Barbara Campbell-Allen: An Informed Magic


Sculptor Barbara Campbell-Allen OAM likens the flames in a woodfire kiln to a river. The licks of the flame ebbing and flowing between periods of rapid and calm as they torrent their way through the firebox to freedom, metamorphising the clay in their path and scarring its surface with ash and flame.

With more than four decades’ experience, and having received an Order of Australia (OAM) medal in 2019 for her contribution to ceramics in Australia, Barbara has married this unpredictable magic of the kiln with an informed making practice. “Knowledge of the technology, the wood, the pack, the ember, the flame, everything is considered,” she says. “You’re in the kiln for four days packing and every piece you place is considered. You become one with the kiln.”

At the start of our phone chat Barbara tells me, “you either respond to clay or you don’t.” She is clearly the former respondee, yet her path to the ceramic studio wasn’t always set in stone. Growing up in a house built by her father and decorated with works by Peter Rushforth and Derek Smith, a respect for art and design was established from a young age, and while Barbara was guided into ceramics through specialist high school clay classes taught by artist Sandra Black, a choice to persue town planning initially led her in another direction. Her early 20s saw Barbara specialising in geomorphology (the study of landforms and their creation), yet by age 25 she was already back in the clay game, studying ceramics at East Sydney Technical College.

Today, the rich conceptual grounding of Barbara’s hand-built forms owes itself to her time spent as a geomorphologist. At an elemental level, the chemical makeup of clay and its subsequent transfiguration into stone through the ceramic process is a fitting metaphor for the landforms Barbara seeks to capture. Her recent series Dune was a response to two contradictory landforms found in Central Australia: the erosion of gorges cracking open the earth’s surface ever so slowly; and the ephemerality of sand dunes in a constant state of making and unmaking at the whim of the wind. “[The work] becomes a memory of moments and time… it has an emotional component to it,” says Barbara. “It is a journey through the landscape.”

For her most recent series Blade, Barbara has introduced nuanced lines and angles to her forms. “The forms reflect the grandeur of an overwhelming landscape, [they] enable the reflection of climate, storms, change of season or experience of drought and floods.” Coil building allows her to gain more control over the form, adding blade-like angles or gauging through the clay to dissect the form’s surface.

The fire adds yet another layer to the story of Barbara’s forms. The natural ash glaze produced by the Black Wattle, Pine or Eucalypt wood fed through the kiln’s stoke holes gives each piece a surface and texture reminiscent of the earth’s skin. The dryness of a drought-stricken creek bed, the granulated surface of windswept sedimentary rocks, or the jewel-like runoff of water pooling at the foot of a gorge after the first rain of the season.

Each individual work speaks of a different time and moment in nature. Alone or in a series, Barbara’s forms punctuate the space around them. They are a beautiful reincarnation of a landscape as vast and raw as it is beautiful.

Barbara’s exhibtion Elemental Presence shows at Rochfort Gallery, North Sydney from 3 October to 22 November 2020. A limited edition hand stitched book of Barbara’s work is available through the Gallery.

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