Last weekend David and I made the long trip from Canberra to Yackandandah in north-eastern Victoria to attend John Dermer’s 30th annual exhibition. This porcelain salt-glazed teapot was amongst the 40 pieces on exhibition (one for each year that he has been potting). It is one of only a few teapots that he has ever successfully salt-glazed “because they usually fail!”.
Dermer was born in Melbourne in 1949. He completed formal studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1970 and set up his first kiln in his parent’s backyard. In 1971 he traveled to Europe and North America, working for a time at Josiah Wedgwood & Sons in England. On his return to Australia in 1973 he completed a Diploma of Education and established a kiln at Eltham. Then in 1975 he set up Kirby’s Flat Pottery in Yackandandah and has lived and worked there ever since.
Last year Dermer was awarded the Salzbrand Keramik 2006 prize for his salt-glazed ceramics. He sees this as “the culmination of a 40 year love/hate relationship with the process of salt-glazing” (2007, page 101). Salt-glazing is a form of decoration where salt is added to a kiln at the end of a firing. It volatilises and fluxes with the silicas in the unglazed clay surface, creating a glassy translucent effect with a slightly ‘orange-peel’ texture. The process is very unforgiving but it is also addictive because it can produce rewarding and unexpected results. With this award Dermer has become an internationally-recognised master of the process.
This year one of the targets we set ourselves was to get better acquainted with Dermer’s work and to add some of his pieces to our collection. We bought this simple thrown form with flattened sides on our first visit to the pottery in March. It shows the degree of control that Dermer has been able to achieve over the salt-glazing process, using inscribed line and pattern on a smooth flashed surface to evoke aspects of the Australian landscape. The teapot is quite different in style. The orange-peel effect has been accentuated using iron and cobalt oxides to create an intricate pattern over the white porcelain surface that envelops and articulates the teapot form.
Dermer also decorates pieces using the terra sigillata process, a way of creating a silky smooth finish by applying a coating of microfine clay to a once-fired pot. He first used this technique to make a series of large vessels for New Parliament House in Canberra in 1988. He wraps the pots in a ceramic blanket encasing salt, oxides and casuarina branches for the second firing. The branch atomises, leaving a shadowy imprint.
In 1995 Dermer was commissioned to make six platters for sale during the 1996 Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Turner’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament burning and of loading coals at night inspired him to experiment with the oil-spot and tomato red glazes that are combined in this large (32 cm high) spherical vase. The oil spot collar and rust colour lend it a sombreness which then surprises with flashes of red. This piece was made in 1997, just before Dermer stopped selling his work from outlets other than his own studio. We bought it at Berrima Galleries in 2006. I’m not sure where it had been in the meantime.
Dermer’s exhibition pieces have three and four figure prices that reflect the trials involved in making them and the quality of the result. He also makes a production range that is more affordable for non-collectors. He marks his exhibition pieces with his initials using an impressed stamp or signs them with his inscribed name. Production pieces like this platter are stamped with the Kirby’s Flat Pottery mark. (A number of these are now turning up on eBay.)
As well as making pots, Dermer is a keen photographer. The desert and escarpment regions of central and northern Australia are sources of inspiration for both his ceramic and photographic work.
A full CV is available from Dermer’s website.
- John Dermer, “40 years on”, Ceramics: art and perception, no.69, 2007: 101-103.
- John Dermer, “A lifetime of salt-glazing”, Ceramics: art and perception, no.57, 2004: 89-92.
- Mary Lou Jelbart, “John Dermer: aligned to the land”, Ceramics: art and perception, no.20, 1995: 72-74.
- John Dermer, Burnt earth, the journey, Yackandandah, Vic. : J. Dermer, .
- April Hersey, “John Dermer “, Craft Australia, no.3, Spring 1980: 24-25.