Sandra Taylor: True Stories
Presenting new and existing works by significant Australian artist Sandra Taylor.
We are all full of stories, but what story does our life really tell.
Within these works there are personal stories interwoven with the stories of others, familiar and not so familiar. Stories of humanity and nature, story within story, symbol within symbol.
The events of our life may be different, but human emotions are the same the world over. Our underlying needs and wants may not be too dissimilar either. Perhaps you may recognise yourself somewhere here.
Certain themes run through my work. Essentially it seems to be about human striving and the traps we find ourselves in. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a way out. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in a trap. Sometimes we may see a way out, but certain habits have developed in the trap that gives us a sense of security and so we stay. It may be bad, but outside may be worse. Life has a way of getting us to face ourselves eventually. We know we live in a toxic world, but if we look deeply enough we may be shocked to find that our vanity holds the real poison. Yet close by also lies our wise and selfless heart and I hope this good heart can also be seen in the work.
In the beginning it was the 60s. I had a job on a country rag, did a cadetship, became a D grade journo then left to travel. I came back ready for a new beginning. I wanted to do something completely different. At the National Art School I studied ceramics and my eyes were opened to a different way of seeing. I loved being a student. Our teachers were the ceramic leaders of the day. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Later I set up a studio at home with the help of a grant from the Craft Board of Australia and tried to become a serious potter. But there was something missing. I just couldn’t find the heart of it.
The boyfriend’s birthday was a week away and I set out to make him a special plate. It came hot out of the kiln on the very day. I piled it high with bangers and mash in a sea of gravy, his favourite. As he tucked into it a little cockatoo began to reveal itself. With the last of the gravy slurped up, the words “HELLO SAILOR” appeared in the base of the plate. Was he impressed! The cockatoo was a poor facsimile of the one we had recently acquired as a pet and I’d used text because it was an old friend of mine.
It took me a while to realise what I’d done and whatever it was, it came straight from the heart. I had responded to a real life situation without really thinking about it. I just did it. It was the first step towards cutting old ties. In the years to come both cockatoo and text were inclined to pop up from time to time.
There was a dinner party. The table was set up outside. As the evening wore on a battalion of Sydney Harbour leopard slugs trailed across the grass towards us on a mission to intermingle. The next day I made a bunch of slugs and plonked them on a plate. One slug looks back at his mates and says from a speech balloon, “Hey man, this is a great idea, Harry’ll just love it”. And he did! Harry was the host of the dinner party.
Those plates, born to a life of functionality, had decided to quit their job. They were on their way to somewhere else and I was off to a new start.
By the late 70’s fashion had turned to brand naming and this new status symbol began to take hold. I found myself making a little purse and stamping Gucci all over it. It was selected by the Craft Board of Australia to go to Italy for an international ceramic award exhibition. Italy was the home of Gucci and that little Gucci bag won a coveted gold medal. I couldn’t believe it, nor the publicity it received in Australia.
Meanwhile my Mum and Dad had got themselves a hobby farm that came with a family of pigs. I was completely infatuated. They were so human. I began making pottery pigs and put them in suburban house and garden situations. I was well into working for my first solo show.
In 1978 the Craft Board of Australia chose a work from that show, ‘Island Scene’ for the poster of a major traveling show which opened at the Art gallery of NSW.
The next year I was invited to exhibit four major works in the Third Sydney Biennale ‘European Dialogue’. The ceramic world was considered a poor cousin to the real art world and the craft versus art debate was in full swing. The Biennale plucked my work out of the craft arena and put it in front of a very different audience.
The years were filled with working for exhibitions and teaching in art colleges. By this stage I was represented in most major ceramic collections. After a while I felt I was on a merry-go-round and longed to get off at a new address.
Moving to an isolated valley in the bush was the best thing that could happen to an urbanite such as myself. It was the land of timber getters, cattle duffers and the last of the dying stockmen. I was way out of my comfort zone. Life was tough, rough and often terrifying. A large and isolated property such as this, where most of the paddocks were bigger than Balmain where I had lived in a narrow terrace, was bound to expose my cowardice and insignificance in the grander scheme of things. Being an artist pulled no weight in these parts. I had to find my way again.
