Gwyn Hanssen Pigott
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (born Gwyn John, 1 January 1935, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, died 5 July 2013, London, England) was an Australian ceramic artist. With a career spanning over 45 years, influences from her early apprenticeships with English potters Ray Finch, Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach were still apparent in her later work. Hanssen Pigott wood-fired her porcelain still-life arrangements that are noticeably influenced by the still life work of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Her palette was clearly inherited from China’s Song Dynasty wares introduced to her through her various apprenticeships in the Leach tradition. Hanssen Pigott maintained a studio in Ipswich, Queensland, and was recognized as one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists.
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott was born in Ballarat. In 1954, she received her Bachelor of Arts (equivalent to a Bachelor of Fine Arts) from the University of Melbourne. Hanssen Pigott’s first introduction to ceramics was in the 1950s while a student at University. She studied Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book, an influential text for potters both when it was written as well as today. In seeking to learn more in the Leach tradition, she sought out Ivan McMeekin who had apprenticed with both Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew in England.
Between 1955 and 1959, Hanssen Pigott held apprenticeships with several influential potters from both Australia and England. Her first apprenticeship was with McMeekin at Sturt Pottery in Mittagong, New South Wales, Australia, between 1955 and 1957. McMeekin established Sturt Pottery in 1953 as a production and teaching pottery modeled after the studio traditions of Leach and Cardew. McMeekin emphasized the use of local materials for small-scale studio production, a concept introduced to him by Cardew. Hanssen Pigott studied with McMeekin at a time when all clay bodies had to be made from hand-processed raw ceramic materials, they were not available as commercially pre-mixed products. While at Sturt Pottery, Hanssen Pigott was exposed to an appreciation of materiality and process in addition to a learned admiration of form and beauty in a pot.
Hanssen Pigott’s introduction to the Leach-Cardew studio potter tradition via McMeekin more than likely encouraged her to go abroad to England to apprentice with Finch, Cardew and Leach. Hanssen Pigott traveled to England in 1958. She first worked with Ray Finch at Winchcombe Pottery. Michael Cardew established Winchcombe in 1926, shortly after he left St. Ives where he had been an apprentice to Bernard Leach for three years. Cardew’s goal was to make pottery for everyday use and to make his pottery available at a price that most people could afford (in the seventeenth century English slipware tradition). In 1939, only three years after joining Cardew, Ray Finch assumed the management of Winchcombe while Cardew set up a new pottery in Cornwall at Wenford Bridge. In 1946, Cardew sold Winchcombe to Ray Finch.
In 1958, after working at Winchcombe, Hanssen Pigott apprenticed Bernard Leach at St Ives, and Michael Cardew at Wenford Bridge. In 1960, she left Cornwall with her newlywed husband, Louis Hanssen, to establish a studio in Portobello Road, London. During her time in London, Hanssen Pigott enrolled in evening classes at the Camberwell School of Art, with Dame Lucie Rie.
In 1966, after several visits, she moved to Archeres, France where she set up her own pottery studio. Hanssen Pigott became more and more well known in the ceramics community internationally. Around this time she lectured in the United States as well as the Netherlands. In 1973, she returned to Australia, moving to Tasmania in 1974 with her second husband John Pigott. Hanssen Pigott and her husband set up a pottery workshop in Tasmania with financial help from the Crafts Board of the Australia Council.
Some of her many artistic accolades include the following: in 1980, Hanssen Pigott was a “tenant potter” in Adelaide at the Jam Factory Craft Center, from 1981-1988 she was the potter in residence at the Queensland University of Technology. In 1989 she was the artist in residence at the Fremantle Arts Center. In 1993 Hanssen Pigott was awarded a three year Artist Development Fellowship from the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council. In 1994 she was the artist in residence in the Ceramics Department of the School of Mines and Industries, Ballarat.
Gwyn Hanssen Piggot’s work has a wide range of influences. The variety of influence from Song Dynasty glazes and palettes to Leach-Cardew forms can be clearly seen in her work. Hanssen Pigott has written about her interest in the quiet still-lives of Italian painter, Giorgio Morandi— which have influenced her work.
