The Stillness - The empty vessel,  the thought provoking void


I draw on my cross-cultural experiences to evoke a personal sense of spiritual connectedness to the natural Australian environment through a Japanese ceramics discipline and a contemporary installation practice. My early exposure to a Japanese aesthetic, anchored in simplicity and emptiness, is fundamental to my understanding of the relationship between ceramic objects and their context within an architectural environment. My traditional training is the source of the repetition I use as a methodology to inform the vessels and their location. Also underlying the body of work is a strong interest in the containment of space, which originates in the act of making ceramic vessels themselves, and recurs in varying scales throughout the installation. Although associated with clay, containment is a principle synonymous with architecture, as it is more easily understood through physical experience. My art practice flows between a logical and intuitive view of the world, aiming to provoke a physical engagement through a sensory response to objects and their counterpart of interval space.

My study of the works of many contemporary Asian artists has revealed a strong referencing of ancient myth and legend that immediately connects their work to their own culture. As an Australian, I naturally have an underlying sense of diaspora due to the absence of a distinct cultural inheritance. In this context, connection to place is bound up in memory and myth so belonging, connected to memory of place, in an Australian vernacular is what I am endeavoring to express through my ceramic work.



The Stillness

Fifty hollow ceramic columns softly tapered at the base and necks are arranged in a square white room. Some rise to near shoulder height. Natural light from the high windows falls on their chalky surfaces, revealing subtle, random patterns of concentric circles that have been rubbed back through the layers of slip. There is sufficient space for a person to move carefully between them.



Response to The Stillness by Gaye Stevens:

  ‘I walk through the dimness of the antechamber and into the gentle light. I stand at the edge of a gathering of tall, elongated forms, arrested by their stillness, enveloped by their silence. A shaft of sunlight falls into their midst. The forms seem to breathe it in and then exhale it as a luminous sigh.

‘My body responds to the forms. The space between them draws me in. Their seeming fragility makes me feel tense and heightens my awareness of the mass of my body moving through the spaces they define with their presence. I am acutely aware of every movement I make, and the perimeters of my body.

‘One misplaced step and all might shatter.

‘The markings on the forms vibrate with an inner radiance in this light, in this silence.

‘I instinctively understand their significance – they draw me from one form to another and heighten my awareness of the forms’ hollowness, the void held by each.’[1]






My research and studio practice draws a relationship between my ceramic training and my personal connection with Australia. It is an exploration in form, surface and space, used to evoke the memory of a sense of spiritual connection to the natural environment through both a traditional Japanese ceramics discipline and a contemporary installation practice.

Repetition is the methodology used to inform the surface, structure and layout of the thrown cylindrical forms in the artwork. I use it as a symbolic link between the modern and traditional, and the built and the natural world. As a technique, repetition is embedded in the history of clay and places my work in the continuum of knowledge relayed by the hand that relates to my Japanese ceramic training.

 The unifying multiplicity of the vessel-based cylindrical forms resonates with the aim of the installation to create a visual lineal rhythm, linking the natural and the built worlds.

The surface quality of the forms helps determine the aesthetic response to the work.

A slightly unorthodox firing temperature has been used as a deliberate statement to situate the work outside any utilitarian conformity or restraint imposed by prescribed ceramic genres.

 The installation creates a temporal and transitional space. By controlling body movement and visual interaction with the objects, I aim to stimulate a physical awareness that induces a state of inner stillness. This emotional state allows for the imagination to be ignited and for the silent absorption of the subtleties of the objects and their counterpart in interval space, establishing a renewed response to the traditional concepts I have drawn on.

The environment of the installation was initially inspired by the tea gardens in Japan, which are also designed as a transitional space. To enter the tea garden, one leaves the world of the mundane and passes through a precisely planned space of carefully crafted nature, laid out so awareness becomes acute. Pace and movement are governed and the senses are sharpened to such a degree that the viewer inhabits the purity and stillness of mind to enter the realm of the sacred – the refined pure space of the tea house – to meditate on objects of art evoking sensory memories of nature.

