This week’s guest writer is Pippa Dickson, Chair of Design Tasmania and CEO of GASP, the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park, where she recently featured on Design Satellite. Dickson writes from Hong Kong about Ben Richardson, working from the South Arm Peninsula of Tasmania.
Ben Richardson: Ridgeline Pottery, by Pippa Dickson
Ben Richardson is disarmingly frank, he simplifies and strips away the extraneous, cuts to the point, ‘I moved here to surf…I got a lump of clay and a wheel…’. You can hear him burst into deep laughter throughout the day, and switch to seriousness as he is always reliable for a well-thought through opinion. His authenticity, thoughtfulness and playfulness characterise his award winning practice too.
His home at Sandford near Pipeclay Lagoon, 30 minutes south from Hobart, is shared with his wife and collaborator Peta. Like them, the setting is natural, inviting and generous – the vista spans for miles and opens up to bush and a skyline that lights up like fire at sunrise and sunset and then doubles in the mirror effect of the lagoon in the mid-ground.
Richardson’s work seems to depend as much on the quality and provenance of the materials as it does the design and process. He describes the process whereby he collects his local clays from the fore-mentioned local lagoon. I query how this is sustainable in the long term and he calmly responds, excusing my naivety, that the changes to the environment are ongoing, not always man-made, adding that clay, of course, is produced by erosion of rock.
Despite this, he is conscious of our own human impacts and relates how the ‘…natural surrounds over time register the forces that underlie our existence…’. He is pragmatic about his contribution. Despite the proximity and obvious importance of the natural environment as a source and inspiration in his work, he does not take an extreme ‘green’ perspective. Rather Richardson seeks to take personal responsibility for his actions, evident in his personal, well-managed clay gathering, and is realistic about his role in the wider detrimental effects upon of the environment – which we are all complicit in.
The depth of his connection to the environment and passion for it is unquestionable and he is acutely aware of his unique position to be able to source his material so close to the studio, ‘…you can walk along the foreshore and virtually slip into the water because it’s pure clay…’. One can easily imagine him deliberately walking too close and being consumed by it one day.
An enormous amount of spirit is imbued in the beautiful pots that Richardson throws in all forms. He strongly values a sense of connection to this simple way of making (* he makes it looks simple, but try making them at home!) that relies on a direct forming process, accessible materials and an ancient ‘technology’. He makes the case that rather than constraining him the methodology allows improvisation and does not limit his ability to make ‘contemporary’ work. He prefers this way of making rather than the slickness of slip casting which he says requires ‘a front end design heavy’ approach that often inhibits flexibility.
For Richardson, a high-tech machine cannot compete with the wheel, which he says is far quicker than a 3-D printer, allowing him the flexibility to change forms instantaneously. In addition, it allows him to infuse the ‘personal’, ‘hand made’ element, giving character and emphasizing the difference between human and machine. Key to this idea is non-uniformity of form and instilling ‘feeling’, qualities sought and valued by the Japanese masters.
Some of his most successful work in recent years was a commission for the gourmand destination, Garagistes, a small restaurant with a long list of accolades in the Hobart CBD. The tableware that Richardson designed, and made, have quickly become icons, must-have-pieces for any residence that shares the ideals of local provenance and the hand made. Ironic, yet understandable, these values travel, and the pieces have been sought from all around the world. The context of the new design was imperative to their reception. The style of food showed how exceptionally functional they are and they complimented the overall understated elegance and simplicity of the restaurant menu and interior.
The designs are a mark of our time, imbue a timelessness, exceptionally made and functional. Not something Richardson says is imparted in art schools which he muses specialise in ‘encouraging artfulness over usefulness’.
Now, with the popularity of these almost ‘production’ pieces Richardson is caught in a dilemma of wanting to break free of the constraints to explore other works. However, the inquiries keep rolling in from as far afield as Dubai, Taipei, Auckland and London and he admits that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the demand. To these inquiries his response is to encourage them to build connections with local makers of contemporary handmade tableware in the same way they do with local producers. He emphasises that he wants to maintain a certain “slowness” of making rather than the speed and sterility of an ‘industrial process’ and is keen to move back towards being explorer rather than a manufacturer.
His ‘explorations’ are mainly satisfied with his regular winter wood firings, now, condensed from approximately 3 months annually to a 4-week period this year. He’s attracted to the holistic process from gathering clay, preparing the clays and glazes by crushing rocks and gathering the firewood for the kilns from his land and then the making. Finally the element of risk and alchemy when he starts to see the flames move through the kiln working magic on the surfaces and producing unanticipated results, only fully revealed when the kiln is opened 4 days later.
Richardson’s poem below captures the inherent journey all his works have been on, starting in the ground and ongoing with the final life-long uses. The poem shows his respect of place and history and the spectacle of the staggering white clays he sometimes uses that were left as a by-product from another industry, Richardson transforming the material into beautiful functional objects filled with meaning and feeling:
SOUTH MT. CAMERON
In this strip of valley
shadowed by granite slopes,
lie the weathered remains
of the workings.
Chinese miners came here,
dreaming of gold
but stayed for the tin.
Celestials the locals called them,
as they leached the dark cassiterite
from the white kaolin beds.
Gone now, their memory held
in faded gelatin prints,
sticks of joss decayed
and the shards of tenmoku
covered by the reclaiming bush.
Now the race and sluice erode,
rusting metal, bent and twisted
then pierced in jagged splay.
The gouged earth cups the dregs
of aluminous rainwater
in chun and celadon blues.
I come for the clay
with its crumbling whiteness.
To coax it to plasticity,
before the vitrifying fire
flashes and fixes
the memory of form.