A Potter’s Book
As previously discussed, Hanssen Pigott was influenced early on by the text A Potter’s Book, written by Bernard Leach. Artist and author Edmund de Waal describes A Potter’s Book:
"A Potter’s Book, finally published at the start of the war in May 1940, stands as both manual and polemic. Indeed its significance and popularity are due to the complex way in which Leach’s technical descriptions are bound up in his values. It is a book that seems to encode the whole meaning of being a potter and working as a potter, not simply the making of pots. From his introductory chapter ‘Towards a Standard’, through the technical chapters to the description of an imagined month in the workshop life of a potter, Leach rehearses his convictions about the place of handwork in society…Leach starts from the presumption that there is a need for a common standard of ‘fitness and beauty’ and that such a standard is lacking in the West where the appreciation of pottery is a marginal activity…
His judgments are expressed as absolutes: ‘a pot in order to be good should be a genuine expression of life,’ ‘it is true that pots exist which are useful and not beautiful and others that are beautiful and impractical, but neither of these extremes can be considered normal: the normal is a balanced combination of the two…(Leach states) The potter must be symbolically independent of contemporary society…The gravitas of Leach’s book, though, lay in the feeling that art was not various but very particular indeed. It was the very absoluteness of Leach’s ‘Song standards’, ‘the ethical pot’, that were to define the post-war agenda on ceramics."
Through her study with McKeenin, Hanssen Pigott’s sense of the Leach tradition was sharpened. McMeekin set up the Sturt Craft Center based on Michael Cardew’s philosophy of self-sufficiency. McMeekin relied on local clays and raw materials to make his work. McMeekin wrote his own book published in 1967, titled Notes for Potters in Australia. Clearly Hanssen Pigott chose to learn more about Leach and his family of potters in her decision to apprentice with Leach, Cardew and Finch in the UK. De Waal’s description of Leach’s high regard for the aesthetic of China’s Song Dynasty wares, specifically the objects made for meditation in the monasteries, has been incredibly influential on Hanssen Pigott’s aesthetic.
Song Dynasty wares
In Hanssen Pigott’s pottery, you can see a heavy influence of specifically the Northern Song Dynasty wares. The Northern Song wares concentrated on the meditative qualities of form. Glazing was rich in color, but decoration on the surfaces was minimal. What decoration that was used was delicate and restrained. The work is technically very accomplished.
In addition to her adherence to the aesthetic of the Song Dynasty wares, Hanssen Pigott describes her own sense of form, which is aligned with the Cardew Leach philosophy of the importance of the everyday and humility in pottery:
"About form. I am sure that the forms of the most common, everyday utensils can evoke so much that is inexpressible in any other language, about humanness. That with only the very slightest gesture, the merest suggestion of the lip of a jug, or pouring spout, or the lightest softening of a curve, there can be expressed a sort of vulnerability, or a tenderness, or an attentiveness that causes us to pause. That the scale alone of some objects can touch us, and a small jug of open and generous form can somehow seem brave and absurd and a bit like ourselves."
Leach and Cardew
It is later on that Hanssen Pigott describes how her work differs from the aspirations of Leach and Cardew:
"I no longer care if the cup, with its careful handle and balanced weight (the heritage of years of teaset making), stands unused among a quiet group of table-top objects arranged as a still life, somewhere higher than table height. It is still a cup—an everyday object as ordinary and simple as can be—but from somewhere, because of its tense or tenuous relationship with other simple, recognized, even banal objects, pleasure comes.
I am surprised. It is a weird idea. It is not what I thought my work would ever be about when I tried to live like the unknown craftsman in a hamlet in France, or a hillside in Tasmania. It is alarmingly contradictory; to make pots that are sweet to use and then to place them almost out of reach. To make beakers that are totally inviting and then to freeze them in an installation. Worse still, to take so much time with each piece, carefully trimming and turning and removing most marks of the throwing….Old friends indeed be worried. And yet it has come slowly, out of observation, out of what cannot be refuted. These forms, these assemblages and groupings and jostlings and juxtapositions sometimes have a power to move me, and others. Strange, I cannot understand."
