As a kid growing up on the Gold Coast in the 1960's and early 1970's on the cusp of the Real Estate Boom that continues today Artist Peter Cooley had a very different experience of the place we have long associated with as the mecca of Australian surface culture, for a young boy cutting his teeth on pinch pots it was a coastal place to contemplate nature, birdlife, theme parks and the possibilities of menageries.
The Blue Mountains have long been an inspiration for your work Peter?
Yes and these new majolica works are a continuation of my fauna and bird themes. Although, my last two shows haven’t been all about the birds of the Blue Mountains, the subject matter is a little more open – ended, the Cassowaries for example.
I think now I am looking further afield now for inspiration, but for ten years the Blue Mountains have been a major influence. Also an influence in this shift was the 2010 NGA exhibition Life, Death and Magic which I liked a lot, particularly that it explored ancestral art of SE Asia.
It was interesting to see how in many of the artworks the three dimensional and the two dimensional became intertwined and the influences from India & China became localised.
For me this idea of referencing Australian birds and marsupials and acknowledging the broader influences of “Life Death & Magic” to my way of thinking at least, this exhibition of work considers what we have at “the end of the archipelagos “ here in Australia.
How did this major Blue Mountain’s influence begin?
I first spent 18 months in Katoomba in 1996-1997; I had the caretaker’s flat in the old Guesthouse on Katoomba Street which is a Youth Hostel today. It was great, so different to living in Sydney, and anyway it went up for sale and then I moved to Melbourne. I had good friends living in Melbourne and was ready for new surroundings. Melbourne was dynamic at first.
When I moved to back to the Blue Mountains to live in 2003 – after living in St Kilda for five years - I had the opportunity for a house with a studio. I was ready for a tree change, I didn’t like the way St Kilda had changed, lost some its character and charm. Being in the Blue Mountains felt good, open, I had a large studio suited to making ceramics and large paintings. I was fascinated by the many birds and animals I noticed while walking.
I did lots of walking, long walks and I noticed the Cockatoos, the Black Cockatoos which are a bit rarer, the Gang Gangs, Kites and of course the variety of different landscapes, plateaus, clifftops, canyons, cascades and so on. I began working in ceramics immediately and birds became the focus. In fact moved back here because I wanted to make ceramics again. I had the space to do this which I didn’t have in Melbourne; you need space to make ceramics and an electric kiln.
Majolica. Tell me a bit about the fabulous glazes you use ?
For the last three years I have been using Majolica glazes. Tin glazes invented by Arabic artists for earthenware. They invented it because they wanted to make false porcelain. This was in the Middle Ages. China had porcelain which the Arabs coveted I guess and they wanted to imitate it, the tin glazes allow for a fine white base, a whiteness you could then paint on and that the Arabs liked.
It’s an on glaze rather than one of the traditional under glazes; it really just means you can paint over it. That’s one of the qualities I like most about working with Majolica glazes, the painterliness, you can see the brushstrokes.
Sometimes I miss painting, oils, I haven’t painted for ten years now, you can get pretty fed up with ceramics at times, but with ceramics I feel like I can push the boundaries a bit more and make things on my own terms. That’s to say I can combine sculpture and painting and as a result a product that is much more intimate.
And with these glazes I am painting all the time on the earthenware paper clay, clay you can push around a lot, it can take a lot of handling, its the only clay that can handle this, so it is very satisfying. I make works which look handmade, both the way I fashion the clay and with the on glaze and painting layers amplifies this handmade aspect. I like that a lot.
I also like that ceramics unlike painting is much more physical, it’s VERY physical, I enjoy all the touching, shaping, handling, the intimacy with the materials, the lifting and the kilning, and making so the larger scale works don’t get too close to the kiln element. The Cassowaries for instance, they are large works made to measure, that is they are the largest works I can make with the electric kiln I have.
Yes and one of the regular techniques I notice about your work is the pinch pot technique taken into a different league, on a grander scale if you like? They so remind me of the raku pottery that was so commonplace when we were kids growing up in the 1970’s, it seemed like everyone was making Raku pottery, pinching pots and plates and vessels and firing them in backyard kilns made out of recycled bricks?
Yes, that’s true, and in fact I have been thinking about Raku of late and this is the intimacy I am talking about, handmade and I like them to look raw, pinched, and a little hideous, they are hideous.
