Studio Spaces: Steve Williams

Beauty in imperfection: Steve Williams holds one of his vases that was fired in the hand-built woodfire kiln pictured behind him and includes a common feature of his work, the shell imprints of the setters. Photo: Scott Calvin.
Beauty in imperfection: Steve Williams holds one of his vases that was fired in the hand-built woodfire kiln pictured behind him and includes a common feature of his work, the shell imprints of the setters. Photo: Scott Calvin.

The Studio Spaces project is a collaboration between the Manning River Times and the Manning Regional Art Gallery featuring artists from the Mid Coast region. The project culminates with in an art exhibition at the gallery in 2018. Learn more here.

Steve Williams’ eyes light up as he talks about his love for ceramics.

His wealth of knowledge is deep and comes from years of hands-on experience, experimentation, working with others and teaching.

His curiosity guides him and he likes to ask the question “what if?”, which can sometimes take him down new paths. He values simplicity, sustainability, using local materials and creating from the heart.

Steve’s home and studio have been constructed (and are somewhat still under construction) on a 52 hectare property at Dollys Flat, where he moved from Tuncurry with his wife in February 2017 after his role as head teacher of art and design at Great Lakes TAFE concluded.

Dollys Flat Studio was designed as a place he could continue to work, teach, share and inspire people, and where people undertaking sessions could stay.

“The plan was to create or build a project that was about people having experiences but also me doing my own work as well.”

The location was carefully chosen and while it’s isolated, it’s just the way he likes it.

“I’ve always worked in isolation. I’ve never been all that interested in what other people have been doing.

“It’s really about protecting or not being exposed to what’s happening so that you make decisions, you problem solve and you do all of your own stuff. 

“This is about creating a product that has Australian character, not just physically but from the land and everything that happens in terms of its texture and the fired colour and the glaze happens inside the kiln," said Steve.

“This is about creating a product that has Australian character, not just physically but from the land and everything that happens in terms of its texture and the fired colour and the glaze happens inside the kiln," said Steve.

“It hurts and it’s difficult and it’s challenging but I choose not to subscribe to magazines for example. I don’t want to know what my contemporaries are doing.”

A pod has been built off the main house and studio where people undertaking sessions with Steve can stay during their visit.

Steve has two studios and a kiln shed further up the hill.

As he takes his place at his turning wheel in one of the studios, surrounded by examples of his work, he smiles.

“This is probably 90 years old this kick wheel,” he said.

“What’s really lovely about this particular treadle style is you can move on and off it, standing in any position – you’re not bending down and you can walk on and off.”

He throws clay onto the wheel, his foot moving on the pedal and and it starts to turn as he gets to work.

The idea is to create an object that’s not perfect. We all have leans, we all have irregular kind of stuff happening. Everything leans doesn’t it?

Steve Williams, ceramicist

“I’m going to finish this bowl, just to demonstrate. I’m deliberately slowing this down to put a spiral spin on it. Most potters would cut that off or they would have thrown it on a round bat so that they can lift it off without distorting it, putting it aside for a couple of days, or a day, for it to dry out sufficiently, so that they can handle it, flip it over and then trim it. 

“For all of my time with clay that’s always felt really alien, because you’ve got this amazing plastic responsive material that you can then let stiffen up and machine it, the concentric kind of type, that’s always been foreign.

“I fell in love with clay because it was this amazing material that you could just do stuff.”

He also enjoys celebrating the beauty of imperfections. For example, all the vessels he creates have a lean and other imperfections.

“The idea is to create an object that’s not perfect. We all have leans, we all have irregular kind of stuff happening. Everything leans doesn’t it? 

“None of these trees are straight, human being are the same I think. Seeking perfection is impossible.”

Another important aspect of his work is making his own clays.

“This is about creating a product that has Australian character, not just physically but from the land and everything that happens in terms of its texture and the fired colour and the glaze happens inside the kiln.

“I’m trying make it local. On this property there is some clay but not sufficient volume to warrant getting involved in it, so I get clays from Cedar Party and from Bago. I call within 50 kilometres local, and I’m constantly seeking out other clay.”

He said the key to the function of a ceramic item is that the clay has to hold water, not the glaze.

“The glaze is never designed to hold water. Over time the glaze is always going to fracture so you must have the clay body that is vitreous. That’s the name given to clay that has reached a point of glassification.”

“This stuff that I’ve picked up, these are my tools… it’s the sticks that push underneath those vase forms, or some dry grass," said Steve.

“This stuff that I’ve picked up, these are my tools… it’s the sticks that push underneath those vase forms, or some dry grass," said Steve.

So what is the basic ceramicist toolkit?

“Your hands. That’s it, and it really is. Less is more.”

He said you could have a collection of tools in a box, but he prefers to use what he finds in his environment.

“This stuff that I’ve picked up, these are my tools… it’s the sticks that push underneath those vase forms, or some dry grass. 

“But I can go outside and I can do that bottom of the leaning vessel with a rock, so I can go out and grab a rock and I’ll look at a rock and I’ll say, well there’s the edge that I want in the bottom of the bowl. It doesn’t have to be a stick, and if it comes from just out there then all the better. 

“Because it is about place, and it’s about this place and it’s about these materials.”

Because it is about place, and it’s about this place and it’s about these materials.

Steve Williams

He had a gas kiln, but predominantly uses the brick woodfire kiln he hand-built using bricks sourced from Lincoln Brickworks at Wingham. He also hand-built the kiln shed, using timber from his property.

“It’s all bush construction using timber from the environment.

“Because we are in a bushfire prone zone we had to do a lot of clearing. What I’m doing is managing the environment (the property has 30 years of regrowth and trees) and sustainably using timber to fire the kiln. That’s the plan.

“For me the firing season is April through to October and I fire about six times during that period.”

Packing the kiln takes six hours, then it takes two days to fire it, two days for it to cool, unpack it, then items need to be cleaned.

The majority of his pieces go into the kiln raw, “there’s nothing on them” and the final product’s colour and glaze comes from the ash and the vapour coming into contact with the form in the kiln at really high temperatures.

“We’re talking white heat, which is beyond the realms of what people know as being hot. So this is an environment that you can’t look at, it is so hot.”

“I fell in love with clay because it was this amazing material that you could just do stuff with," said Steve.

“I fell in love with clay because it was this amazing material that you could just do stuff with," said Steve.

He uses shells as setters, an imprint of which transfers to the form during the firing process.

Steve’s interest in ceramics started in the 1970s. He took a four-year visual arts course, majoring in ceramics, with a minor in clay and a sub-minor in painting, and which included a diploma of education. Afterwards he worked casually at some Wagga Wagga high schools but found it wasn’t for him. 

He started part-time TAFE teaching, while establishing his studio at Wagga Wagga and working a variety of jobs to “keep things ticking over”.

In 1990 he did a post-graduate in ceramic design at Monash University in Melbourne. He started his role at Great Lakes TAFE in 2007.

Steve loves to share with people and sees Dollys Flat Studio as a place that gives people an experience where they are encouraged to find their own seeds of their own ideas and therefore their own direction.

“They leave knowing that they’re well equipped to find ideas and triggers that will excite them to make their own work and not work they have seen before.”

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