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Conference presentations

Generation NEXT: Pathways and perception of the next generation

Event   Verge: 11th National Ceramics Conference

Generation NEXT was presented by Mel Robson at the Verge conference in Brisbane in July, 2006. The focus of the conference was sustainability for the individual and the collective. This presentation focused on the various pathways to a successful ceramic practice, and in particular highlighted the benefits of mentoring.

Mel Robson


I graduated from University 5 years ago and over that time developed a practice that encompasses a fairly wide range of activities. It has been a varied pathway and has involved everything from exhibiting work, developing a retail practice, public and private projects and commissions, international residencies, and more recently public art and teaching. I was asked to participate in this panel to reflect on the pathway I have taken so far. In doing so there are particular experiences that stand out as being instrumental in the transition from graduate to full-time practicing artist.

The first was an Australia Council funded mentorship program I undertook in 2003 with ceramic artist Patsy Hely. I had been out of university for about a year and been involved in a number of national exhibitions - my practice was steadily developing. I had, however, arrived at a point where I needed to examine the direction I was taking, and was questioning the relevance and place of my work in the broader context of contemporary art/craft. I applied for the mentorship program to clarify where I wanted to take my practice and how best I could do that.

Mentorships today can take a lot of different forms, and aren't necessarily about traditional ideas of knowledge-transfer, about a top-down process or a concentrated one-way skills transfer. Certainly in our case it was more about exchange and dialogue, experimentation and exploration, and reflection and guidance. Our approach to the mentoring process was by no means dogmatic or prescriptive.

It was a 3 month program that was based in Canberra at the Australian National University where Patsy was the Honours coordinator in the School of Art. During the mentorship we covered a lot of different things. There was a technical component where we focused on skills development; we also spent a lot of time talking about our work and about ideas and approaches to work - it was this part of the mentorship that was the most valuable to me. By asking questions Patsy guided me through new thought processes and alternative approaches. There were no right or wrong answers to these questions. They served as starting points from which I could begin to examine and formulate my own viewpoints, and were crucial in helping me to develop a more self-critical approach to my work.

Throughout the program we also worked towards a joint exhibition. This process provided many insights into a whole range of professional activities such as writing funding applications and exhibition proposals, commissioning writers, designing catalogues, writing artist statements, getting work professionally photographed and the numerous other ins and outs of exhibiting. Being able to go through all these processes, under the guidance of an experienced artist, was a great introduction to all aspects of professional practice and put me in good stead to negotiate these things on my own as my career developed.

The support from ANU, and that we were able to base the program from the School of Art, also meant I developed a whole new professional network. This association with Patsy and the University has continued to provide support and professional opportunities far beyond the program.

It was challenging, and at times confronting, however it served as a jumping off point in that it gave me the support, confidence and the experience to start moving forward on my own. There has been a lot of talk at Verge around education in ceramics, and this idea of mentoring is something that has a real place in today's environment. Whether it is a formal program or something a little more informal, the transfer of knowledge, the support, advice and encouragement - particularly in the early stages of an artist's career - can be instrumental in the successful continuation of practice. It is a concept that I think our support organisations can play an important role in setting up and facilitating more of these opportunities.

Since undertaking this program the notion of mentors has remained a strong element in my practice. In the early stages of your career, and indeed all the way through your career, you are faced with a broad range of options, opportunities and possibilities. Whilst these decisions remain ultimately with the artist, advice, feedback, criticism and guidance from those with experience and expertise can, and in my own case has, been instrumental in the directions I have taken. I have gone out of my way to actively develop professional and personal relationships that I can draw on to provide advice, criticism and feedback. It is sometimes difficult to maintain the supportive environment and natural interaction that can exist when studying or working at institutions, and I know many artists find the concept of "networking" daunting and perhaps even a little awkward. But for me networking doesn't have to be about overtly selling yourself or shmoozing. It is more about gradually establishing relationships with people in (and outside) your industry. Its about being informed and interested in your industry, its about being curious, about being around if you can, and also about putting in effort to seek out people who can help and support you in your endeavours.

