Fragmented memories

Working in the largest scale he’s ever attempted, ceramicist Stewart Scambler interprets Australia’s vast landscape in clay, inviting viewers to draw parallels with their own fragmented memory of the land.

Two years in the making, Stewart Scambler’s exhibition Fragment, at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, is the result of a 10,000-kilometre trek through the some of the most isolated areas in Australia. Scambler says there would be many Australians who feel they relate to the bush and the desert, even if they’ve never ventured there. “When they do go there, it’s like a fingertip touch, and then they withdraw. I wanted to take great handfuls of it. And although the land has provided a framework for my practice over many years, I wanted to make sure what I was doing wasn’t just based on memory, but actual experience.”

Ceramicist Stewart Scambler in the studio he shares with wife Trish. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Scambler and wife Trish drove through the centre of Western Australia, leaving the bitumen at Meekathara, heading to Mt Augustus, Tom Price and Karijini on dirt roads. They also took in Karratha, Millstream, Broome, Derby, Kunnunurra and Lake Argyle, heading to Alice Springs, Uluru and the Olgas, before heading back to Perth through Kalgoorlie. Scambler says the landscape was overwhelming. “There were three basic colours – a reddish, grey-green and blue. Nothing else really intruded. Then there was the experience of travelling in the land: life became very simple - with food and shelter the main priorities.”

Mirroring the vastness of the land, Scambler has produced his largest works in clay to date for the exhibition. Fragment l, (front cover) consists of 90 individual tiles, and is an astonishing 9.2 metres wide. Texture and colour moving across the work echoes an aerial view of the landscape. Weighing just over a kilo each, the tiles are made from local clay in Beverley, cleverly mixed with perlite, an expanding mineral commonly added to garden soils. Scambler says when perlite is heated in the kiln, it melts, leaving spaces in the clay, making the tiles quite lightweight. “The honeycomb texture is visible on the side of the tiles, and the edges are intentionally quite ragged. I wanted the tiles to look as if they had been torn out of the land.”

Fragment ll (detail), 2017-18, oxidised  stoneware,  manufactured  clay  from  Kalamunda  kaolin,  dimensions variable, height approx 2.3m, by Stewart Scambler.  ?  Stewart  Scambler.  Photograph:  Kevin  Gordon.

Fragment ll, a suite of three forms, is equally impressive in size. Standing 2.3 metres, the work is inspired by the hard-edged landscape of the Pilbara. “The landscape there is layered, like it’s stacked, with blocks overhanging. The reddish surface of the work was matched to the dust on our car when we returned to Perth.”

In fact, Scambler carefully collected all the dust from their car when they returned to Perth. It appears in the exhibition as a perfect mound of red soil within a wood-fired bowl on a shelf, much like a church font for holy water. “It says a lot about what this country means to me,” he says.

Based in Palmyra, Scambler is well known for the domestic ware he produces there, but on a second property in York he grows trees to stoke his wood-fired kiln and collects materials for his own clay mix. “Wood-firing is tied in many ways to mining. Even if you dig clay out of the ground yourself you’re still mining, so there has to be a sensitivity about how much you take, and where you take it from. And then there’s the forestry industry. Most wood-firers buy their wood, whereas we grow ours, from seeds collected on the property, planting over 100 trees each year.”

Scambler grew up with a huge interest in science, gravitating to the University of WA to study science and physics, later working in a laboratory in the oil industry. “It was alright,” says Scambler. “But something was missing.” Taking a course in laboratory practice at Fremantle Tech in the 1970s literally changed his life. “I remember on the first night leaning on the railing on the second floor. You could see straight down to the basement where the ceramic classes were. Something in my head said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I walked down and knocked at the door, and the tutor changed my enrolment. On that first night, when we were making pinch pots, my mind was saying, ‘This is it. This is what you’re going to do.’ From that moment, I worked towards becoming a full-time artist.”

Travellers, 2017,  woodfired  stoneware,  hand  blended  clay  from  local  materials  (York),  dimensions  variable by Stewart Scambler.  ?  Stewart  Scambler.  Photo Kevin  Gordon..

In the early 1990s, Scambler reconnected with friend Trish, and they married in 1994. “She trained as a graphic designer and was working as a medical illustrator. So she became the decorator and I became the thrower. Over the years, she’s become one of the best users of the brush on a clay surface for maiolica that I know.”

He says the exhibition has given him a chance to work in a new direction. “It’s been in my head for years, looking for the right space and maybe the confidence to progress with it, so it’s nice to get something out of your head. I’ve done lots of tests on surfaces over the years and put them to one side. Now all those threads have joined together.”

Stewart Scambler: Fragment is on show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until 18 August.

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