Johannes De Blanken

Known potter #47: Joan Campbell

Joan Campbell. Raku pot. Early 1970s
Joan Campbell. 'Sea', 1969
Joan Campbell. 'Sky', 1969
Joan Campbell. Three sea eggs. Mid 1980s

I spent my childhood in Western Australia and returned there regularly during the years 1975-1997 when the potter Joan Campbell had her workshop at Bathers Beach in Fremantle.  Fremantle was a short drive from my parent’s house in Melville. A trip there for fish and chips at Cicerello’s, a coffee on the Cappuccino Strip and a wander around the 19th century port streets  was always on the agenda.

After each visit home, I would  fly back to Canberra with at least one piece of Western Australian pottery in my hand luggage. I remember taking David to visit the lovely old sandstone gallery at Bathers Beach at least once, and buying pieces there: yet somehow we never brought back a work by Campbell. Perhaps we didn’t then have the eyes to appreciate her raku and high-fired earthenware works; or perhaps we admired the pieces on display but they were  too big to carry home.

This year, we were able to take advantage of a general lull in interest in collectables to purchase three early Joan Campbell works from McKenzies in Claremont – two bowls dated 1969, and a large pot, undated but probably from the early 1970s. We are thrilled to bits with all three and have them displayed in the gallery foyer, with a set of three sea eggs from the mid-1980s which we bought on eBay last year.

Unwrapping our newest acquisitions, we were most surprised by their lightness of colour.  The bright sun, the white sand, the blue-green sea, blue sky and honey-coloured sandstone of the Western Australian littoral is truly reflected in these works.  The sea eggs too are a beautiful sandstone colour, patterned with seaweed from Bathers Beach. “Everything she creates seems to hum with the joy and awe with which Joan sees the world around her, a world she recreates in flowing elemental shapes”, wrote Susan Mitchell in her 1987 The matriarchs, p. 155.

Joan Campbell MBE (1925-1997) was born in Geelong, Victoria, and spent her early years there before moving with her family to Western Australia in 1940. While recovering from the stillbirth of her third child, she took a hobby pottery class, and this led her to pursue pottery as a craft, building a wood-fire kiln in her  Scarborough backyard with her father’s help, and teaching herself to fire it.

In 1959, she began work with Johannes de Blanken, a Dutch potter who had settled in WA. Later, she worked with Eileen Keys (1903-1992), who had resolved to use only locally available materials in her work. In 1966, the two experimented with the raku technique and this became Campbell’s preferred way of firing. Her pieces were mainly earthenware, some thrown and further manipulated, others handbuilt.  She held her first solo exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in 1969. Our two bowls ‘Sea’ and ‘Sky’ are from this time.

Raku is a process where pieces are fired to around 1000°C, then removed while red hot and either left to cool, or plunged into water to cool them, or placed into a sealed bin containing combustible materials. These ignite and create a reduction atmosphere. The smoke also turns any unglazed clay black. If the bin is opened after a short time, this re-oxidises the piece, creating interesting surface effects. Campbell responded to the spontaneity of the process, finding it suited to the colours and surface treatments she was seeking for her forms.

As the only potter in WA specialising in raku, and eager to discuss technical problems with a fellow practitioner, she contacted Paul Soldner, ‘the father of American raku’.  He ended up organising an eye-opening information exchange tour for her to the United States in 1970. In 1971, prompted by Campbell, the Pottery Society of Australia invited Soldner to conduct a teaching tour of Australia. He visited Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.  Campbell herself conducted a three-day raku seminar in Melbourne in August of that year.

Now recognized nationally as an exponent of raku, she was selected with a group of other Australian potters to exhibit at the International Academy of Ceramics Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 1972.  She was surprised to find that she had been awarded the coveted Diploma of Art for her entry, a pot now in the V & A collection, and pictured on the front cover of Pottery in Australia, 11/2, 1972. As a titular member of the academy, she was invited to attend a symposium and made two hundred black and red ashtrays for Hammersley Mines to fund the trip. She revelled in overseas travel as a way of furthering her craft, and attended academy conferences into the 1990s.

She presents herself in The matriarchs (p. 166) as “a suburban housewife playing about in the backyard”, but quickly assumed a larger persona, aided by her talent as a public speaker. As well as appearing in a weekly television programme demonstrating and talking about pottery, she conducted workshops in country areas and set up pottery classes at the University of Western Australia for the Guild of Undergraduates.  When the Western Australian Branch of the Crafts Association of Australia (later Craft Association of Western Australia) was set up in 1968, she was elected secretary. She was a founding member of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council in 1973, and a member of the Australia Council from 1974 to 1977.

The MBE after her name was awarded in 1977, two years after she had moved her studio to Bathers Beach. She continued to develop and extend her own work there, and also began to take in trainees. By the twentieth birthday of the Bathers’ Beach workshop in 1995, forty-two people had spent an average of nine-twelve months each under her tutelage. As Grace Cochrane points out (p. 213), unlike other workshop owners of the time, Campbell did not use her trainees as assistants. They contributed to the financial and physical running of the workshop in exchange for  professional development in raku firing and space to work on their own projects.  Joint exhibitions helped to pay the bills.

Photograph by Diane Watson from the
Monument Australia website

Campbell’s preference for large-scale works encouraged public art commissions and these began to take up most of her time from the mid-1980s. While still loyal to clay and the pot form, she also found herself designing, making and erecting large murals, multimedia works incorporating steel, wood and glass, and complex environmental installations. She was preparing for an exhibition when she was diagnosed with cancer late in 1996. Former trainees and friends finished the work using glazes formulated by Greg Daly.  She died on 5 March 1997, just weeks before the exhibition opened.

I find it sad when I visit my family now not to have a gallery on Bathers Beach to visit any more, but the tiles made by Campbell and her trainees in this  monument to the old jetty show part of the legacy she has left.


Plus entries in the 1973-1981 and 1990 directories.