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18 Feb

Newcastle Potters Studio marks 50th anniversary

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Back to Back Galleries’ current exhibition tells the story of the city’s love of clay. Photo: Denise Spalding

The exhibition at Back to Back Galleries until October 14 marks an important anniversary for Newcastle Studio Potters Inc. Fifty years ago the area’s ceramic artists and amateurs formed an association, which continues to flourish.

But the start of Newcastle’s love of clay was earlier than 1968. The first pottery classes date from 1961 when London-trained Madeleine Scott Jones was encouraged to set up classes by a groundswell of women keen to join the trend for handmade pottery, then sweeping much of the world. There were brown glazed mugs and casseroles, along with caftans and internal raw brick walls. There were dinner parties with avocados, chilli con carne or canard à l’orange, all servedon handmade dishes. Life was suddenly more casual. Art was big. Anne von Bertouch set up her gallery.

Madeleine initially had four full classes, confirming to a previously sceptical Technical College administration, which provided the facilities, that there was a real local demand. Students learned simple hand-building processes and, after a year, graduated to the wheel. Everything they made was designed for use. Is the only surviving link with those earliest days Barbara Blaxland Pengelly, with her long history of supplying hand-built tableware for Hunter Valley resorts?

The Studio Potters maintained momentum and around 80 members, with audacious plans to set up a workshop and gallery. The former Back’s butcher shop was bought in 1973, but it took until 1992 before the gallery opened in a thoroughly renovated building, funded by the members themselves and a series of moneymaking events. Who can forget the Great Platter Auction of 1991, with large plates thrown by American virtuoso professional potter Sean Nicholson and decorated by celebrities? The gallery has exhibited work by many major ceramic artists. The workshop provides facilities for popular classes and a shop was later added.

Styles have evolved. Pottery became ceramics, taught in art schools. In the Newcastle context, charismatic lecturers such as Ken Leveson and Michael Keighery expanded the artistic horizons of their students to include ceramic sculpture, sometimes at the expense of traditional craft skills. Feminism and other forms of protest ideology entered the craft world. Porcelain was rediscovered, leading to a renaissance of decoration, with elaborate surface treatments such as we see in the present tea party-themed exhibition in work by members using different sets of skills.

The whimsical teapots of Claire Locker-Potter are designed not for pouring tea, but as handsome decorative objects. Other highlights include Patricia Luck’s boldly painted designs and Sue Stewart’s well-thrown mugs and bowls, as well as her miniature still life wall pieces, blurring the contemporary division between art and craft.

These terms are not mutually exclusive, as we regularly observe at Timeless Textiles or in the widely prized work of Newcastle-born international jeweller Helen Britton.

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