An interview with Stewart Scambler

Over the last few decades, Stewart Scambler has developed a highly nuanced ceramic language that gracefully speaks about the twin exigencies of place and history. Each piece has the feeling of being centuries old; each piece seems to carry traces of the surface landscape, the shifts of geological time, and individual and cultural memory. Being a refined and deliberate maker, each new vessel is a subtle variation of these interlocking themes. One sunny April afternoon, Stewart and I discussed the genesis of his vision. Being very much a practical artist, the focus of this was also, naturally, practical in nature. Yet as he talked about kiln preparation, about pots not making it through the wood-firing process, it seems like life on the artistic knife edge. Given the content and nature of his practice, it is also a life lived in close harmony with the world around him, with the pot an opening, a vessel, into that world.

Robert Cook: Why don’t we start in a kind of random way? I remember you saying once how environmental responsibility is increasingly important to you and your way of making. How is this concern currently being played out in your practice?

Stewart Scambler: I am very fortunate in this regard as I see it as carbon neutral at the moment. For one thing, I grow trees and use the same wood for firing. Basically we plant about one hundred trees a year. This takes away some of the guilt that comes from doing three firings a year and producing about forty tonnes of CO2. Overall I think we take more out than we burn. In another way, the wood I grow is a major part of what I do. After all, it ends up on the surface of my ceramics; it is all a part of the wholeness of the process. In addition, the building in York, where the kiln is, is solar powered and so it feels like there is something environmentally elegant about my set-up at the moment. The other important thing to me is that I hand produce the clay from Bolgart. So it is all Western Australian materials - wood, clay and sun! It’s an old fashioned idea but I want my practice to be about self-sufficiency; it should be about this place, the mix of the soil, the landscape.

Robert Cook: What does the Bolgart clay do for you? What are its properties?

Stewart: Technically, it is very plastic. It has a low iron body and it is a rich clay. It requires minimal modification. As I said, though, I really like the fact that it is of this place, that it is of our landscape - physically and conceptually, in a way. I heard about the clay through word of mouth. There has always been clay around that area, used by industry such as local brickworks and is similar to Goomalling clay. I got some samples, tried it, and it worked for me.

Robert Cook: Can you tell me about the forms you have made for this show with this clay?

Stewart: My forms change very slowly. This time, some are looser, slightly more imperfect in shape than usual, not so slick. I have been exploring this path for a little while now, and I am maybe going this way for the last time. I needed to explore these extremes though. I think it helps me understand the forms I make better.

Robert Cook: This show includes two years’ worth of firings. How will you go about making the final selection?

Stewart: I will use the same process as I’ve always done. I set everything out together as a whole so I can see it all at the same time, in one glance. Until I do that, everything is intangible to me. In a way, the whole show feels like one piece to me, an entity. So when I see it together I will quickly know what to show and what won’t make it this time, in this context.

Robert Cook: Given that way of working, are you inspired by ceramicists like Gwyn Pigott who construct little “sequences”?

Stewart: I am, and I am not. In my exhibitions I don’t set out, or sell, as a group in the way Pigott does. Though they all related, each piece must eventually sit on its own. I want the display to be strong but I carry a slightly different message. I like Gwyn’s formal simplicity and I want that, but I want it in a different way. I want the simplicity of rocks in the landscape. I want my work to carry that. Gwyn’s is cleaner and I am not after that.

Robert Cook: Who do you admire?

Stewart: A whole list of wood-firers from here and overseas. But as much as I admire others’ work, I want my work to be like the rock in the landscape, the single rock on a sand-plain that looks like it just belongs there. My real connection is to the natural world. 

Robert Cook: What is it about wood-firing that makes it so integral to your practice?

Stewart: I have used all types of firing processes and wood-firing, I have found, gives me the surfaces that I want. It doesn’t give anything easily though. You can nudge it in the right direction, the direction I want the work to go, but it might not go there. I like that. I also like the aspect of being responsible for everything that happens when you wood-fire: the firing, the stacking, the construction of the kiln itself. Every aspect of this process is important to me. For instance, if I change the clay I change the work; if I change the wood I change the work; if I change the way I’ve cut the wood the firing changes; the way I stack the kiln is important as the relationship of each pot to each pot and pot to fire is important - change that and I change the work. Plus, if anything goes wrong, it comes down to me. I cannot complain that the electricity went off or there was a fault in the gas bottle. Plus, with wood-firing the works go in “naked” and come out altogether different.

Robert Cook: Despite the results being hard to foresee do you sense an outcome?

