Juliette Furio discusses all things ceramics with Rachael McCallum, finding the chemistry, science and art in her work is reflected in every part of her life.
I am sitting here with Rachael McCallum, a Ceramicist and, it would also seem, an up-and-coming curator and events organiser! Rachael, as this is in the forefront of your mind, go ahead – hit me.
Wooh! Ok, let’s do this. I’m bringing a huge baby into the world. There are 20 artists involved in this baby and we have called it Hell-O Multi-Arts Festival.
So it’s a festival!?
Technically it’s a festival as it’s not just an art exhibition. I found poets, they wanted to have a poetry slam! We have artworks that are going to progress during the weeks; workshops, we’re going to work with some schools…
And now, we have settled the space with a community gallery; Projects 107 in Redfern.
You had a solo exhibition earlier this year, what did it involve and did it spark any developments in yourself?
After graduating I found that I needed a goal to work towards. I had so much work that needed to be seen and luckily met a gallery director who had a pop-up space near UTS. It was really useful to see people read what I do, in a private space that was in a shopping mall. That environment meant people were hesitant to come into a space that was without things they could buy immediately. There was nothing screaming at them to come in, so they almost didn’t! It was an interesting experiment to watch, while I was sitting the space.
What kind of works did you have in there?
They were bright and colourful and reflected a rainbow of ceramics and glass, melted together in odd ways… I had huge ropes to lead you in and I stuck bits of paper to the door on the outside. I had just gotten a studio in Casula so this was the new stuff. I was learning about scale; the chemistry that I have found in ceramics is that it is infinitely large or small and that a tiny surface is just as interesting as the huge ones, which got up to a meter and a half.
What is the smallest you went?
Ooh – probably a little bit bigger than a 50-cent coin. It was so cute.
What do you manage to fit, on something that size?
The surface area is the space to create colour and shadow, which run into each other and clash and create little landscapes. Smallness isn’t a problem because there are two firings with ceramics, so three opportunities to add colour – or more, if you want. I had a scaly glaze, plus a high-lead glaze, which meant that it looked liquid next to a dry-clay surface with a glossy luster on the top…
You have a lot of fun with your ceramics, don’t you?
Totally. Oh yeah. It’s almost too fun and unfairly quick. I can’t work slowly on something – if I do, I have to leave it for a long time. Everything I do is so impulsive and about that landmark of emotion. If I were to work on it a long time, it would be a long stream of consciousness and very muddled. It’s not that I’m particularly emotional about what I’m making, I’m trying to make chemistry collide, but ceramics is so responsive that it will capture the slightest motion, and then record it forever once it is fired so you are kind of doomed – you need to have some self control and not bleed all over it too much.
What about the colour – there is so much in your works, there is so much in you! I could easily pick you out in the crowd; colour clearly speaks to you.
It says so much more than just how you feel. It talks about how I want you to see me – clothing, yeah – but on the works I want you to read that they are alarmingly bright, or perhaps if they are demure, that I’m talking about subtle contrasts. Colour has a language all it’s own, and a rhythm. It runs so rich in meaning just in terms of chemistry; chrome has the ability to turn a deep green if you use five percent. Use 0.25 percent and you’ll get an acid yellow, like the colour of peppermint tea or else pink if there is tin anywhere in the kiln. Because I know that, I find that colour represents a very delicate environment. To have colour in ceramics means you have a balance of all your material. It means so much more!
What did you get out of this solo show?
The gratification that I was worth something to people I had never met. It proves that it doesn’t matter where you are or who you know. If you show your work in an area where you don’t have a supporting network and people still come out with a positive attitude, you’re on an okay track.
What has been your highpoint so far?
Being invited to exhibit in Sturt Gallery in Mittagong – which is a big deal in the ceramic community – and having my controversial piece accepted. The last thing I wanted to do was upset them, but I couldn’t go against my beliefs in the power of the chemistry and painting. I had a plate strung up as if it were a medallion. I was thinking it meant that ceramics is a token to be very proud of, and once you make your own pottery you flash it around to show it off, but then it becomes so precious that you can’t use it. The fact that it was a table-wear exhibition and that’s not what I do freaked me out enormously, but it being accepted made all the difference and the audience actually really enjoyed the dynamic it created. It wasn’t just “we love table-wear,” it was acknowledging that there are other realms in the ceramic community that have a dialogue about the greater world that we share.