The square, white volume of the gallery is a key symbol as it is a formula of perfectly balanced tension associated with ideas originating from a Japanese aesthetic. In this work it symbolically represents a fusion of Western and Japanese sensibilities. And in this context, the interaction with the minimal space makes the installation site specific to a controlled architectural environment.

I have drawn on many cross-cultural influences from Australia and Japan to broaden the perception of ceramic vessels, creating a sensory environment that facilitates an unfettered experience of form and space.




The origins of The Stillness

The idea for this body of work began in India, and draws on influences from Australia and Japan that have determined my understanding of self and belonging.

I grew up on the coast in Perth in Western Australia. After finishing art school, I travelled to Japan where I became an apprentice to Master Potter Isezaki Mitsuru and I was mentored by a Cultural Living Treasure, Fugiwara Rakuzan. This was in Bizen, one of Japan’s six ancient kiln areas known for its dark, wood-fired, fly ash glazed ceramics.

 During my five years in Bizen, my diverse training ranged from preparing clay to learning unique throwing and slab forming techniques. It also involved the building of experimental kilns and the renewing of firing techniques that had not been used in this area for many centuries with the exception of my teacher’s father. At the same time I investigated the conceptual origins of form inspired by the local traditions.

Under the guidance of the Isezaki brothers, Mitsuru and Jun, the three apprentices and myself developed a new firing palette, establishing a contemporary context that set our work apart from other Bizen artists. Our revised approach to kiln design and firing produced a freshness of surface colour that established a new context within the continuum.

This period at Bizen is now regarded as having instigated significant changes in practice that have since been followed by many other ceramists in Bizen. Mitsuru worked within a traditionally inspired aesthetic, producing asymmetric contemporary vessels that were predominately used in flower arrangement or the tea ceremony, whereas Jun’s work referenced architectural form, drawing content from ancient stone and burial structures that punctuated the surrounding landscape.

The Isezaki brothers were noted artists who had also developed extensive  complexes of finely crafted contemporary and traditional buildings to display their large collection of contemporary Western fine art and exquisite rare and ancient Japanese ceramics. My interaction with these beautifully appointed architectural environments and the collections housed inside the buildings provided a privileged experience of learning and enquiry that has influenced this installation.

The tea ceremony was another interwoven, disciplined training I undertook during my training in Bizen. Exposure to its aesthetic was fundamental in forming my understanding of the relationship between ceramic objects and their spatial context within an architectural environment.

My mentor, Fugiwara Rakuzan, did not work with Bizen firing[2]. He had developed an independent way of producing a unique surface and palette in a non-traditional kiln that was quintessential to the content and scale of his work. When I met Rakuzan he was an old man who had spent a lifetime making tea bowls. He understood the aesthetic of emptiness innately through spending much of his time in a small boat on the open water, absorbing the expanse of its space, with the pretext of fishing.

From Rakuzan I learnt the significance of space within form. This happened through my use of his bowls while drinking tea during our daily conversations over five years. He described a tea bowl in terms of a small and intimate vessel that comfortably nestles in two cupped hands, which visually contains an internal space as vast as an ocean. I enjoyed dreaming into the expanse of his bowls. I felt a resonance. We had the ocean in common.

My Bizen experience positioned me to receive a substantial financial sponsorship to build a 15-metre long Anagama kiln and establish a studio and dwelling on the north coast of Japan in the seaside village of Hamazaka. Here I produced several exhibitions of wood-fired vessels inspired by my training, before eventually returning to Australia.

The natural environment of Australia has had a profound effect on my sense of belonging. From a young age, I have felt a deep emotional allegiance with the wilderness of this country. In my formative years I grew up on the beaches of Perth and spent time in the bushlands of Kings Park with naturalist Harry Butler,[3] learning about tree and plant species and animal habitats. I travelled extensively throughout Western Australia and stayed in many regions of the North West, including spending time with the Mardu people at Jigalong[4] in the Pilbara and Simpson Desert and with the salt-water Bardi people at One Arm Point in the Kimberley. These Aboriginal communities both live in close connection to the land: one people to the desert, one to the water.

After leaving Japan I established myself on the eastern seaboard in NSW, finally settling and immersing myself in the watery environment of the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney.

