Ceramics, the environment & ecology: ‘Craft arts’ in an age of environmentalism

While ceramics in Australia is influenced by many traditions cultivated in other countries (‘Skangaroovian Funk’ drawing from the Californian Funk styles, or the Eastern inspired traditions of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada), the Australian ceramics cultural landscape brings forth styles imbued with a distinctly Australian essence – inspired by the Australian landscape and by environmental concerns. This article will address aspects of these influences, highlighting some of the ceramics artists who draw inspiration from the Australian landscape and those who directly engage with environmental and ecological issues through their works. These two themes represent a polarity within ceramics: one emphasises the skills, materials and techniques in the production of an enduring object, the other concentrates on the concept that is addressed within the works.

In Australia, the broader interactions between visual art and ecological themes began in the late 1990s, with the emergence of events such as the Mildura Palimpsest,1 and exhibitions showing works with environmental themes in both state and regional galleries. However, it wasn’t until the late 2000s that ceramics works and exhibitions began to place an emphasis on environmental issues. Prior to this, there was a noticeable emphasis on the technical acumen demonstrated by the artist rather than concepts. This trend was noted by Margot Osbourne, curator of an exhibition called Abstract Nature, at South Australia’s Samstag Museum in 2010.

Abstract Nature represented a number of the contemporary crafts including ceramics, glass, jewellery and weaving, most of which prescribed to an emphasis on technique, but from the perspective of how they engaged with the environment. This exhibition served as an investigation into disciplines traditionally viewed as the crafts, questioning their contribution to current, concept-based, art historical discourses. This is in line with the Samstag Museum’s goal of drawing attention to contemporary crafts and addressing questions about the nature of craft.2

Works by Pippin Drysdale and collaborative works by Robin Best and Nyukana (Daisy) Baker featured in this exhibition and reflected a diverse visual spectrum that pulled directly from the Australian natural environment. Drysdale’s works drew inspiration from the North West Australian landscape of the Kimberley region and Tanami Desert. Embodying the essence of a bush fire, Drysdale presented two series. The first, entitled Embers and Ash (2006–2009), was a range of works in muted tones of greys and blacks that suggested a land ravaged by fire. The second series, Sap Rising (2006–2009), depicted the beginnings of new growth through beautiful tones of greens and ochres. These series were indicative of the after-effects of bushfires in Australia where fire encourages new growth.3 In contrast, rather than drawing on a specific event, the collaborative works by Best and Baker reflected Baker’s Indigenous culture which drew from Anangu lore and narratives. Their collaboration produced vessels with highly contrasting sombre ochres and stark blacks.4

Jeff Mincham, who grew up around Lake Alexandrina, draws from the South Australian landscape. Mincham addresses the decline of the environmental health of the area, including the surrounding wetlands and Murray Mouth. His carefully developed glazes reference specific landscapes, developing a ‘…creative language through which to express his deeply rooted sense of connection to place’.5 This connection was most prominent in Mincham’s earlier works like Dry Lake (2008–09), that referenced the endangered state of the Coorong wetlands through brown tones and intentionally cracked glazes, conjuring images of dry river beds and drought. Many of these works reference the almost Mondrian-esque appearance of cultivated farming land.

Other ceramics artists have also drawn inspiration from environmental issues through their practice. However, even if a work produced in a craft arts discipline such as ceramics addresses a particular issue, often the emphasis is on the construction and technical skill rather than conceptual intent. Nevertheless, some ceramics artists do engage in a more direct approach that makes the conceptual nature of the works inescapable. One of the most striking examples of this level of engagement is Ken Yonetani’s work Fumie-Tiles (2003). Yonetani and his wife, Julia, are well-known for their cross-disciplinary artworks – using diverse materials including salt, sugar, and uranium glass – that have addressed a range of environmental concerns.

For Fumie-Tiles, Yonetani used a low-fire technique that ensured a degree of strength, yet remained fragile. Developed over eight months, the tiles represented images of ten of the eleven most endangered butterflies in Australia. This work encouraged the audience to “feel and think about the fragile environment and contradictory human desires”, combining a scientific understanding about the extinction of a species with art practice.6

Fumie-Tiles incorporated two thousand carefully produced ceramic tiles laid in straight lines across the floor of the exhibition space. At the opening of the show, the audience walked over the tiles, and by the end of the exhibition they were trampled beyond recognition. The exhibition literally invited people to consider their own footprints and the damage they caused.7

The artists mentioned above use ceramics to engage with issues of environmentalism and ecology specifically within Australia. Ceramics offers a rich and unique art form to connect with environmental themes. This can be both through their role as enduring, permanent art objects that draw inspiration from the land and its cultures – as with the featured works by Drysdale, Best, Baker, and Mincham – or in the case of Yonetani’s exhibition, using the belief in ceramics as enduring objects as a metaphor for an environment that is not. These few examples demonstrate that craft arts have much to offer in drawing attention to the field of ecology and areas of environmental concern that are specific to the Australian landscape.

  1. Palimpsest is an ongoing biennial art event held in Mildura since 1998, supported by the Mildura Arts Centre. It encompasses a variety of themes including culture, social issues, sustainability and ecology.
  2. Erica Green, 2010, ‘Foreword’, Abstract Nature Catalogue, Samstag Museum
  3. Margot Osborne, 2010, ‘Pippin Drysdale’, Abstract Nature Catalogue, Samstag Museum, p.18–19
  4. Margot Osborne, 2010, ‘Robin Best/Nyukana (Daisy) Baker’, Abstract Nature Catalogue, Samstag Museum, p.8-9
  5. Margot Osborne,’1996-2004: Sense of Place’, Jeff Mincham: Ceramics, p.64
  6. Ken Yonetani as quoted in Julia Humphreys,2004, ‘Fumie Tiles: The Art of Destruction’, Ceramics Art and Perception No. 57, p. 21-23
  7. An excellent clip documenting the event can be viewed on YouTube. Ken Yonetani, 2010, Ken Yonetani –Fumie-Tiles, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1s0PSHyt4HI

Jade Wildy has a Bachelor in Visual Arts (majoring in ceramics, and a Masters in Art History. She is currently completing a PhD in the field of art and environmentalism.

2017-01-09T14:38:33+00:00November 14, 2013|