Love of Landscape: the ceramics of Pippin Drysdale

by Dr Dorothy Erickson

The majority of Australia's population lives in an urban environment clinging limpet-like to the periphery of the continent where horizons are hemmed in by the blocky forms of buildings. That 'wide brown land', that 'sunburnt country' of Dorothea McKellar, synonymous with our perception of our nation, is not the daily environment for most people. Expansive skies and a wide horizon line are really only seen by city dwellers when they visit the beach. Perhaps this is why so many flock to the sea in summer and also why so many are attracted to the recent pots of ceramic artist Pippin Drysdale. She is an artist whose emotional and intuitive response to the landscape provides us with a poignant essence of bush, beach and elsewhere. Passionately fond of Australia's expansive spaces she wrote in a 1994 profile "All my life I have been surrounded by wide open spaces – the land and the sea – and fascinated by their contrasts, light, colour, space, texture and spirituality."

Rich painterly glazes are her forté. Suffused sunrises and glowing sunsets above a horizon line evocative of the 'breakaway ' country contrast with crystalline foregrounds indicating vegetation. Plainer forms are overlaid with crackle resembling the crazing of a parched lake as in Horizonin the collection of Australian Capital Equity or showing the 'glint of gold' where seams of lustre encircle a pot as in the Pinnacles Series which are in the collection of Manly Art Gallery. Some times a golden texture, as in Desert Plains, could indicate a harvest of ripe wheat or native grasses, heads nodding in the breeze against the vermilion background of the earth from which it came. At times the results appear to be semi-precious stones, at others the landscape itself. All of these and more are seen in the  major body of work she has produced since mid 1994.

This affinity with her country and her interpretation of it have won her plaudits both at home and abroad. Her resumé lists a formidable number of residencies, awards, inclusion in books and exhibitions. Her work is in the collections of the Art Galleries of WA, Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania, Hobart, Queen Victoria Museum Launceston, The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, New Zealand Art Gallery, Auckland, Tomsk and Novosirbirsk State Galleries in Siberia, Russia and numerous regional, corporate and private collections internationally. The major omission is the national collection. Significantly from her 1998 exhibition at Quadrivium Gallery in Sydney the majority of the pieces were sold to German and American collectors. The work speaks to nationals of other countries as well as touching a chord with those to whom it belongs.

Drysdale, née  Carew-Reid, is an artist imbued with a love of the landscape instilled from time spent on family properties in both the south and the north of Western Australia. A late-comer to art as a career Drysdale graduated from Curtin University in 1986 following a grounding in the excellent 'Advanced Ceramics' course at Perth Technical School under David Hunt. Early work focused on the South-west forests and environmental degradation. The painterly surfaces were covered with the graphic and gestural marks of an abstract expressionist. The work was often dark and sombre reflecting not only the deep shadows of the forests but also the approaching demise of the pristine wildernesses. They were being sacrificed to the exigencies of logging. Under a peculiarity of the Western Australian Government a joint forestry and environmental protection authority is managed by a Forester!  As a former forest dweller and 'The Comfrey Herb Lady' Drysdale was passionate about the loss and as she considered it an important duty of artists to assist good causes attempted to change attitudes through her work.

Since 1991 Drysdale has maintained an international profile with lecture tours and residencies. An inveterate traveller, bon vivant, raconteur and generous friend her contacts from her past as well as the present have introduced her to interesting and educative experiences. One such was the opportunity to become a decorative artist-in-residence at the Grazia Deruta factory in Italy for three months of 1991. This was followed by time at Swansea in Wales and a further three months artistic exchange with Tomsk and Novosirbirsk in Siberia in Russia the same year. With this sort of experience she and her art are products of trans cultural experience. Subliminal influences are constantly at work.

Dedicated to advancing her art she builds on contacts made with potters in Australia and those she made in America in 1982 when she studied with Daniel Rhodes and Toshiko Takaesku. Drysdale has undoubtably learnt from those with whom she has come into contact but the influences are more conceptual and philosophical than visual. The philosophy and example, not to mention the work ethic, learnt from Takaesku still support her today. It was Takaesku's advice which set her on her path and permitted the growth of the artist she has become. Takaesku told her to forget the fashionable rustic Zen aesthetic traditions, to create her own sensibilities and adapt her techniques to suit her own environment.

Drysdale is essentially a painter whose chosen canvases are the slab, chalice, goblet, crucible and bowl. The strength of her practice is as a colourist. With time the spatial qualities, style, motif and figuration have become more organised. Time spent in Italy and Russia in 1991 saw a structured approach absorbed from the confined surroundings as much as the traditional way of working in the pottery in Derruta. An exuberance of colour, pattern, lustre and onion-dome-forms became part of her oeuvre following time spent later that year in Russia. Imagery and sensation were galvanised and modified to create her Carnivale, Effigy  and OTT Series dominated by vivid purple, crimson and lustre.

