Notes from the Edge: Gail Nichol Reports on a Conversation with Australian Ceramic Artist Bruce McWhinney, Discussing the Ideas Driving His Work

By Nichol, Gail | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Notes from the Edge: Gail Nichol Reports on a Conversation with Australian Ceramic Artist Bruce McWhinney, Discussing the Ideas Driving His Work


Nichol, Gail, Ceramics Art & Perception


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AFTER MANY YEARS OF PROFESSIONAL STUDIO WORK making brightly coloured electric fired tableware and some low-fired sculpture, Bruce McWhinney has returned to high temperature wood firing, his original interest as a student in the 1970s. This major shift in style and technique represents a bold and possibly risky career move. It could be likened to taking up the cello in middle age, aiming to reach the standard of Pablo Casals in a few short years. Is this madness? Art demands a willingness to dream, experiment and to follow one's heart. McWhinney has set himself this challenge, and is pursuing it with great passion. It is interesting to explore this development, the philosophy behind it and where his design background is leading him in the context of contemporary wood firing.

McWhinney moved to clay work in 1976, following initial training and work in interior design and advertising. He learned about wood firing and salt glazing at East Sydney College but then decided to focus on the strength of his design background and studied with Wedgwood and David Queensberry in England. Although he was intellectually interested in this work, McWhinney recalls feeling emotionally unattached. Now, many years later he has moved back to wood firing to 'regain his heart'. His work has developed in a series of leaps interspersed with life events such as building houses and having children. There were periods where he concentrated on specific objectives like design ware or sculpture. He investigated slab building, coiling, press moulding, slip casting and throwing. "All those skills have taken a very long time to acquire and hone. I have deliberately discarded some like slip casting, as it became too technical and industrial."

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Is McWhinney aware of any links between his current wood fired work and his previous design-focused tableware? At first he says no, but then reconsiders. "Really there is a connection, in that the western design idea remains in the sculptural elements of the wood fired work. While I was interested in balancing colour and design with simplified geometric shapes in the tableware, in the sculpture I balance texture against smooth surfaces, shiny against matt and organic against geometric or architectural elements. Holistically the sculpture is more successful in incorporating more design elements, while not being obviously designed."

Wood firing was chosen largely to provide the organic surfaces McWhinney saw as appropriate to his evolving sculptural work. His first exhibited sculptures appeared in Mura Clay Gallery in Sydney in 1992. Then followed his series of pods and rocks, first shown in 1999. The pods represented a subtle shift into non-functional pieces designed from vessels that occur in nature. Some of the pod forms closed over and became 'rocks', with implications of mass and weight. Pods and rocks continue to appear in some of McWhinney's recent wood-fired forms. Some of the rock forms now have holes penetrating through them in an attempt to break up the mass, but there is no opening into the form itself, as in a vessel. "I couldn't say where it is all going. I gave in sometime ago to the notion that the work would take me, rather than the other way round. Creating in clay is still about working with internal volumes. The outside shape is a product of the work done on the inside. That's what sets it apart from other kinds of sculpture, and why I believe there is a category called 'ceramic sculpture'. But moving from vessel to sculpture and sculpture back to vessel does help keep the work alive and in touch with its foundations."

McWhinney's work reflects a complex mix of influences East and West, urban and rural, with a focus on our relationship with nature. …

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