Stephen Bowers: Beyond Bravura

Stephen Bowers: Beyond Bravura

David and I took time out on a visit to Canberra this week to attend the “Stephen Bowers: Beyond Bravura” exhibition being held at the Watson Arts Centre until 13 April. Bowers’ work is being celebrated in the JamFactory Icon Series. The exhibition premiered in Adelaide and is now touring nationally. Before Canberra, it was in Geelong and its next stop is Artisan in Brisbane from 2 May-28 June 2014. The full set of tour dates is given here.

We own just one small bowl by Stephen Bowers which we bought in Adelaide in 2006. We have bid on some larger pieces at auction but they generally go for far more than we can afford.  Luckily, a scholarly book has been published to complement the exhibition so that we can at least see pictures of his gorgeous work. Sasha Grishin’s review of the book in the Sydney Morning Herald highlights the fact that Bowers is essentially a china painter – although he turns the whole tradition of china painting on its head.

Early Australian pottery

Modern Ceramic Products. Swan-shaped bowl

Our exhibition this year is “Beyond design: forged by fire : Wood, smoke, salt and soda fired ceramics from the collection”. However, a few pieces have found their way into the exhibition that don’t quite fit into this theme. A Remued 15-6 wall vase hangs on the wall behind the counter. Nine Model 14 Ellis jugs left over from last year’s exhibition decorate the top of three of the display cabinets and this Mingay ware swan has taken up a position on the window sill.

These swans are not rare. There are nine for sale on eBay at the moment, priced at around $30 each.  Ours came to us as part of a larger collection and we probably won’t replace it when it eventually goes to a new home. Nevertheless, I love it – its shape, its colours and its determination not to be packed away in the container.

This morning I found myself singing “It’s my exhibition and I’ll display what I want to. You would keep it on the window sill too if it happened to you.” David, who was watching Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews while working on his latest glass painting looked up somewhat perplexed and I returned to my designated task of browsing auction catalogues.

Talking of early Australian pottery, a sister group with this name has been set up on Flickr for those who are interested.

No thanks, I am already ubiquitous

Busy desk red

Increasingly, spam messages directed to our gallery email address are from web developers wanting to improve our website and make it more visible to Internet search engines. I never reply but I would like to tell them that our website already ranks highly in almost any search on Australian pottery if they had only taken the trouble to look. Dealing  with correspondence from people who have found us on the Internet is now one of my daily tasks. As well as processing online orders or helping people to identify pots they own and providing advice on finding them new homes, in the last year or so we have been receiving an increasing number of messages from people thinking we are the potters whose work we sell. These include customers wanting a broken pot mended or replaced, old friends wanting to be put in touch or museum staff after a copyright clearance.  Our website was either at the top of the result set and they looked no further, or it was the only website referencing the sought-after potter. Although I rarely have current contact details in my database, this brings out the librarian in me and I do my best to help.

A great day

Bemboka River Music Fair. Annie Franklin 2013

Our River Music Fair is over for another year and, oh, what a great day it was! The weather was sunny with just a slight breeze and the garden was at its Spring best.

Our guest artists – potter Michael Adams, leadlight maker Kay Dowman, painter Annie Franklin and spinner Olga Hunt – took up positions on our north and west patios and set to work demonstrating their skills. Food stallholders Patrick Reubinson of Stroudover Cottage, the Bemboka Play Group and More than Beans Mobile Cafe prepared to keep hunger and thirst at bay. John Watkin, our MC, started the program rolling and kept everyone involved in the activities of the day.

Visitors arriving in a steady stream helped themselves to a welcoming glass of champagne or orange juice, strolled through the gallery to take in the exhibition and talk with David, then settled themselves on the lawn to enjoy wonderful musical performances by Mr Tim, Train to Budapest, David Hewitt and friends, and Fanny Lumsden and the Thrillseekers.  Behind the scenes Andrew, Jenny and I took a moment to share slices of hummingbird cake from the Play Group stall and draw satisfaction from how well everything had come together on the day.

Illustrated: the watercolour Annie Franklin painted on the day and kindly presented to us as a memento of the fair. On the stage: David Hewitt and friends.

