It sounds almost intolerably corny, and indeed I cringe even as my fingers press the keys, but Clay Gulgong 2016 was, truly, a week that changed my life.
Recently escaped from the hustle of a City lifestyle and its multitudinous soul-depleting-wallet-draining strings, I had no idea what to expect or indeed what Gulgong even was (other than a very small town with a pub on every delightful corner). So new to the world of ceramics as to be almost wide-eyed, I found it a formative period of thought expansion and trajectory solidification; this was my plot I thought, these (mad, wild) people and this (amazing, challenging) material.
In 2018, Gulgong’s twisting main street with its high sandstone curb stones buttressing elegant awnings over colourfully painted - if slightly faded – shops, seems to resound with the charming heraldic cry of the gold-rush wealth that was. A town of roughly 2,500 people situated about 300km north west of Sydney, Gulgong is generally a sweet and fairly quiet town but today it fairly hums with the activity of Clay Gulgong. The town bows to this incoming tide of 500 potters with grace; the windows of the shops are given over and made into little galleries showcasing the ceramic wares of attendees while each of the five pubs chatters with merriment of potters greeting one another anew.
I’ve never encountered anything like the sense of camaraderie that infuses Gulgong, the very real sense that we are all sharing in something truly special and much bigger than any of us.
For me it is slightly strange, to be returning two years on, to this place that I hadn’t known existed and which had utterly blown me away.
Of course it won’t be the same this time round. For one thing I have with me the partner that I met – here on this very spot, at this very event – last time round. Secondly, we now have between us, and with us, a baby, produced in the interim. Last time I knew nothing and no one; this time I know enough to know I can never know enough and I’m somehow involved in the organising committee.
At least, I reflect, I remember where the bathrooms are. That’s the crucial bit of info to pass on.
Sunday night’s official opening is a packed affair (sardine style) in the historic Prince of Wales Opera House but the jovial atmosphere reminds me of one of my favourite things about the ceramics community; even when they have to sit on the floor there are smiles aplenty (and often a sneaky bottle of red being passed around).
The next morning, work starts early. The Masters, sixteen internationally renowned ceramicists, start demonstrations at nine. On Monday, this start time is eagerly anticipated and the seats are occupied early but gradually as the week wears in and the social element gathers steam, the late nights will see many start their days mid-morning in a more relaxed fashion (after a bacon & egg roll and a coffee or two). I spend most of the morning helping register delegates but manage to pop out to see the amazing Keith Brymer-Jones, one of my favourite Masters from 2016. Excitingly, this time round Keith intends to make each delegate a cup to take home with them, providing a porcelain keepsake while demonstrating the expert throwing skills that have made him a household name.
Later I visit Aneta Regel. I fall in love with her accent and the brilliantly faceted pastel coloured ceramic rings she has for sale. I instagram my favourite lemon yellow one and proceed to stalk it obsessively as Aneta’s amazing demonstration pieces grow in statue and girth over the next three days, consuming all manner of mineral material and rock in their expansionist quest. When it sells I have a brief thought that perhaps my partner has seen my social media love and bought it but he is a fairly normal male and it would take a fair heavier hint than a single image to have made that ball roll. I tell myself it was simply not meant to be and distract myself by watching Tip Toland work.
As Tip works, she talks, telling you in words the story her hands are crafting. “Ya know she started with five keys and now she’s got three but she still can’t find the one.” Her hands align the shoulders, thumbs pressing in towards the spine as her splayed fingers curve the slumping slopes. The figure has a prominent nose, small chin and thin lips that almost seem to quiver in defeat. Bared in clay, her breasts sit against her chest, exhausted by the pressures of life and I feel my own throb in familiar discomfort. Time to find – and feed – the baby.
Back in our glamp (for the uninitiated a glamp is like a luxury tent complete with proper bed and somewhere to charge your iPhone), I reflect as the baby feeds. I’m missing a lot more this time round, helping with the administration means less time to stare in wonder and a baby really puts a cramp on the night time activities ruling out both the infamous Potwiz and the all-five-pubs-pub-crawl. And yet there’s much fun to be found in the madness of pulling off such an event, I think, recalling earlier when I’d visited Simone Fraser to beg some slip in order to calligraphy an exhibition welcome onto the building’s wall under the curatorial eye of the Contemporary Ceramic Centre, London’s
Beyond merely just bringing people together, Gulgong enables the forging of all manner of connections because it manages to seamlessly mesh together those of different backgrounds, both cultural and socio-economic, as well as different skill levels and life stages.
Beyond merely just bringing people together, Gulgong enables the forging of all manner of connections because it manages to seamlessly mesh together those of different backgrounds, both cultural and socio-economic, as well as different skill levels and life stages. You can bump into – and get chatting with – a Master in the morning coffee queue, swap misadventure stories with students at lunch and learn all manner of things from all manner of people. The chap in the glamp next door for instance is the Australian distributor of a well-regarded kiln brand while two down from his is a lady who found pottery to take the edge off the pressure of running a successful legal document management business.
In my (various) tertiary studies and (former) professional life, I’ve never encountered anything like the sense of camaraderie that infuses Gulgong, the very real sense that we are all sharing in something truly special and much bigger than any of us.
It’s a sense that fills me again on the Friday night as we sit at long trestle tables under the stars, sharing wine and stories of the week that somehow seems to have flown by while creating friends you feel you’ve known for years. I watch Aneta sipping wine from one of Keith’s word mugs (festooned with ‘horny’ in salacious pink) as MCs David Edmonds and Marj Hogarth hold court and Daniel Johnston enters the fray, casually late and marvellously bedecked in full Texan cowboy regalia. The crowd on the red dust dance floor grows and I watch as John Pagliaro and Virgil Ortiz move with them to the beat. I see Jenny Orchard twirling slowly amongst the sea of thrumming bodies. I see King Houndekpinkou dancing with one of my school friends and then they see me too and gesture for me to join. Despite the noise, the magic of the night means the baby peacefully sleeps in his stroller and, leaving him under the watchful eye of my partner, I run to kick up my heels on that red dust floor once more.
Henrietta Farrelly-Barnett is a current ceramics major at the ANU School of Art and also blogs about art, life and law at www.redlipswhitechina.com