Material thinking and sustainability in contemporary ceramics

Altair Roelants on critical new directions in ceramics from Australia and New Zealand 

Raewyn Atkinson, Wasters III (Accumulate), 2015. Photo courtesy the artist

 Ceramics has always been about the sticky materiality of clay. Unlike other mediums where the material is often the passage for the artistic idea or vision, the medium itself drives the concept. This gooey, organic substance has for thousands of years been crafted into a myriad of forms and textures. Recently, we’ve been hearing of a “revival” or “rediscovery” but potters and ceramicists have always engaged critically with their material – challenging form, pushing technical boundaries, experimenting with the baffling chemistry of glazes, subverting embodied narratives – in an attempt to understand their material. Over the last decade the field of ceramics has expanded to incorporate those that work with clay, rather than just those that were trained in clay, and along with it a flow of critical thinking and collaboration in art, craft and design is blossoming, driven by the possibilities of new artistic materials, and the need to find sustainable solutions for those already in use.

In any discussion about sustainability, often the first association we make is the environment – reinforced daily through an abundance of eco-friendly design products, marketing campaigns and ethical life choices. It is this focus on the natural material of ceramics that informs these ethical, symbolic and aesthetic justifications. Historically, ceramicists in Australia and New Zealand have always drawn great inspiration from the unique natural landscapes as a form of national, visual identity and individuality. Conversely, it’s also ceramics material duality – natural and synthetic – that situates it at a conflicting binary in the context of sustainability. Many of us are unaware of this issue, particularly in light of the recent “clay boom”, where ceramics is often romanticised as the handmade craft and aligned with other makermovements, as the artists’ return to nature. Ceramics is environmentally friendly on many levels – it’s made from natural materials, incorporates hand-building and traditional craftsmanship that requires time and patience, and it’s long-lasting.

Ceramic processes are also harmful to the environment – including the mining of raw materials (some of which are running out), firing processes and the “ceramic miles” generated by the reliance on imports. Much also ends up on the global ceramic scrapheap of waste and overconsumption. How, then, can the thriving ceramics community address this? Education, knowledge-sharing and communication are key to sustainability and these concerns are firmly on the agendas of university art and design programs, research faculties and ceramics, craft and design conferences. Ceramicists are encouraged to adopt simple steps towards a sustainable practice, including variants of kiln and fuels, reusing clay, recycling ceramics and sourcing local clays and minerals for glazes.

Kate Dunn, Scorcher
Kate Dunn Scorcher, 2015, 3D powder-printed porcelain. Photo: Graham Clarkson 

Adopting a collaborative approach to ceramic design in the context of environmental sustainability and education is Sydney ceramicist and UNSW Art & Design lecturer Kate Dunn, who creates 3D ceramic objects to communicate scientific research data about climate change. Over the last three years, Dunn has developed a recyclable porcelain and sugar mix, which she prints in a 3D printer adapted to suit the material. Dunn and her colleagues employ the concept of the “boundary object” – first used in the science community these devices “help collaborators understand each other and communicate effectively” across scientific fields.[1] An exhibition of Dunn’s current projects Rapid Prototyping: 3D Models of Climate Change (3 March – 17 June 2016) is on display at the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney. Exhibits include Scorcher (2015), a collaboration with Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick from the ARC Centre for Excellence for Climate System Research, that visualises the data records of Sydney’s temperature and heat waves since January 2015. Also exhibited, a current project between Dunn and Dan Metcalfe, an ecology scientist from Australia’s national scientific research organization CSIRO, which visualises predictive models of climate change’s impact on plants in North Queensland. Metcalfe’s process includes consulting with local Indigenous communities to create a “knowledge exchange incorporating Western and Indigenous understandings of climate change”.

