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Interview with Les Blakebrough

by Catrina Vignando, General Manager Craft Australia

Q: What have been some of the highlights in your career as an artist and a teacher?

Being offered an apprenticeship at Sturt Pottery, Mittagong after studies at the National Art School was one. Later becoming the Sturt Pottery Manager in 1960 was important. Time in Japan with Takeichi Kawai in Kyoto was a watershed in my career development.

Returning to Australia and becoming the Director at Sturt opened up many opportunities. I was able to play a role in the overall development of craft in Australia through my involvement in setting up the Craft Council. Closer to home, Sue Blakebrough gave me my dearest daughter Cybelle, and eighteen months later my son Ben. These were milestones.

Many prominent overseas craftspeople were invited to teach and work at Sturt, and those initiatives also had long-term effects in many craft areas. An instance was asking Ragnar Hansen, the gold and silversmith from Norway, to come to work at Sturt. His later influence as a teacher continues to expand throughout that community today. There were many more and I count myself lucky to have been in a position to use initiatives to those ends.

Finally moving to Hobart in 1973 to teach and later carry out research helped in personal development as well as allowing a range of opportunities to enhance the field of craft in Australia. Five years as a member of the Craft Board of the Australia Council was a milestone. So was a gold medal win at Faenza Italy, and, lately establishing the Ceramic Research Unit at the University of Tasmania.

Q: How do you see the future of Australian ceramics and craft practice generally?

I am not good at projections for ceramics, and part of that stems from the disastrous decisions across the country to close down ceramics courses in Art Schools everywhere. It has been disappointing to watch. I can only assume it is a cyclical situation, and at some time those decisions will be reversed or the field will re-invent itself in other forms.

More generally, the crafts seem to get more and more sophisticated, and the best in every field becomes very exciting.

Q: You were an important figure in the establishment of Sturt Workshops in Mittagong NSW. How do you see the role of such access spaces for craft people in the future?

It may come to pass that such places will be the only way to train in the conventional way craftspeople have always learnt. The development of skills, understanding raw materials, and knowing about process, are all a long-term investment and essential for good craftsmanship to flourish.

Q: The research you have undertaken in the development of Southern Ice Porcelain has had a major influence on your work. How would you describe your creative response to the Australian landscape through your work and use of materials?

The research of Southern Ice Porcelain was a long and time-consuming process. Chasing a vision in the minds eye can be elusive. However we did make some good decisions and eventually had a very beautiful material on our hands. It is quite special, very translucent, very white, and easy to work with, in fact unlike any other porcelain clay from anywhere. The support given by the Australian Research Council and the University of Tasmania made that work possible. It now exports all over the world.

The personal benefit is being able to create a new body of work, to look more closely at the world I see around me and let my environment play a role in what I make. Mountains and rivers, the Tasmanian bush, the Southern Ocean and, my grandchildren too, all have an input.

Q: If you were to relive your artistic career over again, what would you do differently and why?

I don’t think I would change a thing. I have had a very fortunate life. I lived through a great renaissance in the Australian Craft Movement and had a role in that. It lasted for three decades – all that and more.

Q: What is your next project?

I hope I remain healthy and that I can look forward to another period of work. It is difficult to predict where it will go although new and unexplored areas are emerging all the time. Trying to deal with the loss of my partner Sally Sorell has been difficult. Although in dealing with that, some work has emerged that uses text from her journal from the last year of her life. Somehow dealing with tough and emotional things seems to have given me a kind of new freedom.

A few things I've heard, read, said, and been given…

Notice on my studio wall:

The only things thatll change your life are the books you read and the people you meet. 

Anon.


This, a message from my friend Johanna Marquis, who said these words “made her think of just what it is that we are doing here”:

“When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgement of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.” 

Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid  A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden


It hasn’t been fashionable for a long time in the world of ceramics to be involved in materials, process, and skill, but think on this: Brankstone who was associated with a very early exhibition of Chinese Porcelain at the Burlington Institute in London, quoted the Chinese patron saint of potters (as translated by the 17th century Jesuit priest Pierre de Entrocolle):

He penetrated deep among the slumbering rocks and learnt their histories. He became intimate with cosmic affairs and the divine process of decay and rebirth. He took his fragments of hillside and pounded them into loaves of plastic clay. With precision he learned to blow upon the flames and transmuted his fragments of hillside into bowls for the delight and use of man. 

Chinese patron saint of potters