Crosshatched Projects 2011: a workshop, a collaborative work and an exhibition
Part 1: The Workshop at Tallarook by Sandra Bowkett, potter and coordinator of Crosshatched Projects
In early 2011, Ann Ferguson and Rajasthani potters, Manohar Lal and Dharmveer, came to stay on my property in central Victoria. I valued the opportunity to work beside them observing, in particular, Manohar Lal’s depth of knowledge gained from a heritage of generations and his lifetime of working with clay. The experience has made me aware of where the parameters of my ceramic practice lie. From the making to the firing, the journey through fundamentals of the ceramic process has been refreshing.
I found watching the making processes endlessly engaging – from the seemingly effortless throwing of large forms on the manual stone wheel to the beating, in stages, of the forms into large, light, generously rounded ‘mudkas’ (the traditional Rajasthani vessels for carrying and storing water).
Building the kiln was the first priority. It was cylindrical, a double layer of old house bricks mortared with earth from an excavation site close by. After nine courses, a slightly convex floor was ingeniously built that stood the weight of the makers and then another nine courses completed the kiln. It was rendered with some local clay and a horse and straw mix that had been composting in the nearby veggie garden.
The first firing demonstrated the differences between Northcote Terracotta and the clay with which they are familiar. It was only the 50% “crack” rate of the first firing that convinced them to slow the firing to about 800ºC in 6 hours. We had to work with the weather to fire and fortunately had enough fine days to complete the required firings. Their practice is to warm the pots in the morning sun, then load them into the kiln from the top, initially standing on the kiln floor and finally balancing on the kiln rim. All is then artfully covered by an insulating layer of shards. The firings started early afternoon and were timed to finish in the dark so as to be able to read the evenness and temperature of the firing by colour. For interest, we installed a pyrometer. Manohar and Dharmveer were as interested as us, to check the rate of increase. Their knowledge of fire was also impressive, as they subtly moved timbers for good combustion in the fire-box (the lower half of the kiln), and ensured evenness of temperature throughout the kiln by the placement of the fuel. In their home village, the available fuel is sawdust, and firing with sawdust is hot and dusty and needs constant attention. The abundant dry timber surrounding the workshop made for easy firing. The morning after a firing, Dharmveer would stand on the rim of the kiln to unpack. A sharp rap to each piece brought forth resonance that indicated whether the piece was sound or cracked. The sound pile of mudka, forming on the ground around the kiln, brought smiles to all of us. On closer observation, the subtle markings of low temperature woodfiring on the mudka had Ann and I thinking about the future use of this kiln and firing techniques for our own work.
Part 2: The Tallarook Stacks by Ann Ferguson, ceramic sculptor
The bush around Sandra Bowkett’s home and shed near Tallarook is unique. Large granite boulders are scattered precariously atop the steep-sided valley, with Pulpit Rock looming directly above the rustic shed. Over four weeks, the rushing waters of the creek kept time to the ‘pat, pat’ of Manohar’s paddle as he beat a stream of crudely thrown pots into fine-walled ‘mudkas’.
The special mudkas were made to be the elements of the Tallarook Stacks, a ceramic sculpture project funded by Regional Arts Victoria. This project required creative collaboration from Manohar, Sandra, myself, and members of the Tallarook community.
The Crosshatched team were introduced to the community at the Tallarook Farmers Market located at the historic Mechanics Institute Hall, the installation site for the completed sculpture. The community were offered a variety of opportunities to participate in the project: gathering local earth materials for the colouring of the elements of the Stacks, joining open workshop days and participating in firing the traditional kiln.
Initially, we battled with limited common language to explain the nature and function of the project to our Indian team members, who had honed their skills through a lifetime of repetition of fine functional forms. It was difficult to justify the need for organic shapes resonating with the local environment. Manohar described the Australian clay, Feeney’s Buff Raku, as ‘tight’ and hard to throw on their traditional manual wheels, and so he consistently found other more familiar work priorities such as making his traditional mudkas and constructing the kiln. Finally after five worrying days, we broke through the resistance, softened the clay and the making of the Stacks began. Manohar completed eight beautiful thin walled Feeney’s mudkas in two days, along with all the other jobs! Other team members then struggled to process the flow of drying pots, urgently searching the bush for materials that would imbue the pieces with the mark of the land. Surfaces of the forms were painted with layers of local clays, from white to reds, then impressed with stones, bark, sticks, grasses seeds and leaves. They were worked and reworked as the forms dried, often by different hands, until a satisfying outcome was achieved. Initially, they were fired to stoneware in a gas kiln, then many were refired with subtle earthenware glazes to enhance textures and enliven surfaces.
The Tallarook Stacks, made up of about 30 elements, are now complete and our Indian collaborators have returned home to their village near Delhi. Sandra and I have organised the placement of the elements, arranging and rearranging the pierced forms around three central steel poles. Each element is an appealing object and, as a tall stacked form, impressive. We look forward to seeing them installed at the Tallarook Mechanics Institute Hall.
Part 3: Crosshatched at Pan Gallery by Sophie Milne, ceramic artist
When Sandra Bowkett approached me regarding a cross-cultural collaboration at Pan Gallery, I wasn’t entirely sure what she had in mind but I sensed a craft event with authenticity and substance. Crosshatched 2011 aimed to help improve the working conditions of fellow potters and encourage an affiliation between traditional Indian craftspeople and our local ceramic community.
Over the next few months, plans evolved and after a nail-biting week waiting on travel visas there was a celebratory air when Manohar Lal and Dharmveer arrived. Undeterred by jet lag, the potters embraced, with gusto, a day in the workshop space at Northcote Pottery Supplies. Beautiful mudkas were made in the traditional manner, with the potters crouched at a stone wheel, set in motion with the rhythmic nudge of stick in notch. With smiles and nods, the potters welcomed the attention of onlookers, patiently posing for photos while maintaining their constant productivity and skilled craftsmanship.
Twenty talented Melbourne artists had warmly received the invitation to decorate these beautiful vessels for an auction to raise funds to build a more energy-efficient kiln in Kumhar Gram, the potters’ home village. Merging traditional and local materials and techniques required some problem solving and presented the logistical challenge of timing the making, drying, decorating and firing. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but any hiccough was overcome with a combination of enthusiasm, knowledge and skill from all the artists involved and Northcote Pottery staff.
The artists’ responses to the forms were wonderful, all approaching the task with great generosity of spirit. Eyes gleamed with possibilities for the rounded, expansive surface as hands trembled with respect for the traditions encapsulated in each piece. On one particular day, the workshop space hosted many artists, with Manohar and Dharmveer in attendance to answer questions with the help of a translator. As slips and underglazes were applied, we learnt of the potters’ history, their current practices and hopes for maintaining the craft in the future.
Installation quickly followed a hectic week of firing and glazing. The artist-decorated mudkas surrounded a magnificent stack of traditional vessels made and fired at Sandra’s property in Tallarook. This stack diminished and rose as mudkas were purchased and more were added. A front page feature in the local paper helped spread the word beyond our established ceramic audience and I was delighted to talk to many visitors who emotionally engaged with the works, often with tales from travels in India and other personal stories relating to traditional craft objects.
The well-attended closing event showed that this project had captured the hearts and imaginations of craftspeople and craft lovers alike, and the charity auction goal was attained. Enthusiasm for this project was due, in no small part, to the nature of the ‘mudka’ and what they represent – craft in its truest form – born from need, functional, practical and beautiful. The effortless grace of these vessels springs from refined technique and inherited knowledge, fundamental elements of a craft that is well worth preserving.