An exhibition of woodfired ceramics by Stewart Scambler
Gallows Gallery Glyde St, Mosman Park, Perth November 10-27, 2005

In the desert regions of the Australian landscape there can be so much red dust in the atmosphere that even the blue sky seems to have absorbed some of it. This can be observed particularly around the horizon line, an effect which is captured brilliantly in some of Fred Williams’ Pilbara paintings. Sometimes this phenomenon intensifies the blue, but at other times the heat seems to bleach away so much of it that only a soft grey-purple colour remains.

There are ceramic artists and there are potters. Stewart Scambler sees himself as a potter. His pots are born from the earth and from fire, and they embody and convey many kinds of relationships and references to both of these. He states that he sees his pots as having the ‘simplicity’ and the ‘strength’ to sit within the landscape as a ‘natural and unobtrusive part of it.’ Using only two glazes, shino and blue celadon, he creates a range of colours from desert-red and moss green to ash-grey-blue. All are achieved entirely from a combination of the clay body of the pots with the wood ash of the fire. The combinations of colours form graduated, gentle mottling effects. The reds are produced by adding alumina and the blues come from iron oxide.

The shapes of the pots are classically inspired, which helps to maintain their references to the landscape. There are spherical, enclosed jars which do indeed seem to sit as comfortably within the landscape as rocks or birds’ nests. There are open bowls with curved or straight sides, which seem to rise up from the landscape, and there are tall, elegant pots which seem to hover above it. The references to elemental forms and forces extend even beyond the immediate landscape. Some pots bear the imprints of shells as if they have come from the ocean floor. These are called ‘flower pots’, probably because one can put flowers in them, but the shell patterns are also reminiscent of flower shapes. Other pots seem to bear the marks of the wind or even the pock marks of a lunar landscape. In most cases there is a sense of extreme antiquity. Some pots require several firings to achieve the depth and richness of the finished surface.

Age and time, both in terms of natural processes and human ritual, are themes within Scambler’s work. There is the ancient appearance of some of the pots, and there are likenesses to classical shapes such as the amphora vessels of the ancient Greeks. There are also vessels in the style of those used for the Japanese tea ceremony. All of these, he says, place the human perspective of landscape as unchanging within the longer term perspective of continuing change, even chaos. The ‘Fire’s Eye’ is the stillness at the centre of a storm.

Wood firing is a long process, and Scambler consciously participates in every step, from the gathering and chopping of the wood to placing the pots in the kiln with regard to their proximity to the fire and to each other. He can usually arrange all of these elements to produce the effects he desires, but is occasionally surprised by the outcome. He says that he knows the process so well that it is sometimes difficult to give up control so that ‘fortunate accidents’ can occur. He also enjoys a challenge. Having achieved one colour he then goes on to produce another.

Previously Scambler has shown his work as part of group exhibitions in which he had to take into account various narrative or historical concerns. This time he has the freedom to follow his passion for pure and direct engagement with earth, clay and fire. In doing this he surely has created objects which sit comfortably within his cherished Western Australian landscape. These objects, however, are produced by human hands. There is nothing technological or mechanical about them. Each pot is as individual as a person, and each pot speaks of Scambler’s own human engagement with the landscape and with the often spiritual experiences that this engagement can produce.

Jan Altmann. (Jan Altmann has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature. She has co-authored a book on Western Australian women artists. She has written many reviews and has lectured in Literature, Art Theory, Cultural Studies and Women’s Studies)