Hideous, it’s interesting you say that Peter, the other thing I like is the quality of naive art /folk art to the way these works are made that and they are almost uncanny, almost monstrous, almost childlike. When you say hideous do you mean terrifying?
Yes, they are hideous, you can print that. I like that quality about my works. Some of the works I push this even further, into kitsch, but sometimes the works which are more kitsch in manner require a greater leap of faith, kitsch- that is terrifying for many people. The swans for instance.
I remember looking at one particular swan work and feeling it looks like a tyre swan, remember those swans cut out of old tyres and planted into gardens as decorative features, decorative planters?
Exactly, tyre swans are a classic of Australiana, and this is very conscious on my part.
Raku, you say you’ve been thinking about Raku again of late?
Yes, I have maybe because I like the finish it has, it is different to the glazing method it has all the elements of earth wind and fire, and these elements make it look quite raw, the firing produces a very different finish that I like.
Yes, one of the things I remember fondly about making Raku as a kid, was how the fire could singe and burn the clay into interesting colours even though it was just one type of clay depending in where it was located in the kiln, how hot it was an how long it was fired for. When did you take up ceramics?
I started ceramics when I was 12 years old. I went to Saturday afternoon classes in Tweed Heads where I grew up. The woman who used to teach the classes was an artist with a studio, a kiln and ran classes for anyone interested. Her name was Helen Moffatt and she made earthenware.
Thank heavens for the Women's Weekly, it is a little known fact that many an Australian boy has grown up with a penchant for the Weekly. I understand there is a particular Women's Weekly magazine you have had since you were a kid that continues to influence you?
True it's the 1959-1960, The Living Bush, it is a Women’s Weekly publication. I loved the colour photo reproductions and the printing technique they used, it’s like technicolour or kodakchrome, vibrant saturated colours and the design too, very 1950’s.
The main thing I liked about the publication was all the Australian animals it depicted. We had rosellas and greenies growing up in Tweed Heads, they liked the berries on the Queensland Umbrella Trees, but I was fascinated by all the other animals in other areas of Australia, the ones that seemed exotic to me.
As a kid I was fascinated by things that were exotic. I still use this publication as an influence in my work today. I think the Women’s Weekly put out a version every 15 years there was one in the 1970s and one more recent again.
Exotica, yes I was the type of kid drawn to exotica. The Living Bush has all sorts of fauna and birds, most Australian Species in fact, like Gang Gangs, Eastern Rosellas, and Cockatiels and so on.
One of my favourite places where I could see some of these different species locally was at the Currumbin Bird Sanctuary; it’s still there today on the Pacific highway. There was also David Fleay’s Sanctuary close by as well. Theme parks were everywhere on the Gold Coast,
I liked the Currumbin Bird Sanctuary because there were so many colourful birds. And much closer to home than the bird sanctuary on the border of Queensland and NSW at the time was the Natureland Zoo which first opened in the 1950’s. We were neighbours, and we would go there lots as a family to see the lions and big cats, the deer. The back of the zoo was near our house so each night we could hear Rex the lion roaring it was amazing sound to fall asleep to.
The zoo was a menagerie which I didn't like, it had changed since it first opened and was a lot of animals bunched in together. But it had leopards, monkey’s, peacocks roaming around and pheasants too; the Golden Pheasant was one of my favourites as a kid and those Black Cockatoos which I love seeing up here in the Blue Mountains, they seemed happy, freer in the Zoo and not as badly treated as the big cats, that was something I liked.In the Blue Mountains you see Black Cockatoos flying in pairs or threesomes rather than flocks like the White Cockatoos and they have a very different call to the white Cockatoo and they seem to like the Radiata Pines that are everywhere in the Blue Mountains now, they like eating the radiata cones.
Peter Cooley | Through the Archipelago II 30 May - 23 June 2013
Photos: Top- Kites, Middle- White Tailed Cockatoos, Bottom- Gang Gang Tea Cups, Courtesy Peter Cooley and Martin Browne Contemporary
See Peter's influences:
Peter was also influenced and inspired by various 18th and 19th Century Earthenware Majolica works held in the National Gallery of Victoria collections. Peter has visited the NGV during the last four years to study these works including, for example, this 1874 Monkey Teapot pictured in the link below.
Life, Death, Magic
Currumbin Bird Sanctuary