Remembering the Empty Coolamons

Robyne Latham Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Yarrobil Home

What! Did the Hand then of the Potter shake?
Omar Khayyam.1

When coming to any form of creative expression, two questions arise for me in context of the function: Who is it for? What is it for? So, who is this article for?

Is it the community of ceramicists gathered together from around the world at Clay Gulgong 2018? Maybe it has relevance to the wider world of those initiates who frequent the mysterious world only potters know? But maybe that’s all. Furthermore, what is this article for? What point does the writing of this article serve? What insights of value can my reflections offer, as someone who shares the inner-life of a ceramicist but does not consider themselves anything like an authority in the field of ceramics?

This is despite forty years of working with all stages of ceramics, from making, to glazing, to firing, and exhibiting; to being taught by some wonderful teachers such as the late Mike Kusnik, from whom I learnt ceramics chemistry for six years during my diploma and undergraduate degree; to Petrus Spronk from whom I learnt the need for honesty and authenticity in one’s approach to art practice; through to Dr Julian Goddard’s inspiration to further pursue the delights hidden within the history of art, at the same time acknowledging nothing traces the history of mankind as thoroughly as Clay. I still find myself serving an apprenticeship to Her Royal Highness, Clay.
Note: this article needs to be read in context of viewing the three short documentaries referred to in the article.

So, now onto what ceramics has taught me:

When the intent of the artist meets the functionality of the material
At the initial stage of a work, I ask myself, ‘What do I wish to make?’ Is the object to serve a utilitarian or a non-functional purpose? A vessel, a bowl, a teapot, or is it to be an abstracted sculptural piece? In other words, what is the function of the work? Function informs my intent. For the realization of intent, both the intent and the materials chosen must be in simpatico. Clay will impose Her own form. She will choose the form She takes. The making process between artist and material is a collaborative affair – like the complexity of a Viennese waltz, where the two parties meld to an elegant effortlessness.

Any shortcomings in simpatico between artist and material will be treated unsympathetically. Clay is a hard taskmistress. She cannot be dominated, nor can She be enabled to dominate. This is an equal relationship. Domination by the artist will lead to a controlled work with a dead centre of being. On the other hand, if She gets the ascendancy, the result will be an undisciplined work of accidental coalescences. It is a meeting of two intelligences, the mind of the artist and the inherent intelligence of matter. The matter, in this case Clay, definitely has a mind of Her own.

So, to achieve one’s intent requires an extreme sensitivity to Her (Clay’s) inherent functional potential. The role of the artist is to coax the material into taking the form one desires. Think of a horse and jockey – with the jockey being the artist and the horse the material. The best of jockey’s work with the potential of the horse, giving the horse some freedom of rein at the same time as maintaining control enough to achieve the intent – that of winning.
The intent of making a bowl or a sculptural form, a raku cup for a tea ceremony, or slip-cast bone china, determines the choice of Clay best suited for the intended outcome. Hence, the intent of the artist meets the functionality of the material.

In my installation Empty Coolamons: In Memorium to the Stolen Generations1 much thought went into the qualities inherent in the materials used, as well as, how the materials could be used in service to the intent of me, the artist. My considerations included; the effects of the indigo lighting illuminating the womb-like entry tunnel; the movement of air causing the almost imperceptible rocking of the suspended coolamon cradle; the shimmering of light refracting off the copper wire coolamons; the use of black acrylic to mirror the image of the coolamons; the choice of an ethereal soundscape; the choice of a shark-tooth scrim; lit from the front a flat screen, but when lit from behind revealing the lost coolamons.
So, to the personal qualities required from the Artist?

The ability to be in the now
Being in the now is Clay's primary lesson for me. It means to be present to the present. To be present one is required to be 100% focused on the job at hand. Clay is an animate sensitive being. She responds to each and every nuance in consciousness. Thought enters and She responds through an infinitesimal change in form. It is easy for the work to dislodge itself from its initial intent. Being and staying in the now is a meditation built upon repetition of mental discipline. To maintain mental discipline, the artist must be match fit, thus capable of sustaining long periods of introverted focus. This is none more evidenced than when throwing. A lapse in focus will result in a wobble, a glitch.

When totally focused, the artist is no longer the point of reference. Linear time no longer exists because linear time is born of a fabricated self-consciousness; when the artist is freed from self-reference, action does itself. Colloquially put, one is in the zone.

