For leading ceramic artist Sandra Black, 2015 marks 40 years of creating exquisite ceramic art, so for this interview I am heading to the port city of Fremantle to get her insights on dealing with a creative issue that worries many artists, including Sandra Black.
As I drive I contemplate the inherent pressure on an artist to stay in top form while creating art for 31 solo and 250 group exhibitions (all while earning a living) and by the time I arrive at her home, just a stone’s throw from the beach, I am ready to discuss with her how she has managed to overcome the burnout and depression that had begun to plague her and reignite her creative spark.
Moving through to the garden studio I find Black busy at one of her many workbenches so I pull up a chair beside her and dive right into the subject.
She puts her work aside and explains that her strategy for dealing with the problem was to spend a few years taking time away from home and studio to travel overseas on residencies to some of the world’s ceramic hot-spots.
She kicked off two of her most recent journeys with a self-funded sojourn to Jingdezhen China – a city that is dedicated to the creation of works in porcelain – the medium Black creates her prized artwork in.
“It was a good thing to do because it’s totally removed from the family environment and all those distractions,” she says. “Instead you are totally immersed in the culture of making – all you have to do every day is go into their studio and make work.”
“In China different people do each part of the process”
The culture of making in China, Black explains, is very different to our own. “Here one artist does everything, from priming the clay and all the stages in between right through to firing,” she says. “But in China different people do each part of the process – there is a master primer, a kiln master and even someone who specialises in carrying work between points in the process”.
Even the makers are specialists, Black says; showing me the tiny porcelain flowers she brought home to illustrate how each one was made adeptly on the fingertip of the “flower master”.
Black says she found the process of handing over her work to these masters at various stages confronting.
“My own work is very controlled and giving it to another artist is saying “I trust you implicitly and I’m letting go.” It’s scary and it’s confronting because you have to let go of control but I went with no particular expectations in mind and just opened myself up to it.”
Black also learned new carving skills [from the carving master] and worked with new tools. She plans to continue practicing using her new skills in surface decoration with shapes derived from organic forms.
During her trip to China, Black was offered another part-funded opportunity in India. “I got hooked up to a residency with Gallery Sanskriti in Maihar – they brought in artists from all over the world. We were looked after so well and had the most wonderful time. I worked with stoneware and did wood firing, which I haven’t done for a long time – it’s so different to working with porcelain, but that’s the whole point really, isn’t it.”
“the value…is incalculable”
“I’ve learnt that it’s important to go on a residency with an open mind. You can get too serious and fixed into ways of working – but another artist can do something to your work that stops it from becoming stale.”
Black is convinced of the importance of these residencies for an artist.“Even though funding a residency yourself is hard, the value of it is incalculable,” she says, adding that she has also made many prized contacts worldwide.
Reenergised by her time overseas Black made some changes on her return. “I have given away some of my teaching workload so I can spend more time in the studio,” she says. “I’ll spend more time carving and working with the decals I created and had made up over there.”
I notice that these bear the delicate mesh-like patterning that is familiar from her precious drilled artworks which explore translucency; illumination and reflection and are held in major collections around the world.
“I even go through with a hammer”
I am interested in how Black reconciles the labour intensive nature of her ceramic work with her creative process and ask her about it.
“When I decide it’s time to start work I come into the studio and clean. I even go through with a hammer to get rid of visual distractions,” she says. “Then I prep my equipment and materials (she buys clay or glaze she likes working with in huge quantities because each batch can be so different). And then I start making.”
“Ceramics is very process oriented and it needs to flow from one thing to the next,” she says. “So when I start work I might throw ten bowls – I need a body of works to get a rhythm going for the processes that follow.”
As well as creating her prized conceptual artworks, Black has a pragmatic side and creates a range of “production ware” which has its origins in the market downturn of the nineties. Pieces of this beautifully made work fill the shelves behind her.
“I feel it’s good for an artist to have bread and butter lines as a means of survival,” she says. “And the repetitive nature of production work like this also gives you great making skills and provides the head space to think about more conceptual work.”
“I am interested in industrial landscapes”
The conceptual work Black is interested in as she prepares for her next solo at Beaver Gallery in Canberra in August is emerging as chimney stack forms and construction influenced drawings which still have elements of light play, within, through and from the objects.
“At the moment I am interested in industrial landscapes and contrasting them with environmental issues to create these prototypes. It’s dreadful what the development is doing to the landscape but it’s also very beautiful,” she says before I leave, assured that Black’s creative fire is burning brightly.