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Notes from Netherdale
by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

Originally published in Ceramics Art & Perception.

vessels by Hansson-Pigott

For the past eight years I have lived and worked on a scrubby patch of tropical hinterland an hour's drive from the port city of Mackay in North Queensland. The land is dominated by Eungella National Park mountains on three horizons. Between myself and the mountains, at the back of the house and workshop are cane fields; canefields to the left, too, and, beyond that, a hill, and scrub, and the hamlet: Netherdale. In front, and to the right, is a planted forest of eucalyptus and rainforest trees, a creek hidden under green, and cane fields beyond, and beyond again. I have watched a few straggly seedlings grow into a wide green canopy, cooling the house; and each year wait out the dry, or the wet, always a little extreme. Just now, after rain, there is the monotone chorus of frogs; but the dominant theme here is silence. I came here because it was beautiful, run down and affordable and a wood kiln wouldn't bother anyone. Work, I thought, would be uninterrupted, and my leaning towards solitude would feel saner in this space than on the fringe of inner-city academe. This time I didn't come for the clay, or the wood, but for the making, and the quiet. It was a risky move, and I felt a little absurd. I had read Thea Astley, and Patrick White, and David Malouf.

Before coming here, I had started to look more closely at how pots, perfectly contained within themselves, sit with each other, changing each other. I was interested to find what could hold the pots together in a bonding that was neither design nor intention but could only be discovered after the firing when everything came into play: lushness, coolness, colour, weight, line. Lately, I would add character.

I had seen Giorgio Morandi's paintings, etchings and drawings first in Paris at the huge 1972 retrospective, and then again at Bologna at the centenary exhibition in 1990. I love his searching, excessive, describing of the common objects that were his subject and his measure. A bottle: a dense palpable block of creamy white. A bottle: a wavering half line holding space. His work is substantial, tenuous; disturbing, resolved. His work is not about character. It is about essence; the metaphysical expressed through the solidly physical and knowable.

Of some artists' work, you can say, yes, if I understood that I would understand all I need to know about expressed beauty. For me, Morandi's work is like that; and that of Piero della Franscesca. But so are many, many bowls.

I could try, perhaps, to scrutinise my pots in the way I imagine Morandi looked at his beloved still life subjects: those old tin cans, assorted bottles, paper roses, coffee bowls, metal boxes, shells, pots and pans, some battered and painted over, that have outlasted him. But it won't do. I don't intend to re-present my pots and position them in fields of colour so dense and greyed they lock and surround and make them poignant or monumental by the solidity of the strong, thick, paint itself. My pots have to stand as they are, as real as my hand; and it seems I have so little time to know them before they are gone.

Morandi's work can inspire and direct my eye and hint at eccentric joinings and haunting colour. But it is a big leap from standing, grateful as anything, in front of his canvases, to looking at the tangible, usable, everyday pots that salt my life: pots which need, too, that kind and urgent attention. This gap has been, at times, a sadness for me. I know the pots I live with and sometimes make can be potent. Potent as language, potent as solace, potent as messages. Writers, poets, artists, have described again and again the force of these everyday objects, but who knows how many potters, knowing, finally, the rightness of their work, have despaired of having their work actually perceived.

"Just a bowl," my co-judge of a significant national exhibition said (his eye already on the next object), "it has to be more than just a beautiful bowl." Why? I ask, there is nothing just about it. But one goes on, with the colour blends, and glaze tests, the accumulating buckets of stained glaze; arranging the wood for the firing that may or may not give you that pulling back of iron in the mixed stain to make that particular purple/bronze, or that that slight bloom the severe shape needs to make it tender: wondering if the porcelain you are using fired for longer might just soften enough to make the line of that bowl more languid. Paring, honing, adding. Head in hands after the firing, as like as not; but sometimes, utterly thankful. It is an old story, the maker's story.

I might say I started the groupings because I wanted the pots to be looked at. Considered. The title, Three Inseparable Bowls, given to related but different bowls, might raise a question, lengthen a glance. Why inseparable? What is the glue? There were groupings of small jugs, simplified. I could have eaten them with their echoing colours and line.

Later, (was it? the story could be told many ways) came the still life groupings which were far more intuitive, and often surprising. Within them, there were tensions and resolutions, quirky relationships and sometimes a certain restful classicism. With them came, naturally, recollections of certain paintings; I made the lips finer, so bowls were blocks of colour with drawn edges. Bottles were seamless, sketched. I dared myself to go to the edge of formlessness. The space between the pots became more telling and echoed or bound the solid shapes. I became precise about placement.

To my delight, the pared down forms remained pots. Not metaphors, or suggestions: but pots, glazed, strong, usable. What is more, this eccentric presentation, unframed, unboxed, completely floating on an idea was accepted. I saw it as something and trusted its lead. I gave names to some groupings to suggest ways of looking: Still life for Ben Nicholson. I was presumptuous, yes, but hopefully, gave a clue to its reading.

Events forced new looking. Asked to be part of a touring show about landscape, I made horizontal groupings begging a slow wandering of the eye, an exploring or perambulation around and up and over. The material dominated; rich, craggy bottles; dishes limpid and liquid as lagoons. Pots made to be looked at closely as though viewed from a distance.



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