Steve Harrison: 5 Stones – A Ceramic Journey

Watters Gallery, 16 August – 2 September 2017

Opening Speech: Grace Cochrane AM – curator, writer, historian

Tonight is also the launch of Steve Harrison’s book: 5 Stones – A Ceramic Journey; My sericite travels, the narrow road to the deep white north; A 15-year exploration, 2002 to 2017

Congratulations Steve, for pulling together the results of this very impressive 15-year exploration of porcelain, a valuable part of your 40-year career. And also to Janine, who has been with him all the way, and to Watters Gallery for their support of so many artists over their half-century history.

As you can see this exhibition of porcelain bowls is accompanied by a publication that provides a very detailed background to what they mean – to Steve, to porcelain history and to us.

Steve has been investigating the origins of porcelain, specifically that made in the very few places in the world using this particular variety: what he calls single-stone, hard-paste, native porcelains: clay made from one source only, and used in the locality where it is found. This centres round a rock called serecite, which is ground and processed into a clay body, without additives.

But why doesn’t he just go and buy bags of clay and use that? You’d think it would be so much easier …

But no, that would be quite the antithesis of everything Steve Harrison believes in. He is Mr Sustainable; he talks about being a ‘ceramic locavore’, with a preference for working with a 50-kilometre-wide palette of materials, not only for clay and glaze materials such as local rocks, shales, gravels and ash, but also the wood that fires his kiln, and the mud bricks he and Janine make for their kilns and workshop.

And along those lines, many of you will enjoy his regular written bulletins of activity where there are, mixed in with the wonderful stories he circulates of ceramic adventures and misadventures, equally engrossing tales of digging, planting, reaping, cooking and bottling the products of their impressive and extensive garden. He’s also a very good furniture maker, and builds kilns for others: you’ll notice that he identifies himself as a potter, kiln surgeon, clay doctor, wood butcher and Post Modern Peasant. (And as an extension of his advocacy for recycling, I know that at least one garden path is underpaved with early drafts of his PhD thesis.)

He says he has always enjoyed the pleasure of making elegant, delicate pots and has always been interested in their raw materials. These days, as well as using local materials for glazes, he makes his own clay as well – including the special black clay for the bowl I use daily for my evening meal!

Steve Harrison, Harrison 17, 2014, ceramic, 7.5cm x 12.9cm x 12.6cm, woodfired, Mafia upper white fraction, porcelain stone, Flesh and Bones; stamped ‘SH’, ‘LLP’. Incised ‘W3’; beautifully carbon-included and ash-affected Celadon glaze that morphs into opalescence and crystallisation.

Then in 2002, as part of his habit of trudging around looking at stones and gravel in fields and on hillsides, Steve found a rock, a white stone, in the Joadja Valley, near his home. In 2004, he crushed and milled it to test it as a glaze, and found he unexpectedly had a porcelain clay body.

He had known Ivan McMeekin who established the pottery at the Sturt workshops in Mittagong in the 1950s and had written a book about raw materials, called Notes for Potters in Australia. McMeekin was the first in Australia to discover a natural single-stone porcelain, and this was on Mt Alexander near the Nattai River, at a coalmining site now covered by the Mittagong highway bypass. And long before Steve’s current research started, someone had given him a treasured bag of rocks collected by Ivan McMeekin in the 1950s.

Finding the white stone in 2002 made him wonder about where else porcelain had been discovered and when. Over the last 15 years he’s travelled to each of the places in the world where porcelain was originally made, and found that what they all had in common was this stone known as sericite; a natural blend of quartz and mica. It turned out that porcelain wasn’t originally dependent on the white clay called kaolin, as he, and so many others, had believed. It wasn’t until the 13th or 14th centuries that Chinese potters and others started to blend it with kaolin to make it more malleable.