How has your background come to influence your resulting artist persona?
My mum and my dad are very different people and I like to think, in my personal narrative, that I’m caught between two polarities of what you can be in the universe. My mum is a wonderful, emotional, dangerous hurricane of impulsive thought. My dad is an engineer who plans, is patient and structures all within reason. I find, in my work, that my background has formed my approach to life. These two people have influenced me to create a weird philosophy, where I set out to make something happen in a way that it will make itself happen. In words it doesn’t make much sense, but I essentially set up accidents. I know I will miss the train, but I will not get upset about it because I know there will be another one so I never look at the time table now. Waiting on the train to be somewhere sooner or waiting for a train to get there, either way I have an opportunity to rest, or to look, or think, or become.
So it pervades not just your work, but your day to day.
Completely! I can’t separate it. Even with Hell-O, I’ve done just enough for everyone to have a platform. Past that, I want them to step up and say, “This is how it’s going to be, this is how I want it to look.” I’m just the catalyst.
This year, now that I’ve been freer to think, I’ve made something. It’s not just an accident, it’s not just an experiment; it’s a tombstone. It’s mine and it’s going to be a rainbow. I’m not finished yet, it’s a very weird process… It has conventions and traditions built up over it and expectations of what it should be. So, it’s going to be the messiest, heaviest, glossiest, dirtiest tombstone you will ever see.
Do you intend on using it as your tombstone?
I might make a few, so it will depend on which one I like. If I’m going to take control of anyone’s life I think I should start with my own. And… making the tombstone was a big step in acknowledging that other state, which is part of a cycle. I’m not afraid of it. It’s a nice phase to go through.
My own confrontation with mortality came at a church in Rome – Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini – there is a crypt underneath it entirely decorated with human bones, which isn’t as morbid as it sounds. In the last chapel there is a plaque that reads, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Suddenly it wasn’t such a scary thing anymore.
It’s just real. You’ve got to know that it’s going to happen. You have to get changed tomorrow; you have to eat something later. It’s not that bad, it’s just a part of it all.
It’s confrontational to try imagining a moment where you will not have conscious thought, but if you think about it, we do that every night.
You don’t notice it.
What was the trigger behind your initial decision to become an artist?
I’m pretty sure it was thrust upon me. I was about two months old when I was poisoned by termite spray, which is now illegal in Australia. That left me with chemical reactions in my body that slowly released through my fat as I grew up. My chemistry is so delicate that if I have the wrongs food I can bounce of the walls or be utterly depressed. I have a bit of an existential view on life; you cannot know what will happen to you. That was a complete accident, it was just the way the wind changed and then that poison became a part of us. You can’t escape those kinds of accidents, and who knows what kinds of accidents are created everyday by technology we don’t understand? When you can express yourself visually and make it instantaneous, that’s such an efficient way to tell people they are possibly in danger. That is what I hope to bring about with ceramics. The science comes first; then you let go and experiments fly.
Do you see yourself reflected in your art?
I think physical likeness is definitely there. On opening nights people have told me they knew it was my work before they met me, because of the way that I am – a little bit careless, a little bit rough, I laugh louder than anyone else… I’m loud and the works are loud. Sure, there is brightness in my clothing and maybe my personality but it’s all about trying to get your attention for a moment, but not too long.
How about in terms of your values and morals, what you find good, bad or interesting?
I have a hard time knowing when things are finished; I find them interesting all along the way. There is always potential for more to be done. That flows in through anxieties and wishing that I did more… But every work has always got something beautiful and something that I hate about it. But I know that the balance of ugly helps that small beautiful part look better. I’ve tried it before; if I put my favourite glaze on my favourite surface on my favourite shape it’s too much and just looks bad. I think that reflects in everything; you can have your favourite cup of tea but there’s a moment where you will love it and a moment where you will hate it too. Even cake. Learnt that lesson .
That’s a wrap!
And don’t forget to check out Juliette’s blog…