On Tour... Q&A with Gerry Wedd
JamFactory’s Senior Curator, Margaret Hancock Davis, spoke with Wedd in his home studio in Port Elliot to discuss influences, ideas and aspects of the exhibition Gerry Wedd: Kitschen Man.
MHD I have often read about how you first came to pottery through your mother, Felicity Wedd, who, as you have described, took to pottery “ferociously”, creating utilitarian earthenware that overtook the kitchen table and became an additional source of income for the family. You are also an avid maker and have mentioned that when you are away from making you can be rather restless, even difficult to be around. Where does this restlessness come from?
GW Without wanting to get all psychoanalytical, I suppose it’s how you choose to define yourself. Maybe it has something to do with the boundaries between work and life having become very blurred. I suppose I see making in terms of a continuum where resolution is a fleeting (unnecessary?) outcome. Although my approach is light years away from wabi-sabi, there is something to be said for getting lost in making. One way of doing this is to make incessantly. This is certainly true of production-based domestic items such as cups, bowls and teapots. Also, if you’re enjoying it, you hopefully get better at making. I’ve tried to “do the math”... 40 years of making, say 10 pots a week ...
Photos by Andrew Cohen.
MHD You’ve mentioned your fascination for the works produced by British potteries on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution; these works are an interesting mix of mechanisation and the handmade or hand-decorated. The handmade is prevalent in your work – you can sense the clay being manipulated by your hand, your pushing and pulling of the material leaving its trail of indentations and impressions on the surface. What does the handmade mean to you?
GW Thinking too much about this can be a problem. The handmade isn’t in itself that interesting apart from the fact that it runs counter to rampant consumerism; it’s an anachronistic activity. I don’t like the feel of most industry-made domestic pots. They hardly ever feel right to me. There is something important about the idea of touch playing out in the work.
MHD The exhibition includes works of art from your personal collection, by artists who were part of the Jamboree Workshop (1990–99), an artist-run workshop located in an old Scouts Hall in Welland. Why have you chosen these works?
GW The collected work is a mixture of influences and sentiment. There are things made by people who were a direct influence on me, like Chris Headley and Bronwyn Kemp, along with my former studio mates at Jamboree, Jo Crawford, Peter Johnson, Phil Hart and Lincoln Kirby Bell. Toni Warburton and Stephen Benwell are artists who make the kind of work I aspire to, while Stephen Bird and David Ray just make in a way I love but can’t do.
MHD Many of your works have lyrics tracing their form or looping around images. Why are songs such a potent form of inspiration for you?
GW The song-based pots are “cover versions”, karaoke crockery perhaps? My approach is unavoidably craft-based and I think that writing/making songs is a craft activity. Again, there are powerful precedents in the history of ceramics from Iranian tiles to Attic amphorae. Some of the pots are simply tributes to a song or a particular writer/performer in the manner of Robert Crumb’s great illustrations of blues singers. The song-based work simply illustrates the song in a very straightforward way. I guess that I’m aiming for a particular reading of the lyric by turning metaphors into images to see how they play out.
MHD I have read previously that you keenly listen to Radio National (RN) programs such as Michael Cathcart’s Books and Arts and Inside Sleeve. Both are great programs, but I can’t help but wonder, if like many Radio National listeners, you possibly don’t change the radio channel that much and therefore you end up listening to an array of other programs with a vast mixture of topics. I ask because a lot of your works interrogate societal views, from current, often damning events to aspects of Australia’s unsettling past. What drives these works?
GW Erm ... I’m not a fan of Cathcart, but the show is kind of unavoidable. Having always decorated pots with songs and stories, it’s inevitable that current stories will end up embedded in the work. The whole RN thing is double-edged, comfortable chardonnay socialist stuff. There is also the need to feel like you are “culturally informed”. There have been some really interesting interviews with authors dealing with their craft. There are also a number of particular news stories I have “illustrated”, but I don’t really like to spell things out too much. Ceramics is forever, so some of the figurines might serve as a reminder to particular events or circumstances. Maybe they are conversation pieces ... Napoleon had porcelain figurine tableaux made to accompany meals to provoke discussion of events, so again I’m drawing on the history of the activity. Based on mythology and characters from theatre, the figurines were originally made from sugar paste.
