Ceramic artist Stephen Bird is known for work with a wicked sense of humour. The English-born, Scottish-raised artist puts his own ironic spin on the revered pottery industries of his Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire birthplace. Bird arrived in Australia in 1999 and stayed.
Steve Dow: How revered are local companies Royal Doulton and Wedgewood in your home city, Stoke-on-Trent?
Stephen Bird: Stoke-on-Trent is not my home city; it was where I was born. I grew up in Dundee, Scotland. The Scots hate all this stuff about me: the worst thing about a person in Scotland is to be English, you know?
SD: Yes, you moved to Scotland at age seven. How did being an ex-pat effect your sense of humour?
SB: Being Australian was the key, really. We went to Scotland, being English, but then [later] I went to a Liverpool school, in England, with a Scottish accent. So to be able to say, ‘I’m not English or Scottish. I’m Australian,’ that was a handy default position. Because I was Australian: my father was born here.
SD: So your sense of humour is an amalgam of all those places?
SB: It is an amalgam, but a very Scottish sense of humour. To live in Dundee, you’ve got to see the funny side.
SD: What led you to glazing and ceramics?
SB: In 1997, when the Labour Party came in [under Tony Blair] they allowed people who had already done degrees to go back to college for an additional, lesser qualification. So I went to a technical college, like a TAFE, to study ceramics, in a fishing village. The head of that department had been the technician at the art college I went to in Dundee. He used to say that in education, ‘Those that aren’t academic end up in the art department, and those that have got no talent for art end up in the pottery department’ [laughs]. So he put the word out that, if any of the artists in Dundee wanted to do pottery, they were welcome to go along. A few of us got on the bus and we went, a few days a week, and started to make ceramics.
SD: You call your practice “industrial sabotage”. What does that mean?
SB: That’s to do with Stoke-on-Trent. I never thought much about Stoke-on-Trent until I came to live in Australia. If you live in the UK, you don’t need to explain the influence of English ceramics. Everyone gets that joke straight away [snaps fingers]. Whereas in Australia, people would ask questions, like, ‘What’s a Toby jug?’ [a beer jug in the form of a seated person] and, ‘Who is Wedgewood, or Royal Doulton?’
I never studied studio pottery, which is influenced by an orientalist aesthetic. My ceramics were influenced by industrial ceramics. It’s like I’m sabotaging that industrial tradition.
The only glimpse I had into the art world as a child was my grandmother’s collection of china and Toby jugs. We were never allowed to touch them. I always had this craving to play with them. Making ceramics is a way of rearranging the crockery.
SD: Would your art be considered sacrilege in some corners? I’m thinking of one of your plates that reads, ‘Pottery has no place for a whore.’
SB: Well that’s from a Martha Wainwright song: ‘Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore.’ I changed a letter, basically.
SD: But are some people purists about what you should do with ceramics?
SB: Oh yeah, very much. The Bastard Son of a Royal Doulton show at Casula will also go to the UK. Royal Doulton has a trademark. The catalogue for my show amused the heir and owner of Royal Doulton, but his personal assistant did mumble, ‘Is he allowed to do this?’ They don’t see the joke at all; that I’m updating a tradition, because they’re still making pottery that is very serious. Royal Doulton rhymed better in the title than Wedgewood; [the show] is not aimed at Royal Doulton at all. It’s like a punk show aimed at something very stuffy, basically.
SD: One memorable figurine of yours is of Jesus with a chainsaw. What’s your relationship with religion?
SB: I’m not anti-religion at all, I just hate the way it has never been updated. The stories are locked in the Victorian era.
SD: That painting on your wall here, Sea Swimmer, 2016, is going to be in a group exhibition. Do your ceramics overshadow your painting?
SB: It’s a blessing in disguise, because it leaves me free to paint. I was watching a film about a writer who is really successful [the late David Foster Wallace], called The End of the Tour, and [the actor playing Wallace] was saying as an artist, you look at other artists who are selling really well, and you think, ‘Well, that’s because it’s not very good art.’
But what happens when your own work starts selling really well? Which my ceramics do, so I don’t know what’s wrong with them. It’s kind of nice to have the painting, for me, because it’s something that still has a kind of purity.
SD: Any theories on why Australians have taken to your work?
SB: People are attracted to shiny things. Ceramics are seductive. You were saying some of the things I do can seem a bit grotesque, but I think because they’re in ceramic, there’s something seductive about that grotesqueness.
Humans can be quite grotesque themselves, but there’s something quite seductive about humans, too. There are several creation myths to do with humanity evolving from clay. Clay is a strange medium in that it does have this human essence about it.
Stephen Bird: Bastard Son of a Royal Doulton – A Wollongong Art Gallery Touring Exhibition
30 April – 3 July