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We must get together (sometime)

Printed in The Journal of Australian Ceramics (JAC) 60:2 July 2021

Nien Schwarz

We must get together (some time)

Printed in The Journal of Australian Ceramics (JAC) 60:2 July 2021


As an artist harbouring a life-long fascination with ceramics it is only now, in my late fifties, that a deeply meaningful relationship with clay has emerged. Why?


During my undergraduate studies clay was invisible; ceramics, deemed craft, was not offered. I subsequently taught contemporary sculpture and environmental art at the tertiary level for twenty years, but the year I commenced teaching visual arts the art school's ceramics studio was closed, permanently. Not an uncommon occurrence in Australia. 


Higher education's constantly moving goalposts meant that I seldom had time or energy to embrace the potential of working with clay. I learned about ceramics through preparation of history in art lectures and outside academia I dabbled with clay on and off for thirty years, enrolling in local community arts evening classes as an enjoyable antidote to academia. My efforts here were somewhat aimless; not being particularly interested in throwing, or creating decorative or functional domestic ware, I struggled to locate a meaningful anchor point for making clay objects. 


In 2020, a twist of fate meant clay suddenly emerged as the dominant force in my professional practice. Stewart Scambler, my ceramics tutor of eighteen years at Fremantle Arts Centre, suggested I apply for a residency at the Centre to realise my interests in creating unique glazes, clays and aggregates using geological waste sourced directly from mines, exploration drilling and scientific analyses. 


During the residency, I became involved in We Must Get Together Some Time (WMGTST), a WA collective established by Dr Annette Nykiel involving creatives who engage in regional and remote field-based research and slow-making processes, placing emphasis on passionate long-term creative engagements with non-urban places. The group's thematic objective is to facilitate ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue, collaboration and professional development amongst the group and with other regional artists, scientists and communities.


The confluence of my residency and WMGTST resulted in an installation of cast ceramic vessels and spoons titled We Must Get Together, intended for exhibition in the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial IOTA21, a festival of contemporary craft featuring works by artists from WA and countries around the Indian Ocean.


Materially, the 100+ bowl-like vessels with spoons are highly variable. During the residency I experimented with clays, aggregates, glazes and firing methods. Commercial clays were combined with wild clays and aggregates. Unique clay bodies were hand-built from scratch. Most materials were sourced from geological strata disrupted by human activities. 


My artworks echo my field experiences; paintings feature hand-collected and prepared earth colours, large-scale installations and public art commissions include geological references and tools, including thousands of topographic and geological maps, air photos, and references to map legends. Thematically my installations provoke consideration of unsustainable land use practices and lifestyles fuelled by fossil and mineral extraction.


Realising material and conceptual links between my career as a bush cook, my life-long interest in geoscience, and actually preparing my own materials for creating ceramic pieces, was a significant outcome of the residency. 


In exploring glazes, I learned about line blends and triaxials, and kept records. With Scambler's assistance I created glaze recipes using local Bunbury Basalt, volcanic lava flows that erupted 135 Ma years ago during the breakup of Gondwana; the widening rift resulting in formation of the Indian Ocean and the Indian, Australian and Antarctic shorelines. The Bunbury Basalt recipes yield rich deep brown satin glazes that materially and conceptually underpin my involvement in IOTA21. 


The oblong form of my vessels result from casting artists' knees. I chanced upon this form after a medical emergency during a ceramics class. When paramedics had stabilised their patient and wheeled him out of the studio I returned to my clay. I had rolled a slab, but what for? Whatever the idea had been, it was gone. While students exchanged concerns over the patient, on impulse I hugged the slab over my knee. Its weight and cool dampness offered relief from kneeling on concrete waiting for an ambulance to arrive. 


Prying off the clay shell I knew immediately I had chanced upon making a vessel profoundly relevant to my personal identity as a geo bushcook, while simultaneously encapsulating philosophical contexts that underpin my environmental concerns. For me, the cast knees symbolise kneeling, of paying respect to the Earth, of being grateful for every meal, and acknowledging multiple forms of energy that go into producing the food that nourishes our individual and collective life force. The unbalanced nature of the vessels alludes to climatic and ecological tipping points. 


What we consume collectively is shaping our future. 

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