My encounter with Hiroe Swen
I first came across Hiroe Swen’s work in 1968, when she was participating in an exhibition of leading ceramic artists in Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria1, Melbourne, which was coincidentally her first exhibition in Australia.
While I was familiar with most of the work of the majority of the Australian potters on exhibit, Hiroe Swen’s work was distinctly different and unfamiliar. The majority of work in the exhibition comprised largely of work strongly influenced by the Mingei pottery movement of Japan, which was brought to the attention of Western potters through the writings of Bernard Leach in his seminal and highly influential book A Potter’s book.
Through Bernard Leach’s enthusiasm for this particular Japanese folk art movement and its relationship to the English village pottery tradition, both of which he was particularly enamoured with, the reader received a distorted view of what was really going on in Japanese ceramics contemporaneously.
There is very little mention in his book of other major Japanese pottery movements of the time, such as the Sōdeisha (an avant-garde group) and the Nitten (contemporary group), with which Hiroe Swen was associated before coming to Australia, a few years earlier than this exhibition I had seen in Melbourne.
I was particularly drawn to Hiroe Swen’s work not only because of its difference from the other major pieces in the exhibition but because of its unique, contemporary, aesthetic and sculptural qualities.
It was not until 1977 that I first met Hiroe in person, when she came to an exhibition of mine, which was held at Cuppacumbalong gallery, just outside Canberra. She attended with a young fellow Japanese potter, Shun’ichi Inoue, whom I had met in Melbourne while he was a visiting artist at Bendigo Teachers’ College. They were jointly conducting a ‘black-fired’ workshop at Hiroe’s studio adjoining her Pastoral Gallery on the outskirt of Queanbeyan. I was invited to see the work produced by the attendees.
The black-firing process produced a lustrous, matt black surface on the work by creating a dense carbon-rich atmosphere within the tightly-closed kiln by, in this particular case, introducing pine needles into the kiln before closing it tightly. The resulting smoke produced a dense carbon atmosphere that penetrated the porous surface of the low-fired clay. It obviously made an impression on me as I used this process of firing in my own work a number of years later.
Little did I know at the time that I would be appointed head of the Ceramics Workshop at the Canberra School of Art the following year. The first appointed head of this new Art School, Udo Sellbach, was as keen as I to secure the services of Hiroe Swen as a teacher within the ceramics workshop so an offer was made which she accepted, and she was appointed the following year.
Hiroe was primarily engaged in teaching hand-building for first-year students. She taught with methods which put weight on learning basics. The exercises she set the students were far from creative endeavours but were aimed at teaching disciplines and methods of construction that would hold them in good stead for their futures as creative artists.
In the early stages, students baulked at what they thought were mundane exercises of having to make a number of cylinders of the same shape and size. Still, in time they realised that the skills they were acquiring enabled them to make more creative shapes without the risk of cracking and breaking during the firing process. In fact, Hiroe’s firmness, discipline and fairness ultimately earned her gratitude and appreciation from all her students.
As a member of my staff, I had an enormous appreciation of Hiroe’s dedication to her teaching role and her cooperative contribution, along with most other staff members, to the smooth running of the ceramic workshop. While each staff member had quite different attitudes and approaches to the ceramic medium, the students were able to glean a rich breadth of skills, processes and knowledge on offer from the diversity of staff.
Hiroe, along with most of the members of the ceramic staff, continued as a practising and exhibiting artist, which gave students an insight into the life to which they were being trained. While the ceramic landscape in Australia has changed dramatically from those early days when I first encountered Hiroe’s dramatically different early work, Hiroe has continued the slow evolution of her artistic development by maintaining a disciplined regularity of studio practice.
Never one for self-promotion or self-aggrandisement, Hiroe has steadily maintained regular exhibitions of her work, mainly within the Canberra area. Her considerable contribution to the development of ceramic art in Australia has seen a large number of her works being purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. More recently, in 2016, she was honoured by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays for her contribution to the promotion of Japanese culture and mutual understanding between Japan and Australia.
Throughout the 19 years we worked together at the Canberra School of Art, which then became part of the Australian National University, we became very close friends, which continues to this day and the admiration I had for her work when I first saw it over 50 years ago, remains.
1 It was held at the venue of the old National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on the corner of Swanson and Londsdale Streets in the centre of Melbourne. The NGV relocated to its new venue south of the Yarra River for its grand opening on 20th August 1968. It’s likely that the exhibition we saw was held at the museum which was next to the NGV before it moved.
Alan Watt was the Head of the Ceramics Workshop at the ANU School of Art from 1979 to 1998. Alan and Hiroe taught there together for nearly two decades. Watt is an important figure in Australian and international ceramics. His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, most state galleries, regional, institutional, corporate and private collections in Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia.
In this project, Alan contributed an essay.