Master Potter Alistair Whyte is the only Australian to have studied the art of porcelain with Masters in Japan, and his Western arts heritage, infused with Eastern tradition, continue to contribute significantly to his home-town of Warburton and the broader Australian ceramics community.
Alistair’s studio is nestled amongst tall timbers in the hills surrounding Warbuton. It is full of past work and tools of his trade, and it is a quiet and peaceful space where Alistair applies his skill to pieces that are renowned across the world.
Alistair studied for a Diploma of Ceramic Design at Bendigo Institute of Technology. A Japanese instructor at the institute encouraged him to apply to the Kyoto University of Arts in Japan and described the experience as mind blowing. He was then invited to work with a Porcelain Master, an opportunity he grasped with both hands and he spent another twelve months working in the Master’s studio.
Five years in Japan had a lifelong influence on Alistair’s art and life. “I brought a little bit of Japan back with me,” in the form of his adored wife who inspires him. A delicate porcelain vase with a portrait of her in a wedding kimono is one of his favourite “beautiful treasures.”
“While I’ve got influences from Japan it’s really me that comes out these days (in the work). I’m using oriental technique but I try and make more Aussie things,” said Alistair holding up a typically Australian looking coffee mug to reveal fine translucent porcelain.
Alistair speaks of his work and family with love and pride. He attributes the origins of his passion in pottery to his grandmother, who lived for more than twenty years in China. His mother was raised in China, and had a fine ceramics and porcelain collection. Both women were accomplished painters.
Alistair spent his first few years in what is now, Vanuatu. His mother was a GP and his father a minister, “…every few years we shifted to a new town, so I haven’t got any real sort of roots in a sense,” said Alistair, “I just know I was born in Melbourne when they were on leave from Vanuatu, and I have been moving ever since. This (in Warburton) is the longest I’ve ever stayed anywhere.”
The family moved to Warburton on Ash Wednesday in what he describes as a “baptism by fire.” After Black Saturday he made an impulsive range of works. Resembling the landscape after the event and they are, “black for the burnt ash and green for rejuvenation,” he said. He was recently commissioned by the towns of King Lake and Marysville to make bowls to be placed in the gardens of contemplation in each town. Each community carefully chose the prose to appear around the rim of each bowl.
Among his many talents he also does life casting. On display in his workshop are the face casts of his four daughters. The father within could not help boast about their artistic endeavours and it is clear his families’ roots are firmly based in art and are flourishing in Warburton.
Alistair approaches his work as a professional and is highly motivated each day.
His current projects are diverse. One is a series modelled on disposable coffee cups. He is making them in both porcelain and earthenware ranges. The porcelain variety is glazed and has a sophisticated look while the earthenware is wonderfully textured. Both have an attention to detail common to all of his work.
In his studio the shelving is up to the roof’s height and well organised almost a catalogue of his life’s work.
“You get a space and you tend to fill it, I have to build a veranda soon,” he explains.
There are three kilns used for different purposes, and two kick wheels which are currently being restored with the help of a couple of friends.
“As a potter you tend to build a lot of your own equipment,” he said pointing out various pieces.
A natural teacher Alistair explains his techniques and given the opportunity will demonstrate them. “I really enjoy sitting down and showing people what I do,” he said.
Part of the excitement of watching him at work comes from his duality. An aura of serenity exudes as he kneads clay in the Eastern Chrysanthemum method. The clay is kneaded fifty times on one side, until it begins to look like a Chrysanthemum. He then flips it over and kneads it fifty more times, which creates a cone shape, ready for the wheel.
He arranges his hand-crafted tools beside the electric potting wheel, affectionately named by Alistair as, ‘The Ferrari’. The advantages of this machine, are its speed and control. As he begins the work he expertly handles the clay, with equal parts of strength and finesse, shaping a lump of clay into a bowl, an Asian style pestle and an urn in under half an hour.
Alistair still has his very first (thirty year old) kick wheel, that moves at two revolutions per kick. For him the rhythm has almost a spiritual nature. He uses it to teach with because, “when you’ve learn how to throw on a kick wheel you can throw on anything, so having that skill makes you very versatile.”
There are also a variety of tools (as each item requires its own) scattered throughout the workshop – all hand crafted by Alistair. The tools themselves are a work of art.
“I learned from the real masters in Japan and then over the years I’ve just honed that skill and perfected it.”
Alistair has been invited to participate in a philanthropic trip to Vanuatu in July to teach a village the basics of pottery. Alistair has been practising earthenware, pit fired designs and techniques that would be native to the area and skills that over time have been lost to the villagers. There is still a lot to be done and money to be raised. Boxes of books sit in corners waiting to be shipped and it is Alistair’s desire that one of the kick wheels will somehow make it to the small village.
Alistair talks about his current projects, love of a challenge and the hands on nature of his work with passion. The man wearing a Japanese kimono style shirt sipping tea, savouring the smell of his wooden tools, and demonstrating the crystal like ringing his porcelain bowls make is the same man who “escapes occasionally” on his motorcycle.
Alistair’s current home of sixteen years and the self built workshop in Warburton is, “…a beautiful peaceful place. You’re surrounded by nature and it’s a really great environment for making things in clay because things tend to dry slowly…it’s a good place to live…and a great place to bring up children.”