Not discovering his passion for art until his forties hasn’t stopped John Tuckwell leading a full and exciting career. Focus went along to his studio to learn about the slow methods and amazing patience he employs to create his ceramic marvels.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
In the early seventies, a mate was given a block of land on the beach north of Coffs for a 21st birthday present. We drove up to have a look – two boys from western suburbs of Sydney on an adventure.
In those days, Coffs was really a long way from Sydney and a lot different to today.
I moved with my partner to Bellingen in the mid ‘80s, and we are still there.
For a long while we were in the bush, but now the workshop and house are together in town.
There is a big and growing ceramics presence in the area, and we are part of that.
Could you briefly describe how you became involved in visual arts?
I started in clay a bit by accident.
I had a non-art business in Sydney before moving north and by the time I discovered clay, I was in my early forties.
Initially, I was self taught. I made ceramic objects and some woodwork for house decoration shops and anywhere else that would have me. After making simple work for ten years, I loved clay, and I wanted to know a bit more. I studied at ANU and from that point, started to work with porcelain.
I just make things from clay. If it can’t take the heat in the kiln, I do not make it, but my work and way of thinking is a lot like a painter.
Can you briefly describe your current project?
I have two exhibitions on the horizon. The first one is on the Mid North Coast later this year, and the second is in Sydney in the first half of next year.
I tend to work to a cycle, with an end date attached. Each exhibition takes three to four months to prepare for.
A longer term project, when I can find time, is making some very light work that is meant to crack and warp with the temperatures in the kiln.
This is the opposite of what I normally look for, and I get a lot of failures between the gems.
Where did the inspiration for this work originate?
This series came to me automatically. Having cracks and failures is common with my work, so it just became obvious to investigate that direction. I see it as a metaphor for how humans work. Tough on the surface, but more fragile behind.
As an artist, how would you describe your style and approach to a subject?
The material I work with is not very flexible, so it pushes me to work in a particular way. I make work that is in the long ceramic tradition of making marks on functional pots.
My pots are only just functional, and the mark making and painting on the surface has taken over.
Where do you find inspiration?
Sometimes it just turns up.
I think of myself primarily as a landscape artist, so getting out of the workshop into the bush is a good way to recharge. Cathedral Rock National Park has been a source for quite a few years.
An idea can come from a literary source too. Just a few words might start me down a line of thought.
The other influence is the material itself. I work in porcelain. It is white, translucent and tricky. What the material can do can be enough.
What artists do you admire and draw influence from?
Worldwide, ceramics is in favour. There are lots of different types of ceramics to look at.
The British potter, Grayson Perry, had an exhibition in Sydney earlier this year. I think his iconoclastic way of relating to the world is influencing a lot of artists. I love his pots.
Some friends have introduced me to the work of South African artist William Kentridge, and his work goes around in my head. I probably look at painters as much as potters.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking up art either as a profession or a hobby?
Making something with your mind engaged is very positive for brain development, so just doing it is its own reward. Being engaged with art is endless too. There will always be a new idea waiting to be worked on.
Art as a profession is difficult. Many very good artists make art part-time and teach, or pack shelves as well.
For the people who, however it is done, can make a career out of art – it is the best profession there is.
The reason for making the art should always be the art, not the money.
What are your plans for the future?
Working as an artist is a great luxury. Artists go on forever without knowing everything. It is a career with an inbuilt remedy for vocational boredom.
What I was doing five years ago is different to what I am doing now, and I have no real idea what I will be doing in another five years.
If I wake up with an idea, I can work up some drawings and then make my idea. If it works out, it will be in an exhibition sometime.
It is good to get out of the workshop too. Sometimes the ideas slow down, and it is time to lock the door to the studio and go somewhere else.
I will keep making my art until my eyes and hands no longer work.
I have made a deal with my partner, for her to tell me if everything I am making is rubbish.
Where can people find out more about you and your art?