I bought this small vase with eucalypt-coloured glaze accented in pale aqua slip from the Gladstone Street Antique Centre in Fyshwick, Canberra, about two years ago. It is inscribed ME, a mark I didn’t have recorded. I checked potters with the initials ME but drew a blank. However, on 5 May this year the Canberra potter, Cecily Gibson, died. In her obituary in the Canberra Times on 26 May I found that she had signed her work ME after her mother Mary Ellen.
I am based in Canberra but I had never come across Gibson or her work. I have her in my database because she has a presence in early issues of Pottery in Australia. However, I had missed her retrospective exhibition at the Watson Arts Centre in 2003 and I had never visited the gallery in Hughes where she exhibited and sold her pots from 1965 until she went to live in Queensland in 1984.
My husband and I started collecting pottery in the mid 1970s. Except when travelling, we bought pieces locally from outlets such as Beaver Galleries, Narek Galleries, Cuppacumbalong Craft Centre, the Watson Arts Centre, Potters Place in Kingston and Earth-n-Wares on the bridge in the Woden shopping centre.
We did not have a lot of money and usually selected from the smallest and cheapest pieces at exhibitions. This vessel with chattered surface decoration by Shigeo Shiga changed our perception of what we were prepared to pay for a piece of pottery when we bought it from a Narek exhibition in March 1976. It was one of the first ‘serious’ pots we bought together and has remained a favourite piece.
Like Gibson, some local potters had their own galleries. We acquired this enormous floor pot from a potter’s house and studio on Blamey Crescent in Campbell in 1977 or 1978. Neither of us can remember the potter’s name but it is another pot that has traveled with us over the years. We also attended exhibitions at Hiroe Swen’s Pastoral Gallery but our budget would never stretch to buying one of her pieces, however much we admired them.
Buying pottery second-hand has given us the opportunity to discover the work of potters who did not exhibit in Canberra, as well as to acquire pieces we previously could not afford. This slab-built rectangular vase by Swen came up for sale in a Melbourne auction in 2005 and is now giving us great pleasure.
Gibson became interested in pottery while working as a nurse at Royal Canberra Hospital. She trained with Henri Le Grand and then spent four years in Japan between 1959 and 1964. She worked first at the Tsukamoto factory in Mashiko, then set herself up as a potter in Kyoto and took lessons at the University of Fine Art with the celebrated master potter Tomimoto Kenkichi. When she returned to Canberra she built a house and kiln in Hughes and later added a gallery. She did not advertise, selling her work mainly by word-of-mouth.
The obituary says that Gibson was ‘reputedly’ the first Australian potter to study and work in Japan. She certainly believed this herself and tells a story in her autobiography (Gift of fire and clay, 108 ) of meeting the great Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, who lived in Mashiko, while walking home from the factory one day:
I was overcome at seeing this legendary figure in front of me. I was about to say so, when he spoke first, introducing himself, and saying, ‘You are Cecily Gibson. I know so much about you, and I believe that you are the first Australian to study in Japan’. I said that I had been told that too, and was a little overawed at meeting him. He laughed as he welcomed me to Japan and to Mashiko.
By coincidence, she was working in Kyoto when Shiga was lecturing in ceramics there. Kyoto was also Swen’s home town. In 1962 she was just establishing herself as a master potter after completing a five year apprenticeship. Early in 1963 Les Blakebrough and his wife arrived in Kyoto for a year’s sabbatical from the Sturt Pottery in Mittagong. In 1966 Shiga was invited to visit the Sturt Pottery by Blakebrough and ending up staying in Australia for 13 years. In 1968, Swen moved to Sydney with her husband Cornell Swen and from there to ‘Bimbimbi’ near Canberra where the Pastoral Gallery was established in 1973.
Gibson doesn’t mention in her autobiography that she was aware of these connections. Her work appears to have been well regarded in Japan. Kenkichi, invited her to be his private pupil and facilitated a solo exhibition for her at the Mitsukoshi Gallery in Tokyo in 1964. A bowl from this period is in the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. However, on her return to Canberra, she increasingly embraced a private life, drawing strength from her home and work and her extended family and circle of friends. She did not teach or take apprentices or hold public exhibitions after her gallery was built.
Because I had always had very successful exhibitions, I had, by spending every dollar very wisely, been able to live well enough, It had crossed my mind occasionally that a little extra cash would not go amiss. Nevertheless, I had a very strong conviction that to be able to spend my life doing what I loved to do was worth hundreds of dollars in money terms and untold riches in non-material terms. I was home and in love with my potter’s world (Gift of Fire and Clay, 172).
It is hard to get a real feeling for Gibson’s oeuvre because there are almost no published images, just a few black and white photographs in the early issues of Pottery in Australia and a bowl from 1967-1968 in the Powerhouse Museum. Reviews of the 2003 exhibition talk of the ‘strength and elegance’ of her work and its ‘technical excellence’. Some pieces have calligraphic decoration, others scored and carved surfaces and manipulated forms. (All of the pieces in this exhibition came from boxes stored under her niece’s house when she moved to Queensland. She left them there for 14 years after a car accident in 1989 forced her to give up pottery. Now they have all been dispersed to new homes.)
I won’t be certain that my vase was made by Gibson until I see another piece with the same mark but I feel confident with the attribution, partly because of the mark itself:
Since my mother’s death the previous year I had signed all my pots with her initials ‘M.E.’ for Mary Ellen. Sumi painting helped me to paint M.E. with much greater facility; it became quite a splendid signature and much admired (Gift of Fire and Clay, 120-121).
With some presumption, I have tentatively dated my vase to 1965-1966 when Gibson was experimenting with local clays and glazes. In 1967 she travelled to Mexico and South America on a Churchill Fellowship to study pre-Columbian art. This had an influence on her pottery which I think can be seen in the Powerhouse Museum example and in a similar bowl pictured in the Autumn 1971 issue of Pottery in Australia.
- Beddie, F. “Cecily Gibson”, Pottery in Australia, 2003, 42 (3): 68-70.
- Cousins, Kerry-Anne. “A life story in the gift of fire and clay”, Canberra Times, 12 September 2003, 26.
- Gibson, Cecily. The Gift of fire and clay, Ginninderra Press, 2003.
- Holmes, Jonathan. Les Blakebrough : potter, Bay Books, .
- Moon, Damon. “Cecily Gibson (20/11/1920-2/5/2007: Obituary“, Articles, c2008.
- Moyal, Ann. “Artist chose clay to pursue beauty”, Canberra Times, 26 May 2007.
- Pottery in Australia, 1963, 2(2), 14, 32; 1965, 4(1)1:29; 1966, 5(2):16g; 1967, 6(2):41; 1971, 10(1):37.
- “Shigeo Shiga. Artist CV“, All Hand Made Gallery (viewed 14 June 2007).
- “Swen, Hiroe“, Japanese Artists Directory in Australia (viewed 14 June 2007).