Hiroe Swen: Australian Heroine!
A context for her influential career
Over more than 50 years, Hiroe (nee Takebe) Swen has been a major inspiration to those working in Australian studio ceramics, bringing a particular perspective that was unusual at its outset and has remained a significant example to others ever since. Born in Kyoto in 1934, with a family background of dyers and the kimono trade, she first formally studied oil painting and textile design. She was introduced to ceramics in 1957, leading to extensive study with the potter Heihachirō Hayashi, at first at the Kyoto Crafts Institute as the first female pupil to be accepted by him, then for several years studying with him in his studio before setting up her own studio in 1962. It was unusual for a woman to be offered such training in Japan at this time; Hiroe was one of the earliest in the post-war years to take up ceramic art as a professional occupation after women’s suffrage was declared in 1945.
In the mid-1960s Hiroe met her future husband, Dutch-born artist and graphic designer, Cornel Swen, who had earlier migrated to Australia in 1951 and was visiting Japan. Together they moved to Sydney in 1968, then relocated to Bimbimbi near Queanbeyan in NSW, setting up their studios and Pastoral Gallery in the early1970s, and in later years moving closer to the town centre. Hiroe became an Australian citizen in 1974 and from their very different backgrounds, both she and Cornel had to make cultural adjustments to living near what was still the ‘bush capital’ of Canberra, and from where residents at that time often sought to escape at weekends. But the Swens wanted to become part of a supportive network and cultural community in which they could live and work – and they found it!
Influenced by both her traditional cultural background and Japanese modernism, her evolving ideas and expressions continue to include both Japanese and Australian references, and in many ways the work of both Hiroe and Cornel can be seen to have been mutually influential. In 1973 they had their first exhibition at the Pastoral Gallery which, despite a destructive fire in 1986, became a focus of good design and thoughtful working practice, within a thoroughly professional and yet warm and welcoming creative environment. In 2004, The Queanbeyan City Council commissioned Hiroe and Cornel to design an outdoor monument to commemorate the town’s relationship with Southern Alps City in Japan. Hiroe described it as: ‘The silhouette of an enlarged kimono-like garment, decorated with six stainless steel discs, each bearing an image of an iconic Australian animal.’1
What was happening in Australian studio ceramics at that time?
The most noticeable development in post-war years was the beginnings of a shift in interest away from ‘art pottery’ practices of previous decades that centred on hand-decorating imported porcelain or making earthenware vessels or sculptural forms, which had originated largely from earlier industrial examples and employment. Alan and Ernest Finlay are considered the first independent studio potters, active from before the First World War, and others followed later in all states. One significant example was the work of many individuals and groups working as artists or studio potters in and around Melbourne in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Boyd family at Murrumbeena, who had drawn largely on aspects of daily and local life, and on mythological and literary sources, for the subjects of their work. Also by-passed were the small, semi-industrial domestic-ware potteries that had flourished in the 1950s. Most of these potteries closed in the early 1960s, largely because of the availability of competitive imports, mostly from Japan, while potters themselves were placing a greater value on studio ‘art’ practice rather than on small industry production.
By the early 1960s, the preference for a stoneware aesthetic and its associated technology became overwhelming. When Hiroe Swen arrived in Australia in 1968, what had become known internationally as the ‘Anglo-Oriental’ aesthetic was well-established. With a focus on stoneware and later, porcelain, this aesthetic was drawn from the subtlety of Chinese Song pottery and from Japanese and English folk pottery traditions, and had emerged most directly through links with the early 20th century Mingei folkcraft revival in Japan, led by the philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi. It was documented most influentially for the West in A Potters Book in 1940, by English potter, Bernard Leach, who had established a pottery with Shōji Hamada at St Ives in Britain after returning from Japan in 1920. Across Australia, ceramics courses, such as that at East Sydney Technical College with Peter Rushforth, and the ceramics workshop at Sturt in Mittagong, with Ivan McMeekin and others who followed him, including Les Blakebrough and Paul Davis, became strong advocates for the evolving Anglo-Oriental movement.
