By SUZANNE BROWN
[The Age, Melbourne, 13 November, 1998]
When you walk into ceramist Alexandra Copeland’s Toorak flat, you are immediately drawn towards a large room. Around its perimeter are large, colorful ceramic platters and smaller pots. They sit on the floor, on the large mantelpiece and on various Indonesian-style cabinets.
In the centre, a few Indian patterned cushions are heaped in two piles on brightly colored rugs. It is a beautifully simple space, belying Copeland's addiction to hoarding. Many possessions, including thousands of art books, slides, sketches and even supermarket packaging, are in storage. Mountains of museum catalogues have been filed away. Copeland regularly swaps carefully labelled boxes of books from storage, as well as borrowing others from the local library. They all form part of the immense visual stimuli she needs for her ceramic work. Sport photographs showing the human body in contorted positions help her to see with a fresh eye. She draws freehand, with matt black iron oxide, on to pots. She does not work from a preparatory drawing, but from an image in her head. This allows her only one chance to get it right.
"I like the risk and discipline of working like this. The drawing will usually be better the first time." She draws from the top of a platter to the bottom, to reduce smudging. Large muscles have developed in her right arm from holding her hand in a way to avoid contact with the tin glaze powdery surface. Many drawings are of plants and insects, inspired from a childhood exploring Warrandyte creeks and bushland.
Copeland says she never designs work for a market and ignores trends. Fortunately, her work is popular enough for her to work as a full-time ceramist. Occasionally, technical experiments or subject designs will have pushed the form too far and the pieces won't find a buyer, but Copeland affectionately reclaims these "orphans".
She particularly likes pots with imperfections, where air bubbles have allowed another color to show, or the colors have dribbled around the edges. "There are so many mass produced, machine-made things around. I don't want it to look perfect," she says. "I want it to be quite clear it is made by a human being."
All her subjects have a function and she hopes they will be passed on through generations. When she worked in the mediaeval pottery village of Deruta in central Italy, she loved fossicking through the rubble to find shards of broken pots.
Her latest pots were made during an artist-in-residency at Dartington Pottery in Devon, England, where she began experimenting with reduction firing. It is a precise technique; the kiln is deprived of oxygen, which strips the metallic oxides in the glazes. This produces richer and more vibrant colors: warm copper reds, barium yellows, iridescent turquoise and plum purple. But it also produces a nervous knot in Copeland's stomach when she opens the kiln to view her work. When she lived in St Kilda, disaster pots were immediate]y smashed with a hammer on the porch and flung under the house. Using the specially designed reduction firing kilns in Devon proved far more successful than Copeland's attempts at reducing the oxygen in her home studio kiln with damp sawdust. The huge clouds of smoke billowing from the chimney, produced by the burning sawdust, made her feel even more anxious because she worried the fire brigade would be alerted.
Copeland has travelled widely through India, Afghanistan, South East Asia and North Africa. She recently returned from an arduous, 40,000-kilometre trek around Europe, researching a museum guide book.
An Artist's Guide to Ceramics Museums of Europe describes the major ceramics collections of Europe, includes historical information, Copeland's personal experience and sketches she did on the spot. It was during this trip that Copeland set her record for museum stamina. In one British museum, she spent five days straight from opening to closing time.
She easily outlasted her husband and 15-year-old son, who accompanied her on the year-long journey, visiting more than 120 museums on the continent and in Turkey and Morocco.
And yes, she lugged home more catalogues, books, photographs and sketches. Her motto is, after all, "travel heavy".
Alexandra Copeland's ceramics are exhibited at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Dunn's Road, from Sunday to 3 January.