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Grace Cochrane, Here by hand: 70 years of Sturt

The exhibition Here by hand: 70 years at Sturt, shown at the Sturt Gallery, Mittagong in October-November 2011, celebrated the 70th anniversary of this influential group of crafts workshops with works drawn by Sturt staff from its collection and archives. Following a foreword by Director of Sturt, Mark Viner, Grace Cochrane's catalogue essay explores Sturt's history and place within the Australian contemporary craft movement from its founding in 1941 by visionary educator, Winifred West. It also considers Sturt's continuing role in supporting Australian craftspeople and teachers through its workshops, classes, residencies, summer and winter schools, gallery and shop.

Grace Cochrane

 
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Grace Cochrane, Here by hand: 70 years of Sturt

Forward

Mark Viner, Head of Sturt

Whichever way you look at it, the milestone of 70 years of existence is an amazing achievement for Sturt, as it would be for any cultural institution in Australia.  During 2011 we have trawled the archives and looked at every object in the Sturt collection.  The more we have looked and uncovered, the more aware we have become of the great history and importance of this place. 

The significance of Sturt lies in the collective experience and contributions of all those artists and craftspeople who have worked or learned here since 1941 when Sturt began with just one room, six girls learning spinning and weaving and two boys learning carpentry.  The significance of Sturt lies also in what has been left behind, in our wonderful collection of course, but also in the looms and spinning wheels, the potter’s wheels and kilns, the woodworker’s saws and planes, the metalworker’s anvils and mandrels and also the very buildings themselves that possess such a special atmosphere and contribute so much to the unique Sturt experience for all our visitors.

Sturt is a place that has demanded and received unconditional love for all of its life and many, many thanks are due to all those people in the past who have helped, in so many different ways, to get Sturt to this special birthday.  Particularly, we must recognise the place of Sturt within Winifred West Schools (Frensham, Gib Gate and Sturt).  I believe that it is only through the support of the entire WWS community that Sturt remains in existence today.  I would like to thank all those people who support Sturt now; our current team of staff, the remarkable Friends of Sturt, the many visiting artists, students,  teachers and regular visitors to our shop, café and events. 

If it has been a remarkable history, then we also firmly believe that it will be an equally distinguished future with Sturt continuing to make a major contribution to the craft sector for many decades to come with a typically ambitious program through which we always ‘punch above our weight’. 

 

Grace Cochrane, 70 years of Sturt - a short history

The year 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the Sturt crafts workshops in Mittagong, in the Southern Highlands region of NSW. This remarkable centre is acknowledged as one of the most important models of practice for the continuing post-war studio crafts movement. Today, current Head of Sturt, Mark Viner, and a small staff of Dale Dryen (course co-ordinator) and Slavica Zivkovic (shop and gallery manager), operate a program that includes courses, residencies, workshops, exhibitions and summer and winter schools, primarily in furniture, ceramics, textiles and jewellery. Sturt’s activities complement school curricula and local arts events, and at the same time maintain a notable profile within the wider crafts and design community.1

Here by hand: 70 years of Sturt, recalls key moments from both past and present, and includes work by people who have not only been significant to Sturt, but also influential to others. This is acknowledged not only through the works themselves, but also through many of the processes and technologies that were developed and used at Sturt: clays and glazes, weaving and dyeing processes, metal and wood-working innovations, as well as the design and construction of kilns, wheels, looms and other equipment.

Sturt was founded in 1941 by Winifred West (1881–1971) when she retired as headmistress from Frensham, the independent secondary school for girls which she had established in 1913. Interested in the value of relationships between individuals and communities, the links between hand and mind and ‘the development of individual talents and personalities’, 2 Miss West’s intent was to provide further education in crafts, music and drama for children who had left the Mittagong Primary School, and for adults seeking useful and creative skills. She wrote to a friend in 1941:

… I do not know what it will turn into. That will depend upon the people who come and on changing conditions.  I can foresee many possible developments. It might become a training school for teachers of arts and crafts.  It might become an industrial concern.  It might become a colony of artists and craftsmen, potters and printers… 3

Largely financed by Miss West herself, and through time and resources provided by friends, Sturt started with one building where, at weekends, six girls learned spinning and weaving, while two boys did woodwork nearby and adults came during the week. By 1949 150 children were enrolled. Named after her mother, Fanny West (nee Sturt), Sturt was located in the grounds and gardens of Miss West’s cottage, built in 1947, and she established the Sturt Association in 1948 to set objectives and to manage the workshops.

