Interview with Graham Hay, a Western Australia-based sculptor who primarily works with paper clay. Kamila Waleszkiewicz converses with Graham Hay about his artistic journey, influences, and the underlying ideology behind his work.
Hi Graham, thank you for accepting my invitation. Through the Inglewood Arts Hub “Call & Response” project I could see that we share a passion for collaboration and community engagement. It is fascinating to see how art can transform people's perspectives and also how our past experiences shape who we are today. Could you please tell me about your cultural background and your place of birth and schooling?
I come from a fifth-generation Pakeha background, with roots in farming, with Scottish background on both sides. I was born and grew up in the New Zealand South Island High Country, a harsh environment often the national hot spot in summer, yet snowbound for weeks in winter.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your childhood?
Playing with my siblings, building treehouses, log cabins, dams, igloos. Hunting trout, eels, salmon, pigeons, and rabbits. Casting fishing sinkers from leadhead nails melted over kerosene and diesel. Watching my grandfather’s half-tonne lead boat keel being cast in black sands. Converting firecrackers into skyrockets, and using the family Encyclopaedia Britannica and Christmas chemistry set to make gunpowder. Carving a scale wood model of Apolo 11 out of balsa and following a horse around, next drawing it on cardboard from a new shirt box, using bread as an eraser.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
Potter Len Castle was a big influence in my teens, particularly the more crusty textured ceramic work which reminded me of ploughed hills. In the late 1980’s the US west coast Robert Arneson, Richard T. Notkin, Andrian Saxe, and others, all produced ceramics that established it as a serious art medium commenting on contemporary politics and culture. In 1991 I was greatly influenced by Dale Chihuly's work at the V&A, London, as an example of pushing materials to their absolute extremes.
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your artistic journey?
In 1992 Western Australian Ceramic Chemist Mike Kusnik taught a group of ECU undergraduates including myself how to make a material for non-warping clay slabs and called it paper clay. I ended up spending most of the next four years experimenting with it in the studio. A “de facto Research Masters” while an undergraduate art student at ECU and CUT. The story is documented at https://www.grahamhay.com.au/haywahistory.html
Image: Net I, 2000, Ceramic Earthenware & Terracotta Paperclay, 110 x 120 x 60 cm, Photo: Victor France, Paper Clay Plus exhibition toured four galleries and museums, Scotland
If you weren't pursuing art, what alternative career path would you choose?
A naturalist - one who studies animals, fungi, and plants within nature through observation rather than experimenting. Which probably would evolve into sociology, the study of humans in their natural environment.
Did you create lately something inspired by nature? Could you please share with us a picture of it?
My early life was spent following round and later herding farm animals, learning to nudge individuals back into the group and steer the flock or herd towards through narrow gates. Well before drones appeared I creatively visualised in paper clay collective patterns of behavious of animals, and humans into and through organisations.
Kamila, see drone images: https://youtu.be/DMiC_3894lk or
Looking ahead ten years, where do you envision yourself and your artistic career?
Much the same, making art, teaching, writing, travelling, mentoring, contributing to the evolution of various artists' groups and organisations.
What does your artistic process look like? What are your favourite themes, and motifs?
Themes include the relationship between the individual and collective, individual repetition and identity, ritual and social structures, cultural systems, real social and professional network patterns.
Motifs include the use of multiples to create biomorphic shapes: spirals, coils, koru, cornucopia, circles, deconstructing binary or polarised thinking.
Image: Frenzy 6, 2006, Ceramic Earthenware & Terracotta Paperclay 25 x 25 x 6 cm (framed 40 x 40 x 8 cm) cm Photo: Victor France, Exhibtion: 2006 Spring Fling, Warehouse Gallery, East Perth?
How do you approach your creative process and what is your preferred medium?
Ideas emerge when I’m bored, in meetings, in the shower, in the middle of the night… I may make a doodle or quick sketch to remind me. Late in the studio it is while trying to make the idea into a work multiple times, that I gain a better understanding of what I’m actually making. Sometimes during this process or much later I may start to understand why I’m making it.
While primarily working in paper clay, any potters clay to which processed paper has been added, I also carve in compressed paper, using an Arbortech tool, a WA invention. In addition, I occasionally sculpt in pencils, pens, and other office materials, as well as work in video art, performance, and even have used fungi.
That is so interesting. Could you share with us some photos of your works with fungi?
In 2008 I was commissioned to build my idea of a ‘living’ sculpture, which was five, two metre high fungi infected compressed paper sculptures, (see story at https://www.grahamhay.com.au/2008forest.html).
