Petrus Spronk: Poet of Clay
BY India Flint | December 3, 2009
A potter works with the essentials of earth, stone and fire.
Follow a red dirt road deep into the heart of a tall eucalypt forest near Daylesford in Victoria [Australia] and you’ll come to a small oasis in the trees. There, in a house built of logs in which every element is perfectly thought out, from the temple-like hand built kitchen shelving to the bath whence one can gaze out into the green, lives the artist and writer Petrus Spronk. The studio, housed close by in a rustic tin shed, has an air of monastic simplicity, the potter’s wheel taking altar-like importance in a windowed bay looking into the woods. The ochres and vibrant blues with which he has painted the interiors of both his abode and workplace echo the colours of the southern Flinders Ranges where he was living when I first met him over twenty years ago. The house in which he dwelt was also small and beautiful. It looked as if it had simply evolved from the earth and had been built by hand, without power; with the same care and attention that distinguishes his practice as an artist.
Petrus Spronk is a poet of clay. He cultivates simplicity in his life and has pared his work back to the essentials of earth, stone and fire. His way of life is meditative and dedicated – he lived a ‘slow’ life for years before it became the fashion to proclaim a penchant for ‘slowness’. For over a quarter of a century he has focused largely on the refinement of the bowl form, working with his hands to mould shapeless lumps of clay into beautiful objects. His search for learning took him on an eight year long journey around the world from the Pueblo of New Mexico to the potteries of Korea; studying techniques and traditions from artisans who live and breathe their craft...taking knowledge right from the source.
Working in solitude he begins his day with a long and vigorous walk through the surrounding forest. He tends an organic vegetable garden, its protective netting – essential to keep marauding kangaroos and wombats at bay – affixed to totemic poles topped with stones. It is a gentle and engaged life embracing wholeheartedly the processes of making, thinking, living. Spronk is a modest, at times almost humble being, yet his work speaks strongly with a rich and resonant voice. His bowls, formed from clay, burnished with smooth stones rather than glazed, are fired with wood in simple earth kilns and coloured by smoke and flame. These are not containers for domestic use - they are vessels for contemplation, bowls that ask to be held reverently with both hands with satin surfaces cool and silky to the touch.
When we first met he was making pots burnished a deep black in contrast with the rich rust red of the sand hills around him. The surfaces were incised and precisely wrought. Later an accidental breakage during a kiln-opening led to a series of deliberately shattered and reconstructed pots, some with embedded fragments of older found china. In those days too there was the occasional delicate embellishment using gold leaf.
Influenced by his six months living in Korea as artist in residence he produced a collection of rich black vessels first burnished and then carefully incised with small and repeated kanji – for water, for tree, for stone. His name, Petrus, is itself an ancient word for rock or stone.
In a recent exhibition ‘Inner landscapes’ the works featured a common decorative element that resembled variously an elongated stain, a watermark, a line between heaven and earth marking the endless horizons. The series of over fifty vessels of varying sizes shared a palette of smoky greys, warm ochres and deep blacks beneath a rich burnished surface. They were inspired by the aesthetics of the Australian landscape after bushfire, when the bare bones of the terrain are revealed.
Spronk’s life as a potter is balanced and enriched by his parallel practice as a writer as well as the occasional public art commission that he accepts. One of his most profound and moving works is found in Hepburn Springs, a spa town close to his forest home. On a series of granite boulders individuals’ stories relating their experience of this historic location [prior to its development as a commercial day spa] are engraved. The stories were taken from diaries and conversations with local residents; they are extraordinary histories from ‘ordinary’ people.
Outside the State Library in the Victorian capital Melbourne, polished stone fragments of classical architecture lie embedded in the pavement. This sculptural installation is as popular with skateboarders [who cheekily use is as a ramp] as it is with passing art-lovers. A gently humorous icon in the metropolis placed by a quiet forest dweller.
HAND/EYE scout, contributor, and supporter India Flint has a website at indiaflint.com, as well as a blog: prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com. Petrus Spronk has a blog, too: petrusspronk.blogspot.com.