn from private and public collections in every area of Australia plus from the UK, celebrating fifty years of making pots, was set up at the National Gallery of Victoria and was accompanied by a beautifully designed, substantial, richly-illustrated catalogue with several excellent texts by writers including Tanya Harrod, Alison Britton and Emmanuel Cooper. It’s a catalogue that should be in every library.
Gwyn was a regular visitor to New Zealand. A workshop tour took place in the early 1970s, when she stayed briefly in many places over the country and formed lasting friendships with Warren Tippett and Graeme Storm. She was judge for the Fletcher Brownbuilt Award in 1982 when she awarded the premier prize to Chester Nealie and importantly, continued to do us honour by sending an entry for many years afterwards. It was here, in 1988, she first showed more than one piece together: ‘Two Inseparable Bowls’ in honour of gallerist partner-friends who had died over the previous year. From these, her still life works were born. She was unfailingly generous when asked to contribute and went to great trouble to borrow back several works (so that she could make up the requested five works) for a show I curated for The Dowse in 1997/8, ‘Singular Views: The Ceramic Still Life’ a show from four makers from four countries with four approaches to what was then a new genre. Ann Verdcourt, James Makins from USA and Dorothee Schellhorn from Switzerland made up the other three. She enjoyed the show and the contrast in qualities evidenced. In early 2000s she participated in an exhibition I put together for Anna Bibby’s Gallery, in Auckland, also concerned with the still life and in 2010 she again sent work for my International Biennale curated exhibition, Korero at the International Ceramics Museum in Taiwan and turned up for the opening in support. She came to New Zealand on private visits too and was always a gracious house guest and a wonderful raconteur on her various adventures and observations. She would sit, in her pure linen or pure cotton, white or indigo-dyed clothes (never anything else) be fully engaged and quietly smile or hoot with laughter as memories returned and the night became ever later.
She was pleased with the circles her work had traversed and happily acknowledged her many teachers from McMeekin and Harold Hughan, to Cardew and Rie and influences from the meditative qualities of the Northern Song wares to the paintings of Morandi or Ben Nicholson. There were more; her aesthetic passions were legion. We would discuss the clarity of form that might be taken for Scandinavian apparent in her work; the refinement to a state where nothing more might be taken away and the silence and calm this engenders. The cool warmth and deceptive simplicity evident that masked the considerable attention she had given to reconciling the desire to be original and true to a creative spirit with the responsibility and weight of a tradition. Gwyn was an intelligent, dedicated maker who had reflected extensively on this over time.
“I no longer care if the cup, with its careful handle and balanced weight (the heritage of years of teaset making), stands unused among a quiet group of table-top objects arranged as a still life, somewhere higher than table height. It is still a cup – an everyday object as ordinary and simple as can be – but from somewhere, because of its tense or tenuous relationship with other simple, recognised, even banal objects, pleasure comes. I am surprised. It is a weird idea. It is not what I thought my work would ever be about when I tried to live like the unknown craftsman in a hamlet in France, or a hillside in Tasmania. It is alarmingly contradictory; to make pots that are sweet to use and then place them almost out of reach. To make beakers that are totally inviting and then freeze them in an installation”.
Gwyn was warm and positive, interested in everything and always a vibrant and lively presence. She will be sorely missed by her numerous friends, admirers and mentees around the world who will remember her for her numerous attributes and wonderful work, and as one of Australia’s most significant artists in any genre.
There is a film made of Gwyn talking and working, by creativecowboyfilms.com and you will find her name under Arts and Culture. It can be ordered from the website. There is one there of Mick Casson also.