Graham Hay: no man is an island

When asked if there was a quote that particularly inspired him, ceramic artist Graham Hay provided the name of John Donne's famous poem. The poem expresses the indelible need human beings have for connectedness and community in order to flourish. Graham has lived the essence of these words, connecting, mentoring and fostering a community of creatives while building his career as an internationally renowned and collectable artist.

We share a video that showcases the process and development of Graham's work through a seven month project to exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and the importance of the community that helps make it happen.

Michelle Saleeba: Describe your creative journey

Graham Hay: My first art memory was following a horse around the cow paddock, trying to draw it when it was still, in pencil on a cardboard insert from a new shirt, using squashed fresh bread as my eraser. I always enjoyed clay at school and at high school there was an extensive range of ceramic equipment to learn on. I was hooked. After that I kept nudging until I lived across the road to, had an after hours key, and spent all my time in a college ceramics studio. After a decade of night classes at Perth Modern and Applecross, and after meeting my first full time ceramic artists overseas, I returned to Perth and completed a ceramic major at Edith Cowan and first-class honours at Curtin university. Since then, apart from briefly teaching at the former, I’ve been a “free range” artist out there.

Ceramic artist Graham Hay at work in his studio
Graham Hay at the Robertson Park Artist Studios

MS: Have there been any formative experiences, or lessons along the way that have impacted on your art making?

GH: I had a few very naive ideas in my first year at art school; to my absolute surprise all paid off through the special efforts of others. The first was to request a substitute of extra clay hand building units instead of the required wheel throwing units, and which my lecturer Edward Arrowsmith supported for the next three years. This meant I was always a hopeless thrower, but quickly became an outstanding hand builder.

Secondly, I entered in every ceramic competition I could, and despite my inexperience won prizes both in WA and interstate, boosting my confidence.

The third was to call together my peers outside class and propose a group exhibition during Artrage: the Fringe Festival, to which they very generously agreed. Our group the Thermal Shockers, included Anastasia Bradley, Pauline Burnett, Michelle Bushby, Jacky Harrison, Dee Jaeger, Bill Jeffrey, Fiona Kennedy, Kim Lee, Penny Lindsay, Irene Polton, Stewart Scambler, Sofia Sleziak, Alexis Stewart, Christine Dyer and Sally Young. We went on to exhibit together for a dozen years, leading to my first overseas commission and a purchase by the WA Art Gallery.

My last crazy idea was to spend many hours experimenting with an unappreciated material we were shown by ceramic chemist Mike Kusnic: paper clay. Because of the resulting unusual work, a fellow student Andy Miller organised my first weekend paper clay workshop, to which even my lecturers attended. They passed round a hat and paid me! Another student Debra Ellery published an article on it in local and national journals, leading to invitations from around WA, interstate and then eventually overseas for both workshops and exhibitions.

The lesson I come away with is to go with the crazy ideas, and never, ever forget others who helped me along the way. Hopefully I have repaid some of the the favours by also helping others realise their creative dreams.

MS: Describe your current art practice. What is the inspiration behind your current body of work?

GH: I’m trying to create increasingly delicate ceramic porcelain paper clay sculptures that suggest the real social networks around me. I draw inspiration from nature in creating my forms.

I got a shock at how complex my family tree was when I built it in 3D! Now looking at parts of my(self as an) artist.

Just finished writing an article on both other artist’s and my own experiments in adding metal to paper clay, then firing it. Which is central to what I’m trying to currently do in the studio.

Ceramic sculpture Graham Hay from the 2010 exhibition Sustainable ceramic art and design Gothenburg, Sweden
Ten by Ten (2010) Modified Southern Ice Porcelain paper clay, Kanthal wire, 24 x 35 x 26 cm, Private collection: Dr. Jeoung-Ah Kim, Sweden.

MS: Tell us about your choice of medium/s, why do you work with them?

GH: While I grew up surrounded by oil paintings and bronze sculpture, my preference for clay seems strange. Growing up on a farm a lot of attention is focused upon the soil and what grows in it, so there was not a big leap from wet soil, to mud, to wet clay, to paper clay (plant fibre). I found its immediacy addictive and so I've been a “clayaholic” since my teens. I transferred my loyalties to paper clay in 1992.

Every few years things do go stale, so I bolt together piles of paper and angle grind it with a WA Arbotech tool into my unique artificial wood sculptures, some up to 3 tonnes. This vents my frustrations while a student multiple times, struggles with daily administrative tasks, plus is a connection with my wooden boat building paternal grandfather.

MS: What does a typical day of creative work look like for you?