Wellington-based ceramicist Raewyn Atkinson also highlights environmental sustainability through concept, material engagement and the ability of ceramic objects “to embody their own theory”.[2] Her work Wasters III (Accumulate) 2015 was the Premier Winner of New Zealand’s Portage Ceramic Awards 2015 at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. A “waster” is the trade name given to the fused and damaged left over junk of commercial ceramic production – Atkinson’s piece sees a mound of teetering off-white porcelain cups, sauces and plate “wasters” from the artist’s studio, looking like they were about to topple over and smash. This is Atkinson’s “reflection on personal and global fragility and responsibility” and “the value and meaning of making in the 21st century”.[3]

Another finalist in the 2015 Portage Ceramic Awards was Kerikeri artist Marita Hewitt, with her Waste Paper Series; Mound, of Drawings from Series to Date (2015). The fascinating process involved a collection of “chance related drawings … tossed into sculptural piles” covered in porcelain slip and burnt, thus “transformed into a single ethereal heap – an entropic shell of its precursors”,[4] and ultimately trapped in a tidy glass vitrine. Primarily a painter, Hewitt gravitated towards ceramics during a trip to the United States in 2010. As she explains: “the black trash bags that lined the streets in NYC were the hook. I wanted to make a détournement of them out of a material that was breakable”. Hewitt cites materiality and sustainability as central to her exploratory studio practice that “draws subjects in an autobiographical course, household and studio paper waste is submitted to a cycle of reuse through mediums”. Hewitt was awarded Creative NZ funding for a Porcelain Residency in Jingdezhen, China in 2016, quite an achievement for someone new to ceramics, highlighting the institutional shift in this engagement with material and ideas, over technical training.

Marita Hewitt, from Paper Series
Marita Hewitt, Paper Series: Mound of Drawings from Series to Date, 2015, from the Waste Paper Series. Courtesy the artist 

The momentum behind this narrative is visible across national and international art scenes – blockbuster exhibitions, biennale circuits, commercial galleries, sector awards, ceramics education, media headlines and the art economy – as a recent New York Observer article exclaimed “Ceramics Cracks the Contemporary Art Market”.[5] This flurry of ceramic activity mirrors general trends in the arts that see a rise of material-centric practices, or a “material turn”, and more widely within culture in response to the digitisation of life, a reminder that the object world still defines who we are. Also, because of this reliance on a tactile materiality and the implications of touch, clay matters – and without it there is no ceramics. The new voice of ceramics in the visual arts is important to sustainability on various levels – this shift has economic and cultural implications for the field, its makers and education institutions. Similarly, the blurring of the visual arts and ceramics communities is producing innovative collaborations.

In Australia and New Zealand, we are seeing a wealth of allegorical poles, shrine-like installations, reimagined traditional vessels, and plinths – often naïve, playful and vibrantly coloured, laced with humour and diverse cultural references. Central to these new ceramic practices is the way the material behaves and the artist’s engagement with it, evident in the preference for hand-building and the visibility of the making process through the sloppy application of clay and the liquid qualities of the glaze. While forms are often slumping, elaborately and crudely decorated, drawing the viewer’s attention to the surface, the artist’s hand and often a heightened emphasis of the unskilled. It is this lack of technical training and material understanding that is inspiring artists to do exciting things – as Adorno wrote “artistic imagination awakens these accumulated elements by becoming aware of the innate problematic of the material”.[6]

A pivotal project in this discussion is artist Lynda Draper’s Artist Residency Program at The Ceramic Design Studio Gymea, Sydney TAFE, and the resulting exhibition Glazed & Confused: Ceramics in Contemporary Art Practice at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery. Draper, herself a highly respected ceramicist, designed a residency aimed at getting artists, curators and writers with little or no ceramics experience, grappling with this messy medium and its technical challenges. Artists were mentored by Draper and a diverse team of experienced ceramicists, who also gave workshops to undergraduate students. As Draper wrote “Out of the chaos of the decimation of the art school in TAFE as a result of defunding, restructuring and educational ‘reform’ a phoenix is rising”.[7] Commencing in 2012, this two-year residency program involved over twenty artists and was hugely successful in demonstrating the benefits of collaborative and experimental learning environments, and knowledge sharing. It also showed how the understanding of one medium, such as paint or curatorial thinking, could be interwoven with the fluidity of ceramics. The work produced was exhibited widely and many participating artists became actively engaged in ceramics including Connie Anthes’s who collaboratedwith ceramicist Justin Cooper, and Emily Hunt whose work from the residency was exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual Primavera exhibition of young artists curated by Mikala Dwyer in 2014.

