“Pom Pom Victa” Wins “Peoples Choice”, Goulburn Regional Art Prize, November 2013.

"Pom Pom Victa", detail


Pom Pom Victa

At face value, “Pom Pom Victa” is a delightfully cheerful work. It is impossible not to smile when faced with hundreds of brightly coloured pom poms  colonising a vintage “Victa” mower.  However, below the surface there are a chorus of other narratives.

By contrasting the “crafted” world and the “engineered” world, “Pom Pom Victa” succinctly shows us the difference between what men and women “do” with their hands.  “Pom Pom Victa” challenges perceived notions of what is men’s work and what is women’s work; the practical male “Handyman” versus woman as the “Homemaker”.

The soundtrack of Australian suburbia is dominated by the weekend symphony of droning mowers. In the same way that the development of elevators made it possible for the built environment to puncture the sky,  it was the domestic mower, the “you beaut Victa” which made the suburban colonisation of the bush a reality. Grand expanses of bushland became tamed and tidy, transformed into neat little plots of impossibly perfect, high maintenance green.


“Pom Pom Victa” operates within the framework of nostalgia, invoking the hey-day of Australian manufacturing and the Great Aussie Dream. Sentimentality clouds perception, which is why those marketing iconic Australian products like “Victa”, “Bonds” and “Holden” use nostalgia to manipulate consumer choices. Our proud history of innovation and manufacturing is all but dead. We have become a nation of consumers, not makers.

Thinly veiled beneath the cheerful façade of conscious kitch, “Pom Pom Victa” provokes inconvenient questions.


“Pom Pom Victa”

By Celeste Coucke and Helen Draper.

-Vintage “Victa” mower + more than 1000 handmade wool and acrylic pom poms

Dimensions: 1700mm x 1050mm x 1100mm(h)


Winner of the “ Peoples Choice ” Goulburn Regional Art Prize, November 2013.

A big thank you to the Robertson Community Technology Centre for generously donating the Victa. 

Where did that Wonga go?

The softly gleaming patina of the sculpture invites touch.
A pair of Stoneware Wonga Pigeons.

One of the greatest gifts of making the move from city to country is finding- and embracing- a deeper awareness of our unique environment, our native plants, animals and birds. I have always been a great fan of the natural world, but looking at “Nature” through a city person’s eyes is completely different from the view I now see. There is a safeness about living in the city. Surrounded by busy human activity and human made forms city folk are separated from the “otherness” of the bush. In the country I feel my smallness and my vulnerability. I am awed and inspired by the beauty and power of nature, the common sense-ness of nature, from the miniscule to the mighty. In the country our human reliance on a balanced environment- on rainfall, on gentle weather and good earth- is an inescapable truth.

Our move from Bondi to Cloud Farm was made in part to find a more sustainable lifestyle. Growing vegies and having chooks is part of that. Having the space to build a studio from which to make our work, to teach and inspire others- is another. Having a wind turbine to harness some of the wind’s energy (currently blowing copiously) is definitely on the cards. On a deeper level, the environment we live within sustains us creatively. It inspires Stephen and I and it informs our work. A short walk down the mountain gives me a wealth of visual and textural material to work with. The Wonga sculptures happened after one such short walk.

Cloud Farm is situated near Robertson, a place now famous for potatoes but which was originally Gundungurra country, called Yarrawa.  Because of the extraordinarily dense tangle of trees, vines and bushes the Yarrawa brush was avoided by white settlers long after other parts of the Southern Highlands were cleared. The Yarrawa Brush was estimated to have covered 2450 hectares but today exists only in remnant patches such as the eight or so acres at Cloud Farm. Thankfully unsuitable for farming, this south facing, steep and rocky piece of rainforest is an example of the original warm temperate rainforest that was mostly cleared for grazing and agriculture in the late nineteenth century. Since we have fenced it off from stock this remnant of precious rainforest continues to grow, marching up the mountain and down into the gullies below us.

A softly gleaming patina invites touch.

