Sometimes my life as an artist feels a little fraudulent. For twenty years I worked and still work as a curator although I was trained as a painter. No art administration for me! I am an artist. So I always felt a little fraudulent as a curator as well. When I left university I wanted desperately to be an artist. Living and working in Wollongong did not present many options so we created them ourselves. In 1995, along with Lisa Havilah and Nathan Clarke, we opened Project Contemporary Art Space. About a year later I started working with Guy Warren at the University of Wollongong. Then that’s it for the artists’ life for nearly the next twenty years.
Being a curator has taught me how to look and also how to feel, by being able to handle art – to see how it’s made from the inside out and to have had friendships with artists whom I deeply admire. An hour looking at prints with Noel McKenna in a storeroom taught me more than a degree in printmaking ever would. And sometimes I had to stop Guy from reaching out and toughing things – his learning coming from the tips of his fingers into his heart and brain.
Around the time I retired for a spell from curating I began gardening in a fairly ambitious way. Before that I was a plant collector rather than agardener. My grandfather had also collected plants and some of my earliest memories are of walking the paths in his garden with the plants overhead – something I experienced recently at Great Dixter, the garden of the remarkable Christopher Lloyd, which turned me into a child again the way art never could.
I was lucky to have my wife’s family garden at Berry to work with. It was created by her mother Lyn, who like me was both gardener and potter. It’s said that you should watch a garden for a year before you do anything but I dived straight in as you could watch forever and still get it wrong. The Gingko tree our friend Vivian gave us to mark the passing of Lisa’s father is now growing like crazy. A tall central leader shoots out, which makes me think it will be big, strong and dominating before too long.
I was married in this garden and this year my brother-in-law will be too. The garden is more than a backdrop – it’s a container of memory. Perversely, it is also unfeeling and relentlessly moving forward. It does not care if you are too lazy to mow the lawn, or cut the hedge properly or pull out weeds. The most important things with the garden are soil and composting, both unsexy and humdrum tasks that need the most attention. I think of the compost pile a lot when I am working on my pots – the way the past and future decompose into a pleasant-smelling humus. Along the way, the rats and birds pick what they need, and a whole community of worms and bugs are fed.
The result, to make of it what you will, is a bit like making art. My work sits at a juncture between ceramics history, horticulture and curating. It is based on organic plant forms, but seen through the lens of ceramics history, it has distinct conceptual and formal relationships with English and European porcelain, folk art traditions production and studio pottery of the twentieth century. Many of these traditions had observation of the natural world incorporated in their making.
The language of ceramics has a visual parallel in the garden – the pod, the leaf, the seed, the flower, the branch, the root as a lingua franca. A form might be bulbous like a daffodil or lumpen like a dahlia tuber fused on to the outline of a Greek krater. Shapes mirror the shapes of particular euphorbias that are around the garden. There is an enormous one my brother gave me and I in turn gave to Lyn. Outside the bathroom window there is another liberated by my friend George, from a pub in Sydney where it had been snapped by a drunken reveller, that has now grown as high as the house.
Leaf shapes and textures, colour and form drive the relentless need to activate ALL the surfaces of a pot. As I walk around the garden I think of jobs to do and pots to make. The two things are entwined. I am able to use Lyn’s pottery studiowhere she made production pots. Here, throwing is as simple as breathing. We work together there. I hand her a ball of clay and in an instant a bowl appears by magic, conjured with a flick of wrist, through the arm to the body. In the garden, pots appear – hers and others – this is an important part of my language too. I feel part of a production pottery tradition by virtue of working with her tools and in her space although my work is at odds with it.
Now I am heading to the studio, past the dahlias I planted for John’s wedding and the cacti in pots I have moved because the trees that once fringed a dry garden has now made it a shady one, then along the desire path from the house to the studio. I open the garage doors on the garden that surrounds me. I touch one of Lyn’s pots I feel the energy that sits within them, everything here is hers: the brushes, the bowls, the stamps and her tools. They have not failed me yet. I am ready.
Glenn Barkley is an artist, curator, writer and gardener based in Sydney and Berry, NSW.