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Who are the artists in your neighbourhood? Jill Symes

Photogaph of a woman holding ceramic bowls

Since the early 1970s, Jill Symes has worked from her purpose built home studio in Sandringham, and used clay as a medium to express her inner feeling of connection with the Australian bush and coastal environment.

Mastering traditional hand building methods of pinching, coils, slabs and layers with earthy glazes and primitive firing techniques, her work evokes timeless and ancient relics.

Symes first exhibited at Bayside Gallery in 2015 in her exhibition ‘Mining the abstract’, a series of ceramic sculptural forms exploring the artist’s experience of travelling around Australia’s outback. Most recently, her ceramic installation, ‘Pinched’ was featured in the exhibition Bayside Local: journeys and discoveries.

Her works have been acquired by numerous public and private collections worldwide including Shepparton Art Museum, Bayside City Council and Whitehorse Art Collection and Symes has been a finalist in the Victorian Craft Awards. 

Interview with the artist

Bayside Gallery (BG) asks Jill Symes (JS) about her practice and how she remains connected and inspired to the Bayside environment in daily life through the medium of clay. 

BG: Clay is one of the oldest art mediums. So how and why did you develop your arts practice with clay?

JS: After spending two years travelling, working and living in the UK and Europe in the 1970s, I returned to Australia with a yearning to be in touch again with ‘home’ ⁠- the smell of eucalyptus, the sight of gumtrees in the bush and clear sunny skies. I was introduced to clay by a friend who invited me to an evening class of pottery⁠ - which became a discovery of my own creativity, leading to a life of constant learning, experiment and inquiry. Through the tactile qualities of clay, I had found my medium.

BG: You have favoured more traditional handbuilding techniques to create your forms, as opposed to wheel thrown or cast moulds. What is the attraction to handbuilding?

JS: I like the idea that I can take mud straight out of the ground and make a pot without the aid of a mechanical device. Making mud pies I guess. By using pinch, slab and coil, I find the rhythms of the handbuilding processes enjoyable, and generally fast enough for my needs.

Wheel-throwing has never really appealed. If large numbers of a hand-built piece are required, I can create a mould (or set of moulds) to produce multiples by slipcasting, and I will strive to retain the character of the hand-built original in the use of this process.

BG: Most people think of ceramics as a functional form but you engage with your work more spiritually and aesthetically. Tell us about the forms you created for the installation ‘Pinched’.

JS: Each piece was created from a different clay body⁠ - from coarse raku clay and terracotta, to fine stoneware and porcelain. Some were pinched out from one piece of clay, and others experienced pinching in the final stage after making from coils and slabs. Some were burnished multiple times as they dried, others were sanded to create a textured surface before firing. They were all changed from raw clay to ceramic (without the use of technology) by firing in covered in-ground pits or small bonfires using found timbers, sawdust and salt.

‘Pinched’ speaks of a meditative process in the making, and the mindful energy required in the process of ‘wild firing’ - without the use of control by technology. 

BG: Your work speaks of the Australian landscape and is inspired by your travels. How is your practice a vehicle to keep you connected to your environment? Can you recall a memory of one your travels that has inspired your work.

JS: In using clay as the medium I am working with the earth itself, keeping in touch with environments, journeys and immersive experiences of camping in sacred, wild and wonderful places⁠ - from the coast to the bush, to the outback and beyond.  Particular places that have inspired my work that spring to mind are:

  • Camping for days in a simple tent in the red earth of Uluru and feeling spiritually connected with The Centre - The Heart - Mother Earth.
  • Exploring and camping at the sacred site of Lake Mungo and the extraordinary experience of witnessing the desert in the moonlight.
  • The unexpected shock of coming upon the ‘moonscape’ of Queenstown (Tasmania), where man’s mining for minerals produced a totally denuded, brilliantly rainbow-striped mountain which loomed up out of the mist after rain. 

BG: What inspires you about Bayside?

JS: Walking on the foreshore and clifftop path among the natural bushland of Ti-trees and gracious Casuarinas; visiting the iconic Red Bluff Cliffs - above on the clifftop and below at sea level (recently experienced during a wild storm); the ever-changing sea⁠ - which I visit most days to connect with its variable colours and moods⁠ - they all inspire my work. The beaches and parks make Bayside a great place to live, to experience nature in the open spaces. Swimming in the summer and autumn is a necessity for life to me⁠—exercise for mind and body⁠ - and a good start to a day in the studio. Our environment and people make Bayside a special place to live.

To find out more about Jill Symes, follow her on Instagram @jillsymes

Bayside Local

Jill Symes was one of a handful of artists interviewed at the Bayisde Local opening event earlier this year.

Watch here

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