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Tessa Pauling – Working with Alistair

Posted on Mar 24, 2013 by in Articles | 0 comments


The first seed was sown a long time ago in a small town called Brisbane in the late 50′s – watching my mother methodically, but gently, hand building large ‘jardinieres’, then incising Japanese style peach blossoms into them, I found myself saying -’One day I am going to be a potter”.

I was the youngest of a large family with few resources and to see my mother completely absorbed in this work was a revelation for me. This wasn’t washing day at the copper boiler or the endless monotony of preparing meals for many hungry mouths – or the weeks spent at the dining room table sewing school uniforms on the Singer treadle machine. No – this was my mother as I had never known her before – completely absorbed and transformed by the process of creating such beautiful objects that continue to shine in spite of time and changing fashion.

She was obviously doing something very special that gave her a serenity and peace.

Late 40′s – two children, one husband; a nursing graduate, actor, director and designer. The circle was complete. I didn’t know I was ready until I saw a small Tang Dynasty (8th Century) painted earthernware figurine on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia Canberra. I was struck by its beauty, serenity and peace – a voice said Tessa its time for you to be a potter now.

Not a God type booming voice but that small inner friend that speaks so softly but ever so clearly.

Never daunted by a new challenge I soon began an apprenticeship with Keith Grey who at that time had ‘Mango Pottery’ in Darwin. Keith strongly encouraged me to attend a weekend workshop on the art of throwing fine porcelain by Master Potter Alistair Whyte. I approached the weekend with a sense of excitement knowing I would learn something special but had no idea that it would be the beginning of a long journey that I eventually began in earnest, in April this year.

Having been transfixed during the workshop watching Alistair transform clay into forms of such simple beauty I embraced the technique and began my personal commitment to ‘one day’ perfect this ancient art and endeavour to find my own peace of joy in the creation of fine porcelain. After honing my skills working with fine terracotta I eventually, after much practice, was throwing fine walled oriental bowls and felt now ready for the next step when I came upon an application for a 3 month emerging artist mentorship provided by the Australia Council.

I immediately phoned Alistair, re-introduced myself and asked if he would consider being my mentor. He said yes – A dream come true.

I was encouraged by Leonie McNally Territory Craft to apply and to my great excitement was successful.

Travelling to Alistair’s studio in Warburton in April this year armed with a few tools and the fear and excitement of this new challenge I began my journey.

Warburton (Victoria) – a small village nestled in the Yarra Valley became my home for the next 5 weeks. A charming little cottage next door to the studio provided all my needs and more. My journey to work each day was a short walk through a magic garden and I soon found myself with many feathered friends to greet on my way. Each morning and evening ‘Crooked Foot’ – a very curious kookaburra watched over me. He knew as much about porcelain as I did about his ability to hunt snakes but none the less we became soul mates!

Alistair’s studio was large and airy and with an outlook onto a mixture of magnificent mountain ash and European trees in all their autumn splendour. A far cry from my place in Darwin hidden in a small tropical rainforest.

We began with making from Bamboo, pine and fruit wood the traditional ribs and measures (KOTE AND HERA) – so long ago perfected to aid the process of throwing fine porcelain. Traditionally hand made with a small fine saw, very sharp Japanese knife and then finally filed and finished with wet and dry sandpaper. These tools are an art in themselves and was certainly a perfect way to prepare for the next demanding process of making them do their work – Throwing off the hump and fashioning small Japanese tea cups (UNOMI) was my first task. I wasn’t prepared for the demands of accuracy with this less plastic body but with ‘much practice, patience and perseverance’ I managed to produce about twenty vessels that I thought were deserving of a long life. My failed efforts were destined for reclaiming and eventually became small round firing pads or (TOCHIN) used to support the wares in the glaze firing.

I then graduated to a larger form being the rice bowl; again making the rib profile and measure (TONBO) to suit. This new shape and size again took some mastering, but again with much practice and perseverance I was happy with the forms I threw.

I worked with a variety of porcelain bodies but mostly Blakeborough’s ‘Southern Ice’ with which I soon made friends and found it a delight to use. My confidence was growing. Evenings were most often filled with the joy and fascination of studying Alistair’s collection of books on Japanese and Korean pottery. The diversity of style and form really surprised me and opened yet another window into my new world of knowledge of the oric!ntal techniques.

Thinking all my time would be spent learning this very demanding technique I was delighted to have the opportunity to do a large series of glaze on glaze tests and throw some larger free form shapes – visit and observe other potters and artists in the area – exhibitions and galleries.

The ins and outs of marketing one’s wares was discussed and I think the idea of valuing one’s work is possibly one of the most difficult elements to fathom in these times of mass production. Having a strong belief in the intrinsic value of hand made porcelain can, I believe, only come from a pure love of the process, the beauty of the form and its ability to speak of its unique essence – being a deep expression of the less tangible expression of one’s soul – its secrets.

It dawned on me that Alistair’s work was also his meditation and a connection to something lost we all search for.

I strongly believe we are our own creators and in this view I strive hope to imbue my work with this force. I am excited by the paradox of the fragile strength and the translucent depth of this angel of all clays PORCELAIN. I once saw a small white porcelain stem cup in a collection of work”Splendors of Imperial China, Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It unexpectedly took my breath away and I found myself asking “how could anyone make something so beautiful”.

My journey has just began.

The opportunity to work with Alistair was empowering to say the least, his generosity and depth of knowledge has helped me find a new boldness.

I am now armed with the words of ‘Goethe’ I found written on the wall in a studio I visited in the Yarra Valley. It has become my daily mantra. I leave it with you.
Whatever you can do or dream you can do
Begin it
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it