For the duration of the war [Sturt’s garden] was largely given over to the growing of vegetables, serving a dual purpose, helping with the food supply and supplying onion skins for dyeing. By 1947 the market garden look had vanished. Lawns and young trees were flourishing and Miss West was hard at work planning for the future … As each building was completed, new gardens were planted.4

Formal workshops were set up for Wood (1947); Weaving (1951); Pottery (1954); Jewellery and metalwork (1969); Screenprinting (1973); and the Sturt School for Wood (1985). Winifred West Schools Pty Ltd was formed in 1955, by then including the Gib Gate primary school as well as Frensham and Sturt. Until 1958, all buildings were designed by architect John Moore, who was a member of the Sturt Association. Don Gazzard designed the accommodation building, Ainsworth, in 1963, as well as its furniture which was made in the Wood workshop, and later an extension to the Weaving room.

As founding potter Ivan McMeekin pointed out in 1986,5 the concurrent crafts movement was strongly to do with a shift to professionalism, so Sturt’s workshops also developed along these lines and became closely linked to a range of emerging crafts organisations. From the outset, those who headed the various workshops became well-known as individual practitioners in their wider fields. At the same time, each had to contribute to their workshop’s self-sufficiency. Sturt offered experience through a trainee/apprenticeship program, taught classes, maintained production for income, was commissioned to make works for major buildings and events and, as well as offering works for sale in a display room, mounted an annual exhibition.

A trade mark was registered in 1962 with an ‘S’ symbol combined with appropriate separate motifs for each workshop: pottery, weaving and wood. Sturt was a place of pilgrimage for Australian and international craftspeople and some of the residencies and workshops held there are now legendary.

Following the woodwork and carpentry classes that were run from 1941 by O.E. Southerden, and his son, Jack, a first Wood workshop was built in 1947 and another in 1965. Harry Lloyd and John O’Neill taught there, while Tony Fulford was appointed teacher in 1960, remaining until 1987. Into the 1960s, they also made some of the furniture for Frensham school, and for Sturt itself. Many more commissions were undertaken for public buildings and churches. Others who worked there through the 1970s and 1980s included Toby Muir Wilson, Norman Stocks, Peter Adams and Richard Raffan.

The Sturt School for Wood opened in 1985, with founding director, Alan Wale, and evolved as an annual one-year course for around 12 students, many seeking time out from previous professional occupations. When Wale retired in 1992, he was followed until 2009 by Tom Harrington, who was successful in having the course accredited as a Certificate IV in Furniture Design and Technology. A huge crowd of those who had been associated with the Wood School attended its 21st anniversary, in 2006. The school is currently run by Stuart Faulkner, and a second workshop space built in 1975 allows further 12-week short courses to take place.

Initially, spinning and weaving classes were run from 1941 in the original building, now still the weaving room, by Frensham art teacher, Ruth Ainsworth and from 1942,Dorothy Cohoe. They used a loom and spinning wheels brought back from a visit to England by Ainsworth in 1936. The Weaving workshop was set up in 1951 by Erika Gretschel (later Semler), who arrived in Australia as a refugee from Germany, and was the first professional person to be employed at Sturt. Amongst other projects, she worked with Sydney designer, Marion Hall Best, to make upholstery and curtain fabrics.

A continuing presence of highly trained colleagues from Germany was maintained as the weavers moved on: Ursula Walde from 1954, Jutta Schley (later Feddersen) from 1957, Ulrike Lewis from 1958 and in 1959, Elisabeth Nagel. As well as running regular classes, by 1965 Nagel had begun work on commissions which included tapestries, floor rugs and furniture for the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel and 100 yards of upholstery fabric for the new National Library in 1967. A friendship established in 1963 between Nagel and Winifred Hilliard who ran Ernabella Arts and Crafts near Alice Springs, brought three Pitjantjatjara women, Yipati Kuyata, Nyukana Baker and Yayimpi, to Sturt for five months in 1971. Elisabeth Nagel retired in 2009, after 50 productive years associated with the workshop. Sturt Weaving continues today with part-time classes taught byMelanie Olde, and the studio is also used for short courses.

For some years from 1973, a screenprinting workshop was run by Richard and Dilys Brecknock, while the annual conference of the Australian Forum for Textile Arts, established at Sturt in 1974 by Erika Semler and Solvig Baas-Becking, was held there for about 14 years from 1991, organised by Janet De Boer.6 From the early 1970s a number of international and Australian visitors, and from 1998 the regular program of artists-in-residence, included many working in a range of fibre and textile processes.

