When government arts funding was slashed and courses cut from TAFE campuses two years ago, ceramicist John Stewart went back to his first love. At the time he was head teacher of Creative Industries at Lismore TAFE, and he left a long and successful teaching career to get back to his workshop outside Clunes.
John discovered ceramics as a teenager, teaching himself the techniques from books. When he chose it for his Higher School Certificate his teachers were surprisingly supportive.
“Everyone was so relieved because I was a dreadful painter!” he says.
John and his father made his first pottery wheel, and with books and practice, John honed his skills at ‘throwing’ (working clay on a potter’s wheel). “They say it takes seven years to get good at throwing”, he says, but these days his work uses other techniques, and throwing is more of a love.
John’s partner, Leonie Lane, also recently left a teaching career to pursue her own art full time. Until January this year, Leonie taught Digital Art and Design at Southern Cross University, but is now acclimatising herself to days without timetables and tutorials, working from her home studio.
The couple live and work in the old dairy on what was John’s parent’s farm, which they’ve converted into a residence and several modern studio spaces for pottery, photography and art. John and Leonie both have strong family ties to the area. From the front fence of their place you can see John’s parent’s old house and his grandmother’s, and if you continue down to the valley to Booyong you’ll eventually come across the old village shop run by Leonie’s grandfather years ago.
A graphic designer and visual artist, Leonie grew up in Eltham before studying art in Melbourne and working in Sydney at well-known alternative print and design studio, Redback Graphix, and as a freelance illustrator. Today her work combines digital imagery with print, but she’s also experimenting with elements of the natural environment, such as horsehair, sewn onto her works. “I’m working with digital images but making them look hand made”, Leonie says.
Her latest project is a series entitled Shedding, exploring the idea of de-institutionalising. It will feature in an exhibition at Grafton Regional Gallery in August.
Both John and Leonie’s art forms incorporate aspects of modern technology, such as computers and photography, combined with traditional artistic disciplines.
“The digital side of things give you a different tool set to work with”, says Leonie of the intersection between the two. She also enjoys the freedom and accessibility that technology offers the artist. “The beauty of working with prints is that you can make many copies. It’s the democratisation of your art.”
John’s current project, a series of slip cast vases with test tube inserts, is an example of the close relationship between technology and craftsmanship in his field. With their smooth white surfaces and delicate artwork, the vases are a world away from many of his large, earthy sculptural pieces that adorn his garden and workshop. The process of pouring liquid clay, or ‘slip’, into a plaster mould is hundreds of years old, but the integration of glass tubes and aluminium housings in the vases is made possible by the magic of computer design software.
As well as their individual projects, the couple are collaborating on a range of ceramic bottle tops that stop insects getting in your beer after it’s open. Using John’s slip casting technique and Leonie’s design and graphics expertise, they are manufactured and sold from their studio and online under the No Fly Zone brand.