Hanssen Piggot might have come to arranging her work in groupings as still life compositions reluctantly, but it was definitely not without influence. Hanssen Piggot describes her interests in the paintings of Italian Giorgio Morandi:
"Thankfully there are masters I can look to, who never seemed to miss. The makers of the Korean rice bowls, Giorgio Morandi. Their works confront and inspire, and imply humility, unconscious or highly, intensely conscious, they express a sure understanding. Of something. What? Is that truth in form? Are their forms true? Well, they have left us some sort of man-made, material, tangible expression in real stuff, real clay, real thick paint, which in its pulled back simplicity satisfies a surprising longing. And because I can appreciate it (a little), or feel it, then that understanding must be in me too—as deeply as I allow it. And also, perhaps, the potential to express it. Worth pursuing, would not you say? But perhaps, after all, not to be spoken about too much. Words get too big. Leave them."
Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) started painting still life compositions in the 1920s. His style of painting was minimal in its use of composition, quiet colors and line quality. His colors often used whites, muted blues, browns, iron reds, cobalt and ochre creating a very specific palette.
In her early work, in the 1950s through the 1970s, Hanssen Pigott focused on producing functional ceramic wares. She is most well known for her more recent objects—three dimensional still life groupings, which she has worked with closely since the 1980s. Her influences from the Song Dynasty wares show early as she was working with McMeekin in the 1950s, who was also heavily influenced by the work from the Song Dynasty. This early engagement with the history of ceramics has proven to become an old friend for Hanssen Pigott in her later works.
Owen Rye writes of Hanssen Pigott:
"Had I come to Pigott’s work with knowledge of recent art history, and none at all of her journey, I might have said that her work is much more suggestive of the modernist movement than of its beginnings in a love for Song Dynasty ceramics; more redolent of Bauhaus Germany or later Scandinavia, than distant China…the group carries an alternating current, a constantly reversing flow from one polarity to another; from abstraction to reality… Early in the evolution of the group concept, Ian McKay, in 1990, discussed the inherent contradictions in the grouping that arose at that time from considering each item in the group as a functional object, for example, a bowl or cup for daily use. These functional pots if used and replaced would constantly modify the group. Or, if the group were retained in its original format, then quite usable objects could become solely objects of contemplation. In a prescient manner (the article was written just before his death) McKay suggested: "The still lifes should be thought about again, both by enthusiastic critics and the artist."
In a 1999 review, Helen Stephens writes of Hanssen Pigott:
"She (Hanssen Pigott) says in making her forms, she dared herself to go to the edge of formlessness and, she wrote: "To my delight the pared down forms remained pots; glazed, strong, usable. What is more, this eccentric presentation, unframed, unboxed, completely floating on an idea, was accepted." She says she is wary of design: "Skill is one thing but a pot has to breathe." These groups have a meditative value—we take time out to consider them in the rush of life. People who purchase these groups of pots set aside alcoves, shelves, specially designed locations for these object groupings. Their strength and individuality; their cool composure; their certainty; their lightness and depth have the power to move and reassure. Pigott says they have, "for a moment pulled on our attention, with, perhaps, a reminder of our own vulnerability, and beauty and possibility of transformation and repose". The range of colours also have a powerful effect—from pure white groupings to rich and intense browns that seem to glisten out of the darkness."
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s work can be found in the collections of: the Art Gallery of South Australia, Australian National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Winnipeg Museum and numerous others. Her recent accolades include: 2002, Medal of the Order of Australia, "For service to the arts as a ceramic artist and teacher of the craft."  1998, Australia Council Fellowship Award; 1985, Queensland State Ceramic Award, Toowoomba; 1963, Fellow, Society of Designer Craftsmen, UK; and numerous others.
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott died on Friday 5 July 2013 in London, after suffering a stroke.
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