The state of craft in Western Australia
Craft today is linked to ancient craft practices through both physical fragments as well as living traditions. Craft practice shows us clear tangible evidence of cultural traditions as part of both the craft practice and also its context within Australian culture and design. The history of ceramics, jewellery, glass and fibre is often embraced by contemporary craft makers. Like their predecessors, each craft maker becomes part of a community while they make their individual work.
Western Australian artists and their cultural landscape
Craft makers in Western Australia (WA) practise in a range of media to reflect their strong relationships to the country, the landscape and their communities, as well as reflecting a global consciousness. This in turn is strongly informed by European craft forms and social practice.
Through their chosen medium, these craftspeople develop personal interests, perfect their skills and, in doing so, build a dedicated following of collectors. Many have become internationally recognised for their work.
Bevan Thompson, Norseman Salt Lakes, 2007, Stoneware, coil and throw method, Collection Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo: Eva Fernandez. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery East, Perth.
Ceramic artist Bevan Thompson travels his family's country to maintain a connection with his Indigenous heritage. The colours and forms of this cultural landscape shape his ceramic work.
The experience of landscapes inspires Pippin Drysdale, whose ceramic surfaces glow with the colours of the desert, are composed in groups that recall mountainous ranges.
The work of ceramicist Sandra Black is inspired by a strong interest in women's traditions such as lace making, as well as a close scrutiny of the natural world.
Glass artist Holly Grace's work is informed by an interest in modern Scandinavian craft, and jeweller Helen Britton, currently living in Europe, is drawn to the mix of industrial activity and the bric-a-brac of history that can be found there.
Fibre artist Nalda Searles travels outback WA, and works alongside Indigenous women fibre artists. The relationships, established through basket making workshops, have resulted in strong, mutually enriching, connections as well as significant award winning works, such as those by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
Careers in ceramics
Ceramic artist Bevan Thompson (born 1947, WA) has been exhibiting his work since 1994. All of his work, as in his critically acclaimed 2007 show with Gallery East, reflects his Indigenous heritage. He says:
'The message I am sharing is about the life stories that were told to me by my Grandmother, about the land and culture.'
Bevan Howard Thompson, brochure, Artsource, Fremantle, 2008
Thompson's surface treatments refer to his family's country; arid landscapes and images of landforms such as sand hills, salt lakes and the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu) have a true affinity with the form of the vessel. The dry, textured slips and glazes retain a connection to the traditional use of ochres.
Thompson was the only WA finalist in the 2007 Indigenous Ceramics Art Award at the Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria. His work is highly sought-after and has been recently collected by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. This success has meant that he can now spend the greater part of his time in the studio. He also takes part in workshops so that he can hand on the culture of his people to a younger generation.
Pippin Drysdale, Assemblage III 'Sap Green', Porcelain. Image courtesy of the artist and Perth Galleries, Perth.
Pippin Drysdale (born 1943, Melbourne, Victoria) has an international career that spans two decades. The craft advocacy organisation Craft Australia profiles her in its Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft series. She was recently the subject of a major monograph by Fremantle Arts Centre Press—a rare honour for an Australian artist.
Drysdale approaches the ceramic form (thrown by long-time collaborator Warrick Palmateer) as a 'canvas' on which to work. Her great skill as a colourist is evident in her delicate glazes. She often uses colour to contrast between an interior and an external space. Drysdale excels in her complex, constantly evolving methods of surface treatment. In the ongoing series Tanami Traces (2000–2007), many layers of coloured glaze were applied, into which grooves were cut, which were then filled with more thickly applied colour.
In recent years Drysdale has preferred to exhibit the ceramic vessels in groupings, or 'assemblages'. These clusters evoke impressions of both the formation of mountain ranges and also of still life arrangements, emphasising the fact that Drysdale's work is inspired by the landscape.
Reflecting on her experience of the Tanami Desert, Drysdale notes: 'What from a distance often appears to be monochromatic, reveals fine nuances on closer viewing, a play of subtle light and colour effects, attributes which could also describe a desert.'
Sandra Black, Growth series, 2005, Seeley's Lady White porcelain, cast, carved, pierced and polished, fired to Cone 7 in electric kiln. Courtesy the artist and Perth Galleries, Perth.
