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Reflection - Holly McDonald

It's rare to see artists at work. I'm taking about mid-brush stroke, mid-decision. What colour, what form is needed in that dormant space on the canvas?

By Holly McDonald

While on a travelling artist residency at Watch This Space in Mparntwe Alice Springs, I had the great privilege to visit the Hermannsburg Potters in their communal studio in Ntaria Hermannsburg, a western Arrernte community. There, I found myself immersed in the creative flow of no less than 10 women artists.

I am an artist myself with a studio practice founded in ceramics. I find silence and solitude the best conditions to work in, and I don’t tend to invite visitors into my studio. So I was humbled to be invited into the Hermannsburg Potters studio space. Sensitive, also, to the fact that I don’t speak Western Arrernte. 

But I was warmly welcomed by senior artist Hayley Coulthard Panangka, who gave me a tour of the newly renovated building which included a gallery, store-room and kiln room. Each space offered up a comprehensive view of the making process – coil built and burnished pots painted with vibrant scenes of traditional Country, associated Dreaming and life in Ntaria that the Hermannsburg Potters have come to be celebrated for. 

At some point Hayley returned to what she had been working on when I arrived – a pot disappearing under a flurry of brush strokes of different shades and tones of green, maybe a garden.

I got chatting to Beth Inkamala Mbitjana, an emerging artist. I took pleasure in our mutual love of orange, and we traded photos on our phones of glowing orange sunset skies from out this way. I was also drawn to her pairing of orange with blue and her use of sgraffito on stacked modular forms.

I imagined these have been thrown in sections on a potter’s wheel, and later joined by hand off the wheel, in a departure from the style and technique of traditional Hermannsburg vessels. 

My relationship to tradition and convention in my own practice is somewhat antagonistic. I suppose I am more compelled by the unknown, for clays potential for new forms of expression. In light of this Beth’s exploration of new forms and techniques appeared important and logical, the sign of a vibrant and robust creative dialogue occurring in the Hermannsburg Potters’ studio. 

Reflecting on the studio visit now, I think about how layers of personal history and experience seem to converge comfortably on ceramic objects so that they become points of connection, linking disparate cultural spaces across past, present and future time. I felt and feel connected to this studio of artists through our shared language of clay, a language that they speak deftly, and with an expressiveness that delighted and inspired me.

Holly Macdonald is a ceramics artist undertaking a travelling residency with ACCOMPLICE, spending a month at Watch This Space, Katherine Regional Arts and ACCOMPLICE.

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