I’m a great fan of birds. Not quite a Twitcher, but inspired and delighted by them- their sounds, flight, diversity, cleverness and colour. With the expanding rainforest has come a wealth of bird life. Lyre birds build their dancing platforms and dance undisturbed under vaulted coachwood ceilings. I hear the wheezing, mechanical throb of a Bower Bird in mid performance, his bower sheltered beneath a broad Lilly Pilly, a stone’s throw from where I write. Flashing coppery green plumage, Bronze Wings plunge through impossibly small gaps in the growing rainforest canopy. Dull of plumage but vocally brilliant full throated warblers, Grey Shrike Thrushes cruise the verandas and pergola, plucking insects from webbed cocoons. My special favourites, plump and handsome black, white and slate grey Wonga pigeons, promenade the shade dappled forest floor in stately pairs.

Emulating the shade dappled rainforest floor with black oxide.

Wonga Wongas spend most of the time on the forest floor, well camouflaged in the dappled low light. I  hear them more often than I see them- their insistent “woo woo woo” a monotonous advertisement of their presence on still, fog shrouded days. If I see them, it’s briefly, for they are extremely alert and startle easily. The first time I saw a Wonga pigeon I was taking a meditative morning stroll down our steep driveway. I’m not sure who was most surprised- I almost had a heart attack- as the Wonga flushed with a loud wing clap before sailing gracefully back into the low cover of the nearest rainforest thicket.

I made my first sculpture of a Wonga Pigeon not long after that first sighting. As usual for first works it was clumsy and not all that brilliant. It was so unsuccessful that it exploded in the firing. Part of it is still sitting not far from where my kiln used to be, and its disembodied head is still somewhere in the studio.

My latest Wonga’s are far more elegant. Without elaborate detail they embody the shape and feeling of a Wonga Pigeon, the fat breast and small head held at a tilt, the stillness of a Wonga before taking startled flight. The gently gleaming polished stoneware surface invites touch.  They are quirky sculptures, owing something to the work of Miro and Arp.

Wonga Pigeons have declined due to the human propensity for clearing and shooting. They were once much prized as a game bird, for their flesh is abundant and cooks white. I have heard some say that Wonga’s should be farmed for their flesh, yet another boutique meat to thrill the palates of the punters. Although I know there’s a good case for eating indigenous meat, the thought of eating them fills me with horror. Far too often humans see the worth of something only if it can be quantified and consumed…bought and sold. I suspect that Real Estate and Eating, our two biggest entertainments, shall prove to be the downfall of our species.

 Hold that cheery thought- I’m going for a walk.

Southern Highlands Arts Studio Trail 2012

Cloud Farm Studios 2012
Dates: 3 – 4 November and 10 – 11 November
Celeste Coucke working on her new “Peristalsis” series

When we moved from Sydney to the Highlands in 1999 it did not take us long to discover a wealth of talented artists and makers living and working in the Wingecarribee Shire. Squirreled away in corrugated sheds, working from converted garages and cluttered backyard studios are a myriad of creative people, many of whom chose to move to the Southern Highlands for similar reasons that we did.

That there seems to be a  disproportionate number of creative professionals living in the Highlands is not just heresay, either. In 2008, whilst seeking funding to update a Wingecarribee Artists Register (on behalf of the Robertson Community Technology Centre),       I discovered an extraordinary fact. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics demographer (and potter) Neil Scott, arts practitioners are the third biggest group living in the Wingecarribee Shire, after teachers and medical professionals. Wow!

The Southern Highlands Arts Trail owes much to the vision of Margaret Connor. Margaret, a textile artist based at Duck Pond Cottage in Burradoo, helped coordinate the original  art studio trail. Margaret could see the potential of expanding the existing textile studio trail into an event that  embraced all artistic genres. In 2008 she approached Wingecarribee Shire Council Arts Coordinator Jenny Kena. It didn’t take much convincing for Jenny to see the value of council’s support of an Artists Studio Trail. She set about involving Southern Highlands Tourism and Southern Tablelands Arts. Wheels began turning and an Arts Trail organising committee was created.

When I decided to help out on the first committee in 2009, Cloudfarm Studio was not yet built. The arts trail gave Stephen & I a concrete deadline within which to finish the building and a wonderful way to inaugurate our new creative space. Not to mention several heart attacks as the deadline for studio trail and building completion seemed impossible to achieve. The last weeks were spent in chaos, Stephen and I making art works within an unfinished building. Thanks to hard work and some fabulous tradespeople and helpers, the studio was completed on time and we’ve never looked back.

