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Ian Dowling: checking for a pulse.


IT SHOULD BE OF LITTLE SURPRISE TO THE KEEN OBSERVER that the environment and in particular coastal environs have always been in the forefront of Ian Dowling's consciousness. The course of his life to date has to a degree been determined by his profound connection to the seaboard of Western Australia.

Before art became a cornerstone of his life, Dowling was a science and maths master with a promising and comfortable career ahead of him. Despite the challenges of teaching and the certainties that existence provided, a more culpable awareness was beginning to take hold. This awareness was to eventually manifest itself in a shift in both physical and creative space.

An intensive time spent at Joan Campbell's Fremantle studio in the mid '70s provided Dowling with the fundamental technical necessities that were to support his future conceptual and commercial endeavours. The restless energy of the sea was to remain constant and Dowling was never happier than when he was either in it or at least near it. The rhythmical nature of surf with its accompanying building and fading of wave sets intrigued the inner mathematician as well as resonating with the emerging artist. Once again this profound curiosity was to germinate and later materialise into substantive elements in the form of design and conceptual entities.

From 1977-1982 Dowling and his family lived the alternative lifestyle dream. Having established a studio and sales outlet at Greenough River just south of Geraldton, existence at that time, was wholesome but far from luxurious. (1) Being completely immersed in this rural environment, with all the inherent patterns and rhythms, the connectivity of life for the Dowling family quietly reverberated from the Indian Ocean across the windswept coastal flats. When not working in the studio, meditative hours were spent in oat paddocks ploughing concentric patterns into the earth, or at a secret surf break, known and enjoyed by a select few. Weather patterns were watched carefully, not only for the hint of favourable surfing conditions but also for the planting of garden vegetables and the safer firing of kilns.

These early pots were honest examples of the potter's art. The ochre coloured soil along with the ash from recycled jarrah and jamwood fence posts burnt as kiln fuel, left indelible traces that spoke quietly of life in this rural environ. 1982 heralded a move to the milder climates of Margaret River where the Dowling's set about sculpting a unique dwelling out of the jarrah forest. Typically, every detail of the construction was deliberated upon with meticulous care and a creative sensitivity. The dwelling became a home as well as the hub from which many projects have found initial form and subsequent articulation.

The late '80s and '90s in Australia witnessed a healthy regard for the handmade object and the Margaret River Pottery became one of the successful Australian studios for functional pottery production. (2) By now the Dowling's had gathered a loyal and committed team. Ian was responsible for the training of a number of skilled individual potters, many of whom still remain connected through the medium of clay. Apart from the utilitarian works produced, Dowling also designed and executed a number of one-off type vessels on a regular basis. Far from merely providing an outlet for his more esoteric explorations, these one-off pieces were to stimulate an awakening that was at times to go beyond the vessel form and clay itself.

Much of the visual and conceptual minutia that had been collected and secreted away over the preceding decades, came through in new forms. In 1999 an introduction by Nino Caruso (Italy) to the possibilities of larger modular work in ceramics promoted a new look at form and pattern. This freshly energised activity was facilitated by further formal education and art specific travel.


Study for a Graduate Diploma, then Master of Visual Art (MVA) with Owen Rye at Monash University, Victoria, assisted in arousing the long dormant mathematician, scientist and engineer. During this period, a brief study was also conducted in Italy and Switzerland where his search was given invaluable help by local ceramic artists This sabbatical enabled a consolidation and confirmation. A raft of new and exciting ideas entered Dowling's artistic horizon. The list of architectural Public Art commissions (3) is not only a testament to the vision of this artist, but also, it eloquently annunciates the breadth of artistic and intellectual resources he can access and employ.

While Dowling is a master craftsman, there is no gratuitous or flamboyant virtuosity for its own sake, the self-censorial pragmatist would never allow that, however the haptic romantic wilfully encourages the reggae-like sensuality that pulses through, and gives voice to, this body of work.

Applied maths, sequencing, cellular structures, musical notation, tantric aphorism, meteorology, chemistry and, more recently, chaos and string theory are but a few of the contemplative notions that supply stimuli for Dowling's creations. Whether it is the delicate yet corroded surface of a carved Weathered Disc or the cerebral complexity of a Tile Panel or Saddle Form, the intellect and assuredness of the mature artist is always in evidence.

Like the wines that the Margaret River region is so justly famous for, Dowling's work is a complex and sophisticated blend. His immediate environment, his adroit skills, sensitive approach to the craft, aided and abetted by genuine passion, provides vintage art. As Ian Dowling enters his serious (and senior) phase as an artist, the art work that he is creating now, and conceiving for the future, will undoubtedly be an important social signifier and cultural asset for all of Australia.


(1.) Pottery in Australia magazine, Vol 21 /21982, pp25-26.

(2.) Pottery in Australia magazine, Vol 38/11999, pp37-39.

(3.) Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol 45/3 2006, pp30-32. and public art at See also Ceramics in the Environment by Janet Mansfield, A & C Black, London 2006.

Checking for a Pulse was an exhibition of larger-scale ceramic artwork of Ian Dowling. Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, Western Australia. October to December 2006. Peter Pilven is the Ceramics Coordinator of the University of Ballarat Victoria, Australia. Photography by Robert Frith.
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Author:Pilven, Peter
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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