Sturt Pottery was among the first studio potteries in New South Wales to produce stoneware from local materials. In 1952 Miss West persuaded Ivan McMeekin to return from England, where he had been working with potter Michael Cardew. McMeekin spent 1953 in Sydney planning the pottery and its equipment, and started work at Sturt in 1954. As well as constructing the buildings and equipment, McMeekin also researched local clays and glazes, producing 24 test bodies and four glazes by the end of the year.7 A significant development was that of a porcelain clay from the Nattai River area. In 1954 McMeekin built a small, round, down-draft woodfiring kiln modelled on one designed by Michael Cardew, and at one point the Wood workshop made potters wheels to McMeekin’s design.

McMeekin’s first student-assistant was Gwyn John (later Hanssen Pigott) and when she left in 1957, her place was taken by Les Blakebrough in the Pottery, and by Col Levy, who took over her teaching commitments. Blakebrough followed McMeekin as workshop manager from 1959 and was appointed Director of Sturt from 1964 to 1972. Seventeen apprentices were trained in pottery during these years. Blakebrough initiated a number of visits by international potters such as John Chappell and Fred Olsen, which resulted in Blakebrough spending a year in Japan in 1963. The first Japanese visitor was Takeichi Kawai, who worked at Sturt in 1964, while Shigeo Shiga, who was at Sturt in 1966-67, returned to live in Australia. In 1964, following his experience in Kyoto, and under the guidance of Kawai, Blakebrough oversaw construction of a three-chamber climbing kiln, believed to be the first to be built in Australia.

Subsequent workshop managers were Tony Burgess (1973-74), John Edye (1974-78), Paul Wynne (1978-80), Ian McKay (1982-86), Don Court (1986-88), Campbell Hegan (1988-98) and Libby Pickard (1999-2000) and many others worked or trained with them. They made pots, taught and ran workshops, and some built new kilns and equipment. Paul Davis was manager from 2001 until 2009, and focused on building respect for what he saw as the legacy of the founding ideas of the Pottery. He invited significant Australian and international potters who would best demonstrate the use of the Sturt kilns, and helped to organise events such as the ceramic conference in 2003 which celebrated 50 years of the Pottery, and the national Woodfire conference which took place at Sturt in 2008.

Sturtmetal, now offering classes and short courses as Sturt Jewellery, was added to the group in 1969 and run by Ray Norman until 1985. Norman trained a number of jewellers and silversmiths, including Greg Healey, Nicholas Deeprose, Alice Whish and Diana Boynes, and developed production ranges to support the workshop. In 1970, Les Blakebrough met silversmith Ragnar Hansen in Norway and invited him to Sturt, where he worked during 1972-73, before moving to Tasmania. Norman encouraged the use of Sturt for seminars and workshops associated with crafts organisations, including the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia (JMGA), whose first conference was held at Sturt in 1980. He organised specialist workshops such as Iron Plus, in 1983, and master classes including one with Japanese ‘sword furnisher’, Satsuo Ando, and another with German goldsmith, Herman Junger, in 1982. Norman recalls that ‘The workshop was under pressure to make work for sale … While there was a display space, there was no Sturt shop at that time.’ 8 He sold Sturt’s work through Anina, in Rowe Street, Sydney (where he had trained), and to private clients. Sometimes they did a good trade to visitors in Miss West’s garden at the weekends, ‘where she did the selling’.

Norman discovered that Jack Southerden, in the Wood workshop, was a lapidary, so he engaged him to cut stones to be used in jewellery, and in 1977 they produced a touring exhibition, Stone Cutting & Setting, for the Crafts Board. 9 He also supported a number of other initiatives to further training in jewellery. In the early 1970s Indigenous artist Neville Poulson came from Yuendumu as a trainee for about eight weeks, while Jack Southerden later visited Yuendumu to work with the artists there.

In reviewing the twenty-first annual October exhibition in 1962, Tom Heath observed that ‘the great aim and achievement of Sturt has been in providing a working model of an institution which can serve the needs of the master craftsman, of education and of a rural community’. 10 The Sturt Common Room (now the shop) was not only the venue for an annual exhibition, but also music performances and rehearsals by local groups. After Ernest Llewelyn retired from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, he ran individual music classes in the Sturt Common Room and also established the Sturt Orchestra, which operated for about three years with members of the Mittagong Town Band, musicians from the Berrima district and staff and girls from Frensham. For many years Sturt also had strong ties with Musica Viva.