The participatory performance of Remembering the Empty Coolamons2 allows the public to pay respect to the Stolen Generations of Australia, within a context devoid of blame, shame, and guilt. The Stolen Generations refers to the tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander babies and children forcibly removed from their families, across the whole of Australia, from the early 1900's to 1978. This removal of children was enforced through both State and Federal legislation. The trans-generational impact of the loss of culture, language and identity is central to the issues faced by the Aboriginal Community in the twenty first century. The ramifications of the grief and trauma caused by the removal of children from their families is largely under estimated by mainstream Australia and, sadly, the removal of children from their families of origin continues to this day.

Clay Gulgong 2018 provided a wonderful opportunity to bring the participatory performance of Remembering the Empty Coolamons to a broader audience, both Australian and international. Thank you to Bernadette, the Mansfield family and Clay Gulgong.

Conference delegates, several of them Aboriginal, made and decorated clay coolamons in acknowledgement of the Stolen Generations. Their coolamons were then included in the performance space. Children, curious as to what the work was all about, also participated in the event. In accord with the nature of Clay, the little coolamons were able to remain in situ, returning back to the earth.

Dadirri - Deep Listening
Sitting in the studio alone, I have often felt so intimately connected with Clay as a living organism, I wondered if the vibrations of studio conversations were somehow imbedded into a pot, particularly in its throwing phase. Clay seemed to record every breath whilst throwing, so why not every sound vibration?

I found myself musing over the possibility that one day we might be able to release conversations embedded in pots from potteries all over the world from across the centuries?

An early memory of my making friends with Clay was that after firing hollow ware, I put my ear to the rim of the vessel and, as with a conch shell, I could hear a hum. A good pot has a good hum.

Listening is important. Deep listening, with all your senses is called Dadirri in the Ngan’gityemerri Aboriginal language group. This construct is inherent to many Aboriginal clans in Australia.

Listening is not only through the ears. We listen through all our senses, particularly our hearts and eyes. If only we listened in Dadirri, there might be fewer misunderstandings between humans, and a better connection between humans and nature.

The performance artwork, The Aborigine is Present3 is all about Dadirri.

When making, I value the little voice that whispers - what about this, or what about that? The whisper may be as ephemeral as an insect attempting to fly through the updraft of a flue when the kiln is at top temperature. The whisper may even signal the beginning of a whole new body of work. This little voice is commonly called intuition. One of my mentors, Joseph Beuys paid homage to that little voice saying, “Intuition is the higher form of reason.”

But beware: intuitive ideas are invariably high risk. I've lost a heap of pots listening to and responding to that little whisper. However, in the long run, the sheer joy I derive from the survivors make the high-risk factor worthwhile.

Intent, Functionality, The Now and Dadirri (Deep Listening)
When respect is paid equally to all the above factors, the resulting work is capable of standing outside of linear time. You only have to view ancient Chinese, Japanese or Iberian pots of the Mediterranean (the latter where I currently am), to recognize this timelessness.

I previously made reference to my feelings of being intimately connected with Clay as a living organism. Well, thinking about this, it makes perfect sense. Science tells us that we, the artists, are made of the same five elements as the material with which we work; earth, fire, water, air and space. Therefore, it is a fact of science, that the Artist is not separate from the Art.

I was just seventeen when I first began to throw. I heard Clay could be white, red and green, plastic and short, bisque, fired and vitrified. She could even be groggy. I'd also heard of strange concepts such as Clay memory and Wabi Sabi. These terms held a mystic, otherworldly potential for me.

After 40 years, the child-like wonder I first experienced in the process of simple mud morphing into a beautiful ceramic, and the anticipatory uncertainty in the opening of the kiln door to what may or may not be, has not left me.

This is what She has taught me, and I am forever grateful.


1. Omar Khayyam. The Rubaiyat. Verse LXXXVI.
2. Empty Coolamons: In Memoriam to the Stolen Generations, Bunjilaka Gallery, Melbourne Museum, 2015,
3. Remembering the Empty Coolamons, Melbourne Federation Square, 2017.
4. The Aborigine is Present, The Koorie Heritage Trust Museum, Federation Square, Melbourne 2015.

All documentaries referred to in the article can be accessed at I would welcome your thoughts and reflections. My email address is

Image Captions

Participatory installation performance, Remembering the Empty Coolamons, Clay Guglong 2018.
The artist preparing the space for the performance.
The artist placing the empty coolamons.

Image credits: Tony Webdale, 2018.

by Robyne Latham

Robyne Latham is a Yamatji woman originally from Western Australia. An academic and fine artist, Robyne has lived and worked in Melbourne for some 30 years. She holds a Master of Fine Art from Monash University, a Diploma of Education from Edith Cowan University and a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) from Curtin University.