Known potter #21: Sylvia Halpern

Sylvia Halpern. Pinched vase. 1976

This small (10 cm high) handbuilt vase was made by Sylvia Halpern in 1976. It is ball-shaped with a trefoil pinched mouth. The inside is glazed a pale flesh colour. The exterior has been paddled, pitted, gouged, rubbed, painted and trail-glazed to create a heavily worked surface.

To tell you the truch, I have been having trouble liking it, which is why I have photographed it so carefully. If it had been very large, I might have been able to admire it as a ceramic sculpture, but it is domestic in size and form. The way the sides are pushed in makes me uneasy and the surface is also troubling. I feel myself falling into the error of thinking “a child of six could do this”.

David, by contrast, likes it a lot. When I ask why, he points out how finely worked the clay is at the top and how the delicacy of the glazed interior is exposed by the pinched mouth. This is the work of someone who has mastered the handbuilding process, not a beginner. What I see as misshapen he sees as deliberately made to have that shape. He indicates passages of colour and texture on the surface that he finds particularly interesting and shows how they are bound to the form.

The difference in opinion is revealing and I feel a little ashamed. It is easy to like beautifully shaped and finished pots and much harder to come to terms with a piece worked to reflect some inner compulsion. It may be wrong to judge a work by what we knew of its creator but 1976 was the year that Sylvia’s husband Artur (Artek) Halpern died.  This pot, and others made around the same time, may reflect some of what she was feeling at that time. Or perhaps it is just that, as a mature artist in her late fifties, she had reached a particular way of working with clay as an expressive medium. [In fact, I’ve found out since that she was separated from her husband at that time.]

Artur Halpern was one of the founding members of the Potters’ Cottage when it  opened in 1958 in a small miner’s hut near the Warrandyte bridge. The other founding members were Reg Preson, Phyl Dunn, Gus McLaren and Charles Wilton. Sylvia, with Kate Janeeba and Elsa Arden, joined the group in 1961 after the cottage was moved to a farmhouse at the corner of Jumping Creek and Ringwood-Warrandyte roads. The last member of the group was Peter Laycock, who joined in 1969.

SYLHA Ceramics Studio. Jug.

This often-cited sequence of events tends to give Artur more prominence in the history of Australian contemporary pottery than Sylvia but she was already a potter when they met. Born in Poland in 1908, Artur had trained as a civil engineer in Czechoslovakia. Then, his life having been interrupted by war and military service, he migrated to Australia in 1945 and began looking for a way of establishing himself in his new country. Sylvia’s work sparked his interest in the technical aspects of firing and in pottery as a marketable product. He learnt the techniques of mould making and slip casting from Costantino Bacchini, an Italian ceramic craftsman. In 1950, the couple set up a workshop at Huntingdale, Melbourne, employing a small team to make production wares like the jug opposite under the name SYLHA.

I suspect that in 1958,  while Artur was exploring new ways of exhibiting and selling their wares with the other founding members of the Potters’ Cottage, Sylvia was busy looking after their new daughter (the potter and mosaicist Deborah Halpern, born in 1957), running the pottery business and handling the move from Huntingdale to Warrandyte. Mike Kusnik, who worked briefly for the SYLHA Ceramic Studio in 1959, refers to it as “a successful giftware pottery run by Sylvia Halpern and her husband”. I am assuming from this that she had a considerable hand in its day-to-day operation.

Ann Geroe, writing about the Potters’ Cottage in 2004 says “Then there were the Halperns, Artek making abundant bonsai containers, Sylvia making more individual pots influenced by her birth in Japan” (p. 21).  Sylvia was born in 1918 but I haven’t been able to find anything else about her childhood in Japan. A brief biographical entry in Pottery in Australia, 3(3), 1964 says that she trained at the Melbourne Technical College and also reflects her status as a potter at that time. There is an iconic photograph on the McLaren Pottery website showing her in her garden at Warrandyte with pottery around her. Her work featured in the “Connections 4” exhibition held at the Potters’ Cottage (now the Potters’ Gallery) in October 2003 to celebrate 45 years of operation. At that time she was still living in Warrandyte. (She died in 2009.)

