IMAGINE for a moment that you are blind. Denied to you are the verdant green of our rolling hills, the azure of our seas, the warmth of alysarin crimson or the chill of cerulean blue in a painting. But then you reach out your fingers and find whorls and shapes creating a journey of discovery of a piece of art that has been created for your senses. Not only can you feel it – but you can smell the freshly carved timber.
The art work is a totem-based structure in Drouin created by Sue Acheson, an artist who is passionate about the role of art in health and wellbeing and who believes most particularly that art should be touched.
Growing up in York, England, Sue was always creative. Her father taught her to sew (“Well Dad sewed better than my mum,” in answer to your question) so she was always creating her own designs and making her own clothes. She took art at school but was not encouraged by her parents, or for that matter her art teacher, to pursue an artistic career. Her teacher went so far as to deny access to her portfolio when Sue wanted to use it to gain admittance to a diploma in graphics and communication design. Her response? Of course, she sneaked into the school and took it.
Naturally she got accepted, loved being really engaged in art, passed and started a career in graphic design. After 10 years she followed her heart and took a course in ceramics and broke her burgeoning career to become apprenticed to a wood-fired earthenware potter. She learnt a great deal, but then needed to get back to her career to make ends meet, eventually running her own consultancy business in graphic design.
In 2002, seeking adventure, she emigrated to Australia with her husband. On arrival her husband told her, “You can get a job if you want, you can work for nothing, or you can do nothing if you want. The choice is yours.” So Sue went back to her passion of ceramics. She was apprenticed to Robert Barron from Gooseneck Pottery for four years. Under his tutelage, she learnt the art of creating wood-fired pieces. Then she wanted to create her own kiln and took a course in kiln building at the Chisholm TAFE. Kilns, she tells me, are an ancient technology, each one having its own character. It is what you wish to create that will determine the shape of the kiln.
Now most artists that I know find a house and build a studio. In Sue’s case she bought a cottage, lived in it while building a new house, and when that was done transformed the cottage into her studio. Finally she built her catenery arch kiln. It’s an impressive structure over 12 feet tall and with three layers – solid bricks, porous bricks and adobe. It takes 36 hours to fire the pieces and then six days to cool. In order to stoke the fires she has to wear a welding mask, gloves and apron to protect herself not only from the heat but the glare as well. Incredibly temperatures reach 1327°C. Sue knows this temperature exactly – but it’s the only thing she knows exactly. Spurning the strictures of graphic design, she now revels in the multitude of outcomes depending on the flow of the fire and the fall of the ash.
Sue Acheson revels in the uncertainties of wood-firing pottery.
Even though she may create a set of bowls that before firing look fairly similar, after the firing they take on a unique qualities – with each one slightly different according to where it was placed in the kiln. Each has markings on them, almost cuneiform in a way, which are the reflections of what Sue sees everyday – the shafts of light and the consequential shadows through the trees at her home.
Sue says she is proud of two things. She has now been shortlisted three times in the Victorian Ceramics Award and she has also been chosen by the Skepsi Gallery to showcase her work. Her latest pieces are based on the theme of procrastination and are mountain-like structures. “You know there are mountains in front of you and that you need to go over them, or through them, or around them, but you keep putting it off,” she says.
One thing of which I’m certain is that procrastination is not on Sue’s agenda.
She chooses ArtSpace Wonthaggi to exhibit her work in Bass Coast. If you wanted to travel a little further afield to see her studio, you can join her as part of Open Studio West Gippsland on March 20.