Gwyn Hanssen Pigott has always made all these forms, but in the 1990s started combining them, at first in small groups and now up to about 30 in number. The teapots, a more recent addition to the groups, are small in size in proportion to the beakers so that their strong shapes will not dominate in the overall group; she wants them to 'snuggle in'. For the same reason, Hanssen Pigott does not use the well-known celadon glaze in these groups, believing that its familiarity will cause it to dominate; it has a history that gets in the way. She is looking for translucency as well as colour in the pieces, so the work is fired at a high temperature, which has the potential for risk of loss. High temperatures also bring out iron if it is present, and therefore a green colour that she does not want. (Interview with Grace Cochrane 2002).
In 1954 Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (at that time Gwyn John) was studying for a fine arts degree at the University of Melbourne. She was intrigued by the Chinese and Korean pottery in the National Gallery of Victoria and had read Bernard Leach's A Potters Book. Her thesis required her to collect information from significant practising potters in Victoria and New South Wales, including Ivan McMeekin at the influential Sturt workshops, in Mittagong, New South Wales. She was eventually apprenticed to McMeekin for three years and considers him her most important influence.
She moved to England and worked with key studio potters of the time, including Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew: 'Here I was witness to the daily commitment to quality, the constant curiosity and change, the personal involvements with the history of the craft and the obsessive reading for deeper insights'. Many of her experiences in these years are still contributing, years later, to her current work. She said of Hans Coper's modernist work in England in 1965: 'I walked down ...into a place so still; held, not immediately by the pots themselves, but by a sense that the space between the pots were recognised forms too: negatives.' Later, attracted by the freshness and vigour of traditional woodfired French stonewares, she set up a pottery in rural France, where she worked on refining glazes and woodfiring processes to make more subtle effects in her own work.
In the early 1970s she also saw the work of the 'still life' painter Giorgio Morandi: 'I love his searching, obsessive, describing of the common objects that were his subject and measure...His work is substantial, tenuous; disturbing, resolved...It is about essence; the metaphysical expressed through the solidly physical and knowable.' She returned to Australia in 1973, setting up a workshop near Hobart, in Tasmania, and focused on using Tasmanian clay and glaze materials to make hand thrown wood-fired domestic stonewares with subtle, beautiful surfaces. By the late 1980s, after living in Adelaide, South Australia, and then moving to northern Queensland, she had: 'started to look more closely at how pots, perfectly contained within themselves, sit with each other, changing each other. I was interested to find what could hold the pots together in a bonding that...could only be discovered after the firing when everything came into play: lushness, coolness, colour, weight, line. (quotes above from Gwyn Hanssen Pigott 'Autobiographical Notes' The Studio Potter 20/ 1 Dec 1991 p46).
She started to make groupings of pots, calling them 'inseparable', or 'still life' groups, because she wanted them to be considered in a way that 'might raise a question, lengthen a glance'. The space between the pots became as important to her as their shapes and colours, and she is precise about the way they should be placed together, with 'tensions and resolutions, quirky relationships and sometimes a certain, restful, classicism.' She also prefers them to be viewed at certain eye-levels and in certain lighting.
Not all the work is still. A touring exhibition about landscape provoked her to make horizontal groupings, some 'wandering', some 'craggy' and some 'dishes limpid and liquid as lagoons.' Groups like Jug Parade came about because 'sometimes the colour, shapes, juxtapositions and jostlings suggest more of a street theatre than a silence', and the title Exodus was given to two long lines of small, anonymous domestic pots that appeared to be displaced, crossing borders and seeking refuge. These 'ordinary, simple things' grew out of experiences in Cambodia, where she was working with potters to regain ceramic skills lost during war and occupation. Works that followed, were more like families: 'They are rather pale, like memories: matt like frescoes.' The first, Procession, was made after her father's funeral; in another called Waiting, the pots huddle in groups or stand aloof. (Gwyn Hanssen Pigott 'Notes from Netherdale' Ceramics Art and Perception 27 1997, p79)
In 1997, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott was asked to write for the December issue of Studio Potter, some thoughts about the issue 'Truth in Form'. She said:
'If I am feeling a reluctance to speak about 'truth in form' it's not, I think, because I don't have convictions or thoughts about form. I do. But truth? That's a big word. The fact is that I do have (like, I can suppose, most old makers) an in-built, very strict arbiter which will not allow me to do certain things with the clay. It knows the limits I must work within; it pulls me back from flamboyance; it thrills at the difference the smallest change of a curve can make, or the widening of a bass. It marvels at certain juxtapositions of shapes, line, volume; feels a relief when it recognises a 'rightness' of form.
'I must mean my rightness. My tested and tried and personal rightness, wherever that came from. And after all these years I can't hope to unscramble what has come from learned appreciation, cultural inheritance, observed work, or what might honestly be called my own language. I can't tell if it is simply habit which makes me so sure of some things, and so stubborn in my application; or some less explicable intuition. So what am I sure of? About form. Hmm.