Against a background of soft hill country, a pure river running wild and rugged forest mountains came fires, floods, drought, dingoes, dead cattle and bushmen on horseback trailed by stick thin dogs. They knew it all and kept it to themselves.
Slowly I began to feel at home in this wondrous place. The more it got into my blood, the more it emerged as a language of its own. The bush has a way of enfolding you.
In 1996 with the very generous support of an Australian Council Fellowship, I stumbled onto a new track. The work arose from somewhere else. It had an eerie strangeness about it that was incongruous with my own situation. ‘Romantic Dividends’ became my solo ceramic show.
Clay dust was playing havoc with my lungs and my love affair with clay was coming to an end. Building up a clay form in the rhythmic time worn way of putting one coil on top of another, and then working and painting the surface had been ‘it’ for me. Leaving behind the overall technicalities of ceramics was a great relief. For years I’d longed to get myself out of the mire. My dream was to paint, just paint. The time was coming for another change of address.
Years of loss followed. I mourned the loss of the life I had left and the loved ones that were sick and dying around me. I looked back at the work I had done - people trapped within themselves in transparent houses. Among the layers of that work, the prediction of things to come was now clearly evident. Real houses now surrounded me on every side and all I knew was that at least one of them was filled to the brim with pain and suffering. Eventually village life started to give me a sense of belonging. I was ready to start work again, but the shift wasn’t going to come easy. I’d been used to a continuity of form and my psyche had to be rewired to ready made rectangles of full frontal flatness, edges and corners.
I’ve never been too interested in the ‘how to do it’. It’s the doing it that opens me up to the how. I just get there the best way I can. I run on intuition and inspiration and seek the simplest, most direct route. I love the thrill of just diving in.
These days the signal to start on a new work can come from a need to understand something I’m struggling with in life. An urge arises, a bit like the need to scratch oneself.
As I make contact with the surface, there is a feeling of release - the beginning of a new adventure. It’s tactile and gratifying. Marks appear, its magic. There is no plan, I’m just feeling my way in and trusting in the process. But once I’m committed to the journey, it will have its way with me. No matter in which direction I set out sooner or later the sea of confusion and madness has to be crossed; a lost and inadequate raft feeling its way in the dark, looking for a light to lead it through.
So that’s how I do it. The work arises out of itself, out of the making. Most of the time I don’t consciously know what I’m doing. I guess I’m trying to peel back the layers, looking for an essence, searching for a truth.
I was lucky to learn early that I didn’t have to go looking for too far for inspiration. It is always close at hand. I’m a pencil pine spotter from way back - those strange sentinels of the suburbs keep calling me in. I’ve always been fascinated with what goes on in someone else’s front yard, that space between and front door and the gate where people love to set up their own exhibition. I’ve seen some great shows from time to time.
In the bush, figures lurk everywhere. Fallen branches prop up against each other with mouths agape and eyes staring. Abandoned arms and legs strewn across the forest floor. Now and again at the fringes, an ancient giant torso, silver smooth and naked, stretched out in the blady grass. I’m shocked by its lack of modesty. Into the open paddocks, grey columns scorched with patterns of blackness rise up from the greenness and reach for the blueness of infinite sky. Surreal sentinels of the land.
These days the need for place has diminished as life has become easier. Real life interactions with real live people have taken centre stage. It is them who inspire me. It is them who have shown me the way to a new beginning.
I started out in the newspaper game. I learned on the job. Those knowing old journos, nicotine fingers tapping to a deadline. Fag on the typo, room full of smoke. I’d sit in front of the Remington staring at the keys that rose up like empty seats in a stadium. I saw those journos as heroes. I’d breathe in the same air as they breathe out and wait for something of that old school to seep into me. At least I came home with a recipe that I’m still trying to perfect.
Jump in at the deep end
Gather and unravel
Lay bare the true story
Sandra Taylor, Coraki, June 2017
Image credit: Sandra Taylor Dance of Indecision