For Karen Black, expanding her painting practice to encompass ceramics was a combination of muscle memory and steep learning curve. “I’d never worked with clay before, but I’d always worked with my hands, making things. It felt really natural to me,” explains Black, who worked making props and costumes for theatre and opera for many years before turning her hand to oil paint and canvas in the late 2000s. Ideas and intuition were there; her challenge was to negotiate the complexities of the ceramic medium and process.
She was one of a diverse selection of non-ceramic artists invited by Lynda Draper to under- take a ceramics residency at Gymea TAFE between 2012 and 2014. It was an innovative and influential program that encouraged artists working in other mediums to bring their pre-existing conceptual propositions to an experimental engagement with ceramics. Many of the artists mentored by Draper have gone on to develop significant ceramics practices, including fellow SMFACA finalist Glenn Barkley.
As the last participant in the program, Black’s residency finished just before the opening of a major group exhibition at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery to showcase work by residency alumni. Black describes how, two days out from the opening, her work emerged from the busy student kilns “completely broken and all leaning over and cracked… I really learned the hard way that ceramics never turn out the way you want them to, and you have to be prepared to face that when it happens”. She exhibited the collapsed remains on a plinth in front of one of her paintings of Aleppo: a pertinent portrait of fragility and decay.
Only two years later, Black staged a highly accomplished solo exhibition of painting and ceramics at Sutton Gallery. She puts her quick progression down to risk-taking and experimentation. “There’s so much to learn, I’m about 40 years behind, really… I don’t have [time] to be testing colours for two years.” Her ceramic practice mirrors and complements her painting practice, in which she unfurls personal and political narratives through loosely figurative tableaux. Black explains, “While I am painting the ceramics I am dying to do some painting on canvas… it really does invigorate how I use oil paint, and gets me excited about paint itself.”
Much in the same way that she mixes all her paint colours from primaries, Black mixes her own porcelain slips from stains, making up all the colours before starting to apply them – a process which happens quickly before the flowing pigments harden.
For her 2016 exhibition Crown legs arms, Black reproduced glass perfume bottles she encountered at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in clay and at a much-enlarged scale. She was fascinated to discover that these forms from thousands of years ago “inform all the bottles and ceramics that we’re making today. We’re just doing different versions of them”. She reflects on how “they all look like women. They are ‘every woman’ throughout history: women with big arses and fat legs; skinny long necks and little heads.”
In the past, Black has invited groups of women to her studio to work with clay, but also – perhaps even primarily – to chat. Stories circulate as each woman moulds the block of clay before her. Black is now painting these stories onto her vessels, which act both as surfaces for paintings and containers for secrets. Of course, “what’s spoken in the studio stays in the studio,” she says.
Black is currently working from her new one-year studio at Artspace, Sydney, making vessels for the SMFACA exhibition. They are based on the same tiny, ornate blown glass bottles from the third and fourth centuries BC that informed her 2016 show. Complete with ceramic stoppers and stands, Black’s new vessels will be organised such that “the whole room might look like a painted canvas from a distance”. In any case, she explains, “that’s the thought at the minute. There’s still a bit of time to go.” Time to experiment and fail, discovering in the cracks a hint of where to turn next. Things are likely to turn out not quite to plan, and will end up being all the better for it.