On the History of Pottery & the Formation of Australian Pottery

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On the History of Pottery & the Formation of Australian Pottery

Windmill Pottery owner, Paul Holland, has been working with clay over a forty-year period. Since moving to Sheldon on the bayside of Brisbane, he discovered a volcanic clay deposit locally and this has driven his work in an entirely new direction. This clay is typical stoneware with the added property of having a high iron oxide content. At lower earthenware temperatures the clay fires to a rich golden terracotta colour, while at higher stoneware temperatures, it takes on a steely quality that almost shrieks durability and hardness. 

“I have always longed for a clay that has soul,” says Paul. “Most commercial clays are a blend of imported and local clays. The producers are more concerned with predictability than character.”

Windmill clay is more like the clay used by the Japanese masters who prepared their clay and stored it for at least two generations to allow the development of bacteria to condition the clay. Windmill Pottery's clay has a high organic content, promoting bacterial growth. This gives the clay a living earthy quality allowing the potter to feel close to nature and to the old potters of yesteryear.

Windmill Pottery explores the relationship between the human and the environment in the most basic sense, i.e., from dust we were made and to dust we return. It’s said we were metaphorically molded from the clay itself. True or not, it can be argued that the earliest sculptures representing the human form were made from clay before more sophisticated tools made it possible to cut stone. Eventually, Homo Sapiens discovered heating clay to high temperatures, made it vitrified and stone-like. It wasn’t long before humans learned to shape clay into useful objects and heating them so they no longer returned to mud when moistened. It was from this simple act that our ancestors learned they could shape the world around them, making it a more comfortable place to live in.

Before long, these utilitarian objects found themselves as objects of decoration and some becoming objects simply to be admired and enjoyed for their innate beauty. Ceramics developed a “look and feel” unique to each culture. That is why ancient Egyptian pottery looks different to Greek or Roman pottery. African is different to Spanish as Celtic is to Japanese.

What then makes one piece of work culturally so distinctive from another?
The answer lies in the difference in topography, availability of decorative materials, type of clay, technology available and most importantly, the previously established artwork styles unique to that culture. The process became stylised over time and certain processes became ritualised and accepted as the norm. Deviations were frowned upon as masters pedantically passed on their skills to apprentices. Hence a Japanese Master Potter, was careful not to deviate from the tried and proven processes he was taught. These influences over time guaranteed a look and feel to objects d’art distinctly unique to that culture.

So what does that mean for a country like Australia?
Indigenous Australians did not require pottery as a useful tool. Nomadic ethnic groups were predominantly hunters and gatherers and required objects that could easily be carried and wouldn’t break if dropped. To establish a craft like pottery, it was essential that the lifestyle was settled. It’s impossible to carry a kiln to a new camping ground or to leave a source of suitable clay to go walkabout. This would soon result in zero production output. The only pottery used in Australia before the coming of Europeans was left behind or traded by visiting sailors. None was produced by the indigenous cultures. With the introduction of European colonists, convicts and colonial settlers, came pottery making skills. Over time, more culturally diverse immigration ensured that no particular style dominated the pottery making process. 

It could be argued that British pottery was most prevalent in the early settlements and therefore styles from the English potters had the most influence. However, the diverse ethnic mix including Chinese, Germans, Italians and Greeks soon expanded that cultural influence. With the demise of Bendigo Potteries as a major pottery producer, perhaps the most British influenced pottery to date, there appears to be no dominant cultural influence on the pottery process.

Master potters such as Carl McConnell were influenced by the Japanese Masters under whom he studied and this can be seen in one of his works housed in the Queensland Art Gallery. However, even this work could not be said to reflect uniquely Australian attributes. As beautifully crafted as it is, it has more Japanese attributes than Australian. Even lesser works of relatively unknown potters have more distinctively Australian features. This is usually the result of a plethora of indigenous flora and fauna as decorative subjects.

Pilliga Pottery, for instance, has beautifully crafted ware, delicately decorated with Australian flora and fauna. However, these are the only distinction from origins steeped in European culture rather than those elements that make it Australian.

Australia has simply not developed an Australian “look and feel” to its pottery. Australian potters in the main are still copying other styles. Perhaps this is a result of of our multicultural makeup or due to the greying of the world through rapid and prolific sharing of information. The fact is, we are a very young nation, too young to develop our own artistic ethos.

Windmill Pottery believes this ethos or style will occur, but not until our creative ethos becomes stylised over time. More than likely, we will be the last to realise it when it does occur, just as we are the last to recognise how distinctively "Australian" we have become because of our unique Aboriginal heritage.

Windmill Pottery's challenge is to find that “look and feel” that is distinctly Australian by exploiting all the elements that give rise to culturally unique and recognisable work. To do this Windmill Pottery explores that final act of creativity that led to ancient decorative pottery.

By preparing our own clay from local sources and using basic elements of design, Windmill Potteries returns to the earliest processes allowing the inate quality and potential of natural clay to form the basis of its work.

The rest comes from allowing all the influences of our Australian environment, colour, iconology and culture or subject matter, seep into the work, be it indigenous or foreign. As a young nation, we are in the enviable position of exploring creatively without restriction. Our art and craft is so young in its evolution that no ritual or style or expectation dictates parameters. Perhaps that will come with time and Windmill Pottery is in the vanguard at a time when pottery is re-emerging as a creative craft from a long time malaize. In particular, Windmill Pottery recognises the influence of those Queensland potters who have come before, such as Harry Memmott and Mick Feeney. These craftsmen/artists have forever influenced those who wish to follow their example.

Windmill Pottery produces pottery for those who appreciate their connection with the earth and their awareness of the environment in which they live. 

It is hoped that if a visitor to our shores takes a piece of Windmill Pottery away with them, they will know they have something typically and uniquely Australian.


Written by Paul Holland, master potter at Windmill Pottery
Edited by Melanie Gupta, intern at Windmill Pottery 

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