This frenetic work was followed by a return to her roots – a peaceful desert interlude in 1993 with bowls suffused with one or two colours rimmed with lustre. Desertscape  now in a private collection in USA and Southern Twilight  in the collection of Ron and Sandra Wise exemplify this. In the former a red ochre base burns under a pitch dark sky. In the latter the exterior of the plump form has the lilac of a dusk sky contrasted with the rich golden glow of the lustre of the interior.

Pippin Drysdale's work since 1994  - the Pinnacles and Eastern Goldfields series have drawn on her love of the Australian outback. The vastness, endless space, the rich reds of the earth, the glorious sunsets, the delicate hues of dawn, the subtle tones of salt encrusted lakes and the riotous colours of the spring wildflower displays speak to her. This work is quintessentially Australian despite time spent in the Canadian Rockies in 1994. The Pinnacles Series is as much about the local petrified forest forms of that name as they are about the steep mountains of Banff. In other linkages the forms which are her canvas at times echo those of the crucibles of the Western Australian goldmining industry while the palette recreates the autumnal tones of the desert landscape as in Saltbush Plainsin the Noakes Collection. The delicate lines encircling the forms of the Circles in Space are both broken and continuous, a subtle interruption to regularity which tease the senses and focus concentration on the object.

Porcelain forms, from tiny 'limoge' goblets to pots of almost Ali Baba proportions, are thrown and turned by Drysdale and assistants. The larger pots are the work of 'Tech' graduate Warwick Palmenteer. After his visits, her studio is filled with serried rows of ghostly forms waiting to be brought to life under her brush. The painted surfaces are complex feats of technical virtuosity – a type of controlled happen-chance. Glazes react with each other, underglazes with lustres, with crackle and to other pots in the kiln and so it is only after very considerable research and development that Drysdale has reached the point where she is in control of most of what emerges from her kiln. Placing a surface on a pot is rather like the process of etching, where many things are done in reverse and it only after the various overlays are planned and the 'pulls' are complete that you know if you have a prize or a plodder. Opening a kiln after a firing can bring great joy as a special gem emerges but equally there are disasters when a new clay or glaze component does not behave as expected. Drysdale's wastage is particularly high as she pushes to achieve technically and artistically difficult results. Fortuitously she has received four Australia Council development grants over the thirteen years of her practice and is one of two 1998 ArtsWA Fellows. This sort of support has been crucial in allowing her to develop the technical facility to be able to express herself with confidence.

1995 was a significant year when she really came to prominence winning the Perth Craft Award, the Newcastle Ceramic Purchase Award and was represented in the major Australian exhibition Delinquent Angel: Australian Historical, Aboriginal and Contemporary Ceramics at the prestigious Museo Internationale delle Ceramiche in Faenza Italy - the holy grail for ceramic artists. This exhibition later toured Asia , the Americas and Australia.

The progression as she mastered the various difficult techniques can be seen in the surfaces of the pots. The crystalline glazes, married with brush and resist, produced the luminous landscape series of 1996. Noon Heat  shows what the combinations of techniques can achieve when handled in a confident manner by someone with an eye for colour and form and an intimate technical knowledge of her medium. This series was produced after a spring visit to Leonora in the remote Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. On the long drive splashes of colour on a hillside of green, a blaze of wildflowers beside the road, the caked crust of a salt flat, the subtle colours on the sides of the Gwalia open cut, the rusty red of the earth, the blue of the sky were absorbed and recorded on film as aide memoirs for future inspiration. The results are exquisite works of art which eloquently evoke a sense of place. They have been eagerly collected – particularly for large corporate collections.

Drysdale's ceramics are characterised by formal simplicity enlivened with a painterly surface which at times could almost be described as chaos. Lost in a Sandstorm almost envelops you with its swirling heat. Geiki , in the Wool Board Offices in Korea  and Aurora Australis now in the collection of the Western Australian Art Gallery are two magnificent pots of an audacious scale some 45 cms high. To quote Margaret Moore Aurora Australis , has "a cataclysmic fusion of energies around its exterior. The surface strikes a sophisticated balance between the evidence of brushed passages controlled by hand and the bubbled and cracked refuse at whim of the kiln. Most significantly it achieves a depth of colour and texture which invites readings as the ravaged textures of old land, perhaps the result of volcanic forces. Just as these earthly associations settle imagination leaps to the imponderable caverns of the sky or universe. The russet reds and browns give way to metallic blue-greys broken by hints of yellow, which in the words of the artist provides sun or optimism." ("The lure of the Landscape" Craftwest 1996/2)

Each pot is a virtuoso performance which she commences with trepidation. Like any painter the first mark is the hardest. The vessels, having previously been designed and made as a separate exercise, sit cold, creamy-white and formally naked waiting to be dressed. One of the most successful themes that has come through in this body of work is that of sunrise and sunset in the landscape. The controlled collision of brushed glaze with the crystalline growth structure of the chemicals produces effects evocative of forests, lakes or scrub on wide plains or undulating landscapes. The brushed horizon line creates the breakaway of a butte or the wide curved surface of the ocean. Above this a radiant colour in hues of yellow or pink rise to the rim. The subtle peach shades of the Fly Flat Diggings pots, one of which is in the Auckand Art Gallery, are a perfect counterpoint to the sagey-turquoise of the mulga scrub over the brown earth. Or is that a dark lake with lilies floating? Drysdale's work invites this leaping imagination. One can sit for hours and read so many different stories in each surface. It is as if the ancient land has handed on some of its mystery to a master to allow 'city folk' the chance to share the eternal mystery of the bush. They can certainly admire works like The Resolution which has a lightning-flooded sky illuminating the violet hues of a tropical evening embodying the arrival of 'the wet' to bring relief to the parched earth. This contrasts with the more muted colouring of Basalt Genesis  which was sold in New York to a major American collector. The new owners were so ecstatic about the piece they commenced correspondence with the artist.

