James Lemon’s stunning Melbourne studio


James Lemon’s ceramic work contains multitudes. Across urns and irreverent annotated plates, to bricks and vases, the Aotearoa-born artist weaves in references to topics as diverse as insects and religion. From his stunning studio in Northcote, Melbourne, Lemon talks about faith and humour, creating an imaginary inside of a beehive for Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria, and what he’s making for his solo show at Sullivan+Strumpf.

All photographs by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

James Lemon: Being an artist, you’re always bouncing around the place and having to do a lot of errands and site visits. It really depends, but if I’ve got a good focus, I’m here all the time.

I’ve been here in Northcote for three years. It was a Gumtree ad—I sublease from the guys that run the cafe next door. Initially, I got the space because I was still making functional ceramics, so I had a bit of a shop space in here and I was running wheel throwing workshops. Now it’s all blended into one space.

There are works in process and finished pieces, my wheel throwing station, my big old garage door which lets beautiful light in, and then I’ve got my hand building space. My storage space is also kind of a workspace because key to my practice is a cycling of materials and forms. When I’m in production mode, I often make work that I’ll either edit out of exhibiting or doesn’t quite work at that moment, and I’ll let it sit in there for a while and then cycle back into a work. If there’s a finished work that I really like, and in a couple of years I’ll look at it and think it’s got another life in it, I’ll bring it back in. It’s nice to have work out and looking at me all the time.

All photographs by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

James Lemon: An artist’s life is not just making: it’s relationships, being present, contributing to the community by being there, travelling and seeing work. There are lots of different ways that I can work. When I’m in here, I try not to create any relationship with guilt around working. If it’s four hours one day, I’ll accept that. Sometimes swimming is work.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks these days, so I’ll often spend half an hour before and after I swim absorbing some sort of content. That is work for me—I’ve really been able to engage in a lot of conceptual thinking about work in that time.

A day in the life is always very different—it really does depend on what I’m making. Now that I’m back in the studio and furiously starting to make work for my solo show, it basically begins with the raw object. I’ll be preparing the clay and then spending a good couple of days throwing all kinds of objects, and then I’ll probably do some hand building. With ceramics, it’s all about time management: you’ve got a certain period of time where you can keep working on an object, you can add to that object and take away from it, and when something dries out too much, it’s gone. It’s about making choices and you’ve got a limit.

Once those have gone through the kiln, I’ll begin the decorative process. I use that time to paint and to get a bit messy—that’s always very exciting. Then it’s just firing, making things work and if they don’t quite work, re-firing.

All photographs by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

James Lemon: My work at the NGV is called Swarming—it’s an imagination of the inside of a beehive. Insects were ceramicists before anybody else was; they’ve been doing this for millions and millions of years. Whatever forces are at play with life against nature—and our resistance to it now and adaptation to the brutality of life—there is clay making, vessel making and shelter making for countless species. When I’m making work about insects, I feel like I’m working within a lineage that spans millions of years.

My solo show for Sullivan+Strumpf is kiln brick works. That work came about years and years ago. I made a couple of objects for a show back in 2021 at James Makin Gallery for Melbourne Design Week, and I showed a chair and a couple of side tables with these bricks. This body of work is a leaning in of that—that was a bit of a trial using these within a kind of sculptural capacity. Hopefully this is where it really gets to flourish.

I feel like a lot of my work comes down to death. I was brought up extremely religious in the Pentecostal Christian Church. I’m not averse to faith in any way—if anything, I probably have more faith now than I ever have—but from a really early age, ideations around death, rapture and consequences stuck in my head, and I dwelled on them quite a lot. And so, when I make my work about insects or vessels, often the vessels are referencing urns, or a lot of these shapes are tombs or crucifixes.

Insects I find fascinating because they are constantly taking dead material; there’s this feeding that’s occurring, consumption, and the cycle between life and death.

At the heart of everything there’s a seriousness about my work, which I can’t avoid, but that seriousness is sometimes only answered by the right joke. We can dwell in pain for a long time, but joy eventually emerges from that. I don’t think my sense of humour with my objects is at anybody’s expense—I just think that we are funny. There is so much humour around and I can’t not bring it into my visual language.

All photographs by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

Melbourne Now
National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne VIC)
Until 20 August

James Lemon
Sullivan+Strumpf Sydney (Sydney NSW)
11 May—3 June

The magazine version of this piece incorrectly stated James Lemon’s solo show was on display at Sullivan+Strumpf Melbourne, when it is actually on display at Sullivan+Strumpf Sydney.

Studio Words by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen