Joan Campbell was a seminal figure in Australian and Western Australian ceramics. An early specialist in Raku, she created a substantial body of work, shared her knowledge at conferences and seminars, promoted Australian ceramics through memberships of national and international craft organisations and mentored a generation of potters at her workshop at Bathers Beach in Fremantle.
Joan Campbell MBE (1925-1997) was born in Geelong, Victoria, and spent her early years there before moving with her family to Western Australia in 1940. While recovering from the stillbirth of her third child, she took a hobby pottery class, and this led her to pursue pottery as a craft, building a wood-fire kiln in her Scarborough backyard with her father’s help, and teaching herself to fire it.
In 1959, she began work with Johannes de Blanken, a Dutch potter who had settled in WA. Later, she worked with Eileen Keys (1903-1992), who had resolved to use only locally available materials in her work. In 1966, the two experimented with the raku technique and this became Campbell’s preferred way of firing. Her pieces were mainly earthenware, some thrown and further manipulated, others handbuilt. She held her first solo exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in 1969.
As the only potter in WA specialising in raku, and eager to discuss technical problems with a fellow practitioner, she contacted Paul Soldner, ‘the father of American raku’. He ended up organising an eye-opening information exchange tour for her to the United States in 1970. In 1971, prompted by Campbell, the Pottery Society of Australia invited Soldner to conduct a teaching tour of Australia. He visited Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Campbell herself conducted a three-day raku seminar in Melbourne in August of that year.
Now recognized nationally as an exponent of raku, she was selected with a group of other Australian potters to exhibit at the International Academy of Ceramics Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 1972. She was surprised to find that she had been awarded the coveted Diploma of Art for her entry, a pot now in the V & A collection. As a titular member of the academy, she was invited to attend a symposium and made two hundred black and red ashtrays for Hammersley Mines to fund the trip. She revelled in overseas travel as a way of furthering her craft, and attended academy conferences into the 1990s.
Aided by her talent as a public speaker, she quickly assumed a larger persona. As well as appearing in a weekly television programme demonstrating and talking about pottery, she conducted workshops in country areas and set up pottery classes at the University of Western Australia for the Guild of Undergraduates. When the Western Australian Branch of the Crafts Association of Australia (later the Craft Association of Western Australia) was set up in 1968, she was elected secretary. She was a founding member of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council in 1973, and a member of the Australia Council from 1974 to 1977.
The MBE after her name was awarded in 1977, two years after she had moved her studio to an old sandstone building on Bathers Beach at Fremantle. She continued to develop and extend her own work there, and also began to take in trainees. By the twentieth birthday of the Bathers’ Beach workshop in 1995, forty-two people had spent an average of nine-twelve months each under her tutelage. Unlike other workshop owners of the time, Campbell did not use her trainees as assistants. They contributed to the financial and physical running of the workshop in exchange for professional development in raku firing and space to work on their own projects. Joint exhibitions helped to pay the bills.
Campbell’s preference for large-scale works encouraged public art commissions and these began to take up most of her time from the mid-1980s. While still loyal to clay and the pot form, she also found herself designing, making and erecting large murals, multimedia works incorporating steel, wood and glass, and complex environmental installations. She was preparing for an exhibition when she was diagnosed with cancer late in 1996. Former trainees and friends finished the work using glazes formulated by Greg Daly. She died on 5 March 1997, just weeks before the exhibition opened.