'I am sure that the forms of the most common, everyday utensils can evoke so much that is inexpressible in any other language about humanness. That with only the very slightest gesture, the merest suggestion of the lip of a jug, or pouring spout, or the lightest softening of a curve, there can be expressed a sort of vulnerability, or a tenderness, or an attentiveness that causes us to pause. That the scale alone of some objects can touch us, and a small jug of open and generous form can somehow seem brave and absurd and a bit like ourselves.
'When I speak about form I am of course speaking about volume and line and I love the way these interact and change with every angle of vision. So that from eye level a group of pots (a still life, or parade, or procession, or family, or tribe) might be at one glance severe, and classical, with solid profiles, and slightly pompous stances. And then, with a slight raising of one's height, the lips of bowls and jugs can appear to outline floating ovals of suspended colour; the pots no longer anthropomorphic but linear, seamless, like drawings.
'For this illusion the rims must be fine (the body porcelain) and the colour or texture inside and out of the pot have some contrast - even if slight. And of course if the porcelain is translucent there is a further dissolving of the solid and the line.
'I throw slowly. I am thinking and remembering, trying to feel the character of the other pieces I have made that day. There might have been bottles and jugs with a sort of plumpness. Perhaps I had been thinking of the paintings of Botero. And I will be recalling that again when I am making the beakers; so that much, much later, after the firing, there will be some families of pieces with a tribal resemblance of sorts.
'Or I might be thinking of the way certain matt glazes absorb the light, making the wares seem less substantial, less seductive than those clothed in felspathic glazes (which like wet stone catch the light at each turn, and leave stronger traces of the flame's path in the kiln). And these shadowy matt surfaces may demand a quieter form - silent, gentle and thoughtful. If we can use such words about a bottle!
I once disliked such glazes, which stain with tea in the cup, which mark when a knife is used on the plate, and which cause a little shiver to the touch. I still don't welcome them to the kitchen. But, strange, I no longer care if the cup, with its careful handle, and balanced weight (the heritage of years of tea set making) stands unused among a quiet group of table-top objects arranged as a still life, somewhere higher than table height. It is still a cup - an everyday object as ordinary and simple as can be; but from somewhere, (because of its tense or tenuous relationship with other simple, recognised, even banal objects) pleasure comes.
'I am surprised. It's a weird idea. It's not what I thought my work would ever be about when I tried to live like the unknown craftsman in a hamlet in France, or a backwood in Tasmania. It is alarmingly contradictory; to make pots that are sweet to use and then to place them almost out of reach. To make beakers that are totally inviting and then to freeze them in an installation. Worse still, to take so much time with each piece, carefully trimming and turning and removing most marks of the throwing, to glaze with exacting precision, waxing inside even the simplest, smallest beaker to ensure a sharp, drawn edge. There has been an alarming turnaround. Old friends may indeed be worried.
'And yet it has come slowly, out of observation, out of what can't be refuted. These forms, these assemblages and groupings and jostlings and juxtapositions sometimes have a power to move me, and others. Strange. I cannot understand.
'I have learned a few things, about the arrangements. I have to be in neutral when I place the pots together, and alert to tensions and havens of spacing. Then I might find sweet relationships, shy couplings, protecting strengths in those paired down, waiting forms. Traps are legion, and I easily slip into them; the snares of design, of glibness, of easy predictability or cleverness, as in all areas of the making. There is a lot of self-trust involved here. Not always so easy. Some groupings stand the test of time; some, alas, seem awkward or pretentious now to my changed eyes.
'Thankfully there are masters I can look to, who never seemed to miss. The makers of the Korean rice bowls, Giorgio Morandi. Their works confront and inspire, and imply humility. Unconscious or highly, intensely conscious, their works express a sure understanding. Of something.
'What? Is that truth in form? Are their forms true?
'Well, they have left us some sort of man-made, material, tangible expression in real stuff, real clay, real thick paint, which in its pulled back simplicity satisfies a surprising longing. And because I can appreciate it, (a little), or feel it, then that understanding must be in me too - as deeply as I allow it. And also, perhaps, the potential to express it.
Worth pursuing, wouldn't you say? But perhaps, after all, not to be spoken about too much. Words get too big. Leave them.'
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott made these pots in a small electric test kiln, as she has recently moved studio and has not yet set up a woodfiring kiln.
She fires at very high temperatures with strong reduction to obtain greater translucency, but the risk factor is high and she loses a number of works. The lids stick; the handles droop. Fawn and grey are difficult to get under reduction because if iron is present everything goes green. She has to find pigments without iron in them, and generally uses a blend of 'mandarin' and 'violet'.
She uses clay that is appropriate for the form. Most are in Limoges porcelain. She throws these pieces (beakers, teapots, cups) and when it is leather-hard, turns them to make them thin, then sprays to soften them and pushes them out of shape. The Southern Ice clay (developed by Les Blakebrough in Hobart) can not be reworked in this way, but she likes its whiteness and translucency. She makes round bowls in this clay, and also uses it for the slipcast bottles. She casts the bottles as she could not throw them thinly enough in this size. (She carved a bottle form very quickly in plaster on the wheel, then made moulds into which slip is poured). The forms are gas-fired to 1300C degrees or more, to cone 12 nearly half over, for 18 hours in small test kiln and in strong reduction. (Interview 2002)