Cloud Farm Studios 2012

Cloudfarm Studios has participated in every Arts Trail since then. Each year festival participation has grown. Certainly, many new visitors take the annual trek up the winding, rainforest fringed driveway to our mountain top studio. Every November we are thrilled and rather humbled by the response to what we make, to our studio and to the inspiring place that we live and work. Each year the Cloudfarm family of artists (Steve, myself, Jim Fearnley and Jasper Fearnley) invite other local artists to exhibit with us. This year we are joined by Judy Benjamin (oil paintings) Julie Krone (printmaking) and Tracy Hopkirk (jewellery) For a preview, go to:



From humble beginnings, the Southern Highlands Arts Studio Trail is now the premier event of a new stand alone arts festival. In all, twenty four studios are open over the first two weekends of November. Exhibiting artists include professional full-time artists as well as emerging artists across a range of media including painting, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, furniture, textiles, mosaics, photography, garden sculpture, printmaking and botanical art. “The Southern Highlands Arts Festival” or SHAF, for short, runs throughout the month of November with workshops, performances as well as  “Sculpture on High” running at Hillview.

Well done to all who have made the Southern Highlands Artists Studio Trail possible. A special thanks to Margaret Connor and Jenny Kena for your clear vision and determination to make it all happen.

For more information about the Southern Highlands Artists Studio Trail and Arts Festival go to:



My Life My Dreams: Healing Through Art.

A bowl that captures thoughts and dreams.
A bowl that captures thoughts and dreams.

I was recently asked to help facilitate a series of art workshops in a program called “My Life My Dreams”. This program engaged a group of women who were experiencing difficulty in their lives. It aimed to help the women begin to take small steps towards a brighter future, presenting them with a smorgasboard of different learning experiences.  I was one of several facilitators who guided the women through a series of creative opportunities including photography (with Dean Golja) and singing (with Karen Ashworth). I shared with the women some of the fundamentals of making with clay and drawing with charcoal and ink.

In the clay workshop each of the women made three  “pinched” vessels. Each bowl was made in a quiet and meditative manner; shaped by hand from a single ball of clay. Each was made whilst the maker held a different thought or emotion or loved one in her minds eye. They are personal pieces, reflecting the moment in time in which they were made.

Bowls are objects through which we receive physical nourishment. I call the pieces the women made “Blessing Bowls”, vessels that celebrate our equal need for emotional and spiritual nourishment.

In another exercise the women wrapped jute string around their balls of clay, then “pinched” the shapes around the string. Each vessel is unique, shaped by a random collection of string lines. Blackened by soot in a sawdust firing, each pot wears the signature of fire. These vessels are metaphorical, representing the journey of our own lives. Beginning from a space of perfection (the perfect sphere of clay), we are shaped by experiences, by thoughts and external actions (represented by the string encircling the clay).  Sometimes our lives seem to be shaped by random acts or we find ourselves within circumstances that we cannot control (trial by fire, each blackened bowl a testimony to the random marks of smoke and flame).  Like the finished blackened vessels, there is a unique and subtle beauty within each of us.

In the drawing workshops I hoped that each of the women would discover her inherently creative spirit. Drawing can often be extremely challenging and provoke negative emotions, especially for beginners.  It takes courage to draw, in the same way that it takes courage to stand up in front of a crowd and give a speech, to sing or play a musical instrument. When we draw we share a personal part of ourselves in public. We allow a part of ourselves to be scrutinised, open both to praise and critique. It can be unnerving to be so naked.

Charcoal is an expressive media, lending itself to large expressive marks on big pieces of paper. Like clay it  is “hands on”, organic and tactile. Marks can be smudged, smoothed and reworked. Through a series of exercises, the women’s drawings became progressively freer, more expressive and confident.

The ink drawings were made using “home made” brushes. Each woman made her own personal brush with found materials- leaves and twigs bound together with masking tape. Without the barrier of a “real” brush the women could draw in ink with a spirit of fun and adventure. The ink drawings are heavily textured and gestural, full of expressive form and movement.

 “My Life My Dreams” participants graduated at the end of July. At the celebration I had the great satisfaction of discovering that two of the women had already bought art materials to continue the art journey that I had helped nurture.

To each of you who took part in “My Life My Dreams”- Thankyou.

In sharing something of what I know about drawing and making with clay, you  beautiful, humble women helped teach me more about myself.

My sincerest wishes to you all that each of your life’s journey’s becomes less rocky.

Charcoal and Ink images lined up on the floor of the community centre chart a progression from first tentative marks to more confident, expressive drawings.

