(Portrait above by Margaret Baker, June 1990)
John Dermer is a world renowned potter who has lived and created in Yackandandah for over forty years. This year, in a November exhibition at his home at Kirby’s Flat Pottery, John and his wife Shirley will celebrate John’s fifty years of pottery making.
National and International Renown
In 2006 in Koblenz, Germany, Dermer won the Handwekskammer institution’s highly prestigious Saltzbrand Keramik International Award. With this, Dermer became an internationally-recognised master of the process of salt-glazing. Two of his pots were acquired by the Westerwald Museum of Ceramics.
In 1987 Dermer received a commission to create ten large pieces for the Prime Minister’s suite and Cabinet entry at the new Parliament House in Canberra.
In 1995 he was commissioned to make a body of work to accompany the 1996 Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. He made six platters in tomato red and oil-spot black, inspired by the colours in Turner’s painting of the Houses of Parliament burning. He also made “dozens and dozens” (from a private email) of pots which were sold during the exhibition.
On 24th March this year (2017), John and Shirley were welcomed to Parliament by Member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, who, during a speech in the Federation Chamber, congratulated John on fifty years as a potter. Cathy described her parents’ John Dermer plates and bowls as a family heirloom.
Dermer’s work can be found in the Federal High Court building, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the Westerwald Museum in Germany, the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston England, and the Buten Museum in Pennsylvania USA, as well as in national, state and regional galleries throughout Australia, and many important private collections.
Guiding Principles and Philosophy
“For me it is still a privilege to look at something timeless which has been created from basic materials and employing the ancient crafts.” (Dermer, 2004, p92)
Dermer believes in the importance of tradition.
“As with music, architecture, painting and sculpture there are classical traditions that can still stir the emotions hundreds of years later.” (Dermer, 2007, p103)
He is a follower of the Leach-Hamada movement in pottery.
Bernard Leach was a British potter who studied in Japan and, in 1920, with Japanese potter, Hamada Shoji, established a pottery near St Ives in Cornwall. They promoted pottery as a combination of Western and Eastern arts and philosophies, focussing on traditional eastern and western techniques.
For Dermer, the Leach Hamada tradition represents the essence of working with clay.
“The lines are pure and balanced, the forms are honest, proud and passionate. The skill involved requires technical ability, respect for tradition, a practical understanding of function and design, together with humility and reverence for the material and the process.” (Dermer, 2007, p102)
Some Australian potters Dermer admires are Reg Preston, Harold Hughan and Peter Rushforth, whose pots have been described as “pared back and free of affectation, resolute in form, texture, colour and space.” (Sydney Morning Herald obituary, 2015)
Another source of inspiration for John comes from frequent visits to the desert and escarpment regions of central and northern Australia.
“The colours and textures are different from the grey-green and blue of northeast Victoria. The primary red and blue of the desert landscape present a contrast and brilliance that must be experienced.” (Dermer, 2004, p91)
For Dermer, photography is an important form of expression. He uses it both to inspire ceramic work and to accompany pottery on display, complementing and bringing context to the work.
“The glazes, the forms, the textures and decoration I use in my pots can all be identified in some way through the fragments of landscape captured in my photographs.” (2004, p91)
In reading Dermer’s articles and interviews, one is struck by his commitment and passion, but also by his modesty. In a way that seems coherent with a life spent working with hands on earth and clay, Dermer conveys no sense of self-importance, much less pretension. Rather, it is clear that he is dedicated to the work, motivated by a love of honest form and beautiful design, and driven to explore, refine and master his chosen art form. He intends that his work evolves “naturally and honestly.” (2007, p103)
He speaks readily of frustrations, failures and disasters (see below). With regard to salt glazing he says: “I’ll need to make about 350 pots to get 50, that’s why it’s nutty.” (In 2017 interview with Janet Howie, Border Mail.)
In Koblenz in 2006, after winning the international award, Dermer was able to visit the storeroom of the Westerwald museum of ceramics. He says he felt ‘overwhelmed and privileged’ and ‘humbled’, to see the thousands of pots there, representing 700 years of salt-glazing history. Asked to describe how he felt about winning the award, he expressed gratitude that he felt ‘understood.’
He is also quick to acknowledge that his passionate absorption in his art and the huge workload required would not be possible without the feedback, ideas and support of his wife, Shirley.
A Creative Life
John Dermer was born in Melbourne in 1949. As a young RMIT student in the sixties he would ride his bike around farms and bushland near his Rosanna home and on one occasion he found himself at Dunmoochin, an artistic commune at Cottles Bridge, watching two potters make simple pots for a city restaurant.
“The potters were passionate about what they were making and they were passionate about these people using them to eat their food out of and drink and so on, and I thought that’s very practical. … I thought, this is really honest.” (in Border Mail, 2017)
He was inspired to change his course from graphic design to ceramics, and soon had built his first kiln, in his parents’ back yard in Rosanna. Not knowing much about how to build a kiln, John found that he could not get his to reach the temperatures he needed. He decided to try salt glazing the work as this could be achieved at lower temperatures. He learned this from a salt-glazed pipe factory near the Art School.
The salt-glazing process produced “an enormous amount of water vapour that looks like smoke”. It went all over the house, and over the neighbours’ hydrangeas (in Border Mail, 2017). But, as well as alienating the neighbours, the salt-firing produced “some mysterious and encouraging surfaces” (Dermer, 2004, p89).