A soft opening then a fair

Billie Powell, Pit-fired vase; Ray Taylor, Raku vessel

Billie Powell, Pit-fired vase; Ray Taylor, Raku vessel

David and I have been hard at work over our winter break preparing for our fifth season. We decided at an early stage to feature woodfire this season, partly as an antidote to a year of Mid-century Modern, partly because Daniel Lafferty is convening an International Woodfire Conference – “On the Edge of the Shelf” –  at Mystery Bay just south of Narooma, from April 28-May 20 2014.  Narek Galleries at Tanja is holding an exhibition of woodfired ceramics from 2 May to 9 June 2014 to celebrate the festival and it made sense for us to join the celebrations.

After some thought, we came up with the title “Beyond design: Forged by fire”. This allowed us to extend the remit of the exhibition beyond woodfire itself to wood, smoke, salt and soda fired ceramics from the collection. All of these firing methods create objects subject to forces beyond their makers’ control whereas by definition a designed object is planned and its final appearance can be anticipated before it is made.  The title also raises questions about the difference between craft and design. There is a trend in our twenty-first century institutions to see design as the highest form of craftsmanship whereas woodfirers in particular spend their lives striving for unique and satisfying forms of self-expression through their craft.

The exhibition combines  new work we’ve bought recently by some of our favourite potters with earlier pieces acquired on the secondary market, including some surprises packed away in the container that we had forgotten we had. In season 3 we included a small display of woodfired works in the foyer while featuring porcelain, crystalline glazes and lustres in the gallery. This season, we have done the reverse, featuring porcelain in the foyer as a contrast to some of the tougher and more difficult pieces in the gallery. We’ve  reinstated our popular Australiana cabinet just inside the door and we have devoted one wall in the gallery to works we have acquired recently by John Eagle, Andrew Halford and Ray Pearce.

All last season’s mid-century modern pieces are now packed away and I just have to finish the labels and find storage room for about fifty stray pots that are still cluttering up the counter and workroom tables. Needless to say, as a deadline junkie, I am spending all my time in the garden, but I should be able to have everything ready for our soft opening on 4 October: Soft because, by popular demand, our River Music Fair is returning for a second year on Saturday 19 October to celebrate the opening of the new exhibition.

Season 4 wrap up

Parking2012 -2013 opened with a bang with our River Music Fair, a most enjoyable event that brought the many friends and acquaintances we have made in the valley together for a day of music, art and culture, and forged our position on the Sapphire Coast gallery trail. Our Spring garden proved to be an attractive outdoor venue with the contours of the land lending a landscaped feel to the fledgling beds and trees. A hot and windy January with nearby bushfires set the garden back but it recovered and we noted a new maturity as the season closed.


We got great pleasure setting up the Season 4 exhibition  “Mid-Century Modern: The influence of European style on post-war Australian ceramics” and living with pieces from the 1950s and 1960s during the year.  We learnt a lot in the process, particularly about the differences in approach to modernism between Melbourne and Sydney in the post-war period, and captured our observations in a set of gallery notes.

In terms of sales, animal figures we had commissioned from Betty Mclaren made in Merimbula in 2012 to Gus McLaren’s mid-century designs proved very popular and so did our Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery ramekins, lovely modernist pieces in their own right and also affordable mementos of a celebrated artistic dynasty. However, we noted that visitors made fewer purchases from the exhibition itself than from the workroom shelves where pieces from earlier exhibitions were shelved.

With semi-commercial and commercial potteries like Dyson, Ellis and Martin Boyd, there is still so much available on the secondary market that it was the display of examples in a gallery context that made the exhibition interesting for visitors. A cabinet featuring brown and orange Hanstan ware was much admired but remained relatively intact to the end of the season as did our feature wall of Ellis Ceramics. Visitors were more interested in the value being placed on pieces from their own past and seeing them in a new context than in wanting to own more.

Perhaps our most satisfying visitor was The Rameking with whom we spent a half-day sharing our passion for Australian pottery and rummaging through boxes for makers not yet represented in his collection.  Appropriately amongst other finds, he took home a set of Janet Gray Royal Tour ramekins.

Our online sales really took off during Season 4 and, for the first time, we made in sales just a little bit more than we spent in new acquisitions.