In those post-war years, ‘studio’ potters quickly adopted the ideals associated with the new stoneware aesthetic: notions of harmony, simplicity and spontaneity that were developed through the process of working by hand with natural local materials, and reproducing traditional glazes through firing with wood as well as electricity and gas. In 1941 potter Harold Hughan, a former engineer, constructed the first Australian-made studio potter’s wheel from Leach’s example. The Potters Society of Australia (now the Australian Ceramics Association) was founded as an active national network in 1956, publishing its magazine Pottery in Australia from 1962, the year in which Leach visited Australia and New Zealand, while state and regional Potters Societies rapidly evolved around the country.
As part of this enthusiastic interest, from the early 1960s Australian potters started to travel to study in Japan and, in turn, invite Japanese potters to visit Australia and New Zealand to lecture, give workshops and exhibit their work. The first to visit Australia was Takeichi Kawai, who worked at the Sturt workshops at Mittagong in 1964 at the invitation of Les Blakebrough who had recently visited Japan. Then in 1965, returning from New Zealand, Shōji Hamada gave demonstrations at the East Sydney Technical College with Peter Rushforth, and at the Department of Industrial Arts, University of New South Wales, with Ivan McMeekin, using local clays on a specially constructed wheel. Notably, at that time all these potters were men and, apart from Shigeo Shiga who stayed for over a decade from 1966 and came back again in 2009, all returned to Japan. A different influence came with Mitsuo Shōji who, after some time in Australia in 1973–74, returned in 1978 to teach at the Sydney College of the Arts. His training had been with the Sōdeisha group, at that time a relatively little-known Japanese avant-garde of ceramicists working from the late 1940s. The exhibition, Sōdeisha Group, Avant-Garde Japanese Ceramics, shown in Australia in 1979–80 and eventually placed at the Newcastle Regional Gallery, served, as John Teschendorf pointed out, to encourage Australians to question what they thought was their tradition. The Japanese influence in Australia was further documented when Jackie Menzies mounted Project 42: Contemporary Japanese Potters in Australia, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1983. This exhibition showed work by all the Japanese potters who had lived in or visited Australia in recent years, including Hiroe Swen.
Inevitably, the influences of other international practices arrived. The Expressionist ceramic work of Americans Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner that developed in California in the 1950s reached Australia in the 1960s, while some potters, such as Eileen Keys in Western Australia, and Milton Moon in his early years in Brisbane, had developed their own expressive styles. Travellers to Britain also came into contact with prominent practitioners such as former European refugees Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, who were making Bauhaus-influenced modernist forms and vessels. The first major changes in these new directions occurred in South Australia, where the combination of ceramic and sculpture departments in some education institutions stimulated a strong sculptural emphasis among a number of young potters. It was here, also, in the late 1960s, that Funk Ceramics was brought first-hand from California through returning potters such as Margaret Dodd, who had studied there with Robert Arneson. Elsewhere in Australia, Peter Travis was making segmented moulded pots from about 1964, Bernard Sahm made sculptural work dealing with personal and social concerns, while Marea Gazzard and Joan Campbell were hand-building, drawing ideas from other ceramic and art sources.
In later decades, all aspects of contemporary expressions of the core traditions of ceramic practice have remained popular, with a leaning in some cases towards the status and appearance of ‘art’ and in others a return to ‘design’ for handmade production. But at the centre remains a desire for working by hand with clay and its associated technologies. During this time there has also been a very much increased migration of ceramics practitioners and students from other countries, including Japan, and Hiroe has been significant as a leading example of what is possible.
So where did Hiroe Swen fit in?
Hiroe was quite different. She was not only an imaginative potter who brought with her a particular cultural background and direct experience of contemporary Japanese ceramic practice but was very independent and original in her aesthetic choice of form, decoration and meaning. Unusual for the time, she was a female Japanese potter, and came to Australia to stay. Earlier, ceramics had not been an accepted occupation for women in Japan and Hiroe had shown singular independence and determination in choosing this path for herself.
