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Clay Edge Gulgong 2007: Julia Jones writes on the purpose and outcome of this event.

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CLAY CAN PULL US IN NEW DIRECTIONS, just as we may shape it. Gulgong, in the central west of NSW, has become important to our understanding of this process. In mid-April 2007, this small town hosted its seventh triennial international event, Clay Edge: based on the theme 'the edge of function'. Several hundred delegates, including seven international and eight Australian invited master artists, filled the narrow streets and buildings of this historic town for an intensive week. Anchor points of the conference were the masters' lectures, usually four per day, and the twice-daily sessions of masters' demonstrations. The remainder of each day was jam-packed with exhibition openings, talks, workshops and social events. The conference began with a visit to a Gulgong clay pit, and ended with the alchemy of multiple kiln firings at Janet Mansfield's property several kilometres from the town.

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Beyond this frenzy of activity, thoughts constantly simmered in the back of people's minds. The conference theme of the edge of function has many potential meanings, and it takes some time for these to percolate and shift into clear form. They were something to discuss over a quickly-grabbed coffee at the conference hub of Cudgegong Gallery, or a wine at the Prince of Wales Hotel, or while wandering through the Gulgong streets between events.

The many connotations associated with the term 'function' in ceramics are well-known. In 1991, Grace Cochrane (who also launched the Clay Edge Masters exhibition) commented that functionalism is a term that can be applied to various contexts. It may refer to how a ceramic object functions symbolically, in a political, social or personal sense, as well as to how it may function practically in a utilitarian sense: such as a teapot that functions by steeping and pouring tea. While contemporary ceramics is a diverse mix of utilitarian and non-utilitarian works (and those in-between), ceramics is often associated with utilitarian contexts. Even sculptural ceramic pieces, not intended for use, may carry the weight of these connotations by association.

How does the history of functionalism in ceramics inform the ideas and work presented at Clay Edge? Another comment by Cochrane (1997) is relevant here: we need "to understand some elements of the language of objects in order to begin to read them... consideration of earlier forms, earlier practices and earlier histories will bring greater understanding to current practice". Damon Moon also engaged with this notion in his reflections following the 2006 Verge ceramics conference, which was based on the theme of sustainability for the individual and the collective. He noted that part of ceramics' transformation to adjust to the current climate "involves contemporary ceramics taking its own history a little more seriously".

This emphasis on historical understanding can be related to the ideas presented in the Clay Edge lecture of Linda Sikora (USA), who discussed the way that Western culture discriminates against ornament. In repositioning ornament as an important functioning component of her own work she challenges the traditional association of decorative work with frivolity and hence relative inconsequence.

Linda Sikora discussed her interest in how, rather than what the object means: pleasure can become a conduit for the meaning of the work. She is interested in how ceramics operates in relation to public and private realms, and asserts that the oscillation of ceramic objects back and forth between these poles is powerful.

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While traditionally the private, domestic sphere has been associated with less power than the public sphere, Sikora's work continues a feminist tradition of rethinking this notion. In her lecture she presented us with a question: if you are concerned about being out of the public view, you must ask yourself--what is the nature of the view that you're concerned with?

Gerry Wedd (South Australia) also engages with aesthetic traditions to make subversive statements. His obsession with the "china cabinet aesthetic", as he put it, becomes a means by which serious contemporary Australian political issues can be addressed. Much of his work is "just me thinking" (while listening to ABC radio): renderings of issues from the Tampa to Hansonism, incorporated into the familiar visual language of blue and white Delftware or Willow ware. As Clay Edge master of ceremonies Chester Nealie put it, this is sweetness with satirical attack. Wedd explained his approach as the "sucker-punch" technique: you suck someone in with one thing and punch them with another. As he comments: "Our using and reading of these objects is 'loaded'; they are covered in the dust of nostalgia." This process of drawing from the past, he says, has been a "driving force for development throughout ceramic history", his work being a "self-conscious critique of its conventions". The politicised function of his work may or may not be carried via a utilitarian piece, but his work implicitly engages with the historical connotations and meanings of utilitarian ware.