“My Life My Dreams”

Project Officer: Sarah Wilson.

Highlands Community Centres Inc.

“Cottontales” Bonds in Cessnock 1947-2009

Heather Stacey (Scott) operating a Beatty Iron, c. 1950
Sisters Sandra Dorrington and Gaile Hartcher.
Photograph: Celeste Coucke

On 25 February 2009 Pacific Brands announced the closure of seven of its factories across Australia with the loss of 1850 jobs. The announcement was shocking and unexpected.

Retrenchment causes considerable economic and emotional difficulty for most workers, but what has also been lost is the community and shared identity gained by the experience of working together on a day to day basis with a common goal over decades.

To help workers deal with this difficult transition, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) set up an advocacy and support project to help workers get training and support, to find sustainable employment and to engage meaningfully with their communities. From this project emerged a community arts component.

Hazel Hawke inspecting “Cottontails”, 1987

In 2010 I was commissioned by the TCFUA as community artist, to help create projects that celebrate the contributions of workers from King Gee’s Belambi, Bonds Unanderra, and Bonds Cessnock.  This project was to give a voice and platform to Australian textile workers whose stories would otherwise be left untold.  These are not the stories of powerful people with loud voices. Rather they are stories of humble, hard working Australian makers whose very real skills were undervalued simply because their making was within the context of a factory. These are the real faces behind the brands.

From the very beginning I felt connected to these workers through the famous products that they made. More than just singlets and undies, more than overalls and shorts, these products carry deeper levels of meaning, they have cultural weight. Australians have had relationships with these products which reverberate on an emotional level generation through generation.

Steven Smart and Neil Lightfoot.
“I started for three weeks and I was there for nearly 42 years.”
Photograph: Stephen Fearnley.

I have often helped others tell their stories within the context of three dimensional artistic media, clay or mosaic; stone or timber. However this was to be the first arts project where I recorded and transcribed the stories, approaching my work from the position of oral historian first and clay worker second. I felt the historic significance of the project, the need to gather, document and preserve the experiences and skills of people whose jobs had disappeared , hidden away off shore. It was clearly important that the textile workers stories be part of the public record.

Cottontales: Bonds in Cessnock 1947- 2009  was shown at Cessnock Library during March 2012.  The project included an exhibition, a book and a DVD.  The book and DVD were given to Cessnock Bonds workers. The print run was small, and many people have since enquired as to the availability of further copies of “Cottontales”.  For those who were not able to receive a copy- my apologies. Copies are available on loan at Cessnock Library, or you may download  “Cottontales” here for free.

Cottontales – the book

“Cottontales” was produced by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.

Donreve Miles, Cessnock Bonds worker for 24 years; union advocate before, during and after the final retrenchment.
Photograph: Stephen Fearnley.

Artist & Curator: Celeste Coucke

Filmmaker: Russell Hawkins.

Photographs: Stephen Fearnley & Celeste Coucke

Editing: Celeste Coucke & Helena Spyrou.

Design: Stephen Fearnley and Celeste Coucke

This project was also assisted by the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division, Northern District Branch.

“Cottontales” was made possible through the generosity of three generations of Cessnock Bonds workers.

Children Shaping Art, Art Shaping Children, Children Shaping Place. Making tiles for the Thirroul Beach Playground.

Incising the “frog pond” inspired tiles.

When I was about ten years old, my primary school celebrated its centennial.  As part of the celebration, some artists were commissioned to paint a huge mural of outback Australia on one of the external walls of the building. It was exciting to see the artists work, to be exposed to art making and to see the mural take shape. Even though we children were not actively involved in the process of painting the mural, just being bystanders made us feel like we were special, included in a shape-changing activity, sharing a unique moment in time. Without knowing it back then, that moment shaped my future.

Children love to make art, however the process of helping children make art for a public space is of necessity a controlled, well thought out exercise. The tiles for the Thirroul Beach playground need to follow a grown up’s brief: they must be flat and even, they need to last a long time, they can’t be difficult to lay or maintain, they must not be slippery or create a trip hazard and they must work aesthetically.