In a different vein is Beginning of the Myrtle. The wildflowers on the road verge flash by leaving 'after-images' on the retina. The myrtle among the catkins of the Grevillia on the road out of Southern Cross is captured against the green of the new winter grass. The brush marks of the resist are more obvious in this than many other pots but the energy with which it was created is still imprisoned in the pot. Despite the dogged determination it often takes to bring her inspiration to the public this side is not obvious in the finished object. The immediacy of impact and the freshness of appearance belie the groundwork that goes into producing the final result.

The inspired character of Drysdale's current vessels are an accumulation of subliminal, abstract forces of both nature and culture acting in symbiosis. They include: her youth on the family properties in the Kimberley's, the example and sculptures of her ancestor Sir Bertram McKennal, paintings of Fred Williams, the photography of Richard Woldendorp and Dorothy Erickson, a cultured background, forces that sculpt the land itself and her immersion in them on a morning swim or walk on the beach, the strong will of a rebel channelled into a satisfying and productive path with however a willingness to take risks, shared experiences, the endless discussion and criticism with friends of each offering from the kiln, together with many hours of preparatory research into her media. All of this melded together contributes to an informed and confident approach which allows free rein to intuition when she takes up the brush. Works such as Tempest are the result. As Margaret Moore has written "Drysdale is aware that her 'themes' are living forces and although they may be of the earth they cannot be grounded by an earthly art form."

Nine solo exhibitions in the past five years and another about to be shipped as well as a number of major group exhibitions, workshops and residencies is a punishing pace. She previously worked in cycles from turbulence to peace and back again but with this body of work has come stability and maturity. There has been a sustained development marrying quietness with chaos often in one body of work. In early July she is working for an exhibition curated by The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences for Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art and touring regionally. Once this is complete she intends to rest and recharge her energy and her inspirational antennae. She is touring to central and northern Australia in a light plane. The aerial perspective attracts her and the contact with Aboriginal culture. This contact will no doubt bring changes to her work. Whatever the input Drysdale will remain a virtuoso skilled with stains, glazes and lustre, a magician who absorbs the essence of her surroundings and transforms elegant porcelain shapes into objects of desire.


1.  Landscape II  from the Logging on Parchment Series, 1990. 45 x 39 x 7 cm. Photograph by Victor France.

2.  Effigy IV, 1992, 58 cm diam x 7 cm. Collection Manly Art Gallery. Photograph Victor France.

3.  Southern Twilight  from the Landscape Lustre Series, 1993, 13 cm x11 cm. Collection Ron and Sandra Wise. Photograph Victor France.

4.  A group from the Pinnacles Series I, 1994. Circles in Space 1-3  are in the Collection of Manly Art Gallery. Photograph Victor France.

5.  Horizon, 1995. Collection of Australian Capital Equity. 30 cm diameter. Photograph Robert Frith.

6.  Desert Plains , 1995. 28 cm ht. Victor France photograph.

7. Salt Bush Plains from the Pinnacles Series I, 1995. 40 cm ht. Kate and Philip Noakes Collection. Victor France photograph.

8. Noon Heat , 1996. c17 cm ht. Victor France photograph.

9 & 10. Fly Flat Diggings, from the Eastern Goldfields Series, 1996, 12-25 cms height. Victor France photograph.

11.  Geiki, 1996, 30 cm height. Collection of the Wool Board, Seoul, Korea.   Victor France photograph.

12.  Detail of painted surface. 1996. Victor France photograph.

13.  In the Wet1997.  c 30 cm ht . Victor France photograph.

14.  Tempest, 1997. c  32 cms ht. Victor France photograph.

15.  Lost in a sandstorm, 1997. c. 19 cm ht Victor France photograph.

16.  Beginning of the Myrtle, 1997. 22.5 x 22 cm ht. Victor France photograph.

17.  Basalt Genesis, 1998. 33.5x 29 cm ht.  Robert Frith photograph. Sinclair Collection USA.

18.  The Resolution, 1998. 20 x23 cm  ht. Photograph Robert Frith.

19. Detail of The Resolution, 1998. Photograph Robert Frith.

20. Schistose , 1998, 27x 25.5 ht. Photograph Robert Frith.

21. Detail of Schistose. Photograph Robert Frith.

22. Aurora Australis, 1996. 45 cms ht. Photograph Victor France  (large format)

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