Clay Edge featured a diversity of ceramic practice. This ranged from work that is primarily functional in a utilitarian sense, such as that of In-Chin Lee (Korea), to work that functions in a narrative, whimsical way such as Fleur Schell's The Excellent Adventures of Heidi and Kilby series, soon to be transformed into a children's book. Both ceramists worked smoothly and confidently alongside one another, with two quite different styles, in the Wyaldra Lodge site. Lee commented that "Everything I make needs to have some kind of function." Even his small clay houses have a utilitarian function, being containers for flowers or water. Schell (Western Australia) produced intricate sculptural works from the Heidi series during her demonstrations, revealing her developed expertise in exploring the possibilities of clay.

A range of ceramists danced upon the boundaries of utilitarian ceramics. Sharing the Wyaldra Lodge with Lee and Schell was Hermie Cornelisse (Tasmania), who produced large architectural vessels with a grid-like series of square 'windows'. Her works straddled the interface between utilitarian and sculptural ceramics, using visual language from both. Other Clay Edge masters' work that explored utilitarian boundaries included: the quirky enlarged functional pieces of Jean-Nicholas Gerard (France); the gently playful vessels, plates and boxes of Johannes Peters (Germany); and explorations between the functional and decorative by Mirta Morigi (Italy). The diversity and connections between masters' works was showcased well in their group exhibition at the Cudgegong Gallery.

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Exhibitions were an intrinsic part of the Clay Edge experience, providing tangible examples of techniques and styles. They also provided the chance to take a piece away for further contemplation long after Clay Edge was over. The exhibition Fireworks with Judy was a celebration of the handmade and the culture of woodfiring. Soda firing was the focus of another show, linked to the launch of Gail Nicholls' book Soda, Clay and Fire. The Gulgong Memorial Hall was filled with tables of diverse works by delegates, plus an exhibition of the work from South Australia's Jam Factory Art and Design Centre, while art schools such as ANU and NAS presented staff and student works in respective venues. And throughout Gulgong, shop windows and interiors were filled with displays of ceramics. When such pieces are purchased from exhibition and taken home, they perform by stealth. Many ceramic works are intimately domestic: operating with almost homely subterfuge. They take on new meanings as they settle into new environments and interact with different people. As Linda Sikora emphasised in her lecture, this is part of the power of objects that enter the private sphere. We live with them, and can ponder on them at length as we use or view them every day.

This close relationship with ceramic objects is something actively fostered by Cudgegong Gallery, one of the key locations of Clay Edge. Since the previous conference in 2004, it has become a key venue for Australian ceramics. Cudgegong Gallery carries on the spirit of the Gulgong ceramic conferences, and promotes the use of ceramics for everyday eating and drinking. When ceramic pieces are used at its Dining in the Gallery functions, and on an everyday level in the gallery cafe, we enter into a more intimate relationship with them. They assume a role as "an artform which involves all the senses", as Takeshi Yasuda has described it. Handmade ceramic objects contribute richly to the experience of eating food. Peter Timms relates a dinner party experience with a Les Blakeborough dinner service in which "part of the visual pleasure lay in knowing that the utensils we were using were handmade". As he relates: "It does make a difference. There is a certain delight, when the conversation lapses, in comparing the way the calligraphic swirl on your dinner plate matches, yet is subtly different from that on your side-plate, from noticing how the glaze has crept from the edges, leaving them a slightly lighter hue than the centre." To eat or drink using handmade ceramics is to observe the intermingling of many sensory experiences.

The relationship between ceramists and industry was another significant topic of discussion at Clay Edge. Two of the invited masters, Janet DeBoos (ACT) and Paul Davis (NSW), discussed their approaches to this topic in their lectures. Both ceramists were featured in the 2007 Smartworks: Design and the Handmade exhibition at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. This exhibition, curated by Grace Cochrane, explored the relationship between handmade work and designing for industry.

In her Clay Edge lecture DeBoos discussed issues that emerged in her recent collaboration with a factory in China. Her collaborations throw a spotlight on the nature of the transformative process between the original design and the final product. Various questions arose from this process, such as "Can you make a thing look handmade that is industrially made?" Both DeBoos and Davis have an interest in the process of production: how the object is produced. Davis spoke of his desire to keep production work in Australia, and discussed the serendipitous and financially advantageous deal that he was able to obtain on a large amount of ceramic factory equipment. He wants to offer other artists the opportunity to access equipment they wouldn't normally be able to use. In this scenario, factory equipment becomes the vehicle for production work, which in turn can have a 'bread and butter' function, supporting the making of handmade ceramics. Garth Clark asserted at Verge that functional ceramists need to increase their prices significantly or to some extent engage with industrial production, to attain financial viability. Davis explained that production work gives him the opportunity financially to embark on other works for public spaces.