GH: Up before 6am to check email, cycle, walk, bus or drive to a coffee shop to read national press, meet with friends and mentees, or work on my laptop on urgent paperwork. Then to the studio for 2-4 hours art making, preparing materials, teaching, and catching up with the other five Robertson Park Studio artists. Then to Curtin for researching network theories, meetings with peers and supervisors, back to the studio in the late afternoon and then home for the family dinner. Evenings are meetings or more administrative work/emails on the couch in front of the TV.

Ceramic sculpture by Graham Hay show in the exhibition at 3rd Biennial of Contemporary Art, Argentina (Ist prize ceramics)
Our Beautiful Offspring (2016) Southern Ice porcelain paper clay, 2.5m high

MS: Who or what are the strongest influences on your art?

GH: An early influence was ceramic artist Len Castle who created very textural work. Later I was inspired by the unconventional American West Coast Funk ceramics. With no role models in the new medium of ceramic paper clay, I borrowed parts of architecture and WA plants to suggest external social and internal mental structures, and political theories I was reading. For the last decade my forms and textures have simply grown out of technical solutions I’ve had to find to express sometimes very simple ideas.

MS: What do you aim to say through your art? Are there any consistent themes or stories in your work?

GH: Aspects of biomorphic and art nouveau seep in when combining hundreds of multiple parts to create my current work. The relationship of each small and larger part to others is important. So the binary relationship between the individual and the collective, the state; inclusion and exclusion and how might the collective organise themselves, are recurring themes in my work.

Graham Hay ceramic sculpture Exhibtion: Personal Structures, European Culture Centre, an exhibition within the context of the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Critical Mass (2017) Porcelain paper clay, glaze, steel, 2m x 2m x2m

MS: What’s essential to you being able to produce art?

GH: Providing there are not too many distractions, perhaps overconfidently, I believe I can build sculpture from anything, anywhere. I choose to use porcelain paper clay, and occasionally compressed dry paper, because I have substantial experience and so creative control over it.

MS: What role do you see artists and the arts having in society?

GH: I am hesitant to answer this question, as every profession has a historical social justifying and recruitment dogma, as well as current “fashionable” ideas. Traditionally arts served religious and educational purposes. There is a lot of current research around the benefits of the arts for preventative mental health, wellbeing and enhancing learning; and remedial art therapy. There is a current push on the economic benefits to cities and nations from the “Creative Industries”.

My personal perspective is that being creative is simply just great fun. For many around me it is an escape from the demands at home and work. It enables us to say anything, be it our personal or collective values, emotions, beliefs and perhaps much more. It brings us together in the making and sharing, linking us in a very human and egalitarian manner.

MS: Does your own work make any social commentary? What message are you endeavouring to communicate through your art? Why is this important?

GH: Many artists specifically address social concerns and inequality in society. However, I profess no current expertise in environmental, political, economic, or social issues; although like most I have many strong opinions. From the above answers you can see I have an interest in how we come together individually and collectively. I suspect labelling my work about something may simply be masking a wide range of personal and often difficult issues that bubble up while making, or viewing it. I am beginning to believe that making art makes better people, so it’s the habitual process of many people making art, that transforms society, not any soapboxing on issues.

MS: It’s said that creative expression and arts engagement are fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing. Do you perceive this to be true for you?

GH: I’m very familiar with a local study on this by Davies et al (2017). She recommend a couple of hours per week of art activity, just like the medical profession suggest regular physical exercise.

Certainly I enjoy making art, it’s always an uphill challenge and so the concluding of each work is deeply satisfying. It’s a great antidote to modern life stresses and hugely self indulgent! As I have been doing it since I was very young it’s hard to separate myself from it. I’ve always regularly exercised and made art, so missing either for any long period disrupts my internal universe.

Both should be eased into slowly for the first time, or after absence!

MS: Do you have any exciting news to share about your art practice?

GH: There’s always something happening to be excited about: In the next few weeks, my technical article appears in the peak US ceramic journal, my inclusion in the City of Vincent video achieves, publicity on my forthcoming workshop and participation in an international symposium in India; and selection for the first international paper clay survey exhibition which will tour six US art museums. More importantly my studio work has finally got traction after a bumpy start to the year. All good news.

MS: What’s the most memorable response you’ve had to your artwork?

GH: So many, where do I start? One that comes to mind: a sculpture I made as a student that was the sole unsold work in an exhibition of my works, was destroyed by a vandal, never received a comment when included in my numerous slideshows, was then selected for the cover of the major UK textbook on paper clay. It’s still there on the second print.

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