Image: Nurture II, 2008, Five compressed A4 paper pillars, 1.5-2m high, steel, fungi Scarlet Bracket Fungus spores + 300,000 pages of paper, steel, 200 x 600 x 200 cm. Photo: artist. Installed in the understory forest sculpture walk, Northcliffe, W. Australia.
What do you like the most about your art process?
Enjoy problem-solving while making the work. The satisfaction of converting my idea into reality. Often I try different ways of making the same work to find the one way that enables me to make the work. Have a huge number of failures, both while building, during firing and afterwards. Some ideas continue to engage me even when I’m finished with a work. Some works are never completed, even after prolonged engagement in making and remaking them, and I am only really satisfied years later after I have long moved on and made different work.
The autonomy to make what I want, how I want, when, and where I want.
Ha! Don’t forget Kamila within financial and time constrains on making, scale, shipping etc!!!
The freedom! So many of us dream about that kind of freedom. Please tell us where and how do you typically find inspiration for your work?
Not consciously seeking inspiration. Not trusting my initial wow, particularly with nature. A slower, sort of grazing, picking up a bit here and there that I like. Sometimes recording something through screen save, photographing, drawing, often remembering something and going back to get it. A lot of work seems to come from images from nature in my youth, with memories triggered by contemporary images.
I subscribe to US, UK, German, NZ, and Australian ceramic and art journals as well as read the national press for insight into cultural and social trends that help me make sense of what I have already seen around me every day. With bigger populations, trends are more obvious, but still emerge within the smaller WA population. I irregularly dive into social media, but predominantly use it to raise awareness of upcoming exhibitions, workshops, symposiums, journal articles, and books.
It's not easy to find time for all of that nowadays, considering the pressures that come from social media streams. As an independent, self-driven artist, what unique challenges and pleasures do you experience in your work?
Really, being an artist is similar to any other profession in that it can be both a solitary and social occupation. I spend 70 % of the studio-making process in the studio by myself, despite sharing the open plan space with 4 other artists and about a hundred adult students from Sarah and my studio classes. Making can be frustrating, boring, fun, and occasionally exciting, but requires extended quiet time in order to really attune to subtle thoughts and new possibilities. Yet I also really enjoy the times when the other artists are also in the studio, particularly as most have shared the space and the creative journey together for over a decade, so we freely share the ups and downs in art and life, providing constructive critical input, support, and encouragement. Similarly teaching adult beginners is very social, reminds me of my own initial joy of self-expression missing in many lives, and again many have been part of the studio life for decades, so it is wonderful to see and share their creative journey.
Initially, after graduating there was a decade of very low income which was very stressful particularly when we started a family. However, without a full-time paid job, it did provide an extended period of intense studio making and experimenting, which enabled my unique personal style to emerge and mature. This truly was a luxury, and then opened so many doors of opportunity.
Consequently, I’m very fortunate in the art field in that over the following two decades, I’ve been consistently paid to travel interstate and overseas to share my art and what I have learned in the studio. Occasionally I meet others who do the same in other professions, so the arts are not unique in this. However, when I meet others in the arts also operating at this international level: regularly exhibiting, demonstrating, writing and organising, I am with “my tribe”. This tribe and connection is particularly strong within the ceramic art field and appears to bridge the east and west, north and south, across different political and religions around the globe.
This must be very satisfying. Could you share which works of yours you are most proud of?
Unfortunately, not all works that I find the most stimulating and rewarding (in a creative sense) escape the studio and have an opportunity to find wider recognition! Similarly, some works become my signature works (universally recognised and identified with me) despite a relatively smooth and eventual passage through the studio. Having presented images of my work in hundreds of slideshows, talks, and workshops, I am subtly influenced by the many audiences' responses. Moreover works that are presented at peak and prestigious venues or events acquire an additional glow, which may, or may not be justified.
All that aside, my website (https://www.grahamhay.com.au/gallery.html) is where I resolve these internal critical voices and present what I think are my very best works. Usually in the projects section on the website is an article about the work or context within which it was created.
If you had the opportunity to showcase your artwork in a non-traditional art setting, where would that be?
I’ve exhibited in shopping centres, on beaches, in office foyers, in the Perth CBD, in castles, during rock festivals, gardens, parks, and forests, so not really sure what else there is? That said, I'm up for anything interesting.
The challenge is to bring both an art-appreciative audience across to the new venue as well as make the work of interest to new audiences who may already be in the setting.
Thank you, Graham. Next time we meet, I'll ask you about the Inglewood Arts Hub Call & Response Project and how everyday life impacts your artistic career.