Ceramicist Tania Rollond is represented by a Melbourne gallery and teaches in Sydney, but says her country upbringing is the biggest influence on her slow, detailed approach to work. In the lead-up to two Highlands exhibitions, the Mittagong artist tells ALEX SPEED about growing up on an isolated sheep farm and the attraction of disobedient clay.
Artist Tania Rollond spent her childhood on a vast farm near Esperance, Western Australia where all around was dry, flat and brittle. “My dad was a farmer and I grew up on a fairly big sheep and wheat farm, and out there among the farmland there’s nothing, it’s broad and flat…it’s big skies,” says Tania, sitting in her garden-facing, light-filled studio in Mittagong.
“If you have ever been to Mallee country you will know there is a beauty to it, but it’s nothing like the Southern Highlands where everything is green and bright. It’s sparse and harsh, with very sandy soil. My recollections of childhood are of wandering around outside by myself, dragging a stick. I have two younger brothers, but they pretty much just fought among themselves, so I spent many, many hours in the bush picking up rocks and looking at really tiny things and examining minute scale objects because that, and books, was pretty much all there was.”
Tania, 45, is an acclaimed ceramicist, represented by Skepsi Gallery, Melbourne. Her last solo show in Melbourne in 2017 was highly anticipated, her work sought after by collectors. “Tania’s art is an intriguing experience involving emotion and nature,” says Skepsi Gallery director Anna Maas. “The forms are skilful and meticulous, the artistry is thoughtful, intelligent and spontaneous. When viewing a work by Tania Rollond, one becomes involved in a journey.”
This year Tania will exhibit in two Highlands group shows: A Butcher, A Baker, A Bunch of Makers opens at Berrima District Museum’s new digital gallery on February 20; and Cadence – Natural Rhythm, will open in August at Mittagong’s Sturt Gallery, where Tania has taught ceramics at night classes and Sturt’s summer school.
Tania creates many of her pieces – striking vases, delicate bowls, ceramic wall panels – from tiny coils of clay stacked then joined and indented by her fingerprints to give form. She adds textured marks by scraping, scratching, painting, staining, glazing and sanding, often repeating the process over and over. Other works are coaxed to life on the pottery wheel then fired on her gas kiln, glazed, sanded, added to, marked, painted. She has a colour chart in her studio of all the clays she makes with. Most are Australian, some local. She gives finished exhibition works mercurial monikers that seem to murmur her secrets; sand lines, camp fire smoke, twilight whispers.
“I like to use the wheel sometimes,” she says. “It’s fun but it’s a very restricted vocabulary because it just goes around and around. I always like to improvise up as I go, I like the challenge of that. I think ceramics is its own art form which is very much about form and surface coming together. It’s about how the form and surface relate and respond to each other and the atmosphere.”
Tania’s studio sits at the back of her art-filled, open-plan home, which she shares with partner Brendan O’Donnell, a graphic designer, and their kelpie rescue dog, Flo. Her studio is surprisingly clean and neat for someone who works in clay, containing a large desk, a stool and two cane armchairs. Ceiling to floor glass doors open to a verandah and a small garden with vegie beds. A second smaller studio in an old outside laundry room houses her wheel, and her small gas kiln lives in a garden shed.
Tania’s studio also displays her keepsakes, art books and several older bowls and vases, some made in her signature Southern Ice porcelain clay, others marked with the pencil on porcelain technique she favoured a few years ago. But the beginning of a new body of work is taking form here too. A collage on her desk has a jigsaw quality, thick paper on card. Textured clay panels that she thinks will become wall pieces lean on storage shelves.
Inspiration for much of this new work is coming from Randolph Stow’s novel Tourmaline (1965). “We did a lot of West Australian writers at school and Randolph Stow was a favourite I keep coming back to. I hadn’t read Tourmaline though, and now that I have it feels right at the moment to make a body of work inspired by it. It’s set in the future [in the fictional West Australian town Tourmaline] and there’s no water left so it’s dry and harsh and the people are looking for a saviour.”
Tania left Western Australia in her mid-20s in 1998 to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Ceramics) at the National Art School in Sydney. It was here she began to establish a narrative between her make up and her making.
“It became clear to me when teachers would talk about how you looked at things and what you wanted to see, that I’m a person who views things at that very tiny scale and finds them interesting. I’ve been told there’s a tough fragility to my work and I think that comes from my growing up. Also, a childhood like mine is lived at a really slow pace. I was talking to a student the other day who grew up in Sydney and she had a city childhood with lots of people coming and going, and lots of conversation, and that kind of narrative gives this intensity and pace in her work that is obvious. It’s a city person’s work whereas mine is quieter with maybe a stillness.”
Tania first met clay in high school but the relationship didn’t mature until years later. After school, following the encouragement of her parents, she moved to Perth to study graphic design.
“Farming is a hard life and my parents were both very hard working, but my dad especially never encouraged any of us to be farmers. He told us all we should go and study and find something else. I did graphic design but six months after graduating and working as a graphic designer I realised I would be very unhappy doing that. I realised I didn’t like the clients, I don’t negotiate well, I don’t have good people skills and I didn’t want to compromise on anything,” she stops and laughs.
“I bummed about for a bit and eventually I started doing Saturday pottery classes at Perth TAFE. Strangely I hated clay at high school. As a younger person I was very neat so that’s why it seemed like graphic design might have been a good career for me. I was never smudgy. So, I think when I encountered clay again, the messiness of it was a good opposite to me. I found that over-controlling things doesn’t result in anything nice or interesting and clay can be so disobedient.
“It’s a material you can definitely have a conversation with and you realise quite quickly, ‘Oh, this is not what it looks like on YouTube’. I realised it was hard and messy and it was going to take a lifetime to figure out all the technology, and at
23 the thought that I could spend the rest of my life figuring out the technical side of it, as well as the artistic thing, was very attractive.
“Clay keeps me real. It cracks all the time and does things it is not supposed to, and I guess every artist finds their right medium to have that right conversation with. For me it is clay.”
In 2008 Tania returned to the National Art School as a lecturer and she teaches there weekly. At home, she, Brendan and Flo live a quiet life, walking an hour every morning in Mount Alexandra Reserve. Come evening they walk a route through Mittagong’s streets.
“I have a lovely life and I’m pretty lucky,” she says. “It’s such a lovely life and there are such a lot of people in the world who are having a terrible life, that there are plenty of days doing what I do seems like such a frivolous thing to do with your life. On the worst days it can seem like a completely useless thing to do, so that can be quite debilitating. But I think I am just a maker. I like making things with my hands laboriously for 100 hours. There is something about embedding that time and work that is important to me.”
A Butcher, A Baker, A Bunch of Makers will be at Berrima District Museum from February 20 to August 31. Cadence – Natural Rhythm, will be at Sturt Gallery, Mittagong, from August 4 to September 22.