Stewart: Yes. Certain parts of the kiln give certain types of surfaces, certain levels of control. But ultimately, essentially, wood-firing means giving up control at some point. This means I get some things I don’t deserve, and some I do. I don’t mind the risk.

Robert Cook: How long have you been using this current kiln?

Stewart: It is firing number twelve, and I have been using it since 2003. This one is based on all the other kilns I have made. This is the fifth kiln I have made just for myself.

Robert Cook: What are its characteristics?

Stewart: There is a variation through its length. I didn’t want an “even” kiln. There are heavy ash deposits and spaces where the touch of the fire is barely visible. This lets me do both ends of what I am into. Also, this kiln can fire in two days, while many take six or longer. It is very well insulated, so I can choose between a quick or slow firing. However, a lot of the building process was intuitive and organic. This has an arch and no ceramic fibre. It is a little rougher than usual, than most other kilns. I like it. Best of all, it lets me do a more even reduction without getting patches of oxidation.

Robert Cook: A different type of formal question for you now. You have been attracted to grey with your work for some years. Is this colour still important to you?

Stewart: Yes, the blue-grey is still very important. I still pursue the idea of the half-light, although I now have more warm coloured pots in this grey, so I am learning to extend my use of the “grey spectrum”. In terms of my response to the world, it is just vital for me and if the landscape doesn’t have it then something is missing for me. For me, luckily, it is very hard to walk through the bush and not see it. The times when it is most apparent are the best times of day...these are the most gentle too.

Robert Cook: What particular areas of bush-land have been important to you?

Stewart: In general it has been important, lifelong, for me. But when I first arrived here it was the bush of Kwinana [south of Fremantle]. Kwinana was nearly all bush at that time. There was one hundred acres of bush right across the road from me. My brother and I spent our childhood there. Later, when I was in the army, stationed in Bindoon, Perth and Rottnest it was important. Plus there have been the rain forests in Queensland, and now, for me, it is York.

Robert Cook: Were you always able to appreciate it in the particular way you do now?

Stewart: I always had a deep appreciation of it, but it was when I was in my early twenties that I think I became actually fully aware of it. I understood that it was so important to the way I am, and the way I think most people are. I don’t just mean bush, of course, I mean the places that people live within. The landscape forms us, our attitudes, our spirituality. It affects how we approach the world. The major thing in awakening to this for me was that in my twenties, after I bought my first house, I became a gardener. Gardening made me understand these connections and what was always going on for me, within me. I was also in the army at that time. As a soldier I walked in the desert at night and really encountered the night sky. I was overwhelmed by it – it is just so big. I was so insignificant. Noticing became a habit, so in the army I used to walk around not paying any attention to the “little green men”. I still have the very same connection and absorption whether I am in the desert, at the beach, or at the Gorges up North. The other thing I like to do is examine the layers of strata, because what we see is often so incredibly old. I am consistently moved by that.

Robert Cook: Why choose ceramics as the form to express these ideas and encounters?

Stewart: I come from a family of makers. My grand-father was a master weaver. My mother was a seamstress, my brother is a boat builder, and my sister is a cook, which I see as a kind of maker too. I am surrounded by makers. There is a solidness to the maker’s sense of reality. I like being able to pick something up, and look at it in three dimensions. I also like to be able to pick it up and feel it. Clay is utilitarian. If a ceramic work is not, I don’t believe in it for me. Two dimensions doesn’t have the same meaning for me. I think this is because objects are more fully part of our world, not removed like “fine art” can be. Plus objects carry so much history within them. As a kid I would go the museum and look at the fingernail marks in a pot, and think “wow, that that was made 5000 years ago, or 2000 years ago!” For me, that was like finding fossils. I wanted to participate in that historical thing. In a cheeky way I do it now by burying reject pots from each kiln firing. I do this with a bit of a smile on my face, wondering what people will think when they dig them up in hundreds, or thousands, of year’s time. It is a bit of fun!

Robert Cook: How do the forms you make carry such ideas for you?

Stewart: I don’t just look at the form as a support. I do not see it as simply a thing to have a surface on. A different shape would not have the same meaning. Vessel making goes right back through the history of humankind, and as a vessel maker I feel a connection with past makers. Each shape gives a different sense of this. Also, if someone comes to a flower vase for its use value only, then that is enough. That validates it, and is more than enough to be the reason for their interest. For someone more abstract it might trigger stillness, a complexity. Both approaches exist, both express part of the ways we are human; people have practical needs and transcendental impulses. My work approaches both, I hope.

Robert Cook is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia