A FRIDAY night outing half a century ago set wheels turning on a career a Yackandandah potter has continued to shape ever since.
John Dermer, then at a Melbourne art school to study graphic design, was introduced to two potters at Dunmoochin, an artistic commune at Cottles Bridge.
“They were making pots for a restaurant and I thought, ‘This is really good’,” he said.
“The potters were passionate about what they were making and they were passionate about these people using them to eat their food out of and drink and so on, and I thought that’s very practical.
“So the following Monday, I went back to art school and said I want to do ceramics. That was the first week of February, 1967.”
On Saturday Dermer’s 38th annual Easter exhibition begins at Kirby’s Flat Pottery, Yackandandah, where he has lived since 1974. Be it tableware that lasts generations or exhibition pieces seen around the world, Dermer, 67, is proud he’s consistently been able to make a living from his art.
“It’s been a long road to get to my 50th year and I wanted to, it was a focal point,” he said.
Growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna, Dermer always made things, like a large paper mosaic for a school anniversary or model boats. Small-scale balsa wood surfboards proved popular at his school fete, raising 35 pounds, quite a sum in the early 1960s.
Winning poster competitions run by Channels 7 and 9 brought the teenager prizes like a bike, transistor radio and a 10-day trip to Lindeman Island that unluckily coincided with a cyclone.
After his Dunmoochin epiphany, Dermer learned how to build a pottery wheel and also built a kiln in the family backyard.
“In June ‘67 I loaded up my school bag and took some pots to (department store) Georges ... and they bought the lot and said, ‘Come back’,” he said.
When Dermer finished his diploma he headed overseas, becoming an artist in residence for Wedgwood in Britain and the US.
A pottery chess set he created for the company in 1972 turned up in February at a decorative arts and design auction by Hansons Auctioneers and Valuers in Derbyshire.
Reports indicated the set attracted significant interest from internet and telephone bidders before going for 5000 pounds, the auction’s top seller.
Thinking back now, Dermer felt perhaps then, at 22, he was too young to fully appreciate his Wedgwood opportunity.
“There’s a pot over there that was actually touched by the Queen Mother,” he pointed out. “She even took her glove off to touch it.”
Kirby’s Flat Pottery sits on about 26 hectares among gardens dotted with examples of Dermer’s pots.
“Oh, there’s something wrong with all those, that’s why they’re on posts,” the potter said with a laugh.
There lies a glimpse into the potter’s world, particularly regarding the exhibition pieces that employ his speciality of salt glazing.
“What I do with salt glazing is really difficult and a bit nutty to do, seriously, because my failure rate’s too high, it’s extremely high,” Dermer said.
“An 800-year-old process, I’ve extended it through to a level that nobody else has, but it’s taken me 50 years to get those tones and the surfaces using the salt. I’ll need to make about 350 pots to get 50, that’s why it’s nutty.”
His early experiments with salt glazing in suburban Rosanna weren’t always exact.
“I got on my push bike, went down the shops, came back with a few packets of cooking salt and chucked them in the kiln,” he recalled.
“That was about the final straw for the neighbour because it produces an enormous amount of water vapour that looks like smoke.
“It went all over the house and down the hydrangeas.”
These techniques were refined over the years, to the point where Dermer received the Saltzbrand Keramik International Award in Germany in 2006.
“One of the judges asked me how I feel, and I said, ‘Understood’,” he recalled. “Usually only potters or collectors or major galleries understand the process.”
Dermer has made a couple of dozen kilns over his career, needing to raise the roof at Yackandandah in 1982 to ensure room for the one he still uses to fire his tableware.
His Easter exhibition will feature his kitchen crockery, all individually hand thrown and hand finished with no use of moulds.
A single soup bowl might go through 15 different firings and processes before completion; times that by 80 soup bowls, there’s 1200 handlings.
Kirby’s Flat customers feel the benefits of this refusal to compromise.
“If somebody’s going to buy a handmade pot to have their muesli out of, it can’t be precious, they’ve got to be able to use it and it be important to them for a long, long time,” Dermer said.“That’s what keeps me going; I’ll get somebody walk in, ‘I haven’t been here for 30 years,’ they say, ‘We’re still using it every day’.”
Indi MP Cathy McGowan spoke in Federal Parliament last month of the legacy Dermer created through the dinner set commissioned by her parents years ago.
“John Dermer plates are now our family heirloom,” Ms McGowan said.
“Colleagues, John is particularly famous and relevant to this place, because he was commissioned in 1987 to make 10 pots for Parliament House, and these pots now grace the Cabinet Room, both inside and out.”
Dermer understands his career is now tied to his longstanding North East location, but it appears his heart is, too.
He also knows his intense workload would not be possible without the support and feedback provided by his wife, Shirley.
“She’s also got a really bright mind so if I have a problem she’ll throw in things and I’ll think in a different direction,” he said.
And perhaps see the lighter side as well – one day Dermer looked up from his kiln to discover a collection of little meerkat statues grouped outside his window, his wife’s nod to a previous conversation.
“When there’s a storm, we know how big the storm is by how many meerkats get blown over,” he said, grinning. “We have force-four meerkat, force-two meerkat.”
Now a grandfather, Dermer can feel the demands and physical effort of his labour and realises these are not the halcyon days of pottery exhibitions selling out.
But his determination to master this art form (“Some might say that it was just pigheadedness”) still drives him.
“When a pot comes out of the kiln that is what we call magic pots, the holy grail,” he said.
“I would have only had 20 of those in my life, but when you get one, it’s like, ‘Wow’.”