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Vic Chapman, ceramicist, was born on the 14 March, 1932 on Currawillinghi Station, which is situated on the banks of the Ballandool Creek, near the town of Hebel on the Queensland/NSW border. He was the fifteenth child of Patrick and Lesia Chapman both of whom were Yuwaalaraay people and speakers of their language. Chapman has strong memories of his 'baagi’ (grandmother) living with them and of speaking the language. He remembers her as a fisherwoman, setting off to her favoured fishing hole with her bait, sugar bag and handmade fishing lines smoking a bent stem pipe. This memory would go on to become the image depicted on Chapman’s “Baagi Vase” purchased by the Australian National Maritime Museum nearly 60 years later in 2003. In an interview with the author in January 2008, Chapman stated that he has enjoyed using his hands to “bring to reality things that either entertained me or had some other connection to every day life” and that his first attempts at fashioning pieces from clay “happened during those younger years at Currawillinghi Station.” The black mud found on the banks of the creek was ideal for modelling things familiar to life on a sheep station such as ducks, eggs, birds and of course sheep. Dried by the hot sun the pieces remained intact for long periods until fractured by careless members of the family or melted away by the unexpected and infrequent rains.

Chapman attended Hebel State School from 1938-42 and then Goodooga Public School from 1943 to 1944 when the family crossed the border into NSW following Chapman’s father, who took a managing position at an Outstation owned by G.M. Richmond. In the summer of 1944 the NSW State Government awarded Chapman a State Bursary of 50 pounds ($100) a year to help pay for his secondary education. This meant that he had to live and attend school in Dubbo, hundreds of kilometres from Goodooga. Whilst a student at Dubbo High School Chapman became a Prefect in 1948 and the Boy Captain in 1949, the same year he gained his leaving certificate. In 1950 Chapman gained a Teachers College Scholarship to Wagga Wagga Teachers College where he graduated with a Teachers Certificate. Once Chapman gained this certificate he was employed at Mudgee as a Relief Staff member for three months in 1952. Later that same year he became an Assistant Teacher at Mendooran Public School where he stayed for two years. In 1955 Chapman transferred to Waniora Public School where he stayed as an Assistant Teacher until 1968. The years between 1969 and 1972 saw Chapman employed as the Deputy Master at Woonona Public School followed by two years as an Assistant Principal at Pleasant Heights Public School. In 1975 Chapman achieved the distinction of becoming the first Aboriginal person in NSW (and possibly Australia) to obtain the status of School Principal at Gwynneville, Berkeley and Thirroul Public Schools until his retirement in 1990. Chapman said of his time as a teacher that “as well as delivering 'readin’, 'ritin’ and 'rithmetic, I was, like the potter referred to in Jeremiah 18:2-6, given the challenge to refashion lives that threatened to collapse.”

In the 1960s Chapman was introduced to “serious ceramics” on the pottery wheel by Gillian Grigg and after two years with Grigg (who had been greatly influenced by master potter, Bernard Leach), he set up a pottery at home where he bought a belt driven “Dilly Wheel” and built a three cubic foot top loading electric kiln from a plan found in an issue of Pottery in Australia. The capacity of the kiln limited Chapman to earthenware, but was “sufficient to explore what could be done with earthenware clay and glazes.” It also gave Chapman an awareness of shape, form, design and colour with Chapman soon realising the need for “stricter organisation of time and material.”

Chapman undertook ceramic training at Wollongong TAFE College in 1966 -1967 and again after retirement at St George TAFE College 1991 -1992. In the earlier years he helped form the Wollongong Ceramics Society of which he was one of its first Presidents. These early years in the Society gave Chapman exhibiting experience within the Society itself and at annual Legacy exhibitions. Chapman has said that in these early days “we were fortunate to feel the influence of potters such as Graham Oldroyd, Alan Peascod and Ivan Englund who lived locally and lead the way in exploring the processing of local clays and in glaze making from ash and rock dust sourced from local quarries.” He goes on to say that the background provided by such leading ceramicists was “invaluable to me as I personally explored the whole gamut of pottery over 40 plus years.”