Installation view, Glazed & Confused, Hazlehurst Regional Gallery
Installation view, Emily Hunt in Glazed & Confused: Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Hazlehurst Regional Gallery, 13 December 2014 – 1 February 2015. Photo: Silversalt

Also involved in the residency project was artist and curator Glenn Barkley, who has received significant acclaim for his reinvented pots, and is exhibiting in the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object. Barkley also co-founded Experimental Ceramics Studio in Glebe, which encourages “avantgarde” approaches to ceramics. offers a range of studios, a workshop, glaze kitchen, kilns to hire and ceramics classes that put a real, local community-focused sustainability on the map. Through both his artistic and curatorial projects, Barkley is consistently keeping ceramics on the visual arts agenda. As well as events such as Burn Baby Burn: New Approaches to Ceramics and Ceramic Tours during Sydney’s Art Month in 2015, of which he was artistic director, Barkley is also actively supportive of the ceramics community, its education, and that of the wider public. This is demonstrated through his involvement with The Australian Ceramics Association including curating their forthcoming 2016 biennial exhibition OVERUNDERSIDEWAYSDOWN at the Manly Art Gallery & Museum (13 May – 26 June 2016) that “seeksto explore the currency of ceramics within the art world”[8] and the exhibition Turn, Turn, Turn: The Studio Ceramics Tradition at the National Art School in 2015. Spanning a sixty-year period Turn, Turn, Turn (reviewed in Artlink 35:3 also online) revealed the importance of the practical and critical support networks such schools nurture, in fostering diversity and some of Australia’s most influential and internationally recognised ceramicists. Barkley realised this in an eclectic, studio-like display that juxtaposed over one hundred artists that had studied, taught or had close ties with the school.

Glenn Barkley, ceramics
Glenn Barkley, Pot in the Korean style (panels decorated by John Havilah), 2015, stoneware and slip. Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art Sydney

For painter Madeleine Preston, Draper’s residency project was the first time she had worked with clay and this is now a large part of her intelligent practice that explores how people choose to remember, intersections between past and present, and institutional knowledge structures, with traditional ceramic objects acting as sites of (un)memory and exchange. Preston will be exhibiting works based on the scholar's stone or rock in OVERUNDERSIDEWAYSDOWN and the artist was also Guest Editor for the November 2015 Journal of Australian Ceramics that focused on colour. Preston’s ceramics have been selected as finalists for numerous prizes, notably the City of Hobart Art Prize 2015 for her residency work Tanagras Archive (2014) and this year’s Blake Prize at the Casula Powerhouse (12 February – 24 April 2016). For the Blake Prize, she will be exhibiting a “trio of bird-like” Aquamaniles (religious vases often shaped as animals or humans and used across faiths) that possibly inspired popular ceramic forms such as Toby Jugs. Aquamaniles appealed to Preston as they convey the “diversity of spiritual expression across time and faiths”. Like Preston’s wonderfully askew Greek vases, they are not “perfect replicas”, rather they “suggest the handmade and ritual quality of an individuals’ connection to the spiritual”.[9] An upcoming group show curated by Preston for Sydney’s Verge Gallery, Stuck in the Mud (1–24 September 2016) takes the notion of an archived revolution – artefacts influenced by the propaganda of Russian agitprop – also suggestive of the “fight” between art and craft. The show develops a conversation initiated between Anthes, Barkley and Preston during the residency, and will expand the dialogue to other artists from Kil-n-it and to those working in other mediums. In response to her ceramic work in Glazed & Confused, Preston will explore notions of balance through a series of totem poles, working on a larger scale and developing her “relationship to the sculptural form” through slab-building and throwing. She adds “the evolution of my practice can be charted to when specific materials or technology were accessed”.[10]

