Sally Walk – Artist Profile

Sally Walk is an Australian ceramic artist whose work I admire very much. It’s exuberant. It’s fun. It’s big and bold and makes a statement. I’m happy to have connected with Sally to ask her about her process, inspiration and plans.

JTW: How did you first get interested in ceramics? 

SW: I went to a high school that had a great Ceramics department and one of those once in a lifetime inspirational teacher’s. I fell in love with clay then, when I was about 15 years old. I even remember making work so large that it didn’t fit into the school kiln, and I had to find another kiln to get it fired in.

In 1987 I went to Monash University in Melbourne to complete a 4-year degree in Ceramic Design. I started when I was 17 years old and loved every minute, even though at sometimes I was still very much an immature teenager. My poor lecturers, I must have driven them crazy. It was a wonderful education in all things ceramic. After my degree I was accepted as resident artist at the Meat Market Craft Gallery in Melbourne and worked there for a year. I worked on and off for a year or so until I had my 2 children. During that time, I turned to painting large acrylic paintings. It wasn’t until my children were in high school that I turned back to my beloved ceramics.

Sally’s studio with one of her paintings hung by the door.

JTW: Have you worked with other materials?

SW: Yes, I have worked as a painter with acrylic paint, I have also worked with resin sculptures, woven sculptures and some metalwork. Nothing brings me the same joy as clay, although a short stint as a cake decorator came close.

JTW: You say “…my current work explores the idea of facades and the way our outer self is used to ensure belonging. These aspects of human nature manifest themselves in my work as spikes, spots, carving and heavy texture.”  Can you tell me more about that? 

SW: My inspirations are numerous, but I see myself as an observer of human nature. I am fascinated by people and my artworks are my way of trying to understand human behaviour.

Ceramics, generally, is an outer shell with an inner space, not unlike what it is to be human. Facial expressions and body language are an expression of emotion, and we adorn ourselves with an outer shell that ensures we belong or ‘fit in’ with those we choose to surround ourselves with. These are the adaptations of humanity to ensure survival. I like to investigate this, so that I might understand people more effectively. I use texture and pattern to represent emotions, feelings and the idea of an outer shell or façade. This is also relevant today with a generation of people creating digital facades through social media censorship. The space within the ceramic vessel is where the truth lurks, but this is the place we cannot see.

JTW: Will you tell me something about your creative process? Do you sketch and plan out your work ahead of time? Or is your process more intuitive and spontaneous?

SW: I see the world in textures and patterns, and I’m constantly bombarded with a wealth of new ideas and potential directions for my work.

I take notes and have a filing cabinet of memories stored within my mind that I can draw on at any time. I am very spontaneous, and I refer to my process as one of three-dimensional drawing. I rarely sketch, draw or plan. Sometimes I process over time in my head, but most of the time I think on the spot and in the moment. One of the great joys of clay is that it can be recycled so I feel very free to try new ideas, knowing full well that I can smash it and start again if it is not working out.

Ultimately clay is my obsession, I am compelled to create and can’t imagine a time when I am not making something

JTW: I see a lot of changes from year-to-year. Is there a logical progression of your work – an evolution, so to speak? How would you characterize your development as an artist?

SW: Crazy and spontaneous and completely illogical!! Given my answer to the above question, I am always excited to evolve and change and create new ideas. I often just think ‘What would happen if I try this?” For this reason my work evolves quickly and sometimes without fully resolving a body of work before moving on. This is what keeps me excited. I could never make the same thing repeatedly and I never will. I make no apologies for this. It used to worry me as a younger artist, that I didn’t maintain a recognised “brand’ but I soon realised that there is a definitive ‘me’ in all my work and my haphazard way of working is what keeps me motivated.

I am inspired by what is happening in the moment and I look forward to what new and exciting things that will evolve in the future. I will never be a stale artist, and will always keep everyone on their toes, wondering what will be next.

JTW: Are you using Sgrafitto to carve surface designs in your 2022 work?

SW: Yes, I love the sgraffito process. I find it very meditative and often over carve my work just because I love it so much.

In the 2022 work I am using a white clay with a layer of black clay slip over the top and then carved back into. I carve quite deeply leaving a lovely texture to the surface as well as the bold contrast between black and white. I stumbled over microscopic images of cells whilst researching lymphoma after my mother was diagnosed with this cancer. This led to an array of wonderful shapes and patterns that I often use in my work. Patterns in nature are really interesting to me.

As a child I used to collect bones and skulls from dead animals (weird haha) and I loved the texture of those little wiggly lines that are on the bones of a skull. The patterns underneath the bark of a tree that are made by insects are really beautiful. The textures and patterns on shells and sea creatures are fascinating and the fluid line work in the translucent bodies of jellyfish are exquisite.

I really love contrast; in fact I can remember getting in trouble in high school art class for always being heavy handed and not using a wide tonal range in my drawings. I told my teacher that I just love black and white, she wasn’t happy, but I think it worked out ok for me…. don’t you think.

JTW: You’ve done a lot of international travel (France, Japan, India, South Korea, China, etc) to teach and exhibit your work. Has that restarted after Covid?

SW: Ceramic travel has been one of the great joys of my ceramics journey thus far. I remember when I applied for my first residency in France, I did not tell anyone, not even my family. I was super shocked when I was accepted and remember how hard it was to tell my husband that I was going to France without him or the children. Thankfully he was so supportive and has always supported me in all my travels. Travelling overseas for ceramics is invigorating and motivating. I have worked with the most wonderful group of important ceramic artists from all over the word and developed some lifelong friendships. I have learnt so much and will continue to travel at every opportunity.

Covid and lockdowns have impacted this and I have not travelled overseas in over two years. My hometown of Melbourne, Australia had some very harsh and very long lockdowns. I was unable to even see my own children for many months as they lived beyond the 5km lockdown area. I was thankful to have my studio and kiln at my home and I worked extensively through this period. My gallery “James Makin Gallery” even held online exhibitions of my work and people bought them sight unseen which I was truly amazed at and incredibly thankful for.

Now things are starting to get back to normal and travel is opening again, I am looking forward to the opportunities that are sure to present themselves. I was recently invited to a symposium in Turkey but elected to wait just a little longer before traveling. I will travel to Singapore in September just after my exhibition at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair. I am also hoping to secure a residency in Spain soon.

More of Sally’s works may be seen on her website.

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