Sandra Black (born 1950, Bairnsdale, Victoria; WA since 1960s) is highly regarded for her delicate, lace-like perforated forms. She often works in series, such as Growth (2005), or Ripple (2002), exploring a set of ceramic forms and particular decorative approaches. In Ripple, for example, inspired by the water, the shapes are more organic and less geometric than other series, while in Growth the botanical decoration responds to the shape of the vessel, seemingly growing from the base. The shapes are always kept simple to concentrate attention on the elaborate decoration.
The fine porcelain Black works with, Seeley's Lady White, is used for such specialist work as the making of doll's heads. It is a demanding medium but, she insists, the difficulties are worth the end result: its perfect whiteness, translucency and density.
Black spends most of her time in her Fremantle studio, near the ocean, drawing inspiration from the natural world around her. But she continues to present workshops on her signature technique around Australia and overseas.
In dialogue with an international community—Helen Britton, jeweller
Helen Britton, Pearl skin, 2005, Silver, South Sea pearls. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Funaki, Melbourne.
Helen Britton (born 1966 Lithgow, NSW; Perth, WA, from 1990) maintains that she draws inspiration from '…watching excavations, deliveries of materials and construction processes'1 as she moves around Munich, the big industrial city in Germany where she currently lives. The jewellery she makes reflect a delight in the act of construction itself. Her fascination with materials ranges from the precious to the banal: from pearls to found plastic. The various elements collide in her works, which she calls 'modest little machines for wearing.'2
As an expatriate, Britton notes that 'I have a heightened awareness of my culture and my landscape and the effect this has on my aesthetic choices'3
For this traveller, the city is seen as a natural ecosystem. She observes human activity in much the same way as scientists study bees and ants to throw light on behavioural patterns when living in high density. It is fitting then that the jewellery she makes has a quality of having been made by nature. The term ‘encrustation’ is often used to describe her pieces. Pearl skin is reminiscent of the protective casings made by insects, such as the native Case Moth.
The egalitarian mixture of materials favoured by Britton raises a further question: Given the current crisis surrounding petroleum products, should we now be valuing plastic as a new precious material?
Holly Grace and the transparency of glass
Holly Grace, Works, 2007, blown glass. Courtesy of the artist and Perth Galleries, Perth.
Writing recently about her work, Holly Grace (born 1969 Perth, WA) revealed that her interest in glass dates back to a childhood fascination with watching nature 'through windows, which created a transparent division between the controlled and uncontrolled landscapes.'
Drawn to this medium at such an early age, Grace has developed her interest in the transparency of glass. Its qualities offer the artist what she calls an 'invisible skin' to decorate and shape. It also serves to magnify and focus (think of the use of glass in spectacles and telescopes). Engraved and etched designs on both the inner and outer surfaces create a visual interplay only possible with glass. Grace also uses rabbit skin glue, a canvas sealant traditionally used by painters, to obtain an unusual crackled, volcanic surface encrustation.
She decorates the mouth-blown glass forms, deliberately reminiscent of modernist Scandinavian design, with imagery based on photography taken on her frequent trips to northern Europe. One reviewer has commented on the effect of this importation, observing that '…the pigments reflect beautifully the light of the northern hemisphere, but to see them in the WA light…' is to see them anew. 4
Working between cultures—fibre artists and weavers
Nalda Searles, Samplers 2007, Hay, threads, dried flowers, stones, plastic, clay, fabric. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fibre artist Nalda Searles (born 1945, Kalgoorlie, WA) started making coil-work using all kinds of found materials: wool, string, ropes, stones, metal, etc. As she learned more about native grasses she began to use this natural material more exclusively. She also began to share her knowledge through community workshops, tapping into a revival of interest in both European and Indigenous basketry traditions.
Searles is very conscious of the place of basketry in women's cultural history, and she expands that:
'Sometimes with objects I make there is a real effort to contribute to an Australian myth, or at least a Western Australian myth.'