Making tiles is deceptively difficult. Getting the children to make the tiles for the pavement was out of the question. I made the tiles in the studio prior to the workshop and brought them down to Thirroul in plastic bread trays stacked in the back of my ute. I  brought the design for the tiles based on the children’s charcoal drawings, which I had mapped out on tracing paper, drawn 1:1

In groups, the children used bamboo skewers to trace over the paper template, leaving the outlines of the design imprinted on the freshly made tiles. Once the tracing paper was removed, the children carved their drawings into the tiles and when they finished they were packed back up into the bread trays and returned to the studio for final tweaking, colouring and firing.

The children of 4B at Thirroul Public school have been involved in a process which is fun, exciting and rewarding. Not just making art for pleasure, these children have helped shape their own local playground. They will experience a rare sense of ownership for a public place. That means more respect for their playground and less vandalism for many years to come.

On the way to ballet lessons, I recently passed my old school playground and pointed out the aging mural to my niece and nephew. Thirty five years since the painting was made and a palpable sense of being part of something important continues to resonate for me. That’s a big reason why I’m a public artist.

Transferring the “frog pond” design onto the soft tiles.
Showing the children how to carefully carve into the clay tiles.

The completed “frog pond” ready to return to the studio.

Commissioned by: Wollongong City Council

Landscape Architect: Jana Osvald, Umbaco Landscape Architects.

Photographs: Tracy Kirk-Downey

The Magic of Clay: School Holiday Workshops 2012


Celeste Coucke is a full time ceramist. She has worked on  public art projects in the Southern Highlands & the Illawarra which have engaged many hundreds of children in art making.

 Working in clay can be a magical, alchemical experience. By transforming an idea into a three dimensional object- literally turning a thought into form- children learn to think spatially. The process of making gives each child a unique sense of satisfaction which in turn bolsters confidence & self esteem.

All the basic techniques of clay work will be explored: from design & drawing an idea to the creation of work using a multitude of techniques including pinch pots, coil building, slab rolling, hand building, working with moulds, surface textures and painted decoration. All works created will be fired and decorated using colourful non toxic under glazes and glazes. Each child will complete a series of small pieces and one major work.

The program accommodates children from ages 7-13, in a class size of no more than 10 participants.

Times: 9.30am-4pm.

Venue: Cloud Farm Studio, 1785 Tourist Rd, Mt Murray.  Above the Macquarie Pass on the Illawarra escarpment, Cloud Farm is located 7 minutes from Robertson, 20 minutes from Bowral and about 45 minutes from Wollongong.

Cost of 3 day Workshop: $260 per child, which includes morning tea, afternoon tea, all materials & firing of work. (A discount of 10% per subsequent child from the same family.)

Bookings: Contact Celeste: celestecoucke@gmail.com, or leave a message on this blog.

Summer School Holidays

Over two sessions during Summer, “The Magic of Clay” will be exploring the myths and legends of two great cultures famous for their ceramic traditions: China and Japan.

Workshop dates:

Session 1: Chinese Mythology

Monday 7th, Tuesday 8th, Wednesday 9th January

Session 2: Japanese Mythology

Monday 21st, Tuesday 22nd, Wednesday 23rd January.

“Tree of Life” candelabrum.
By Jimmy, Sarah and Tahlia.

Recent workshops :

Exploring Mexican Myths and Culture

Mexican religion, myths, and legends are a blend of Indian traditions, European influences such as Christianity, and mixtures of the two. Following from last years popular Aztec and Mayan themed workshop, this workshop was inspired by the beautifully naïve, colourful and quirky art of Mexico.

The Legends of the Navajo

The children created some inspiring and beautiful work during the winter session of the “Magic of Clay” 
Howling Coyotes by Hunter, Malaika, Tas and Siana. 
Three-legged “gourd” shaped vessels. By Hunter, Tahlia and Ivy
Hand built vessels inspired by Navajo totemic animals, the eagle and the wild cat. By Harry and Siana.
Navajo inspired pots by Siana, Tas, Hunter and Ella.
Bears by Ivy, Ella and Dotty.

Praise for

“The Magic of Clay”

“Thank you so much for your wonderful workshop and for taking the time to offer this to the lucky children who get to come along. Tahlia just loves to going to Cloud Farm and she is very proud of her work. She was so excited about learning to use the wheel, too. Thanks to your Ancient Greece theme, this time we have been reading lots of Greek Myths and have discovered the Percy Jackson books which Tahlia is enjoying so it’s opening up worlds beyond working with clay”

Toni Whipper, Robertson, NSW.

Ceramic horse with hand thrown wheels by Tahlia.