In 2011 I received an invitation to exhibit as an Australian ceramicist in India. The invitation forced me to question both what it meant to be a contemporary Australian ceramicist working within a Japanese ceramics discipline, and what it was that I wanted my work to reflect about my origins. On a fundamental level, it made me reconsider what connected me to Australia. I became increasingly aware of a need for creating a more distinct cultural symbolism in my work, especially in an international context, and questioned how to go about achieving this while retaining a commitment to my training.

These lines of inquiry have formed the basis of this  Project in Contemporary Ceramics.

On that same trip to India, I went on an extended motorbike journey along the west coast, exploring ancient temple architecture. Riding through the densely vegetated hills of Kerala, I experienced an overwhelming sense of familiarity, a sense of inexplicable ‘connectedness’ to the environment. It was quite daunting. It took me some time before I realised we were riding through a plantation of Eucalypt trees. It was a profound moment when I understood my emotional response of ‘connection’ from recognising the familiar tree species. This experience made me realise how powerful the response to our known environment can be.

These days I spend a lot of time wandering around the coastal wooded areas of the NSW south coast and exploring the shores and headlands of the Hawkesbury River and Pittwater in my tinnie (boat). These landscapes are dominated by Spotted Gum, Casuarina and Angophora trees.

Spotted Gums [5] have become my special interest and they had a significant influence on this body of work. These gums are a unique species that only grow in stands or forests. They have an unusual resilience to harsh conditions and a unique connection to water; like bamboo, they are interconnected below ground level. Their biomass gives Spotted Gums a powerful, repetitive, vertical linearity in their habitats.

 Groves and forests of Spotted Gums have come to play a big role in my life. I return to them regularly as places of reflection and inspiration. They are a metaphor for my own spirit. My memories of experiences in the natural environment are characterised by a sense of spiritual connectedness. It is the same aesthetic sense that I identify in the uninterrupted regularity of the recurring vertical structural elements in sacred Indian architecture.

I now feel as if I am the product of three distinct cultural Influences: Australian, Japanese and Indian. However the culture I am talking about here is not derived from a human-made culture but rather the cultural aura and aesthetic produced by the primal response to the natural environment. An interaction and absorption takes place between an environment and the person experiencing it, as observed by Walter Benjamin: ‘I set myself in the space and the space settles in me.’ [6]





[1] Gaye Stevens, School of Design Studies at College of Fine Art, University of NSW. E-mail message to author, May 25, 2014May 25, 2014.

[2] Bizen is one of six ancient kiln areas of Japan, which employs traditional firing methods used for more than 1,200 years. It is noted for its heavily reduced fly ash glazed large storage urns made from local rice field clays. These clays are completely vitreous, smooth and durable at stoneware temperatures. The Bizen style is generally associated with a palette of dark earthy colours. The ceramics are fired in chambered climbing kilns (Noborigama).Prior to these chambered kilns, during the Hein period from 794-1185 AD, which signalled the end of Classical Japan, the kilns were simple single chambers (Anagama) and the colour palette was light and warm. Glaze has never been used as a separate application in this area.

[3] Dr Harry Butler (AO) is renowned Australia-wide as a naturalist, author and conservationist. His television series in the ’70s, In the Wild, made many Australians aware of their wildlife heritage for the first time and the need for its conservation. In 2012 the National Trust acknowledged Butler played a major role in environmental conservation and restoration, making him a Living National Treasure of Australia.

[4] Jigalong was the location of a maintenance and rations store set up in 1907 for the people building the rabbit-proof fence; it was also used as a camel breeding station. In 1947 it was taken over by Christian missionaries for 20 years before the land was returned to the Mardu people of the Western Desert. In an anthropological context, external cultural influences were minimal as the Mardu maintained their own cultural pride and rejected Christian missionaries.

[5] On November 1, 2010, Spotted Gums were renamed Corymbia Maculata, belonging to the Myrtaceae Family. They no longer belong to the Eucalyptus family, as their growth pattern is very different: their shallow root system outcompetes adjacent species and they form a biomass with interconnecting roots. From Florabank.org.au, May 28, 2014.

[6] Cited in The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture. Juhani Pallasmaa (UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 104.