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New explorations are continually emerging in contemporary ceramics. Garth Clark has commented that non-traditional potters "simply want the same freedom as other artists to speak about or explore any subject that energises their work". There certainly was such freedom and energy at Clay Edge. Indeed the theatrical setting of the Prince of Wales Opera House was the perfect location for the lively performance element that was present. Vipoo Srivilasa (Thailand/Victoria), who spent a great deal of the conference catering for the creative whims of clay monster-makers, informed us that he would have liked to have been a cabaret singer, before showing us images of his theatrical and playful works. Fleur Schell entertained us with singing and guitar-playing to illustrate her Heidi story theme, and showed images of her intricate clay musical instruments. Gerry Wedd spoke of how he is inspired by songs, poems, cartoons and movie scripts when producing his work.

All of these three ceramists are story-tellers, and will be part of a national exhibition on ceramic narrative, Australian Ceramic Stories, to be held at the Western Plains Cultural Centre (NSW) in April-May 2008. This exhibition will feature 12 ceramists from around Australia, taking as a reference point the concept of ceramic narrative outlined by Canadian ceramist and writer Matthias Ostermann in The Ceramic Narrative (2006). The show will explore the role of story in Australian ceramics through a diverse variety of work, and will be accompanied by a forum that aims to promote lively engagement with the topic of ceramic narrative.

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Clay Edge raised other issues linked to ceramics and story. Rowley Drysdale (Queensland) emerged from his popular wooden shed in Gulgong to encourage us to think about how ceramics is presented to the wider community. What is needed, he argued, is for ceramics to appear as engaging as it actually is, through the way it is presented. He emphasised his point with photoshopped covers of Rolling Stone magazines, featuring well-known ceramic identities including Owen Rye and Janet Mansfield, and also referred to Barry Lopez's story about woodfirers in the USA as a good example. What matters, he asserted, is what's written outside the industry for people to enjoy. This is a topic ripe for continued exploration in the future: and could potentially be linked to discussions of ceramic narrative.

One of the striking features of Clay Edge was its spirit of community and sharing. It was evoked strongly in the lecture of Sadashi Inuzuka (Japan/Canada), in which he discussed his involvement in community work through teaching, and in the hilltop visit to his circular outdoor installation. It was also a thread woven through the lecture of Adil Writer (India), conveyed in his evident delight in working closely and sharing camaraderie with other ceramists at the Mandala Pottery. It was integral to Vipoo Srivilasa's workshops, which were peppered with his good humour and encouragement. Toni Warburton (NSW) also emphasised collaboration, inviting delegates to make their own mark on a wet clay piece, creating a richly textured surface. Chester Nealie, as master of ceremonies for Clay Edge, did an excellent job of bringing people together, over seeing and commenting upon the lectures, and establishing links between them. Janet Mansfield continues to be an inspiration for the ceramics community, and her direction of the organising of these conferences (now seven of them in Gulgong) has proved a great success. A wide range of Clay Edge team members collaborated to produce the diverse, interesting and well-organised outcomes of this event. All deserve congratulations.

Gulgong itself is part of the history that has shaped its ceramic conferences. With its clay mines and hard woods it has become a natural location for making and firing ceramics. But it has become more than this: it is now the imaginative site of memory, a referent that can be recalled when musing upon ideas and information exchanged at the conference, and friendships made. There is a residue of Gulgong in the conference delegates who have been there. They take something of it away with them, just as it retains a trace of them. The thuds of the stampede down Herbert Street to Gerry Wedd's talk, the glimpse of glaze in each pocket of shopfront, and the hum around the Prince of Wales Opera House: these all hang like suspended wisps in the air, quietly hovering around the streets until the next conference.

Dr Julia Jones is an Arts Writer and Educator. She is Guest Curator of Australian Ceramic Stories, a national ceramics exhibition and forum to be held at the Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo NSW, in April-May 2008.
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Author:Jones, Julia
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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