Something else that has been fundamental in establishing my practice is a government initiative that provides support for people wanting to start their own business. It's less to do with the aesthetic and theoretical aspects of being an artist and more to do with the business of being an artist. It's called the NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive) Scheme and in 2004 I took part in this program. It has been the foundation on which I have developed my practice - to a point where I can make a living out of what I do.

The scheme provides a basic income, the idea being that you can focus on developing the nuts and bolts of your business without panicking about where your next meal is coming from. It is not tailored specifically to artists, however I am aware of a number of artists who have been involved in this program and applied it to their art practice with really positive outcomes. You are required to do a short business course that covers the basics of setting up your business - developing a business plan, things related to registering a business, book keeping, tax, marketing etc - and while I'm sure most of us would much rather be in our studios making work, and letting someone else take care of the business side of things, the reality is, that except for the lucky few, this is a necessary part of our practice.

In my case, this year gave me the chance to focus on developing ways in which I could make my practice sustainable. I used the time to contact and visit galleries and retail outlets in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane, to show them my work and to discuss the possibilities of selling and exhibiting with them. I also used the time in my studio to develop new work, to test my work out in the market, and to really get my head around the processes associated with all of this.

The outcomes of this program have been very diverse and an opportunity to focus solely on getting my work out there and raising my profile. There were a lot of successes and a lot of hit and misses too, but that's what it was about - learning what to do and what not to do, learning what works and what doesn't. It was also about defining what I was interested in and willing to do, and what I wasn't - all without the distraction of having to work another job and with the safety net of a regular (albeit small) income.

The last thing I wanted to touch on is more about an approach to my practice that I have found helpful. It's not easy to make a living as an artist, however what is really instrumental in achieving this, or has been to me, is a willingness to step out of your comfort zone, to take a few risks and to not limit yourself by being too narrow or too defined in your approach to your work, the possibilities that exist and the possible applications. There's always going to be situations where you feel out of your depth, and yes, it's important to know your limitations, but taking risks and trying new things is where real learning and evolution can happen. In reflecting on the pathway I have taken, it is these kind of projects and experiences from which I have learned most and would like to touch briefly on two examples.

In 2005 I was invited by the Journal of Australian Ceramics to guest edit an edition of the magazine focussing on ceramics in Queensland. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with Trisha Dean and the Australian Ceramics Association - a very big learning curve. I was able to interact with so many artists and writers from inside and outside the ceramics community, and gained an insight into how a magazine is put together, and the technical and political processes of that. In choosing to undertake that project I moved out of my comfort zone and the world I operated in. It challenged my views on a numerous issues, and it meant I interacted with my community in a very different way that, much like the mentorship program, forced me to reassess and re-evaluate, not only my own practice, but the industry as a whole and my relationship and place within it.

Another project that is also pushing me in new directions is my first public art project for the new Southbank Education and Training Precinct. Having been primarily a maker of small functional or functionally oriented work, public art was never an area I had entertained becoming involved in. It always seemed to me like public art had to be big and monumental and never seemed particularly relevant to my practice. The surprise at having found myself involved in this kind of work is giving way to a real excitement at the possibilities that exist in this area. Apart from it being a financially rewarding area to work in, it is pushing me to consider in much more detail the way my work can engage, and possibly even challenge audiences, in this kind of context. I think, in Queensland in any case, there is a growing interest and openness to craftspeople and designers bringing new approaches to this area, and an openness and interest in less traditional ideas of public art.

I guess my point is, although it's good to be focussed on your direction or pathway, it is also important not to be too rigid or set on a particular pathway, to limit yourself by the material you work in or by putting yourself in a box that defines absolutely what you do. Being an artist, for me, is about evolution. It's ideally about succeeding, but it's also about failing, about learning, and about seeking ways in which to improve and develop and evolve. I look at it all as a work in progress, and find that approaching my work and career with this attitude leaves me responsive and receptive to new possibilities.

Over the last 5 or 6 years I've worked long, long hours and questioned more times than I can count whether its all worth it, whether its possible, whether I want to (or can!) keep on doing this. I'm now reaping some rewards from those years and can be selective of the projects I choose to work on. That's a really great place to be, however the challenge that now exists is to continue to sustain my practice, and at the same time, ensure I don't stand still - that my work continues to develop.

Mel Robson




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Updated: 13 February 2016