It was in a remote Aboriginal community with a human population of 650 and a dog population of 600 that Drake artist Cassandra Purdon found artistic inspiration for her ceramic series Story Dogs. Along with fellow artist Clare Urquhart, Cass embarked on a road trip earlier this year to visit the Indigenous Hermannsburg Potters in Central Australia, and what they learned there not only inspired them creatively, but awakened them culturally and spiritually too. Their artworks are currently on exhibition at the Next Art Gallery as part of Lismore's Art in the Heart project, along with the work of local artist Deborah Gower. These 'tres' artists are part of the Northern Rivers' Revolutionary Ceramicos movement and they are not afraid to make social commentary through their art. Clare has been exploring architectural ceramics and creating ceramic mill-stones, making a commentary on renewable energy and changing technology.
"As artists, we can get away with so much and have a responsibility to make commentary on life," Clare said. "There is so much going on around us; in the environment, with women's, Aboriginal and social justice issues. For me, ceramics is also a healing process; when you touch clay you touch the earth and get in touch with your feminine and spiritual sides."
The idea to take a road trip to the Northern Territory came while Clare and Cass were studying for an advanced diploma at TAFE.
"We had to create a body of work about ourselves but we were stumped and jaded," Cass said.
"I have an Indigenous son, so I thought a trip to Central Australia, where he is from, would be a good journey and fuel for creativity," Clare said.
After lots of planning and following correct protocols, Clare and Cass embarked on their road trip to Ntaria, located 131km south-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. They were on a mission to visit and learn from the Hermannsburg Potters, a group of Indigenous women who have successfully made a business out of their ceramics.
"Working with them was inspirational," Clare said. "They are incredible women and successful artists. Their philosophy on life is beautiful. They do art because they love it; it's not about competition and they are not driven by money. They support each other and are not worried about people doing the same thing as them."
During their visit, Clare and Cass camped in the public caravan park and each day would travel to the nearby Hermannsburg Potters Aboriginal community.
"On our first day there, the whole community popped in to check us out and we became accepted and got the seal of approval," Clare said. "The local women were so welcoming and showed us around their country,"
"All the Aboriginal communities have camp dogs and we would trip over them every morning," Cass laughed. "One of the potters had 11 dogs follow her around and at night the barking sound was overwhelming. In the NT, they call them 'cheeky' dogs, which in their language means 'dangerous'. Since then, there has been an education campaign and a culling program has brought the dog population down from 600 to about 350.
"When we were travelling through Coober Pedy, we saw the dog fence stretching through the area. We didn't know its exact purpose; was it to keep dangerous dogs out? There were breaks in it where you could drive through. It actually divides communities and interrupts sacred men's business areas."
On their first day with the Hermannsburg Potters, Clare and Cass were each given a lump of clay. Cass, inspired by seeing the dog fence, began to make a series of ceramic dogs. She painted one of her first story dogs with the story of the sacred Finke River and was influenced by the colours in the landscape around her and markings found on rocks.
"The dogs are a metaphor for the human condition and how we are trapped by conventions and stereotypes and also how we are continually losing our freedoms in today's society," Cass said. "Dogs embrace life and see the good in all, whereas we as humans have lost our way and could learn from the four-legged ones.
"The Hermannsburg Potters have their own unique style and they like to hand build their pieces; touching the earth is what it is about," Cass said. "The women use vibrant colours and have their own firing techniques… it opened up a new world of ceramics to us. It's traditional practice to fire the ceramics, then paint them and fire them again, but the women paint them when they are green (unfired) and then fire them at a low
temperature. The resulting colours on the terracotta clay are intense."
Clare made a car representing her family on their travels and painted them in the windows.
"When we left we had a car full of pottery, but we left some pieces behind as gifts," Clare said.
"I loved their philosophy and the spiritual side of how the women approached things, so different to how our learning institutions want us to do it," Cass said. "The women said to us 'be true to yourselves, tell your stories and love what you do every day' and 'don't let anyone influence you - your story is just as relevant as anothers'."
"They were always laughing and telling jokes," Clare said. "They get invites to visit all over the world but they don't care. It was liberating for us. It helped me to unleash my power and think 'are those things important, do you need someone to tell you it is good?'
"We did a lot of sitting back and watching these wise women… their energy flowed. Together they are fierce women, more free and open than us, but it's hard for them to get new potters in who want to learn. Since the government intervention, people are moving off country into Alice Springs. When we came home to Bundjalung country, we saw just how much abundance we have here - especially water - and we don't ever really think about and appreciate it."
Coming home to their rural property at Drake with heads full of ideas and open hearts was just the beginning of the next chapter in Clare and Cass's creative lives.
"We are going back to visit them again next year to learn a quick pit-firing technique on the Finke River; it's a very spiritual place," Clare said. "We'd like to take a couple of potters with us on a cultural education pilgrimage."
Clare and Cass are both passionate about learning, creating and keeping ceramics as a viable art form - especially in a society where government funding is continually being withdrawn from the arts sector. In future, not only do they intend to go to university to study art but they also have plans to set up an artists' retreat on their rural property where they have built a house from stone found on their land.
"The house was our first major artwork," Cass said. "We moved there 18 years ago, learned to mix cement and we are still building. Rocks and stones play a big part in my life; Aboriginal people believe the spirits live in the rocks and both of us have touched every rock in the house. In the Northern Territory, there were lots of rocks in the Finke River and I still feel connected to that sacred place too."
The exhibition Tres explores the themes of reef, range and red dust and runs until next Thursday, December 1, at SCU's Next Art Gallery, 89 Magellan Street, Lismore. For more information or to join the Revolutionary Ceramicos, visit www.earthfirespirit.com.