While Wilkinson is best known as a potter and teacher at Melbourne Technical College, he also worked in metal sculpture and designed timber furniture in an Arts and Crafts style. Employed as an Official War Artist in the 1939-45 War, his work was included in the 1956 Olympic Games Arts Festival.
Born in Ballarat, Victoria in 1921, Wilkinson studied at the School of Art, Ballarat School of Mines to gain a Drawing Teacher’s Certificate. Prior to serving in the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Westralia, he spent a few months as a temporary teacher in the pottery department of The Melbourne Technical College (later to become RMIT), a time that was to strongly influence his choice of career. During World War II The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Historical Records Section commissioned Wilkinson, then a serving member of the RAN as a war artist, and examples of his work were subsequently presented to the Australian War Memorial. Prior to the end of WW II the artist created two works that clearly demonstrate his ability to model clay; Japanese Prisoner of War and Admiral Sir Guy Royle, both made in 1944. Illustrating the artist’s ability to develop the minutest details, these works are transformed from basic portrait studies to a universal commentary on the human spirit.
On returning to The Melbourne Technical College after the war, not only as a teacher but also as a student to complete his teaching qualifications, Wilkinson established a studio with a large kiln and foundry at his home in Black Rock. It is believed that Wilkinson was the only artist in Australia at the time who cast his own works ensuring complete control over the process and allowing him the flexibility to manipulate the medium; it was in his home studio and foundry that the artist produced many of the works in this exhibition. Wilkinson was clearly adept at mastering the uncompromising physical realities of the clay but a ceramicist must also be able to understand the unpredictable and often mysterious process of firing. His ability to understand the chemical processes that occurred enabled him to master the kiln and from there he began to experiment with metal casting.
Having learned traditional technical skills in ceramics and casting, Wilkinson was well equipped to produce a body of work that was meticulous in its craftsmanship. However, in this case the artist’s attitude toward sculpture is directed toward the process; the process of how he works and how he thinks in relation to the materials. It is not based on a desire to mystify the viewer, but rather a desire to transform the mundane into something quite extraordinary. In an artist statement for an unknown exhibition he wrote, “I believe that only through craftsmanship and a perfect understanding of materials and the principles of Art is it possible to achieve true self-expression.”
In works such as Blue Rider, 1953, the oversized, highly stylized figure dwarfs the horse she rides side saddle. Her arms are over long, her legs truncated and yet the overall impression is of a work of elegant simplicity. Blue Rider was included in the exhibition at the Arts Festival of the Olympic Games, Melbourne, in 1956. Previously the Olympic Charter prescribed that a Fine Arts Competition must be held during the Olympic Games. In 1955 the International Olympic Committee decided that an Arts Festival was more appropriate and in 1956 the first of these was held in Melbourne as part of the official Olympic Games programme. The importance of the inclusion of this work in an exhibition that also included notable ceramicists Ivan McMeekin, Klytie Pate and Peter Rushforth along with heavyweight painters such as Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Louis Buvelot, Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts gives context to Wilkinson’s place within the art world of the time. Wilkinson also exhibited regularly with the Victorian Sculptors’ Society from the early 1950s alongside Inge King, Lenton Parr, Julius Kane and other members of the Centre Five who broke away from the Society in 1961. He remained a close friend of Lenton Parr and would often spend Sunday mornings at his home with both Parr and fellow artist Roger Kemp.
At this time clay was Wilkinson’s preferred medium to create both sculptural and utilitarian objects, the latter however often showing a sculptural quality as evidenced in Pot, which was included in the exhibition Australian and New Zealand Pottery organised by the National Gallery of Victoria to tour State galleries from 1963 to 1964. In an article on the exhibition in The Australian, 22 August, 1964, Elwyn Lynn evocatively describes this work as “… a blackish, sculpturesque pot with protruding gun muzzles – like a new weaponry awaiting victory garlands.”
