NK Rob, how old are you and where were you born?
RS I was born in 1955, so I’m 59 years old and the youngest of three children. Born in Manly on the northern side of Sydney. Manly was great and I felt I was really lucky – they were interesting days for sure. The good thing about growing up there, and I only realised this much later, was as a kid I got the witness the politics of the 60’s and 70’s unfold before me…I was aware. Pat Burgess the father of a good friend of mine was a journalist in Vietnam during the war and was in the media at lot, surfing culture was a big part of my life then and again had its own politics.
NK When did art enter your life?
RS My father always made things and had a workshop at home. He’d make small boats and we’d sail them all the time. My brother who is seven years older would be in dad’s workshop making things and as a young kid I would always be hanging around. After completing high school I was unsure what to do next. As a teenager I used to repair surfboards and be involved with making boards and had a little bit of money saved up.
I traveled to New Zealand for 10 months and was first introduced to ceramics as an art form by viewing exhibitions in private galleries and experiencing art collections in homes. I was drawn to ceramics then and it interested me. Next I made a trip to Tasmania to meet a friend who was about to start at Art College in Launceston. He asked me if I’d like to come and have a look at the campus. It was a wonderful old wool store on the docks of the Tamar River. Sculpture, drawing, painting and ceramics were all being taught and it seemed like a fascinating environment. I was introduced to a teacher that day and he said, “ have you ever thought about studying art?” He was serious and had me filling out the enrollment forms that afternoon.
I started the course and remember that it was quite confronting. My first life drawing class in an art room was also confronting. Everyone’s drawings were large and expressive and mine were small and careful. There was a lot to learn. The experience of going out into the Tasmanian landscape to dig for clay moved me. We’d go to St Helens and dig the clay, fill up 44-gallon drums and bring it back to the college where we would manufacture the clay in large quantities using all sorts of industrial processes. I then started to make a few pots. The experience of glazing and firing excited me immensely and I was hooked. I was advised that I should continue my studies in Sydney at the National Art School. I applied and was accepted. It was fantastic and I was able to focus on ceramics solely. The main accent was throwing on a wheel. So I was producing a lot of table wear. I met a lot of fascinating people, we were living in Darlinghurst, they were fun times.
NK What happened next?
RS I just wanted to make pots. So I started renting workshops with the goal of making a living. In those days there were lots of small galleries around and they would purchase your work. I spent the next 15 years working in Sydney being involved in many different projects including a 7-month tour of the Northern Territory and Western Queensland. It was 1983 and I was asked to be a part of a program financed by the Aboriginal Arts Board and the Arts and Crafts Council of Australia to do ceramic workshops in bush schools.
NK Rob can you please tell me more about this experience in the bush?
RS It was a big change in my life, a real eye opener. I had a small truck set up as a mobile ceramics studio including a kiln. It was a difficult experience but I was asked to again go the following year, which I did. With my co-worker we would travel from one Aboriginal Community to the next teaching the kids to make little animals and pots from clay. We had this idea that we could make tiles from the clay to be used in murals. The kids responded well to this and we made these mosaic murals outside the library or in the front of the schools. This evolved with the elders coming in to tell cultural stories and complete sand drawings and the kids would then copy these stories onto the tiles. It worked really well and was a great project to be involved with. Sometimes I think maybe I should have stayed out there.
NK Tell me about your art practice from this time?
RS Before I went bush I used to work with stoneware and porcelain but when I came back I worked in earthenware. My logic was that Australia was covered in iron oxide and terracotta came to represent the essence of this country. Countries such as Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal; in the Middle East and the America’s have a long history and traditions of using terracotta. The saying is “the history of clay is the history of humanity.”
I had a lot of energy and inspiration at this time. I’d set up fabulous studios that I would either use by myself or share with colleagues and go to work each day as a professional potter…it was fantastic. My work was becoming quite large in scale at this time. I’d realised that I had an eye for form and could trace this right back to being a child and my fascination with ‘looking’. I was becoming quite successful with many large commissions along the way. We developed all sorts of methods and tricks for how to make our pots big…our own little code of secrets you could say. My work is intended to be useful but by doing that you come to realise that it’s not that useful although its designed to be…it becomes a bit special you know. We were published regularly in respected magazines, had private exhibitions in galleries and were selling straight for the studio. I was recognized as being quite prolific and was very proud of this. I worked really hard during this time, it all made for a great lifestyle, and it was a hoot.
NK You married and left the city for the North Coast of New South Wales?
RS Yes we moved up here in 1994. By then the expenses of doing business in the city was becoming prohibitive. I had married and now had children. We set up studios and started making pots again. The market for my work up here wasn’t as strong because we were now such a long way from the city, we didn’t have the personalized contacts as we once did. I devised this method of manufacturing a pizza oven from clay. We highly developed this idea and design and had a successful commercial business for some years following.
NK Your ceramic practice has strong connections to traditional pottery from ancient times. Can you please tell me a about your knowledge of the history of ceramics and how these traditions influence your art practice?
RS Clay is one of the earliest incarnations of technology in human society and pre-dated the Bronze Age by thousands of years. Fired pots from around the Mediterranean Sea and Japan date back thirteen thousand years. Societies were becoming more settled and were practicing agriculture. I mean the first bowls are your two hands brought together in a cup shape. Flora like gourds for example could be cut with stone tools into shapes to make a vessel, but the simple act of leaving, possibly accidently, clay in a fire changed everything. The discovery the following morning when the fire had died down that the clay had become hard and the possibilities that arose from this discovery affected the course of human evolution.