From 1973 until the mid-1980s the crafts traineeships established in the 1950s, were partly supported financially by the Crafts Board of the Australia Council. Some of the workshop managers became involved in the crafts network through specialist groups, the Crafts Councils and the Crafts Board, and many of those who worked or trained at Sturt not only contributed to the professional base of the crafts community, but also to the teaching core of tertiary courses that were established or expanded in Australia in the 1970s.

After Miss West died in 1971, and Les Blakebrough left in 1972, each workshop remained autonomous, and the workshop managers formed a collective Management Group. The Sturt Board of external advisers was re-established in 1978 to advise the Board of Governors, and two reports into Sturt’s future were commissioned in the late 1980s. Campbell Hegan was appointed Director of Sturt in 1988, and also managed the Pottery. Fewer managers were employed and, instead, some spaces were rented out to individuals and short courses and residential schools were offered. Hegan was followed as Director from 1998–2010 by Megan Patey, who initiated a series of crafts residencies, supported by the Friends of Sturt: 39 of these took place between 1999 and 2010. Complementing the regular Summer School, the first Winter School was held in July 2006, while short courses also became increasingly popular.

Meanwhile, alongside the activities in the workshops, the successful Sturt Gallery and Shop continued. A display room built in 1958 was demolished by fire in 1991, and replaced with a new gallery, while the shop, established in 1977 in the adjacent Common Room, was enlarged by incorporating the verandah between the two. During this time, a number of events celebrated aspects of Sturt’s history: in Sturt’s 50th year, 1991, the Wood School students exhibited their work in the new gallery; a ceramic conference in 2003 marked 50 years of the Pottery; a celebration of 21 years of the Sturt School for Wood was held in 2006; in 2007 an exhibition documented the work of 19 recent artists-in-residence; and in 2009 a seminar and exhibition acknowledged Elisabeth Nagel’s 50 years at Sturt. In 2007, the Sturt and School archives were installed in a purpose-renovated facility in what had been the old laundry and later printing workshop, and a small selection of works from the collection was place on permanent exhibition adjacent to them.

Seventy years on, Sturt is not only an important location in the Southern Highlands region for local and touring visitors, but is engaged in a number of initiatives to confirm its place in Australia’s cultural infrastructure. In 2011, for example, Sturt was included as one of the members of the national group of Australian Craft and Design Centres (ACDC), 11 and a National Library Community Heritage Grant enabled the significance of its collection to be assessed; a collection that includes important works by those associated with Sturt, as well as some of the historic items of equipment they made or used.

Over these seven decades many of the workshop managers, residents and trainees have been acknowledged as leaders in their fields, while professional and early-career practitioners continue to seek opportunities to spend intensive time at Sturt, exhibit in the gallery and place work in the shop. It is clear that the contemporary programs run by this enduring crafts centre are taking it imaginatively into a very different future, while endorsing and valuing the importance of its origins.

 

Grace Cochrane is an independent writer, curator and adviser, and the author of a number of publications including The Crafts Movement: a History, UNSW Press, 1992.

 

Acknolwedgements

This essay is published in a shorter form as: ‘Sturt crafts centre: 1941-2011’, Craft Arts International, Vol 83, 2011

The essay was originally published as part of the catalogue for the exhibition, Here by hand: 70 years at Sturt, An exhibition of the Sturt Permanent Collection.

 

Exhibition details

Here by hand: 70 years at Sturt
An exhibition of the Sturt Permanent Collection
2 October - 20 November 2011
Sturt Gallery Cottage and Archive, Mittagong, New South Wales

 

 

Footnotes

1 See Sturt’s website

2 Winifred West, in ‘Community activities in Mittagong’ (1945), in Priscilla Kennedy (ed) Addresses and Talks; Winifred Mary West, memorial edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973.

3 Winifred West, letter, 1941, Sturt archives

4 Sturt website, http://www.sturt.nsw.edu.au: Garden

5 Ivan McMeekin, interview with author, 1986

7 Ivan McMeekin in Sturt Pottery Annual report,  Frensham Chronicle, 1954, p473

8 Ray Norman, interview with author, 2011

9 Included in Crafts Board collection gifted to the National Gallery of Australia in 1982

10Tom Heath, Architecture Australia 1962, reprinted in Pottery in Australia, May 1963

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Updated: 16 April 2014