With a long and successful career teaching at RMIT from 1946 when he was appointed Assistant Pottery Instructor through to his position as Senior Lecturer of Ceramics from which he retired in 1985, Wilkinson saw many of his students develop successful careers in the arts. Peter Rushforth, one of Australia’s most revered ceramic artists, was not only a contemporary of Wilkinson’s but also his student in the early years of his teaching career. And while students such as Rushforth continued to develop their skills with clay at a time when others began to look to follow overseas movements, Wilkinson chose to look to other mediums.
Wilkinson was experimenting with casting a variety of metals in the early 60s using electroplated copper (Whistling Man, 1962) and later in the 1970s with aluminium. Working alongside close friend and artist, Harold Freedman, on a commission for Melbourne’s new international airport, Tullamarine, Wilkinson created semi-abstract flying shapes in cast aluminium to complement the nine panels painted by Freedman depicting the evolution of flight. Later he was to develop a theme of ‘survival and disintegration’ with a series of sand cast signposts as well as other abstract works which showed a new conceptual development in his work. Along with the use of contemporary materials and methods Wilkinson also explored the possibilities of using plastics in sculpture.
It is with the medium of bronze that the artist most fully realised his considerable talent for modelling. There is a palpable human presence in Wilkinson’s bronze sculptures, the striking specificity of their form repaying the artist’s investment of time and labour. His sense of humour is apparent in works such as Self portrait as jester (date unknown) and The Rotter (date unknown) both first modelled in wax and then cast ‘cire perdu’ in his studio workshop. In other untitled figurative works it is possible to see references to Giacometti and Brancusi and even a touch of “Boterismo”, while the wall sculptures Christus Rex and St Francis recall a modernist take on a medieval religious sculptural tradition. Wilkinson also meticulously modelled a series of elegant (undated) horses and unicorns; these quite eccentric but timeless animals demonstrated the artist’s desire and ability to achieve a formal perfection.
Described as a “somewhat self-effacing artist at a time when egocentricity is probably a better proposition” in an unidentified 1960s newspaper, the artist is clearly portrayed as being unassuming both in his work and in his desire to make art. Whether working in clay, cement fondu, bronze or fibreglass relief, it is clear that his work is always about a process, not about potential sales or public recognition. The result is a strange, paradoxical oeuvre. At its heart stands a devotion to art making and yet the modesty of the artist’s ambition saw him exist outside the art world.
Allan Jeffery Beeson Wilkinson 1921 – 1997 The Melbourne Technical College/ RMIT 1946-66 Instructor of Pottery 1967-68 Senior Lecturer of Pottery 1969-74 Lecturer of Pottery 1975 Senior Lecturer of Pottery 1976-1985 Senior Lecturer of Ceramics
List of exhibitions 1948 _Pottery exhibition _at The Wattle Tea Rooms, Ballarat 1956 The Arts Festival of the Olympic Games, Melbourne 1958 Retrospect, Five Years, Victorian Sculptors Society 1959 Brighton High School exhibition 1961 Nine Melbourne Sculptors, Argus Gallery, Melbourne 1962 Four Arts in Australia, touring exhibition to South East Asia 1963 Jeffery Wilkinson and Andor Meszaros, Argus Gallery, Melbourne 1964 Australian and New Zealand Pottery, touring exhibition by National Gallery of Victoria 1967 Jeffery Wilkinson, solo exhibition at Leveson Street Gallery, North Melbourne 1970 Captain Cook Bicentennial Sculpture Award, Melbourne 1990 Solo exhibition, Victorian Sculptors Society 1993 VAS Artist of the Year, Victorian Sculptors Society 1994 _St Vincent’s Hospital _Exhibition 1997 Solo exhibition, St Vincent’s Hospital 2000 Melbourne 1956, National Gallery of Victoria 2000 Solo exhibition, Kirwan’s Bridge Winery 2013 Jeffery Wilkinson:Untitled, The Gallery @ BACC
Commissions and Prizes C 1948 Empire War Medal 1939-45 Prize C 1964 Christus Rex St John’s Anglican Church, Wodonga 1970 The Alcoa Citizenship Award, Corroboree, Newcomb High School 1970 Christus Rex St Aidan’s Anglican Church, Box Hill 1970 The History of Flight, Tullamarine Airport with Harold Freedman C 1970 Victorian Amateur Athletics Association Annual Award