So this is a story of a man with a mission; a story of ceramic cultural and scientific history, associated with personal research through close encounters with people and places where the same or similar motivations have been pursued at different times over 1000 years. Many journeys during these years took him to 11 sites, in 5 key places, identified with the five stones in the exhibition title, and with detours to scientists, historians and other academics along the way.

The five places, all with notable histories in the porcelain world, were:

  • Jingdezhen, in China (and welcome to Chen, who was Steve’s guide and translator there)
  • Yanggu, in Korea
  • Arita, in Japan
  • Cornwall, in the UK
  • … and of course, Mittagong, in Australia

Steve Harrison, Harrison 75, 2017, ceramic, 9.3cm x 15.4cm x 15.4cm, unglazed, woodfired, Gao Bai ne, recycled JDZ porcelain with gold repair

Wherever he could, Steve tracked down people using this ancient process, who were interested in collaborating with him, and wherever possible at each site he made works out of local porcelain stone, with glazing carried out elsewhere in the pottery, according to their practice. He found people still using their local stone at every location, except for Cookworthy’s Tregonning Hill site in Cornwall, which had been closed for 250 years.

As well as making pots there, he collected samples of those native porcelain stones and brought them home, where he could process them himself – grinding the stone and making porcelain from the powder – and then using his own firing process and glazes. So some pots seen here were fired on-site, and there are also examples of the same materials fired at home in his wood fired kiln with different results. You can recognise those fired in his studio because instead of glazing the whole pot, he leaves an area around the base so you can see the clay itself.

At the same time he continued to work with his own local Joadja stones, having by now retrieved a pile of them, and also the now very rare, small selection of Nattai River stones that were a legacy of Ivan McMeekin’s research, now perfectly ‘aged’. Sadly, neither of these sites remain but he’ll keep looking! In fact, one display of pots here was made from stones he found at the side of the Mittagong freeway, scavenged when wearing an orange jacket and parked ‘officially’ at the side of the highway!

Steve Harrison, Harrison 82, 1959–2016, ceramic, 6.8cm x 11.7cm x 12.1cm
Mittagong, Ivan McMeekin’s Natai River Porcelain stone; woodfired in Balmoral; incised ‘NRV’ and stamped ‘LLP’, ‘SH’ and ‘crossed pick and shovel’ indicating that it was hand-dug. This porcelain stone is now lost.

Throughout the book Steve speaks informatively and conversationally about his tools, tests, processes, experiments, setbacks and successes. His fascination with the way it all works extended to complementing the technical data of what he’d researched and tested himself, by having the various stones analysed by scientists at UNSW. Equally impressive in the publication, are the very personal insights into his responses to working in such overwhelmingly significant and special places, and his respect and affection for the people working there. Working, talking, eating, exploring, establishing friendships, learning language along the way – all part of understanding clay!

You’ll see that he has subtitled his Sericite travels, as ‘the narrow road to the deep white north’. This refers in part to the 17th century Japanese poet, Basho, who walked a 2400K journey in 1688-89, before writing his master work with that title.

We’ve read quite a bit about other porcelain journeys in recent years: There’s Nicole Mones’ novel, A Cup of Light, which builds a mystery round a hidden collection of Imperial Chinese porcelain and the contemporary worlds of smuggling and fakes; and British potter Edmund de Waal has written a personal memoir called The White Road: a journey into obsession, which looks at the influence of Asia in the story behind the invention of European porcelain as a background to his own work.

But Steve Harrison’s ceramic journey appears to represent the first attempt he is aware of, where someone has gone to and, where possible, made pots in, all five places in the world (including Mittagong) where single stone porcelain has been independently produced and used. It may also be the only time this range can be brought together.

So it is a great privilege to be able to not only see these 81 pots from such different places, with their often very subtle variations, but at the same time, through the publication, have the chance to discover their evolution with Steve, as part of his journey. Congratulations again!

I’m very pleased to open the exhibition and launch this book.

Grace Cochrane AM
Curator, writer, historian

2017-09-03T11:14:58+00:00August 31, 2017|Tags: , , , |