For nearly twenty years Searles has also conducted annual basket-making workshops with Indigenous women in remote regions. The movement these bush camp workshops sparked has swept across the desert communities and, eventually, around the country. Of particular importance has been the relationship she has forged with Indigenous artist Pantjiti Mary McLean, who Searles met and travelled the Western Desert with in the late 1990s.5 This cultural exchange has greatly enriched Searles' own practice.
Her skill in handling the grasses is admired as being fluid. Very little formal planning precedes the making. She says:
'Grass fibre, twigs, and many other found and recycled objects kind of move around me when I am thinking. And there is this joining of the idea and that certain material that fit together…'.
Many of Searles' works, while constructed using simple basket making techniques, nonetheless have complex meanings. For example, a skull takes on the fragility of the fine grass stems, and reminds us that it too is a kind of 'protective basket'. While some of her works are large-scale, others are modest. Of the Samplers, Searles' notes: 'One could say they are fibre drawings or doodles.'6
Tjanpi Desert Weavers
From 1996–2006 Nalda Searles conducted fibre workshops for the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council. The NPY is an area near where Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet. From these workshops the Tjanpi Desert Weavers were established. Tjanpi (pronounced 'J-um-Py') means 'dry grass'; the weavers use desert grasses such as minyerri, wangurnu and ilintji.
'At its core Tjanpi is about family and community. The Tjanpi family is now a wide-reaching network of more than 400 mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters and grandmothers whose shared stories, skills and experience are the bloodline of the movement.'
Case study: Tjanpi desert weavers - Australia Council for the Arts
Tjanpi Desert weavers from Papulankutja, Tjanpi Toyota, 2005, raffia, minyerri grass, jute string, chicken wire, steel. Made by weavers Kantjupayi Benson, Nuniwa Donegan (dec'd), Angaliya Mitchell, Margaret Donegan, Melissa Donegan, Mary Smith, Freda Lane, Diedre Lane, Elaine Lane, Wendy Lane, Janet Lane, Janet Forbes, Shirley Bennet, Gail, Angela Lyon, Sarkaway Lyon, Ruby Forbes, Jean Lane, Acquired by Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory through the 22nd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Image courtesy of the Australia Council for the Arts and Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
At the encouragement of senior artist Kantjupayi Benson, a group of 20 women made an ambitious sculpture of the common desert vehicle, a Toyota 4-wheel drive. Tjanpi Toyota won the 2005 22nd Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. The judges noted that it was a work that took you to the heart of community life.
Weaver Jennifer Mitchell says: 'When you look at Tjanpi work you can think of us out bush with our families in our country.'
Western Australian craft
These Western Australian craft makers travel far and wide. They delve deeply into personal or cultural history. In the end all the influences are brought back into the workshop. There, through an intense, patient and highly skilled engagement with their chosen mediums, craft objects are born.
Resources and support
Craft in WA is supported by a several factors: tertiary institutions maintain strong departments teaching textiles (Curtin University of Technology and Edith Cowan University), ceramics (Central Institute of Technology) and jewellery (Curtin University of Technology).
The state craft organisation, FORM, facilitates and promotes craft practice in the wider community, and has forged fruitful partnerships with industry. Professional development and studio spaces are also offered by Artsource.
- Pippin Drysdale
- Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft: Pippin Drysdale
- Pippin Drysdale: Lines of Sight, book by Ted Snell
- Fodder: A dialogue between Nalda Searles and Kevin Murray about making
- Janet Fieldhouse - winner of the 2007 Indigenous Ceramic Art Award - Shepparton Art Gallery
Galleries and organisations
1. The things I see, Funaki Gallery, Melbourne, 2008
2. Artist's lecture, Two Practices, Four Lands, One World: The Work of David Bielander and Helen Britton, Lecture Series, SOFA 2006.
3. Artist's statement, Surprising worlds, Funaki Gallery, Melbourne, 2002
4. Ric Spencer, review of Holly Grace's exhibition Clearing, Perth Galleries, The West Australian Weekend Extra, 3 September 2005, p13
5. Nalda Searles, Twigs to toyotas: the growth of fibre basketry in Western Australia, Cultural Stands, exhibition catalogue, FORM, 2006
6. Nalda Searles, Recoil: change and exchange in coiled fibre art, exhibition catalogue, Artback, 2007, p72
Last updated: 14th January 2010