The potter and the dentist

Phillip McConnell | Australia b.1947 | Blossom jar 1981 | Stoneware, wheelthrown clay fired to 1300 degrees Celsius for three days, natural ash glaze with fire marks, 22ct gold inlay | Purchased 1982 with the assistance of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

‘Carl and Phillip McConnell: Queensland studio potters’ is an exhibition by a father and son team of potters who established Australia–wide profiles.

Carl McConnell was one of the hundreds of thousands of American Servicemen who passed through Brisbane but made lasting ties when he met and married a local girl, Bernice (Bunny) Pearson. Carl and Bunny McConnell settled in Burbank, California where their son Phillip was born, but decided to return to Brisbane in 1948.

Carl trained in Brisbane and became the most prominent potter of his generation in Queensland and a figure of national significance. Carl was establishing his career when Phillip trained under his father from 12 to 17 years of age. He enrolled in a diploma course in pottery at the Central Technical College but departed after 18 months when his father offered him a formal apprenticeship. In 1968, Phillip visited Hawai’i, and because he was born in the United States, he was taken into the draft like his father before him spending his military service in the United States’ Navy. Phillip restarted his ceramics career when he returned to Brisbane in 1970 and two years later held a solo exhibition at Potters Gallery in Woolloomooloo, Sydney.

Throughout his career, Carl McConnell subscribed wholeheartedly to the ideas expressed by the Englishman Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada from Japan, in Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940). Economic ties between Australia and Japan developed through the 1960s and cultural ties soon followed.

Phillip’s display in Sydney was seen by the senior Japanese potter, Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919 – 2007), who invited him to work with him at his pottery at Mashiko, north of Tokyo, Japan in 1973. There McConnell joined the group of workers (students, and apprentices from Japan and abroad) who Shimoka sponsored throughout his career.

At Mashiko he met Kei Fujiwara (1899 – 1983) and his son Yu (1932 – 2001) and was invited to extend his stay for another six months to work in their pottery at Imbe, Bizen the vastly older pottery district established on the shores of the Inland Sea around 1000 years ago. It was a remarkable introduction to the traditions of Japanese pottery as Kei Fujiwara in was designated a ‘National Living Treasure’ in 1970 and Shimoka and Yu Fujiwara were to be similarly honoured in 1996.

Because of the clay composition, Bizen wares are fired slowly over a long period of time. The surface treatments of Bizen wares are entirely dependent on the effects produced by ‘fly ash’ reacting with the clay body. The placement of pieces in a kiln causes them to be fired under different conditions, with a variety of different results ― imperfections and irregularities of the surface are deliberately sought.

On his return to Australia in 1974, Phillip McConnell exhibited his output from Japan at the Reid Gallery in Brisbane and in 1975 established his workshop, The Pottri near Toowoomba. McConnell’s output over the next decade reflected the ethos of Bizen pottery although the firings took place at three rather than ten to fourteen days. This ‘Blossom jar’ is readily recognisable as a product of a Bizen firing by the matte unglazed surface, the greenish ash glaze on the top surface and the markings on the pot caused by the action of the flames.

To be cost effective pots need to be densely packed in a kiln and you can see a pale patch on the side of this pot where McConnell put a small pad of clay there to prevent the pot sticking to others in the kiln. When he tried to remove it had actually fused with the pot a small part of the surface came away with the pad. Nothing lost― he took it to a dentist in Toowoomba to make the gold ‘filling’. This reflects the Japanese veneration for old pottery pieces which are so greatly treasured so that when they break they are repaired with lacquer which is then gilded.

‘Carl and Phillip McConnell: Queensland studio potters’ is on display at the Queensland Art Gallery until 24 June 2012. An illustrated 8-page exhibition brochure is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store.