John Dermer’s arms are ropes of sinew and vein.
The hands are big and powerful, yet delicate enough to cast and fashion clay into the clean lines that have bewitched and inspired societies for thousands of years.
He has been at his potter’s wheel for 50 years now, casting his pots and firing his kilns to temperatures hotter than the interior of a volcano, tossing salt into the inferno and hoping for alchemy and magic.
The alchemy – glazes of unpredictable, unearthly colours that appear as if by sorcery, seeming to glow from within – happens often enough to ensure Dermer’s pots can be found in many of the world’s great galleries and museums, in important international private collections and in Australia’s grandest buildings, from the High Court to Parliament House, Canberra.
Ten of his finest works, commissioned for the opening of Canberra’s parliament house, have stood for almost 30 years outside the prime minister’s office and at the entrance to the Cabinet room, a long queue of the powerful touching them as if to draw inspiration from their massive symmetry.
Dermer may be world-renowned, but he lives and works in a mud-brick house, pottery and gallery atop a hill above Kirby’s Flat outside the village of Yackandandah, north-east Victoria.
There have been bushfires and, in 2005, a series of tornadoes that ripped across Victoria’s north-east, tearing trees from the ground and smashing buildings on his property and part of his house.
He and his craft have survived it all.
He is, perhaps, Australia’s last potter to have made an independent living for half a century, purely from working clay.
Almost certainly he has been using the difficult technique of salt-glazing longer than any current potter in the country, and no other exponent of the craft gets the sort of results he achieves from the technique.
Dermer received confirmation of his achievement 11 years ago when he was invited to submit three pots to the International Saltzbrand Keramik in Koblenz, Germany. The exhibition is held every five years at the 14th century birthplace of salt-glazing. He won first prize from 600 entries, becoming the first potter outside Europe to be so honoured.
Asked by a judge to describe how he felt, Dermer answered with one word: “understood”.
He knows few people could understand what it means to devote a life to the solitary quest for magic from such a fickle, esoteric technique as salt glazing.
It means firing a kiln for 13 or 14 hours until it reaches a temperature of around 1300 degrees Celsius (volcanic lava is between 700 and 1200 degrees Celsius). He removes a brick from the kiln and tosses into the firebox a scoop of salt gathered from a pan in north-central Victoria – the first of about 10 kilograms that will be used over the next hour. The salt immediately vaporises, reacting with molten silica within the porcelain clay, creating a sodium-silica glaze. Here is the start of alchemy.
Dermer can never predict precisely what colours and patterns will appear within his superheated kiln. Sometimes 30 pots will be deemed failures, and will end up in a hole in the ground or scattered around his garden. Other firings will produce magnificent pieces worthy of international galleries.
Sometimes he will be rewarded with a “magic pot”, one so stunning that it will never be sold, though Dermer, even after 50 years at his potter’s wheel, pursuing a 10,000-year-old craft, would never use the word perfection.
The occasional magic is his own reward, to be shared with his wife and most valued critic, Shirley, for all the years of striving, which continues.
* John Dermer’s 40th annual exhibition, a celebration of his 50 years at his potter’s wheel, will be held at the Gordon Dickson Gallery Space, 19 High St, Yackandandah, on Saturday and Sunday, November 25 and 26.
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