As his career as a teacher became more demanding Chapman put aside his beloved ceramics to pick it up again after retirement in 1990, the year he was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list and awarded a Public Service Medal for his outstanding service as a member of the NSW Public Service. Chapman’s Public Service record extends to his private life where he has been highly involved in community life. He was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Education Centre at the University of Wollongong and was the inaugural President of the Wollongong Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. Chapman is a life member of the Justice of the Peace Association, a Board member of WEA and a Patron of Wollongong City Gallery. This lifetime of community service was recognised when in 2003 Chapman was awarded the Centenary Medal for his Contribution to Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Communities.

His functional white earthenware vases, bowls and platters are decorated with the dreaming stories of his family’s traditional country. His mother worked as a domestic servant for Mrs K Langloh Parker of Bangate Station on the Narran River, Queensland, who gathered the stories of the local people and re-told them in a book titled Australian Legendary Tales. Folk-lore of the Noongaburrahs, first published in 1897 “with illustrations by a native artist” and reprinted in 1953 by Angus and Robertson Ltd. with illustrations by Elizabeth Durack. In this edition Durack writes in a prefacing chapter, titled “About the Pictures”, that an Aboriginal man from a tribe on the Ord River named 'Jubbul’; “ taught me to understand and appreciate the black man’s pictorial art” and “although geographically far removed from the makers of the legends, he was of the same race and thought and reasoned in the same way.” Durack claims that 'Jubbul’ taught her how to fill up a picture with “lines and circles that have no meaning at all.” In a 1997 interview conducted by Robin Hughes for Australian Biography, (http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/durack/interview1.html. 2008-01) Durack changes the origin of her Aboriginal tutor and claimed that he was from the Northern Territory. She also did not name him in this interview. We may never know the true history of these images but it is these stories that Chapman draws upon when painting his ceramic pieces re-appropriating the style of Durack. He began to exhibit these pieces in NAIDOC exhibitions at Project Centre For Contemporary Art, Wollongong. The first of these exhibitions was titled “Unjustified” in 1995 followed in 1996 with “Looking Into Aftertime”, both curated by Tess Allas.

Chapman was commissioned by Wollongong City Council in 1997 to design a mosaic depicting the story of “Yaroma”, a local Illawarra dreaming story. Chapman co-created this piece of public art with local potter, Alistair Cox of Mt. Gibb Pottery in Mittagong, NSW. The work can be found in the Wollongong suburb of Figtree. Also in 1997 the Wollongong City Gallery asked him to participate in their regional Aboriginal survey show titled “Pallangjang – Saltwater” and he was invited again to exhibit in “Pallangjang II” in 2000. 2002 saw him act in the position of co-Curator for the “Pallangjang III” touring exhibition. Chapman has participated in two Sydney exhibitions, the first of which, “In the Interest of Bennelong”, co-curated by Aaron Ross and Tess Allas, was held at NSW Government House in conjunction with the first National Sorry Day activities. The second Sydney show, “Messages from the Fringe”, curated by Tess Allas was a satellite exhibition of the Sydney Opera House’s annual “Message Sticks” program and was held at the World Vision Gallery in Leichhardt. It was from this exhibition that the Australian National Maritime Museum purchased his “Baagi” Vase.

At the time of writing, Chapman is involved in assisting artists from Coomaditichie Mission in Kemblawarra, a suburb of Wollongong, in helping them establish a Pottery. This assistance follows on from working with these artists (that include Lorraine Brown and Narrelle Thomas) teaching them to make four ceramic panels that are now fixed to the exterior of the new amenities block at Shellharbour Pool.

Chapman has stated that the last phase of his artistic career is “the most enjoyable as it has coincided with the revival of the language I was discouraged from using as a young person.”

Allas, TessNote:
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