Her name has become synonymous with hybrid kangaroo figurines, but there’s more to these whimsical ceramics than first meets the eye.
We caught up with creative Frances Guerin to hear how she came up with the idea of adding a human face to the Australian marsupial.
What drew you to ceramics?
My early years were spent near Montsalvat in Eltham where there were pottery studios. Then on a visit to the William Ricketts Sanctuary, the ceramic figures of Indigenous Australians fused to tree stumps or rocks left a lasting impression and, the impressive kiln room for firing the work was unforgettable.
When archaeologist Maria Gimbutas’ books were published in the 1990’s on the ‘Venus’ figurines of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic period, I became fascinated by these simple clay and ivory forms of fertile maternity which debunked the contemporary ideal of thinness.
I was fascinated by the decorative marks in ochres and pondered these people making discoveries that led to the creation of bowls and pots for holding food, and the first artworks for ceremonial or sacred purposes. They began the transformation of natural elements through fire that places ceramics in a class that transgresses science and spirituality.
When I had time to commit to a full-time course, I was fortunate to enrol in the Diploma of Ceramics at University of Ballarat that was taught by Neville French and Mary Rasmussen where we were introduced to various traditions from Japanese Netsuke and the quirky, humorous and whimsical contemporary figurative ceramics. My favourite influences are Adrian Arleo, Gerry Wedd and Sergei Isupov.
What inspires you? (We see your most recent work was inspired by women of interest)
I follow my passion in making art, it bubbles up from within me in response to either external events or it can be intensely personal.
The series Women of Interest began in late 2019, in response to the lack of action on climate change, species extinction and many other things.
Greta Thunberg’s school climate strike and denunciation of world leaders at the United Nations was a wake-up call for the lack of action on climate change.
Her passionate ‘How dare you’ preceded Australia’s terrifying summer of megafires with not only human loss but the loss of stock and wildlife, especially the koala. Then the series unfolded with Jacinda Adern whose response to the terrorist attack was such a relief from the usual rhetoric that it made me reflect on the influence of Julia Gillard, Joan Kirner and Penny Wong, then various feminist philosophers, artists.
There are so many that this series could go on ad infinitum.
The shape of the pots is akin to the vesica piscis, a symbol of the feminine and the shape of the predynastic Egyptian bird goddess and clay storage vessels. Adding handles to the pots gives a feisty impression of hands-on hips.
How has Ballarat inspired your work?
The Diploma of Ceramics with Neville French and Mary Rasmussen was a memorable peak learning experience. The students were mostly mature women and we often worked in silence for the whole day. Many of the graduates are still practising artists.
The course was structured in a linear fashion from the Neolithic period to contemporary ceramics, in particular the international influence of Central Victorian ceramicist Gwen Hanson Piggott.
We learned about the development of kilns, western development of glazes, Asian porcelain and glazes and Middle Eastern ceramics. We learned to throw pots, cups and plates on a wheel, how to test and develop glazes from raw minerals and how to fire in gas, electric and raku kilns.
Ballarat is also the first city some of my Irish ancestors settled in during the goldrush before moving to the Bendigo Goldfields, so I feel very much at home in the ‘Rat.
What is it about figurines that first sparked your interest?
Our family home had a variety of Victorian ceramic figurines, green vases and some Netsuke. I dabbled with clay on and off for years just for the sheer pleasure of feeling earth with my hands.
In between making pots and plates during the diploma studies, I made a model of a 19th Century sailing boat that a fellow student said looked like the Great National Famine Monument at the foot of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, Ireland. This was a doorway into the post-colonial Republic of Ireland which has reconstructed national identity with mythological characters in contemporary public art – for example, The Children of Lir by Oisin Kelly in the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin.
After the Diploma of Ceramics, I went to Ireland and with that research went on to complete a Masters of Visual Arts on Celtic Identity in Australia.
I made the first of hybrid kangaroos with a human face to represent the Irish in Australia.
The hybrid animal human form is depicted across many cultures. Pan has been an enduring figure in western art and the antlered Celtic god Cernunnos is a close cousin.
Shapeshifting is a shamanic element of Celtic stories which has some similarities to Indigenous Australian culture and story in that the land is sacred.
The aim when making the facial features of each ‘hum aroo’, is to capture the beauty of a Botticelli figure like Flora or the mood of Sydney Long’s Spirit of the Plains. These seem to have a similar spirit to the faery in old illustrations of Celtic storytelling.
I like to challenge myself in creating different sizes, postures and forms: trees, whales, horses and swans. I have considered moulds but prefer the process of making a one-off piece, as the character changes with each piece.
What do you hope to evoke in those who view your work?
People respond to work that touches them in some way, whether it is whimsical, beauty or truth telling. The natural world, flowers, creatures, the beauty of the human face and form and occasionally if the subject matter requires, to confront with raw experience. Art can be transformative of the most painful feelings.
What does Ballarat as a UNESCO Creative City of Craft and Folk Art mean to you?
I imagine UNESCO Creative City of Craft and Folk Arts would showcase the work within an individual’s or a community’s traditional/ancestral heritage, tapestry, weaving, crochet, Indigenous painting and craft, leather work, whatever it may be, rather than the western art canon and contemporary art movements.
Ballarat has changed so radically in the last 20 years with the development of the arts precinct showcasing significant exhibitions, events and marvellous festivals.
For those interested in ceramics, what piece of advice do you have for them?
Make a lot of work, don’t give up when the kiln gods shatter, smash and melt the glaze strangely and find a generous and passionate teacher.
What does your next 12 months look like?
I have a new series of pots in the pipeline which will be based on paintings done during lockdown that depict animals and a person at a crossroad and, the landscape of Central Victoria in various moods, including the spring canola fields like patchwork quilts and changing colours of the sky at dawn.