Hiroe Swen: Artist bio in brief
Hiroe Swen was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1934. Since she was little, Hiroe was a curious and independent child. She remembers a day when she decided to skip kindergarten and went to play by the river with a friend.
She began her initial art training at high school, where she learned Western-style oil painting with her art teacher, who was an artist. She was awarded the best cultural achievement prize for her oil painting at that high school, and contemplated becoming an oil painter. She was offered an apprentice position by a prominent oil-painting artist in Tokyo when she graduated from high school.
Hiroe began studying batik soon after the graduation. She was familiar with dyeing as her family’s business was related to kimono-dye. She soon became a successful and prolific textile designer-artist. Overwork led to a severe illness and she came into contact with clay while on the lengthy road to recovery. “Clay became the only material I wanted to work with,” she said. “It changed my life from being a dashing textile artist to that of a blue-collar worker.”
In 1957 she began studying ceramics at the Kyoto Crafts Insitute.1 Mr Heihachiro Hayashi was the first ceramist Hiroe had encountered, a year previously, and was one of the teachers at the institute. Hiroe’s determination and potential evoked a rare response from Mr Hayashi. Those were the days when artisan practice in Japan displayed a closed-shop attitude towards women studying ceramics. He invited Hiroe to come and learn at her pace at his studio in Kyoto. She spent some years in his studio and received awards in several competitions during that short period.
In 1957, Hiroe joined six other young women ceramists to found the Women Ceramic Artists’ Group.2 Their first exhibition was in 1959 and was well received; sales were numerous and critical acclaim was high. She was a regular exhibitor in the groups’ annual exhibitions, and by 1962 she had established her own studio in Kyoto.
Cornel Swen and Hiroe met in Kyoto in 1966. Cornel was on his way to Singapore for a new job. He was born in Holland and had become an Australian citizen a few years earlier. While devoting herself to ceramics, marriage was not on her mind, but Cornel’s passion and belief eventually won her over. They stayed in Kyoto, close to Hiroe’s family, for two years, before moving to Australia in 1968.
Hiroe’s first Australian exhibition was in 1968, displaying work she had created in Japan. It was held at the Craft Centre in Melbourne shortly after the Swens settled in Sydney, where Cornel Swen had worked as a graphic designer and illustrator since 1952. Her second exhibition was the opening exhibition at the Strawberry Hill Gallery in Sydney, also in 1968.
In 1970, the Swens moved to live in the hills called Bimbimbi3 on the outskirts of Queanbeyan, a small town near Canberra. Cornel re-configured and extended the existing building into a house and studios which they built almost entirely themselves. Later they also built a gallery, which they called the Pastoral Gallery.
In 1972, the Japanese Embassy held Hiroe’s third exhibition, the first exhibition of her work produced in Australia.
Hiroe began teaching part-time at the Canberra Technical College4 in 1971 but left in 1973, unsatisfied with the level of teaching. She believed she had something to offer to some of her former colleagues and students who were keen to keep learning. In 1974 she invited a group of 9 semi-professional female potters to form a study group, which met monthly at Swen’s studio. The group became known as the Bimbimbi Ceramic Study Group and members offered mutual support, technical advice and criticism. Hiroe left the group in 1984 after ten years of assistance. The group still continues.
Hiroe began formal teaching again as a lecturer in ceramics at the Canberra School of Art5 in 1981. She retired in 2000 and retained her connection as a Visiting Fellow until 2005. She loved teaching, giving generously of her time and knowledge. She also gained a great deal of satisfaction. She taught skills and personal philosophy about the art of ceramics. She never taught her style. One never saw cloned Swen pots from students. For Hiroe, the most exciting part was discovering a student to whom she could show what he or she could achieve.
Hiroe exhibited regularly at the Pastoral Gallery; other exhibitions were held at the David Jones Gallery, Sydney; Gallery Anri in Nagoya, Japan; and the Japanese Garden Centre, Cowra, NSW. In 2000 a retrospective exhibition of her ceramics from 1965 to 2000 was held at the Craft ACT Gallery, Canberra. She has exhibited in Western Australia, the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University in Canberra; Narek Galleries, Tanja, NSW; the Watson Arts Centre, Canberra; and most recently at the Sturt Gallery, Mittagong, in 2020.
In 2000 she received the Canberra Times Artist of the Year award. In 2006 she won third prize in a Japanese national essay contest on aged care, with an essay on her own experience of caring for her mother, resulting in her being invited to attend the award ceremony in Tokyo.
In 2016 Hiroe was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Government of Japan, recognising her significant achievements in ceramics as an artist, and as an educator for her contribution to the promotion of Japanese culture, and her promotion of mutual understanding between Japan and Australia.
1 After numerous organisational changes, the current body is called the Kyoto Municipal Institute of Industrial Technology and Culture.
2 This group began with seven women and over 60 years it has grown into a national peak body for female ceramists, known as Women’s Association of Ceramic Art. In March 2023, the association announced its closure after the death of the president Asuka Tsuboi a year earlier.
3 Bimbimbi was the name of the Swens’ property and is the indigenous word for ‘place of many birds.’
4 The current body is the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).
5 After numerous organisational changes, the current body is called the ANU School of Art and Design.
Meredith Hinchliffe AM is an arts advocate, writer, critic and donor to national and local cultural organisations. Meredith was the first full-time employee of Craft ACT in the mid-1970s. She later joined the Canberra National Sculpture Forum committee and chaired Ausdance ACT for many years. Meredith has written and published numerous articles on Hiroe’s ceramics over the decades.
In this project, Meredith contributed an essay and an artist bio.