The Halperns both worked mainly in earthenware, although Artur experimented with stoneware towards the end of his life. He signed his wheel-thrown work HALPERN or AH. Sylvia made mostly hand-built and unglazed pieces, usually signed Sylvia Halpern. The production work is signed SYLHA. Artur’s younger brother Stanislav (Stasha), who lived in Australia from 1939-1951 and 1966-1969, also made pottery. His works are signed SHalpern. We have several of Stanislav’s pieces and they too take a little time to appreciate but reward further study.

References

  • “Biographies”, Pottery in Australia, 3(3), 1964.
  • Bouma, Monique, “Gallery’s 45 years end Sunday”, Manningham Leader, 31 March 2004.
  • Cole, Bill, “End of an era”, Pottery in Australia, 16(1), 1977, pp. 70-71.
  • Ford, Geoff, “Halpern, Artur”, “Halpern, Stanislav” and “Halpern, Sylvia”, Encyclopedia of Australian Potters’ Marks, 2nd ed. Wodonga, Vic. : Salt Glaze Press, c2002.
  • Geroe, Anne and and Jo Laurence, “Connection: Ann Geroe and Jo Laurence look back on forty five years of the Potters’ Cottage in Warrandyte, Victoria”, Journal of Australian Ceramics, 43(1), 2004, p. 21.
  • Hodge, Karen, “Pioneers at Potters fire up again”, Doncaster Templestowe News, 24 September 2003.
  • Kusnik, Mike,  “About Mike“, Armchair Potting (viewed 31 October, 2008).
  • Potters Cottage“, frame from mclaren-pottery.com (viewed 31 October, 2008).
  • Timms, Peter, “Halpern, Stanislaw (Stacha) (1919 – 1969)“, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, Melbourne University Press, 1996, p. 362.
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11 comments

  1. I have just come home with a lovely glazed jug which I purchased from Savers for next to nothing. It has SYLHA 7 pressed into its base. It was great to look it up and find out the history.
    Natalie

  2. Yes it is lovely to read something of the history. I have just looked under a grey long rectangular Bonsai type container that I have and seen SYLHA MELBOURNE 310 pressed there. It is amazing to begin to see these marks that open up all sorts of story.
    Kerry

  3. Hi Franco, thank you so much for letting me know. A lot of these details are not recorded and it is good to hear from family members. Was your father living and working in Melbourne at the time?

  4. Yes from 1957 to 1971. I can try to find some old photos of my dad in Australia.
    I have one took with Sylvia and Debbie in 1993.
    Cheers
    Franco

  5. Art and Sylvia were my uncle and aunt, Debbie is my cousin. Sylvia was my mother’s sister. My mother worked at the Sylha pottery in Murrumbeena (Oakleigh) for quite a few years and we eventually followed their lead and lived in Warrandyte. My mother became a potter using Sylvia’s designs and reproducing them using Constantino’s moulding techniques, she used to sell all her small output through the Potter’s Cottage. We still have quite a few Sylha and AH pieces and also a couple of Sylvia’s bird sculptures.
    Cheers, Trevor

    1. Hi Trevor, thank you for sharing this. I would love to have one of Sylvia’s bird sculptures but they tend to go for quite high prices on the secondary market now.

      1. Hi Judith,
        Costantino was my dad and seems that you knew him.
        I am so glad that after so many years you mention my dad.
        In the 80s Sylvia sent one bird sculpture to us.
        We also have some of pottery made in the 60s marked under “Sylvia” .
        We are keeping them in memory of our parents.
        I will be happy to be in touch with you. I am in touch with Debbie.
        Bye
        Frasnco

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