MHD It strikes me that people often see your work as a lighthearted reference to the freedom and excitement of surf culture; however, I would suggest this assumption is often made without closely looking at and engaging with many of your works. Some of your urns reference a much darker view of sur ng, its infamous stars and many of its lesser-known histories. Who are these surfers and what is it about their stories that you aim to convey?
GW People don’t really look at my work, me included. They see a generic pot form with blue-and-white decoration. Most of the work is made to be lived with ... to unfurl over time, perhaps.
A few years ago I started making work focused on anti- heroes in surfing. Trophies were for winners, so it seemed appropriate to make them for losers. Up until I worked for Mambo, the sort of imagery I employed was largely part of the decorative ceramic oeuvre. Dare Jennings, who was the driver of Mambo, encouraged me to use personal and political imagery when I was designing fabrics and T-shirts for them. The work I was doing for Dare infiltrated my ceramic decoration, so the breadth of subject matter became more diverse and pointed. Having been obsessed by surf culture from age 11, I had lots of sur ng history and mythology to draw from. Some of the subjects, such as Michael Peterson and Peter Drouyn, were brilliant and accomplished athletes whose lives were the stuff of mythology, complete with triumph and tragedy. Trophies are based on urns. Mine are anti-trophies or something like it. Again, precedents are in ceramics from the past that were festooned with mythology. There is a period of “sur ng history” that I keep coming back to when the counterculture, music and psychedelics collided with a very straight, boofy, regimented surf culture.
MHD Runneth Over, 2016, a work consisting of 100 cups, reflects not only this near-compulsive drive to make, but also your passion for drawing. Can you tell me a little about what these drawings mean to you?
GW Representational drawing is a series of “tricks” that you employ to make some kind of argument or proposition. What I do is probably illustration, rather than drawing. Drawing on three-dimensional surfaces and under a glaze is a di erent kind of activity. Modernism and the studio pottery movement made drawing on pottery a kind of aesthetics crime. The tastemakers were very driven by particular idioms that were more influenced by minimal, pared-back, wabi-sabi aesthetics. There are, of course, notable exceptions, but even these were derided as “Picassoettes”. I started drawing on my mother’s pots; I didn’t know you weren’t meant to! Thinking that pottery was a second-rate activity anyway, the vessel’s surface and form were open season to me. So, I drew and scratched on hundreds and, now, thousands of pots. I suppose I’d always seen images of the classic Attic pots painted with mythological scenes, so drawing on pots seemed a natural thing to do. For years I only decorated in sgraffito, where you paint a contrasting layer of slip (liquid clay) onto the surface of the pot and scratch your drawing through to the pot’s surface. Now I veer between that and painting with cobalt underglaze. The nice thing about using cobalt is that it’s a little less predictable both to use and in the way it responds to different glaze thicknesses. Last year I spent three months hanging around the ceramics collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum courtesy of the Australia Council’s London residency. The objects I kept coming back to were those made on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, which combine industrial and craft production and skills. Interestingly (to me), this was also a time when kitsch objects flooded the market due to the new ease of production and decoration.
MHD The domestic is important to you. Your partner, printmaker Chris de Rosa, and your studios are located in your fertile garden, while your house is a vibrant cornucopia of objects and imagery, including pieces by fellow artists and friends and folk art items from your travels. How does this setting feed into your artwork?
GW Most of the stu we’re surrounded by at home is from trips we took to see things we were fascinated by in situ, to maybe get under the skin of the artefacts in some way. There is, of course, a fascination with a kind of folk art – that is an art that is enmeshed in daily life and serves a more prosaic purpose than the other kind of art. We first went to Mexico 20 years ago and brought back a lot of small Day of the Dead wooden skeletons, probably made for tourists. Most of the stuff has a relationship to telling stories – the wooden skeletons are essentially figurines from daily life and we have an Asafo flag that illustrates some kind of folk tale. They all have a decorative and humorous quality. There is a casual approach in the crafting of these things that I aspire to.
JamFactory Icon Gerry Wedd: Kitschen Man is now showing at Hahndorf Academy until 30 June 2019.