She may be one of their chief winemakers now, but when she was growing up,…
Tucked away on a farm in rural Cowra with her husband of 11 years and four small children, Rebecca Dowling is living her dream. The moment that she first felt the cold, clammy feel of clay in a Year 7 art class she knew what she wanted to be. “My parents supported the passions of all their seven children,” she explains. “So it was natural that I would go to art school and become a potter.”
Over the last two decades, Rebecca has quietly built up a reputation as a ceramist, appearing in exhibitions across Australia and favoured by collectors seeking art with substance and utility as well as beauty. Her works are functional, celebrating the mundane rituals of home and hearth, and made to be used in everyday life. “I don’t want things to sit on shelves and never be used,” she says. “Even when I am thinking of a display I think more installation than exhibition.”
She has just finalised a large commission for Canberra’s Parlour Wine Room, which has recently re-opened after the devastating fire of 2011. “They saw my plates in Craft ACT and ordered a whole bunch. Each plate can take about two weeks to come to life so it has been pretty exciting.”
Not that Rebecca is likely to find the time to see her plates in use; with four children and a farm, as well as the ceramics business, she and husband Will are pretty much home-based most of the time. But they have found the time to organise joint exhibitions – Will is a keen photographer – and to hang out with the many artists who have made the Cowra region their home.
“There’s heaps of artists out here,” she says. “It’s so beautiful here and we all know each other and help each other out.”
Rebecca learned from the best of them. While studying at the University of Western Sydney (Nepean) Rebecca was among several students who journeyed to participate in a Clay Push at Janet Mansfield’s studio in the historic gold-rush town of Gulgong, 200km from Cowra. Mansfield, who died earlier this year, was known as Australia’s Ambassador of Ceramics. She established the Clay Push Festival in 1989, a kind of Potters’ Woodstock to promote the ancient art of ceramics and create a vibrant, informal space for shared learning. The tri-annual event now draws hundreds of ceramic artists to the town, which is famous for its white kaolin clay.
Rebecca and I share a quiet giggle at the idea of a Potters’ Woodstock. “There weren’t any naked people though, just us potters,” she laughs. But the analogy holds true in the sense that Gulgong’s Clay Push positioned Australian ceramists on the international scene, and for a young artist just setting out on her creative journey, the experience was overwhelming. “I was just 20 years old and I was among 400 potters from all over the world, doing wood firing, sharing their experience, talking.”
Mansfield opened up her farm to the artists, and those who couldn’t afford a hotel brought tents and camped out under the stars. “Janet was such an amazing woman,” muses Rebecca. “She would just walk around and open up her house to us. I remember I picked up a mug she had made. It was so beautiful I just bought it on the spot – and you know students don’t have a lot of money. We have to really watch our pennies. I still drink my tea from that mug.”
Rebecca has several mugs now, each one bought from a ceramist, and each one laden with memories. “Will and I refer to all of our mugs by the names of the artists who made them. I’ll ask him, ‘Could you please pass me Janet so I can make some tea?’”
It was in Gulgong that Rebecca met master ceramist Greg Daly, who had brought his students from the Canberra School of Art at Australian National University. Daly was impressed by Rebecca’s conscientiousness and the quality of her work, and he suggested that she come to ANU for post-graduate studies. “At first I was terrified,” laughs Rebecca. “There was this amazing, inspirational teacher talking to me! At first I could only refer to him as ‘Mr. Daly’ but then, well, you just knuckle down and take everything in. Just being around him was inspiring.”
While at ANU Rebecca successfully applied for a Craft ACT grant to cover a mentorship with Daly, which paid her to work for four months in his studio. Daly taught Rebecca about mixing glazes and pigment lustres, studio management – and kiln-building.
“The kiln, like the cooker at home, is the heart of the ceramics process,” she explains. “Not everyone builds their own so I was lucky to be with someone who did. Every potter has to know their kiln, and work with it as their objects come to life.”
When Rebecca set up her own studio, Daly’s gift to her was a kiln. “I dismantled it and rebuilt it in my own studio. That’s lovely, isn’t it, having a friend who gives you bricks as a present.”
Rebecca learned to calculate the air/fuel mix that gives the lambent tones to her work. A reduction atmosphere (where there is more fuel than air) causes the iron oxide to react, producing subtle shades of green and amber. Unlike Daly, who is known for his vibrant, multi-colour works, Rebecca favours celadon, a creamy green that ranges from almost white to deep olive. “When I set up an exhibition I use lots of different shades to highlight the differences between them and catch the changing light in them all.”
During her apprenticeship Rebecca also met Will, who farms where the studio was located. “He farms, I potter.” It’s clearly a formula for success.
The potter’s wheel continues to turn and Rebecca herself has become a mentor to other aspiring ceramists such as Gabrielle Wallington, who now studies with Daly at ANU. Rebecca taught her as a little girl when she first moved to Cowra. “It’s lovely how things go round like that. You learn, you pass on your knowledge and you learn again.”
Rebecca’s kiln and her studio has become a center of gravity for her own family. “It’s a beautiful space and sometimes the kids will come in and work with me. Each one has their own wheel and I catch myself watching them. Each one is so focused on their work but we’re all in this together place. It’s lovely.”
Dinner party photographs by Beata English.