Madeleine Preston, White Bird Aquamaniles
Madeleine Preston White Bird Aquamaniles, 2015, glazed earthenware. Photo: Brett East © Madeleine Jane Preston/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016 

Other artists are drawn to the expressive and tactile qualities of clay to tackle complex and autobiographical issues through this soft and hard organic matter that evokes flesh and the human form. “The Poetics of Softness”, as discussed by Max Kozloff writing on American sculpture from the 1960s, responds to “empathetic and concrete presences, which we respond to legitimately … as anagrams of our energies in differing hypothetical states”.[11] A contemporary example is Sri Lankan-born Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran who has built a strong reputation for his ceramics since turning to the medium in 2012. Nithiyendran’s ceramic practice is heavily guided by his physical engagement with clay and stretching of the material’s limits. He is also interested in unpacking the art/craft binary, and regularly acknowledges the support of the ceramics community. Nithiyendran’s figurative ceramics employ clay’s symbolism and materiality to critique Christianity and Hinduism, colonialism, sexuality and gender constructs, through a morphing of male and female tropes, phallus worship and religious symbolism. These highly developed surfaces evoke the deep-seated complexity embedded in these issues. The artist often incorporates plinths to question Eurocentric museum values. Nithiyendran’s interest in the relationship of clay to the body and the association of touch are visible in hand-building techniques and his soft, droopy figurative sculptural forms, like a kind of internal imploding, a “natural surrender to the condition that pulls bodies down”, in the words of Kozloff. Nithiyendran is concerned with ethical practices and acknowledges his audience by creating accessible and visually entertaining works. These comical figures with odd faces or crooked limbs, appeal to our sense of the absurd. As a painter, Nithiyendran’s understanding of colour and texture is realised in lashings of bright glazes and dribbling gold, which ostentatiously open his work to the viewer. As discussed in Natasha Eaton’s essay “Chromophobic Activism”, “colour defies rules and political agendas … deemed to be polymorphous and magical, and to possess a sacred, even capricious, agency of its own”.[12] Nithiyendran demonstrates the subversive nature of ceramics through an ability to confront controversial subjects due to its accessibility and material democracy. As a medium aligned with “safe” craft, a tactic often employed by ceramicists such as Grayson Perry or within craft-activism. Similarly, Nithiyendran understands the global relevance of clay and ceramics to creating dialogues between different cultures, places and languages.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Shitface
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Shitface, 2015, earthenware and glaze. Courtesy Gallery 9, Sydney. Photo: Simon Hewson © RAMESH MARIO NITHIYENDRAN/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016 

New Zealand artist Virginia Leonard uses the visceral materiality of clay in a similarly expressive way to create emotive assemblages that represent the chronic pain of her body. As she writes, “these objects are my body … it is the pain I make and express in clay”, “the objectlessness of chronic pain is processed and overcome through abstraction. Abstraction represents the voiceless”. Originally trained in painting, and largely self-taught, Leonard’s works Too Many Surgeons (2015) and Ward Rounds (2015) were awarded a Merit Award at the 2015 Portage Ceramics Award. As she explains, in relationship to the height of her work: “I place boxes on top of pots and spiky lids on top of boxes, porcelain chards on top of spiky lids. The stacking allows the work to grow physically and change as I place the next object on top. It also suggests the ability to hide my bodily scarring. The more I assemble the more there is to look at which takes the viewers eye away from the ugly bits. When the stacking gets to a height it becomes precarious as though it could topple over at any moment. This is in reference to my crooked body that is much the same”. Drawing on the gestures of abstract painting, her application of glaze is often a multi-layered experiment, glistening and dripping as if still wet, fired until it appears aged, or covered in blue and white hand-painted decals. Nothing is wasted, and before firing, Leonard incorporates materials left over in her studio or “pushes nails or porcelain shards into the clay”, which is a direct reference to her “experience of surgery and postoperative care”.[13]

