Leading Australian potter who 'paints with fire' retires from lecturing at SCU after 19 years

Published 23 March 2004

PIC CAPTION: Leading Australia potter and retiring Southern Cross University lecturer Tony Nankervis with two of his pieces from 1984, on display as part of the Lismore Regional Gallery's 50th anniversary exhibition, until March 27.

Well-known Australian potter and Visual Arts lecturer at Southern Cross University (SCU) Tony Nankervis has retired after 19 years of full-time teaching.

Nankervis, a practising artist with a national and international exhibition profile, has taught ceramics since SCU's inception in 1994, and prior to that taught ceramics from 1984 when the university was the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education.

He has led the ceramics studio in the visual arts program since 1994, and for the past five years has been Visual Arts Program Leader, and more recently, Course Co-ordinator as well. Associate Professor Jan Davis, also an artist and lecturer at SCU, is replacing him as head of the Visual Arts program.

"The depth of Tony's experience in wood-fired ceramics is virtually unmatched in Australia," Professor Davis said. "He has been of enormous value to students but also his experience and compassion as a teacher will be sadly missed and hard to replace," she said.

Nankervis has exhibited in Europe, Japan and North America, and is represented in the collections of several major galleries in Australia, including the Queensland Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Art Gallery and Museum, and the State Gallery of Western Australia. He is also featured in several overseas galleries' collections.

Nankervis has been a pioneer of the long wood-fired ceramics technique in Australia: a technique he has been practising for the past 25 years. He is frequently asked to speak at international conferences on the subject, including one in Iowa in the US in 2001 attended by 600 delegates from around the world.

He describes his current work as being derived from his beginnings in ceramics as a maker of 'one-off functional table ware', which included highly-individualised everyday table items such as mugs, bowls, plates, jugs and teapots.

"Over the last 15 or 20 years my work has become less and less functional and more about the notion of a vessel, and its essence," he said. "They're rhythmic, free-flowing things that take into account the artist's own body rhythms."

Nankervis prefers the pre-Industrial Revolution method of firing pottery, involving heating the kiln by burning wood for five days, to the modern, quicker methods using gas or electricity. The distinctive surfacing in wood-fired ceramics is generated by the ash and volatile salts from the burning wood.

"Because the wood ash and salts blush the ceramic pieces in the kiln, the finished work tends to take on the nature of the firing process," he said. "One colleague has described the process as painting with fire."

There are particular qualities that only come from firing in that way, he said. "If you see some of these older ceramics, particularly from Asia, the surface qualities are discernable from the surfaces generated by post-Industrial fuels."

There had been an increase in interest, over the past 10-15 years in Australia and overseas, in how these traditional surfaces were generated, Nankervis said.

"I've been involved in a number of conferences here in Australia and in North America, where I've been invited to talk about the kind of surfaces that I've been able to achieve," he said.

While his preferred technique involves a fair bit of wood, he is careful to use waste mill timber that would otherwise be burnt or disposed of. "So we don't feel were making any more of an environmental impact with the materials than is already happening."

Nankervis came to pottery after a 'career veer'. He initially did an agricultural economics degree at UNE, followed by two years' teaching at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia. He then travelled overseas for a year.

"When I returned I got involved in making pots, when somebody - a friend of a friend - threw me a pound of clay and I was just hooked immediately," he said. "I got totally involved in it."

He and his wife Mary, also an artist among other things, moved to the NSW north coast permanently in 1975 from Sydney and established a studio in Terania Creek Road at The Channon, with fellow potter Kerry Selwood, who was running the Northern Rivers TAFE ceramic program at the time.

Other potters began arriving in the area after that, drawn by Nankervis' and Selwood's presence and the cheap cost of land. They included Dennis Monks and Malina Reddish, who still live in Terania Creek Road. Nankervis and his family moved from The Channon to Lismore in 1984 when he began teaching full-time.

"There was a community of potters - about half a dozen of us plus visitors - who then came and began working in the region, and sparked off each other and facilitated one another's others ideas," Nankervis said.

He felt the heyday of the artists' community lasted from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, which was also when he and the others developed an exhibition profile in a number of Sydney galleries, as well as in Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane.

Nankervis has exhibited less frequently since he's been heavily involved in the administration of the Visual Arts program. "It's been a fruitful exercise and its been rewarding, but I guess my exhibition profile in the last couple of years has suffered somewhat," he said. He hopes to get back into it after a break.

During his retirement he plans to continue to supervise postgraduate students in ceramics at SCU, as well learn Spanish through the University of the 3rd Age, spend more time in his little fishing boat, and visit his sons more. One son, aged 28, works for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka, and the other, 26, is doing a PhD in aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville.

Do they have artistic leanings also? "They are capable artistically but they saw the kind of poverty we went through in our early years and said 'No way'," Nankervis said. "Trying to earn an income as an artist can be hard. You can be very creative with pumpkins, I can assure you! They were always available and I've eaten them in every known way.

"Being a professional teacher for 20 years in this environment provided a secure income and been very rewarding but a challenge as well."

Media contact: Sara Crowe Ph: 6620 3144 or Brigid Veale Ph: 6659 3006.