From her first Australian exhibition in Melbourne in 1968, and throughout the many that have followed over later decades, it is clear that Hiroe has approached her practice in her own way. Throughout her career she has been an independent creator of one-off hand-built ceramic forms, usually coiled, moulded or slab-formed, often with angular paper-like folded features, and with various distinctive surface graphic and glaze details. While she has always retained a discernible Japanese subtlety in her affinity with clays and glazes and in the way she seeks to develop harmony between form and decoration, she has always done it independently and with critical self-appraisal, without a demonstrated affiliation to any particular movement. Rarely, if ever, using a potter’s wheel, she forms her pieces by coiling, slab-forming or moulding, with subtle glazed surfaces, while variously using meaningful decals and inscribed motifs. She has always believed that ‘even the most sculptural piece should fulfil a degree of practical function, either as a vessel or a container, to justify its description as pottery.’2 In 1972 she wrote in an introduction to an exhibition: ‘Here I am lucky enough to have beautiful surroundings, the striking colours and textures of the bark of trees, the chirping of many different birds, the centuries-old stones, the wonderful sunsets and unbelievable starry nights. My philosophy in pottery is to have a complete rapport with nature and to eliminate all pretence … by speaking from the heart rather from the head.’3
As well as providing an influential example to others, through the Pastoral Gallery exhibitions and others across Australia, Hiroe Swen has taught in many places, providing skills and encouragement to students to develop their own affinities between ideas and realisation, form and surface. In 1971-73, she taught part-time at the then Canberra Technical College, and set up a study group in 1974 for 10 years at their Pastoral property, and from 1981 taught at the Canberra School of Art, now ANU School of Art and Design, for 18 years. She was also invited to give workshops in other states, such as in Tasmania (where I first met her) and Queensland in 1976.
Hiroe’s works are in national, state and regional museum and gallery collections, as well as embassies and high commissions in Canberra and many private collections. Celebratory exhibitions have been held in 2000 at Craft ACT (30 years in Australia); 2018 at Canberra Potters Gallery (50 years in Australia) where she was made a Life Member of the Potters Society, and at the Sturt Gallery in 2020 (60 years of her career). In 2000 she was named Canberra Times Artist of the Year, and in 2016, was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Government of Japan as an acknowledgement of her achievement as a pioneer female ceramist in Japan, as a ceramic artist beyond cultural boundaries and as an educator, contributing to Australian ceramics.
Summarising many of the characteristics of Hiroe Swen’s approach to her work, Kerry-Anne Cousins wrote of her Fifty Flights of Fancy exhibition in 2018:
Flights of fancy can refer to the creative imagination that is allowed to fly free and it can also refer to the imagery of the birds that decorate each one of the 50 pots in the exhibition. The 50 ceramic pots these birds inhabit are hand-built and have either a white or black clay body. They come in a pleasing variety of forms – open, round and elongated bowls, square and rectangular vessels and free form platters. In some pots – notably A Lofty Habitat – Swen cuts into the base of the pot, creating rhythmic surface lines that suggest the undulating hills of the Brindabellas. Swen decorates each ceramic vessel with glazes and imagery in a masterly way to create designs that appear to embrace the pot organically. Swen’s images of birds remind me of origami paper cranes that are associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. They have become poignant symbols of hope, healing and peace. Hiroe Swen’s creative life is inspiring. She creates imagery that is poetic in nature and visually beautiful. It relates to her personal experience and is a testament to her well-spring of creative energy. Swen’s work continues to reach out to include us all in this very special conversation.4
[Credit for the images: Yumiko Starke (left)/ Kazuko Sakamoto(right)]
It is a privilege to be involved in this much-deserved acknowledgement of Hiroe Swen’s professional contribution to Australian – and world – studio ceramics, and alongside her supportive partner Cornel (who sadly passed away in 2022), to continue to enjoy her generous, affectionate and enthusiastic participation in Australian creative life.5
August 25, 2022
1 Hiroe Swen, quoted in Claire Fenwicke, “Queanbeyan Pastoral Gallery Creator Dies,” About Regional, 26 April, 22.
2 Hiroe Swen, interview with author, 2000.
3 Hiroe Swen, Canberra Times, 3 May, 1972, p.19.
4 Kerry-Anne Cousins, Canberra Times Nov 27, 2018.
5 Much of this essay is adapted from text in Grace Cochrane, The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history, UNSW Press, 1992, and an opening speech for her CraftACT exhibition in 2000.
Grace Cochrane AM, is an independent curator, historian and writer who has worked with craftspeople and their organisations for nearly 50 years. A former senior curator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, she wrote The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history (1992) and has contributed to many other publications. She has been a member of many boards and education programs. For 40 years, she has opened exhibitions, spoken at conferences in Australia and overseas, written for a range of catalogues, journals and publications, and examined many PhD and Master’s submissions.
In this project, Grace contributed an essay.