Suji Park, Igigi
Suji Park, Igigi, 2013, tempera, mica flakes, garnet powder, acrylic, nail glue, chipped foam, epoxy, tinted plaster, studio dirt, hair, fired clay, nonfiring clay, aluminium, powder, gesso, copper powder, vessel fragments. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Other artists who employ the ambiguity of ceramic materiality, crossing boundaries or mimicking other states, include Australian ceramicist Juz Kitson, who works between studios in rural NSW and Jingdezhen, China. Kitson’s beautiful, yet unnerving installations, seem to spill off the walls as bulbous collections of porcelain forms shaped like bodily organs that mingle with terracotta and raku, wax, latex, resin, textiles, threads of ceramic beads, animal horns and all types of organic matter and road kill that the artist collects from the desert. These are intertwined with intricate porcelain shapes that escape definition, evoking images of female genitalia, microscopic organisms and selenite crystal “desert roses”. The result is both exotic and familiar, attractive yet sinister – coercing the viewer into a closer inspection and a simultaneous desire for proximity, and repulsion. Kitson uses contrasts of materiality to convey fluxes between life’s impermanence, preservation and death, and is often aligned with the female form – materiality, coded as feminine, as discussed by Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter (1993). Kitson’s assemblages look at once untamed and clinical, possibly a warning of an apocalyptic making or a materiality to come.

Korean-born, Auckland-based artist Suji Park also juxtaposes materials to create a dazzling array of ambiguous surface textures and forms. There is not one defining characteristic or narrative to Park’s work, rather an evolving exploration and discovery of the unknown of materiality, which traces the successes and failures within the form. One of Park’s works, titled Igigi (2013) saw smashed ceramics and materials, smothered in clay and plaster sitting atop a crudely cut foam plinth as an inverted composition – creation and destruction both being important parts of her inventive and inclusive methodology.

As artist Susan Hiller wrote on “Truth” and “Truth to Material”, “Art is something else, perhaps an area where the possibilities of meaningis framed, and collaboratively and collectively determined”[14]. This is also how we could define new directions in contemporary ceramics practices and their responses to issues of materiality, as a sustainable culture of creative practice across the arts.


  1. ^ Phillip Gough, Kate Dunn, Caitilin de Bérigny ‘Climate Change Education through Art and Science Collaborations’ inLynn Wilson & Carolyn Stevenson, Promoting Climate Change Awareness through Environmental Education, Information Science Reference, 2016, pp. 16–36. 
  2. ^ Amanda du Preez,‘(Im) Materiality: On the matter of art’ in Image & Text, p. 37 (sourced from
  3. ^ Statement by the artist in the Portage Ceramics Award 2015 catalogue, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2015.
  4. ^ These statements are from an email conversation between the artist and author in November 2015.
  5. ^ Brook Mason, ‘Contemporary Art Cracks the Contemporary Art Market’ in Culture, New York Observer, 21 January 2015:
  6. ^ As quoted by Wolfgang, K. Wood in Figuring Problems of Material (1976), in Petra Lange-Berndt (ed), Materiality, Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press: London, 2015, p. 35.
  7. ^ Lynda Draper, ‘ Glazed & Confused’ in The Journalof Australian Ceramics, vol. 53, no. 3, 2014.
  8. ^ Quoted from the website for Australian Ceramics at
  9. ^ All quotes taken from an artist statement supplied by theartist in November 2015. 
  10. ^ Quoted from an unpublished paper by Madeleine Preston 2015.
  11. ^ Max Kozloff, ‘ The Poetics of Softness’ (1967) in Petra Lange-Berndt (ed), Materiality, 2015, p. 90.
  12. ^ Natasha Eaton, ‘ Chromophobic Activism’ (2014) in PetraLange-Berndt (ed.), Materiality, 2015, p. 87.
  13. ^ Statements taken from an unpublished text by Virginia Leonard, November 2015.
  14. ^ Susan Hiller, ‘”Truth’’ and ‘‘Truth to Material’’: Reflecting on the Sculptural Legacy of Henry Moore’ (2003) in Petra Lange-Berndt (ed.), Materiality, 2015, p. 56.  

Altair Roelants is a freelance art and ceramics writer who has worked in both London and Sydney to generate alternative modes of arts criticism through participation and practice.