Works by Sony Manning | by Inga Walton
In nearly thirty years as a discreet but resonant figure in Australian ceramics, Sony Manning has become justly renowned and widely admired for her distinctive and meticulous work with clay inlay. Manning’s elegant and immediately recognisable vessels have a beautiful continuity to them. Using a combination of layers, with both inlaid slips and plastic clays, she applies metallic oxides for pigment. Manning strives to expand the technical parameters of her practice while maintaining her abiding fascination for the colours and contours of the rural landscape.
Manning spent her childhood steeped in the high country, shuttling between Melbourne and the family-owned dairy farm in the Jamieson Valley, North- East Victoria. A mile of the Goulburn River ran through the property, along the natural river flat, and the five years the family retained it had an indelible impact on Manning. It was a bucolic upbringing: “My earliest work suggested the direction I was going to take with exploring ways of putting different clays together, and seeing their unique pigment when high fired,” she recalls. “I loved putting a light and dark clay together and seeing its striped and changing cross-section … this was symbolic of rock strata, land forms, and the mystery of the subterranean.”
Over the years Manning’s work has become more subtle and abstracted; she has chosen to focus on representing negative and dividing spaces, ridges, fissures, tangled roots, and riverbeds. “I concentrated on carving instinctively, just line only, covering the piece again and reflecting the movement of the land,” she explains. “There is a meditative quality to this process, the unknown outcome of one line determining the other … the simplicity of multiplicity.”
Manning’s artistic influences include two great exponents of the Australian landscape, Arthur Boyd (1920 – 1999) with whom she had a paired exhibition1, and the vivid, distilled gouache works of Fred Williams (1927 – 1982). Other inspirations are perhaps less obvious: “The landscapes of Gustav Klimt2 and their internal activity,” she says. “I also came under the spell of millefiore, originally an ancient Venetian glass technique. It has never ceased to fascinate me, these cross-sections, and how unexpected and different they are from each other, and how intricately defined when made with porcelain.”
Watermark3, Manning’s first solo exhibition in six years, revisited a time in 1973 when she spent the year living in Mount Isa, and explored a more remote, distanced view of the environment. “I worked for a mining company plotting rivers and watershed areas with stereo aerial photographs for their geologists working in the field,” Manning reveals. “I learnt to fly a glider and became familiar with the lie of the land. We regularly flew to Townsville over vast meandering waterways, or the parched marks left over time by their previous incarnations.” This is clearly articulated in the recent River Study works, so delicate they resemble silk screens. “We also flew over the Channel Country and the huge inland basin which finally leads down to Lake Eyre,” she remembers. “To be able to focus on a far horizon or distant point sometimes gives a sense of place, of the greater scheme of things, and is a focus for introspection,” Manning believes. “For me it has been from one mountain range to another with the vastness in between, or the dimension of dramas in the skies,” she continues. “Colour in clay can express this dimension and depict the moody light of the inner landscape.”
A recent visit to Manning’s spacious and light-filled studio was an opportunity to see several works-in-progress and to gain an insight into her creative process. Accompanying the author was internationally recognised refractory expert Michael Walton, who offered some observations on Manning’s kilns (she primarily uses a gas-fired Port-o-kiln): “The resilience of the fibre lining is already failing, this is due to the re-crystallisation of the material which is installed in the amorphic ‘needle’ form, basically a super-cooled glass,” Walton observes. “Eventually this will progress to a point where the lining will be unusable. Care will need to be taken removing the lining, as it will have formed crystobalite during its operation; this is a phase of silica, and requires professional handling for safety reasons,” he cautions.
Of her recent work, Manning enthuses, “I love the reflective quality and tactile surface of burnished porcelain; the sheen, and also how it can be inlaid into another course clay body and fired to vitrifying point – what magic this combination has.” As imposing vessels sit in various stages of completion, she gestures, “I wanted to make large freeform gritty stoneware coiled forms and inlay porcelain rivers into these, which I polished to illuminate their surface fluidity.” Indeed Manning’s luminous work has a softly beckoning quality. “The rims have been built up with layers of porcelain and have mostly represented the furthest point, that mountain horizon and the water catchment, or sometimes the downstream meandering river delta, or receding waterhole.”
Manning has a small electric Tetlow ‘test kiln’, which she uses for some porcelain works and prototypes, but it is not fuel-efficient. Walton was delighted by the raku kiln outside the studio with its dual brick construction, which Manning built herself in1992 (she once discovered a possum had taken up temporary residence). As it is cooling down from a firing, Manning has been known to cook bread in it at night. “For me, it’s a Zen activity of ritual, spontaneity, and pleasure,” she affirms. Unfortunately, this seldom happens now. “Regardless of how the kiln is situated within her property, it seems that Sony’s officious neighbour is stridently opposed to its operation, so her opportunities to fire it are rather curtailed,” Walton remarks dryly. This is typical of the impediments many ceramicists face when trying to practise in the inner-city; not only in finding suitable studio space, but addressing concerns about the impact and safety of kiln firing in built-up/urban areas.
Manning immerses herself and her audience in a hymn to the landscape she finds endlessly compelling. In this she echoes one of her favourite poets: “But in some of you that longing is a torrent rushing with might to the sea … and in others it is a flat stream that loses itself in angles and bends and lingers before it reaches the shore.”4 Or as she would have it, “With each wash of coloured porcelain slip in the layers, a line is created, however pale or fine, and is the essence of a watermark.”
Left: River Study III, 2007, porcelain, h.17.5cm, w .12cm Photo: Terence Bogue
Right: River Study IV, 2007, porcelain, h.17.5cm, w.12cm
Below: Sony Manning and Michael Walton talking about Sony’s finished pieces, and Sony showing Michael the raku kiln in her garden
photos: Inga Walton
Sony Manning works from her Melbourne studio; E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Walton is a co-founder and the current President of the Institute of Refractories Engineers (IRE) Australia, and occasionally consults on technical issues to ceramic and glass artists: www.refmet.net.au
Inga Walton is a Melbourne-based writer and arts consultant. She has three essays in the major new Macmillan Art Publishing release Untitled. Portraits of Australian Artists by Sonia Payes:
1 30 November – 22 December, 1984 at Bonython-Meadmore Gallery, North Adelaide, South Australia.
2 Austrian symbolist painter, 1862-1918.
3 13 April – 12 May, 2007, Gallery 2, at Craft Victoria, Melbourne
4 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Penguin Classics, London, (1923) 2002, p.74. �
Article from The Journal of Australian Ceramics 46#3