Janet DeBoos – The Space Between

Jan Howlin delves into the life and work of Janet DeBoos

Long-time teacher, glaze specialist and author, one-time production potter, sinophile and collaborator with the ceramic industry in China, speaker, writer, project facilitator and respected ceramic artist, Janet DeBoos has been a prominent, active and productive participant in the development of ceramics in Australia over the last four decades.

Since the early eighties she has had eight solo exhibitions, contributed to more than a hundred group shows, and her work is held in museums and galleries in Australia, Taiwan, Greece and China.

{jb_sound}Listen: “to Janet DeBoos talk about her experiences in China. Jan Howlin visited Janet at her home and pottery in the Brindabella Ranges west of Canberra and in this interview excerpt, accompanied by a slideshow, Janet describes how she became the designer of factory-produced ceramics, and how this involvement has radically changed the work she makes. The interview is accompanied by images of Janet’s home, studio, office and work taken by photographer Anthony Browell.
Length: 18:46 minutes{/jb_sound}

She has taught for many years, most recently as Head of the Ceramics Workshop at the School of Art, Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra. She has given numerous lectures and workshops in all states of Australia as well as in Canada, the USA, UK, China and Korea, has often been published in ceramics magazines and acted on various boards and committees. For DeBoos, these many achievements are simply facets of a whole, rich and integrated life – and a most privileged life at that, she says, in that, largely, she does what she wants to do. Born in Melbourne in 1948, DeBoos grew up for the most part in the southern Sydney suburb of Blakehurst. She attended opportunity classes in primary school, repeated fifth year at Blakehurst High, and, after taking up a Commonwealth Teacher’s College Scholarship, completed a science degree, majoring in Zoology and Botany, at Sydney University in 1969. Despite her obvious mathematics/science bent, she was always attracted to “doing something with [her] hands”. She took pottery classes at St George Technical College with her mother, who was a keen hobby potter with a small studio at home. “Everyone was doing it in the sixties, and I just thought I’d do it too,” says DeBoos. In her final year at university, she attended a class at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) run by Peter Rushforth, and at his suggestion she joined the Certificate Course there the following year, which she completed in 1971. Through the seventies, married and living in inner-Sydney Glebe with a woodfired kiln, a sheep, ducks and a vegetable garden in the backyard, she fully embraced not only the craft movement, which was in full swing, but the alternative spirit of the time. Together with her first husband she bought land in Mudgee, and from 1973 to 1975 hosted woodfired pottery summer schools there. She taught pottery and glazing for most of the decade in various NSW technical colleges, either part-time or full-time, including stints in Canberra Technical College and as Head of School briefly at ESTC from 1979 to 1980. When she heard by chance that Macmillan Publishers wanted a book written on glazes, she volunteered. “And I still think the results are very clearly written,” she says. Although she also made pots, she says Glazes for Australian Potters (1978) meant she was known much more as “the glaze lady”, and as such she went on to co-author Handbook for Australian Potters (1984) and write More Glazes for Australian Potters (1989). The 1980s brought major change. DeBoos and her second husband Michael Wignall spent a couple of years sailing in the Mediterranean, she gave birth to their daughter Mary and by the end of 1982, they were back in Australia establishing a production pottery, Brindabella Pottery. Set in the Brindabella ranges, well over an hour from Canberra by a rutted dirt road, the pottery, an extensive house, gallery and studio, was built by her husband, who also worked in the pottery when construction tailed off.

 

Janet DeBoos

 

DeBoos, meanwhile, threw and glazed the pots, mainly in a limited range of strong colours, a shino look-alike and tenmoku. “I was making domestic ware, which was always my real love,” she says, “as well as dry-glazed decorative pots, which were based on functional forms, so ‘like teapots’ or ‘like jugs’. They were so easy to make compared with the domestic ware. I could sit down and throw over a thousand dollars wholesale of those pots in a day, so the return on them was fantastic.” The pottery was run as a business with no hired staff, no goods on consignment, no retail sales, and minimum wholesale orders of $1000 with pots exchangeable if unsold after six months. “We never had any returns,” says DeBoos, adding that they sold everything they made. A dedication to domestic pottery also drove the development of DeBoos’ exhibition work. “The longer I work with functional form…the more I realize its potential as a vehicle for artistic expression,”1 she observed. In 1985 she experienced a kind of epiphany, a realisation that the twenty teapots she might throw at one time were all part of the one work, Teapot, and that “the essential art of the production potter lies in the repetition of form”.2 She later wrote that “since then, my work has focused almost entirely on functional pottery, the nature of its production and the meaning of function”.3 While other ceramic artists tended to exhibit non-functional vessels and sculptural forms in shows and prizes, DeBoos began presenting her production ware in series to highlight both the similarity that unified the pots, and the nuances that differentiated them.

