Newcastle Art Gallery has one of the most significant ceramics collections in Australia, focusing on both Australian and Japanese ceramics. The strengths of the Australian ceramics collection consist of works from 1950 to the present. During the seventies and eighties the Gallery played a leading role in establishing Newcastle as a centre of national significance in ceramics, initiating a national ceramics award exhibition. Today, the Gallery regularly hosts ceramics exhibitions in its calendar, to celebrate the collection.
Works of art in the ceramics collection confirm that functional roots in ceramic practice can provide an inexhaustible source of sustenance for contemporary art. Further, the collection encompasses leading contemporary ceramists including Louise Boscacci, Victor Greenaway and Pippin Drysdale. Their work establishes that symbolic reference and metaphor are all within the range of the potter’s craft. Artists such as Jenny Orchard and Bernard Sahm are also represented, whose works are whimsically or formally sculptural. Key artists in the collection are Les Blakebrough, Louise Boscacci, Penny Byrne, Marea Gazzard, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Col Levy, Jenny Orchard and Peter Rushforth.
The Gallery prides itself on its significant Japanese ceramics collection which encompasses both Mingei 'folk art' and Sodeisha 'crawling through mud association' - avant garde non-functional ware. The Gallery has the largest collection of Sodeisha ware in the Southern hemisphere. Newcastle's position as an industrial city has enabled benefaction from Japanese organisations and donors over successive decades to help build the Japanese ceramics collection. The Japanese ceramics collection is comprised of three key areas:
- The Mingei collection
- The Nagano collection
- The Sodeisha collection
Shôji Hamada, the most celebrated potter of the twentieth century is well represented in the collection with eleven items, including Vase from 1970 decorated with a simple creamy-white rice husk glaze and the salt-glazed stoneware Serving bowl. Hamada worked in England in the early 1920s and became an important conduit for the influence of Japanese aesthetics on English and Australian potters but he was also designated as a National Living Treasure in Japan, as were several other potters in the collection.
The Nagano Collection contains representation by many of the great Japanese potters of the twentieth century. In 1985 these were complemented with the acquisition of the Blakebrough collection. Among the 58 items from this group assembled by the Australian potter Les Blakebrough, while working in Japan during the 1960s, are outstanding works by Takeichi Kawai, Kanjirô Kawai and Kentichi Tomimoto.
In the 1950s, at the very time when traditional Japanese ceramic attitudes and aesthetics were being embraced by Australian craft workers, young potters in Japan were in rebellion against the constraints of tradition. Yagi Kazuo, Suzuki Osamo, Yamada Hikaru and Kumakura Junkichi were among a group of potters who were seeking to use clay as an expressive medium in its own right without the need to conform to a functional aesthetic. To activate for change and collectively exhibit their work they formed the Sodeisha Group.
The group expanded over the years in numbers and influence and in 1978 an exhibition of 54 outstanding works by thirty-two members of Sodeisha toured Australia, and an exhibition was held at the Gallery and on completion of the tour. The Group donated the entire Sodeisha collection to Newcastle in 1981 in recognition of the Gallery’s commitment to Japanese ceramics.