The experience instilled in Dermer a life-long passion for salt glazing.
In June 1967, George’s store in Melbourne bought Dermer’s first pots, and ongoing sales to them over the next two years enabled the purchase of a bush block at Kinglake in 1969, to house the next kiln.
In the early 1970s Dermer travelled extensively overseas and worked as artist in residence at Wedgwood in the UK and USA. On return he established a kiln at Eltham. Then, in 1974 he set up Kirby’s Flat Pottery in Yackandandah. He has lived and worked there ever since.
Since he first threw salt into his firebox in Rosanna, John has had a fascination for the process of salt glazing. He describes it as frustratingly difficult but addictive.
Salt glazing was developed by accident in the 13th or 14th century in the Rhine region of Germany, when, with wood in scarce supply, some kilns were fired with boxes that had been used to salt fish. It was found to produce a glazed, water-tight surface that was ideal for the storage and transport of liquids such as oils, wine.
When salt is thrown into a kiln, at around 1300C, it forms a vapour which interacts with silica in the clay, forming a translucent sodium-silicate glass. If this builds sufficiently it can start to run, forming the characteristic glossy ‘orange-peel’ texture. Colorants and oxides are applied to the pot prior to firing to give colours and tones.
Because salt-glazing requires such high temperatures, it leads to many failed firings. It also means that the shelves and bricks of the kiln, which contain silica, form glass and after this builds up, they can melt. The Yackandandah site ‘has seen many kilns built and melt away” (2004, p90).
While Dermer is clearly passionate about salt-glazed pots, he does not romanticise the process. He speaks of a love-hate relationship.
“As any potter who struggles with this fickle process knows, it can be an expensive, frustrating and often soul-destroying exercise. I have opened the salt kiln to find that months of work has been destroyed by any number of catastrophic events: floor blowouts, misplaced snotters, shelves melted or collapsed. It takes a strong constitution and a healthy degree of tenacity to persist with such an unforgiving process.” (2007, p101)
Dermer’s use of porcelain complicates the salt glaze process further because porcelain body will not allow refiring.
“An 800-year-old process, I’ve extended it through to a level that nobody else has, but it’s taken me 50 years to get those tones and the surfaces using the salt. ” (2007, p101)
But Dermer has committed a life-time to the development of the technique, which can produce unexpected and rewarding results. He has dedicated many hours to exploring the process and discovering “its secrets and vulnerabilities”.
The finished products can be deeply rewarding.
“Their surfaces are symbolic of survival in the harshest of environments … although scarred and often showing the results of exploding salt, the firebox pots have a surface quality of timeless beauty.” (2004, p91)
When commissioned to make large vessels for the new Parliament House building in 1987, Dermer began working with a process called Terra Sigillata.
This is often roughly translated as “sealed earth”. It is a process inspired by ancient Roman pottery and redeveloped by German potter Karl Fischer in 1906.
It involves applying a coating of very fine clay slip prior to firing. The fine particles melt into a glaze-like coating and provide a silky smooth finish.
For the Parliament House commission, for the second firing, Dermer wrapped pots in a ceramic blanket or saggar, which encased salt, oxides and casuarina branches. The branch atomised, leaving a shadowy imprint.
“The whole process was costly, fraught with disasters and distressing at times.” (2007, p102)
The completed pieces are still regarded by John as some of his finest works.
“To use Terra Sigillata is a joy. It is like having the opportunity to work with the raw clay over again, the pots maintaining the freshness of the plastic clay from which they were formed and evolved.” (from John Dermer website)
John continues to produce a limited range of porcelain tableware. The pieces reflect his belief that we should be able to use objects that are functional but well-considered, made with integrity and care. He gets satisfaction from knowing that people will have an object of beauty that they can use every day, for many decades.
A single soup bowl might go through 15 different firings and processes before completion.
“If somebody’s going to buy a handmade pot to have their muesli out of, it can’t be precious, they’ve got to be able to use it and it will be important to them for a long, long time.”
Exhibitions and Gallery
The studio gallery at Kirby Flat Pottery, Yackandandah holds a major exhibition on the last weekend of November every year.
The exhibition on 25th and 26th November 2017 will be a celebration of John’s fifty years as a potter.
There is a smaller exhibition every Easter.
The gallery is open most weekends and Victorian school holidays, from 10:30am to 5:00pm or by appointment. However during the late autumn/winter it may be closed at times, so it’s a good idea to phone before dropping around.
References and further reading
Dermer, John (2004), “A Lifetime of Salt-Glazing”, Ceramics (Sydney Australia) no 57, pp 89-92.
Dermer, John (2007), “40 Years On”, Ceramics: Art and Perception, no 69, pp 101-103.
Dermer, John (2015), “The Integrity of Function”, Journal of Australian Ceramics, no 541, pp 54-59. http://www.johndermer.com.au/images/The_Journal_of_Australian_Ceramics_April_2015.pdf
Howie, Janet (2017), “Yackandandah Potter Celebrates 50 Year Career’, The Border Mail, 15th April, 2017. http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/4598251/potters-work-breaks-mould/
Pearce, Judith (2007), “Known Potter #13: John Dermer”. https://australianpottery.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/known-potter-13-john-dermer/