Playing with Clay - Synopsis

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Playing with Clay is a lovingly crafted profile of the life and art of prominent Australian potter Peter Rushforth, known as the pioneer of ceramic art in Australia.

Featuring the dramatic backdrop of the Blue Mountains landscape as inspirational to his work, it draws together themes such as childhood loss, the devastation of war and internment in Changi, forgiveness and the embracing of Japanese culture in pursuit of refining his own stunningly individual aesthetic.

Culminating in a celebration of his pots and the food of culinary luminary Tetsuya Wakuda, this documentary is a soulful portrait of one of our foremost artists who inspires with his humility and dedication


“It’s hedonistic really living on a mountain and playing with clay all day.”
This comment of Peter Rushforth’s in the opening scenes of the documentary “Playing with Clay” captures a lot about Peter: his love of the environment in which he lives, the simplicity of his way of life and his self deprecation. It reflects also the two main themes of the film; Peter’s life and his art.
It also indicates the structure of the film. There are interviews with Peter where he talks about his life’s experience and his values and then there is the parallel strand where he demonstrates the process of potting; from digging the clay through kneading, throwing, glazing and firing and then on to the exhibiting and using of the finished pots. Between these two strands there is an ongoing symbolic connection. For example, Peter talks about his early life, his formative years, accompanied by sequences showing him kneading and throwing the clay. Later he talks about his prisoner-of-war experiences against dramatic sequences of firing in the wood-fired kiln - with close shots through a peep hole into the white heat of the kiln’s interior.

Peter Rushforth was born in 1920. His education was curtailed by serious illness and the loss of both parents before the age of 15. At the age of 20 he enlisted in the army when war broke out in the Pacific and became a prisoner of the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore. He worked on the Burma Railway for a year during this time and saw many of his friends die. The remainder of the three and a half years as a POW was spent in Changi. There he was able to read and study and this was the basis of his ongoing love of learning. He was part of a group who read philosophy and talked about Utopias and contributing to a better world on their return home. On returning to Australia he was determined to become a “constructor or maker of things”. He went to Art School in Victoria and studied pottery. He married Bobbie and they had three daughters. In the 1950’s he set up the Ceramics course at what is now the National Art School, Sydney and taught there for 27 years. Very soon after the war he discovered the types of pots that he most admired were the pots and glazes that were being produced in Japan and this led him to travel and study in Japan and meet many Japanese potters. He appointed Shiga Shigeo to work as a teacher beside him at the National Art School and has shared exhibitions with Shiga and many other Japanese artists in Australia and Japan.

Peter lives the values he holds as important. Perhaps his war experiences confirmed for him his belief that living in a machine age could make people act like machines and this could lead to brutality. He sees that “handmade objects are like human faces. They are all different” and espouses in the film his belief that this counterbalances the mechanistic sameness of manufactured goods. ‘Making’ and ‘creating’ he sees as positive values and he believes we all have it in us to be creative. He believes in truth to materials, uses local clays and makes his glazes from local rocks. Years of experimentation and study have led Peter on a quest of beauty in all his glazes but particularly in the rare Jun (blue) glaze that has become his signature.

Since his retirement from teaching in 1979 Peter and Bobbie have lived at Shipley on the edge of a cliff top in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. There he has built a workshop, a gallery and two wood firing kilns (a short anagama kiln which he fires for three days, mainly for highly glazed pots, and a long anagama kiln - which requires a five day firing mainly for his ash glazed pots). Peter is still potting 30 years after his retirement.
He says of himself in the film; “It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was a homeless waif wishing for a family - and now I have daughters and an extended family of people from the National Art School”. As well as this extended family, his and Bobbie’s home at Shipley is a Mecca for potters from all over the world. Peter’s modesty belies the importance of his standing in the world of ceramics and the wider community. He was awarded an AO in1985 for his contribution to teaching and to ceramics in Australia and this year received an Hon Doctorate from RMIT in Victoria. He was awarded the 2003 National Art School Fellowship and in the citation was described “as a national living treasure and the father of ceramic art in Australia ”.

As well as showing many aspects of the potting process not accessible to many, the film includes some of the public occasions involving Peter and Bobbie. There are interviews with other potters, pupils and crafts people and Peter’s biographers, John Freeland and Rita Nash. There is a charming sequence in true Aussie humour between Peter and Tom Uren who share their experiences of working on the Burma railway “doing the Cooks tour” and “touring the east as guests of the Japanese”. There is also an interview with master chef, Tetsuya, at an exhibition of Peter’s at Shipley. Tetsuya says he has never before owned a pot of Peter’s and has always wanted to. Here he makes up for his lost opportunities!
Peter insists that the completion of the cycle in the process of making a pot is that the pot should be used. Towards the end of the film there is a mouth watering sequence where Tetsuya prepares and presents an informal lunch in Peter’s honour - on platters made by Peter.

Biographer, John Freeland talks about the influence of the environment especially the Blue Mountains, on Peter. There is a lyrical sequence of clouds in the valleys, light on trees, cliff faces and still pools dissolving into pots with glazes in which the landscape is clearly represented.
Bobbie talks of heavy snowfalls in the winter and threatening bushfires in the summer and these dramatic scenes are also reflected in the pots made at the time.

The film shows a quest for beauty as well as for making useful things. It finishes as it starts, with images of clouds in the valley and Peter at his potter’s wheel making another beautiful object. Over these images he states his belief in human creativity:
“I wouldn’t say that we’ve all got to play with clay but the potential for creative work is within us”

Lives lived
Vessels formed
Creating beauty