Doug Alexander – A retrospective
Remembering Doug Alexander (1945 -1981),
A Potters’ Forum
Meredith Hinchliffe curator of the exhibition with Malcolm Cooke, Cathy Franzi, Maryke Henderson, Ian Jones and Kaye Pemberton will reflect on the life and work of the Doug Alexander.
3PM SUNDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2016
(final day of the exhibition)
In A Potter’s Book, Bernard Leach stated: “A pot in order to be good should be a genuine expression of life. It implies sincerity on the part of the potter and truth in the conception and execution of the work.” i
In a similar vein, in his recent book, Edmund de Waal described his training with a potter who “made pots for use. They had to be cheap enough to drop … beautiful enough to keep for ever.” De Waal explained that these were the pots he aspired to make, “alive to texture and chance, good in the hands, robust and focussed on use.” ii
I believe these principles, the first of which would have been familiar to Doug Alexander, would have struck a chord with him.
Each year since 1990, the Canberra Potters Society has given the Doug Alexander Award to an emerging potter. It is presented in celebration and honour of Doug Alexander who was the resident potter at Cuppacumbalong Arts and Craft Centre at Tharwa, from 1976 to 1981 – brought short by his untimely death.
Born in 1945, Alexander studied ceramics at the School of Mines, Ballarat from 1964 to 1967. He worked as a designer and thrower a Bendigo Potteries and in 1968 he travelled to New Zealand and moved to the Red Barn Pottery at Keri Keri in the Bay of Islands. During his travels in New Zealand he saw it was possible to make a living as a full-time potter.
He returned to Australian in 1970 and established Springmount Pottery at Creswick, Victoria. His first trainee there was Graeme Wilkie who started in 1971. Ironically, Doug had to teach at the School of Mines to pay Wilkie’s salary, but Springmount quickly became a hub of production.
Alexander was committed to the traineeship scheme offered by the Crafts Board. There were few tertiary courses in ceramics at universities or TAFE colleges and he, like other full-time potters, believed that graduates were ill-equipped with skills, but often saw themselves as great artists, unable to acknowledge that they had only completed the first chapter in their working lives. He believed that solid workshop training was the most dependable basis for young potters to establish their own workshops.
An edition of Pottery in Australia iii was devoted to discussions about apprenticeship, with Gerry Williams (USA), Ian Sprague (Victoria) and Kevin Grealy (Queensland) all contributing. Alexander and Williams, a potter from the USA, were founding members of the International Committee on Apprenticeships for Craftsmen (sic). In 1980 Alexander represented Australia the World Crafts Council Conference in Vienna, at which education and training for craftsmen was a main topic of discussion. By precept and example, his was one of the major formative energies and intellects in training younger craftsmen.
Ian Sprague who also had trainees in his workshop at Mungeribar Pottery in Victoria, claimed that the standard of technical training left much to be desired and that it was probably only after a year of workshop training that a trainee was able to produce work of a marketable standard. iv
Doug Alexander was committed to the art of the full-time potter. His aspiration was always to run a St Ives-style workshop, making a large range of functional-ware and some one-offs, and this he set out to do at Cuppacumbalong, Tharwa, his third workshop. His work was always vessel-based, using the basic form to create a wide range of objects.
The pottery workshop was the first to be established at Cuppacumbalong, in 1976. Alexander believed in the self-help, self-sufficiency and self-fulfilment of an artist craftsman. Ian Jones was Doug’s first trainee and together they converted an old outbuilding into a pottery. They put a lot of thought in the layout of the pottery, giving consideration to workflow and efficient and flexible use of areas. His overarching criterion for Cuppacumbalong was excellence.
In an article in Pottery in Australia, Alexander wrote: “During the past three years we have concentrated on a team of potters producing a range of sixty-five functional items, designed by myself, but open to individual interpretation. At one point in 1978 there were myself and five trainees working here. About one third of the production was sold to the galleries at Cuppacumbalong, the rest to craft shops in Sydney, country areas in NSW, Melbourne and Adelaide.” v
Eight trainees had worked in the workshop over three years, three on Crafts Board grants for a year , most staying for a year or longer. Of all those involved who left during those three years, most were involved in setting up on their own or were overseas gaining further experience.
In 1979, Alexander let the number of trainees run down to one, and decided his ideal would be himself and a maximum of two trainees or assistants.
Alexander felt that after having achieved what he set out to do at the studios at Cuppacumbalong, he preferred to be a maker rather than a manager, having to compromise for the market or the daily survival of a large workshop with high overheads.
Doug Alexander made a huge contribution to the development of functional ceramics in Australia during those days. He tutored at a number of summer schools throughout the country – then a popular way to gain instruction – and gave numerous lectures in colleges. Typically, he reflected that these short breaks from the workshop were stimulating, and gave him the opportunity to reassess techniques, and articulate his philosophy. It also gave him the opportunity to meet people who had different approaches – as he said at the time: “Sixteen years a potter and still learning.” In writing about the Potters Conference in 1981, he noted that “ceramics have been very kind to me over the past seventeen years.” vii Making new works for exhibitions helped him to break new ground.
When he moved to Canberra, Doug Alexander’s experience and knowledge gave a fillip to pottery in Canberra. The grief experienced when he died so young, with so much to offer and so much more to create, was palpable. The Canberra Potters Society established an annual lecture in his honour the year after he died. Prominent potter Janet Mansfield delivered the first lecture which was well attended. However, attendances gradually dropped, despite the excellent range of speakers, and it was decided to award a prize in Doug Alexander’s name at the Annual Members Exhibition, to support local potters.
The first Award was made in 1990 and it remains an important element of the Society’s Annual Exhibition.
Doug always believed that: “the craftsman who develops a high level of skill, is a good designer, and an entrepreneur will survive. A desire to achieve excellence beyond the horizon keeps the wheel turning and the brush dancing.” vii
Alexander’s work was proudly functional domestic ware, and was based on the vessel form. For him, the functionality of a pot was equally important as its beauty – it’s conceived to be used, and the pots he made come to life in fulfilling their function, as he said on several occasions.
To reflect on the contribution made by Doug Alexander, I invited five local potters who have won the Doug Alexander Award: Ian Jones, who won in 1995, Daniel Lafferty (1999), Kaye Pemberton (2003) Maryke Henderson (2006) and Cathy Franzi (2012). I chose them as their work is vessel-based, and I felt has some resonance with Alexander’s. Ian Jones and Daniel Lafferty are both wood-firers, showing strong, robust and gutsy pots. Kaye Pemberton’s work is made to be used. Her work is gentle and has a quiet beauty, whether in use or waiting to be used. Cathy Franzi represents Australian flora, particularly local species, on ceramic vessels. She has a Bachelor of Science and this informs the botanical and environmental focus to her art practice. Maryke Henderson uses soda when firing her work. Her forms start from the basic vessel and are manipulated, altered and assembled to create objects, most of which have rich surfaces.
The purpose of this exhibition is to celebrate Doug Alexander’s commitment to domestic table ware and also his commitment to apprenticeships for younger potters.
September 29, 2016