I’ve studied a lot of imagery of potters throughout history. I’d look at obscure images of peasant workshops in Turkey for example and try and read what’s going on. I could see what tools were being used and how the artists would position their body when working and you could figure things out and then use this in my own practice. My colleagues and I made regular visits to the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University to study the antiquities including artifacts from the Etruscans, the Romans and the Egyptians…it’s all there. Etruscan pots created in the area known today as Northern Italy were a huge influence. Their pots from around 500 BC are exquisite. Super fine jugs and tableware with very thin construction techniques thrown on a wheel with a reduction smoking technique to finish them in black. The Etruscan culture was based on love and beauty and I believe the gorgeous Tuscany landscape must have affected their minds and moods.
NK And your knowledge of the use of the wheel to create pottery?
RS It is thought to be first developed by the Assyrians in the Mesopotamia area in the Middle East around 4000 BC. Its first incarnation was a wheel head on a spindle with the potter at the wheel and down below a young labourer turning vertical spokes to a certain rhythm by hand. At this stage we think that women predominantly made pots. It’s thought that men became more involved with potting with the invention of the wheel. More pots meant bigger kilns, which grew towards commercial production. These hand built pots were always beautifully round – the craftsmanship was superb right from the beginning. Its the Etruscan’s wheel throwing that really stands out – the fineness is mind bogglingly fantastic.
NK Tell me about the actualities of throwing clay on a wheel?
RS You knead the clay first by hand to align the clay particles, then wet down the clay and centre it on the wheel. The whole thing about throwing on a wheel is it’s like playing a tune. It’s about making your form with freshness and vitality and importantly an efficiency of movement. It has a lot to do with the sense of touch – the less times you have to touch it the better. The ribbing on my pots is special to me. There has always been bands on pots from the past for strapping the pots into boats, in carts and on donkeys etc. Other ribbing is added to ease in storage and they also give the vessels structural strength. I developed the ribs on my pots over time – they’re small and crisp without being sharp and usually evenly spaced to echo the form of the pot. The way light falls onto them interests me. The notion of ground swell when there is a low-pressure weather system and the wind is offshore and the waves flow into the beach one after the other for me is reflective of the rhythm and placement of the ribbing on my pots. Pots look best when they’re wet on the wheel, I think it never looks as good as that again.
NK And the glaze used for decoration?
RS Generally you make a pot and fire it once and then add your glaze for decoration, and then it’s fired again. These glazes are a glass coating made from silica [sand] with a flux added to help it melt. A flux can include limestone, borax and frits. Then pigments can be added for colouration.
I believe if the form is strong less energy is needed to develop the surface or decoration. Functionality is where form is derived from. Clay vessels from the past were used to store and carry gains, oils and wine etc. and were loaded up in boats by the hundreds and transported across the seas. The philosophy behind my art practice is for my work to compliment the environment it is placed in. Space is a beautiful thing and you have to use it wisely.
NK What are your ideas on the differences between functional pottery and ceramics as art?
RS With pottery and ceramics there are two main elements – form and surface. I believe if the form is strong less energy is needed to develop the surface or decoration. Functionality is where form is derived from. Clay vessels from the past were used to store and carry gains, oils and wine etc. and were loaded up in boats by the hundreds and transported across the seas. The philosophy behind my art practice is for my work to compliment the environment it is placed in. Space is a beautiful thing and you have to use it wisely. The Japanese culture has a good sense of specialised interiors. People that may live in a hut on a river in Thailand for example will sweep it three times a day. They may own very little but it is always neat and tidy and clean and is itself an interesting interior. For me it is a nice challenge to make things that are not functional because l purely love looking at them. My pottery is a contemporary version of traditional forms. My forms have crispness and precision to them that reflects current times. I think pottery is the history of humanity; it’s the first time human kind actually recorded life apart from the cave paintings. The gourds didn’t last, the wooden implements didn’t last nor the huts…but ceramics did. And these ceramics from the past are being discovered and unearthed for the first time still.
NK Rob, artists that have influenced you?
RS A couple of my friends are really important to me. The potter from South Australia Mark Heidenreich. I have a lot of respect for him and his work practice and his philosophy. Another friend is Victor Ruben. He’s a beautiful painter. My wife Shaunagh Willman who is also a ceramist is a big influence. Years ago I stopped buying pottery magazines except for one title ‘World of Interiors’. It was quite an expensive magazine but I’d purchase it religiously every month. It covered modern art, antiquities, design and fabrics. By studying this magazine I was being influenced every month by a really broad concept of design - from a mud hut in Ghana, to a display in the Victoria Albert Museum, to a punk squat in So Ho.
NK You have a solo exhibition opening in November with us here in Sawtell. Lets talk about this exhibition.
RS ‘Hollow Ground’ will be my first solo exhibition for some time now. I hope to show my skills and considerations to reflect my process to our regional audience. It’s like I’m coming back out again. My work will be earthenware and be predominately vessel forms. The pieces will have a contemporary aesthetic; the new work is based on what’s come before in history but with my own sensibilities you know. I’m working of a variety of jugs right now with a style of decoration based on the Japanese design Oribe.
NK Can we end with your personal philosophies of life and how do you think things will play out from here?
RS I think its part of my psyche to make things…its where I come from. I will continue making pots…simple as that. This upcoming exhibition in Sawtell will be a big moment for me. I’m really excited about how this body of work will make an exhibition. I know once its installed and open, I will then have time to reflect and analyze and it will guide me on what will follow. My idea is creative people create…to work at my art on a daily basis is all I could ever hope for. People paint on pots, people use pots…I really think our lives are enhanced by pottery.