Influenced by shells on the beach after a move to Tanja on the NSW south coast, she switched to porcellaneous stoneware (TMK) and later to porcelain itself. Exploring process and repetition, she began adding a single spiralling mark to the outside of each pot and in a 1996 exhibition, Process & Obsession at the Performance Space, Sydney, she exhibited the precursors of the thinly thrown porcelain domestic ware with distinctive gestural marks that became her signature. “My work talks about the theatre of making, the resistance of porcelain to complete control, the struggle to coax form from the mass, the frisson of danger in the near collapse,”4 she writes. While the interplay of process and material produced the immediacy of the aesthetic, the idea of repetition is key. “I’m thrilled by repetition,” she says.5 The notion of sets and what constitutes a set, and the history of pottery are also areas of interest, along with the expression of the hand-made as a connection with humanity, and the way meaning is overlaid onto domestic ware through use.

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In 1985 DeBoos took up teaching glaze again at the School of Art, Canberra, at first just one day a week, then later job-sharing with Greg Daly for six years before taking on the role of Head of the Ceramic Workshop at ANU in 1998 (and closing the pottery.) Along with administration, teaching and research, DeBoos has spent her time there contributing actively to the broader ceramic fraternity, hosting conferences, writing journal articles, giving lectures and facilitating interaction between students, the ceramic community and different cultural groups including fostering relationships with the ceramics industry in China. Notably, she has also supported the Ernabella Indigenous Arts Centre Remote Communities Project and developed Australia’s first Undergraduate Award Course in ceramics run in distance mode, which is now discontinued. DeBoos expects to retire from her position as Head of Ceramics at the end of this year.

 

 

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Without doubt, her ‘China experience’ – the connections and relationships DeBoos has developed with Chinese ceramic manufacturers, academics and institutions – has redirected her life. When ANU hosted the 8th National Ceramics Conference in 1996, one of the speakers was Professor Zhang Shouzhi, a respected Chinese designer and Head of Ceramics at what is now Tsinghua University in Beijing. When DeBoos met the professor again at a symposium for western potters in Yixin, China, it was “the beginning of a long friendship”. Invited to China again a couple of years later, DeBoos attended an industry symposium in Zibo, a large industrial ceramic centre in Shandong Province, and at Professor Zhang’s instigation a set of her porcelain domestic ware designs were put into production at the Huaguang Bone China Factory, Zibo. Investigating the difference between her hand-thrown porcelain wares and their factory-made bone china counterparts has been a primary concern for DeBoos, as has the notion that she has become a designer rather than a maker.6 Since the Chinese market views unadorned white china as ‘hotel ware’, Professor Zhang, who collaborated with DeBoos in designing decorative decals for the series, also persuaded her to look at decoration herself.

Having previously always eschewed decoration, DeBoos quotes a homily of her mother’s, “You should bring the enemy into your own camp, Janet!”, and with that in mind she did investigate decoration “and found it very interesting”. At first, prompted by the history of Western tableware, she decorated her work with decals of an old chintz pattern she’d found called ‘Summertime Rose’. By 2003 and 2004 she was exhibiting these works under the title of Set Theory: tea sets comprised of disparate elements – some porcelain, bone china, hand-thrown and slip-cast, even commercial mugs – with Summertime Rose as the unifying factor.

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Since then she has taken a different direction again, producing highly decorated straight-sided vessels that “bring together a lot of different threads” in her work.”I realised I was again standing between two things: the culture here and the culture there,” she says of the designs that combine Qing Dynasty imagery with motifs drawn from the Australian bush and desert. To make them she uses sgraffito and terra sigillata, techniques she often taught, and plant forms and patterns that reflect her doodles, the “telephone art” she’s done all her life. The work “seemed to make itself. It’s the first time I’ve had that experience,” she says. “I think I’ve always been interested in the space between things”, between industry and the hand-made, between functional and non-functional, and increasingly, between China and Australia, which is where her future, as she enthusiastically pursues her numerous ongoing projects and plans, is bound to blossom as it unfolds.

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1 Janet Mansfield, Contemporary Ceramic Art in Australia and New Zealand, Roseville East NSW, Craftsman House, 1995, p.44

2 Janet DeBoos, ‘The Plight of the Studio Potter’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 28 No 2, 1989, p.17

3 Janet DeBoos, ‘The Meaning of Function’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 35 No 1, 1996, p.24

4 Cudgegong Gallery, NSW Australia, Artist Janet DeBoos; http://www.cudgegonggallery.com.au/ (accessed 14/5/12)

5 Janet DeBoos, ‘Handmade? Designed? What does it mean?‘ The Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol 44, No 1, 2005, p.15

6 Virtual Craft, new technologies and their effect on the making and teaching of art, craft and design; http://virtualterritory.wordpress.com/2007/06/04/designermaker-statement-1-janet-deboos/ (accessed 16/5/12)

Photographer: Anthony Browell

 

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Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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