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Q&A – maker of the week: Sandra Black

Ode to the wheel, knife and drill.

Acclaimed ceramic artist Sandra Black lives and works in Fremantle. She is recognised as a leading ceramicist internationally, and perhaps lesser known in her home state of Western Australia. With a strong exhibiting catalogue you can find Sandra Black’s works in a number of Australian and New Zealand galleries, as well as articles in eminent ceramic journals.

Sandra is an enthusiast and provides an excellent case study into the value of ‘residencies’ (something you know we bang on about quite a lot).

In this short & sweet Q&A, Sandra generously shares her journey – as she developed her craft over the years, the pivotal moments and people that led her towards an illustrious vocation and the tools she can’t live without. She even invites you to her studio!

To learn more about Sandra, click the links below and find a snapshot of her work in our Directory too.

Read on for a glimpse into Sandra’s life with clay.

What is your craft? How do you like to describe yourself?

My craft is ceramics. I have always liked to describe myself as a ceramic artist and teacher. Both making decorative and functional ceramics and passing on my skills have been very important to my practice.

Your studio – where and what is your studio/workspace like?

My studio is a converted garage at the back of my home in South Fremantle, in walking distance to South Beach. In 1988 I was able to convert it from a dark roller door garage/workshop with a corrugated iron lean-to shed into a bright working space. With a carpenter friend and a set of second hand doors and windows it was converted into two rooms. The rusted roof was replaced and insulation fitted to the ceiling. One room contains kilns, glaze materials and a wash up space and the larger room for making and display. Later in 2000, I had a kiln shed attached for my gas firings.

Which of your tools do you love the most and why?

I have three favourite tools!

My Venco potter’s wheel. It’s the third one I have owned – easy to use and great control over the speed.

My carving knife. I invented a carving knife way back in the late 1970s which was made from a piece of split pithy cane with a no.11 Swann Morton surgical blade inserted into it and held tight by waxed cotton string. I still have the original handle though the blade has been changed many times. It sits so easily in my hands and can be used to carve delicate designs and also pierce the surfaces of the vessel being worked on.

My third favourite tool is my hand-held Dremel drill with a fine dental bit, given to me by my dentist. I do all my piercing with it.

Your inspiration – what really pumps your creative heart?

I have drawn creative inspiration from many aspects of my life. Much comes from early childhood as a child growing up in rural East Gippsland in Victoria as a farmer’s daughter. The closeness to nature has always been present in my working life despite living as an urban dweller for the past 50 years. The observance of the natural world and the impacts of industry and climate changes subtly influence what I make.

I am also hugely inspired by the journeys and residencies I have undertaken in different parts of the world. Working in different cultures and countries with other artists has really been inspirational and has inspired new bodies of work. I always go to these places with no expectations, but open to what will happen in different and sometimes challenging environments.

Sandra Black in the University of Manitoba’s ceramics room when I was artist in residence there in 2008.

Sandra Black in the University of Manitoba’s ceramics room (Winnipeg) when she was artist in residence there in 2008.

What was the spark that made you choose this particular medium?

As always, there were some very special teachers who made clay exciting for me. My first was Walter Gebert – my primary school teacher who in 1960-61 brought clay into our little two-teacher primary school. As rural-based children we were taught where clay came from and so went home after our pottery lesson and dug out clay from our farm dams and made pots which we tried to fire over little campfires.

My second great inspiration was attending a summer school workshop at UWA with Joan Campbell in 1971. I had learnt some clay skills previously at Nedlands teachers’ college and WAIT (now Curtin University) with Maggie Brain and Leon Pritchard, but it was Joan’s total passion for the medium which made it so exciting with her Raku firings. From then on I was hooked.

A call from David Walker then head of Craft and Design at WAIT in 1975 was the final moment of choice when I gave up my secure high school art teaching job to take up a resident graduate position in Ceramics at WAIT along with part-time tutoring there.

Your working style – how do you like to start on a project and then progress it? Do you stick to a working schedule 9-5 or flex around a bit? Do you play loud music? Are your pets welcome in your space?

At the beginning of my career in the mid-late 1970s I would work seven days a week in the studio. It was an all-consuming passion and remained so well into my late 40s. Studio work has also been interspersed with part-time teaching at TAFEs, and at Curtin and Edith Cowan Universities. In later years I have taken up community arts teaching at Fremantle Arts Centre.

With my studio work these days I tend to map out a year or two ahead with planning one or two public studio openings, the Fremantle Arts Centre Bazaar and an exhibition either interstate or local. I also usually have planned an international residency once every 2-3 years, generally in China. I also leave space for invitational events i.e. group shows etc.

In preparing for a project/exhibition I spend time cleaning my studio, maintaining equipment, particularly my kilns and prepping the materials I will need for the work. I tend then to make in an intense burst of activity for 2-3 months for a solo show. I always have the radio on in my studio, either ABC radio national or Classic FM .I don’t need loud music but a peaceful background sound. I often have one or two of my cats visiting for the odd snack and pat. Amazingly, they are very careful around my work and have not damaged anything.

What are you working towards right now?

I am working on 10-12 pieces for a small display at Perc Tucker Regional Art Gallery in Townsville for July-September 2020. I had been asked to travel to Townsville and judge the North Queensland ceramic awards, but sadly can only now do it online, instead of the planned trip and workshop, as the state borders have been shut down due to the corona virus! Hopefully, their gallery will be open for local visitors at the time my works arrive.

If you could land the dream commission/exhibition/project, what would it be?

I would love to be invited to do a residency somewhere overseas again, to work in a university or cultural centre in Canada, China, Netherlands, Japan, France or UK. It would be great to also exhibit in these venues as I have done in the past. I learn so much from these experiences and find new directions for my work.

Anything you’d like to add?

I don’t manage the selling of my work via online platforms, I generally leave this to the galleries that I sell through. I am a very visual and tactile person, so when people are buying or selling ceramics, my wish both for myself and customers, where possible, is to physically access the work to experience the quality before purchasing.

I am happy for people to come to my studio to choose pieces. I also offer students short workshops in my workspace and one-on-one consultations to help out with any issues they may have with their own work.

[Collected 25 May 2019.]

View more about Sandra Black and her ceramic art in our Directory – with links to more.

This is a standard set of questions that we ask of all our guest presenters and ‘makers of the week’. They are deliberately low-key.