15 Oct

Waxing lyrical

Words by
Lauren Mitchell
Pictures by
Leon Schoots

Celebrated Australian ceramic artist Damon Moon has taken up residence at the Bendigo Pottery, helping fuel an art and design revival.

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Damon Moon drags a 1970s leather armchair across softly worn cement, and the stage is set. In one manoeuvre this quiet, dust-moated space at the Bendigo Pottery is a floor for a story.

If only the chair could talk; originally from the Adelaide Festival Theatre, Damon salvaged it when the theatre was refurbished during his time running the ceramics studio at JamFactory Adelaide. Here, it’s an invitation to rest and reflect in an otherwise practical, productive studio, where work in varying degrees of manufacture waits patiently. There are Damon’s trademark skittles, plus new forms using existing Bendigo Pottery moulds, reconfigured.

“I like having a couple of nice things around,” Damon says of the chair’s presence. Aside from that, he insists there’s nothing romantic about his days making art; he’s simply carrying on the family business.

Damon is the son of the late Milton Moon, OAM, one of Australia’s most famous and successful ceramic artists. After spending his entire childhood around clay and its bohemian community, Damon joined his dad in the studio of their Adelaide Hills home at the age of 15.

“It was an odd upbringing,” he says. “Sometimes I’m quite jealous of people who discover clay and fall in love with it and realise that’s what they want to do for the rest of their life. For me, it’s just what I do.

“There were successful designers, painters and people like that coming and going all the time, and that to me was normal. (Think holidays with Opera House designer Jorn Utzon and having Betty Churcher, who would go on to be the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, as a ‘second mum’.) It was also very misleading. It makes you go, if you do this, you’ll be successful, then you realise, oh no, it takes a little bit more work than that.

“Growing up with someone who’s prominent in their field and you’re also in that field, you go through a long period of asking, ‘what’s my identity?’ And there’s nothing sadder than being a pale imitation. Gradually I learnt to negotiate that world and make a place for myself.”

For Damon, the messy battle with clay and its stubborn want to return to dust is a means to navigate life. “I’m more into art and design as a way to understand the world,” he says. “And the pots are the objects that construct the world.”
And so, there is no such thing as clocking on and off, no distinction between factory and studio, no definition between teaching, researching, writing or making.

“There’s no romanticism about it all either – but that’s a terrible thing to say,” he says. “I’ve never had a hobby. This is how I live my life. I don’t understand what hobbies are and I don’t know what a weekend is. Luckily, it can be a very fulfilling world. It’s fair to say it’s an unusual career.”

Damon has been making for more than 40 years, from fine art to manufacturing. He is the most published author on the history of Australian ceramics, a topic that formed the basis of his PhD. In the past four years alone, he has had solo shows at the Bendigo Art Gallery, Shepparton Art Museum, La Trobe Art Institute and in Milan during its design week.

Right now, his work is in the Castlemaine Art Gallery. And, importantly, he is part of an art and design revival at the historic Bendigo Pottery – alongside ever-present pottery dog, Jax.

Damon met pottery owners Rod and Sally Thompson when they called into JamFactory several years ago and got talking about their plans for the Bendigo attraction and factory, which included launching a contemporary gallery space, and CLAD, the Centre for Learning and Design.

“The conversation was pretty loose really, but I thought, yeah, it’s kind of time to move,” Damon says. “I’d been at the Jam for five years and I’d done the job I wanted to do there.”

He says he liked the idea of establishing something new, plus returning to a factory. “There’s not many artists who’ve been in a factory and I kind of like them. You can actually make things, that’s what they do, manufacture.”

Right through COVID-19 restrictions that’s continued to happen. The factory is manufacturing for some top Australian designers and restaurants, plus continuing its own 162-year production run, cementing it as Australia’s oldest, continuous pottery.
“I’m quite happy working for other designers,” Damon says. “I’m happy working on prototypes and development for others. People have this romantic idea of artists working alone in their garret and I think, how tedious. This way, you get to meet a whole range of people and work in different domains.”

After deciding to come to Bendigo (he’d been just once before, for a ceramics conference) Damon and his partner Lucinda – a well-known violinist – drove from Adelaide to look at houses, bought a miner’s cottage in Golden Square on their first morning here, and began preparing to join Central Victoria’s growing cultural scene.

“I’ve got this funny feeling one effect of this COVID thing is that regional towns will grow to become more culturally interesting, which is probably already happening, but I think it’s going to really accelerate,” he says. “And why wouldn’t you want to come here? If you look at the strength of the cultural infrastructure in regional Victoria, it’s unbelievable.”

Damon cites the Bendigo Art Gallery and the $45 million gallery under construction in Shepparton, plus the grassroots community, which he’s pleased to strengthen through CLAD. Before COVID-19 restrictions, at least 100 students had enrolled in a CLAD course. The new educational arm of the pottery offers beginner and intermediate wheel-throwing classes, plus glazing workshops. It’s providing an opportunity for locals to sit behind a wheel, centre a lump of clay, and enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of creating something, and often, romantically, finding an affinity.

“If you have something at the high end but you don’t have the community involved, or give them the opportunity to do things, I don’t think it’s sustainable, that’s not real,” Damon says of the arts industry.

The industry at large has come calling recently. Following Milton Moon’s death in September last year, at the age of 92, the Gallery of South Australia is considering presenting the second major retrospective of his work.

“This is now a bit of what I do,” Damon says on caring for his father’s legacy. “He may have passed away, but the work is still there. This is the conversation I’ve been having with ceramics since I was born, and it will keep on going.”