I initially started pursuing pottery as a profession in 2011, when Ernabella Arts in Pukatja Community, South Australia, organized the first Watiku (Men’s) workshop. Pepai Jangala Carroll, one of the senior men already working there, suggested I come to the art center to try my hand at ceramics. The first Watiku workshop was five weeks long, and was run by the Australian potters Simon Reece and Kirk Winter. They had come to show the men how to make big pots using the slab roller. Up until that time, I had worked at the Aged Care center in Ernabella for over nine years. The other staff there knew that I loved to draw and paint and so sometimes they would bring me materials, watercolors and things like that. When I first started in ceramics at the art center I realized that I could transfer my drawings and depictions of country on to the ceramic forms. I immediately loved it and the art center staff were very encouraging. I haven’t looked back since then.
Years as a professional potter: 5
Number of pots made in a year: 60
Favorite tool: Fine sgraffito tools. I use different ones depending on what effect I am aiming for in my work.
Education/Apprenticeships: Studied with other members of the Ernabella Arts community including Pepai Jangala Carroll and Ngunytjima Carroll at locally-held men’s workshops with visiting artists as well as through two residencies in Jingdezhen, China, and two residencies with Janet Deboos and Greg Daly at Australia National University in Canberra.
The time it takes: Making work (including firing): 100%
Promotions/Selling and Office/Bookkeeping: Luckily all the promotions, selling, office work, and bookkeeping is performed by the Aboriginal art center of which I am a member, Ernabella Arts.
Where It Goes: Retail Stores: 20% Galleries: 70% Studio/Home Sales: 10%
2 Wanampi (Rainbow Serpent Men), 24 in. (60 cm) in height, stoneware, commercial underglazes, sgraffito decoration, fired to 2336°F (1280°C), 2013. 3 Wanampi, 19 in. (49 cm) in height, stoneware, commercial underglazes, and terra sigillata, fired to 2228°F (1220°C), 2014.
Ernabella Arts is Australia’s oldest indigenous art center, and was established in 1948. It started off as a women’s craft room where artists made beautiful hand-pulled floor rugs from raw fleece from the sheep station. Over the years the women also made intricate batiks and later paintings.
In 2003, a ceramics studio was opened in Ernabella after working with the Jam Factory in Adelaide for a number of years. A few men were involved in the beginning like Ngunytjima Carroll and Hudson Alison but mainly women worked in the art center. In 2011 the inaugural Watiku workshop was held to bring in more men. I was nervous about working there at first because mainly it was a place for women, like my grandmother Carlene Thompson and other senior women and family like Tjunkaya Tapaya. However when Pepai Jangala Carroll invited me to the studio I was interested. I am now one of the main potters there. I have travelled to Canberra and Sydney, here in Australia, and twice to Jingdezhen, China, for residencies. I have met and worked with amazing potters including Greg Daly, Ben Carter, Simon Reece, Kirk Winter, and Joey Burns and with other Ernabella men like Rupert Jack, Tjutjuna Paul Andy, Pepai Jangala Carroll, and Nguytjima Carroll who have become a big part of the art center.
Anangu (Aboriginal people) must be careful with the cultural stories they depict in their artwork, whether on canvas or on clay. Our Tjukurpa (culture/stories/law) tells us how to live and governs our behavior and relationships. It shapes our life but is also highly sacred. Not all stories can be shared openly with the wider world. We are guided in this by our elders. My grandfather, the late Kukawi Punch Thompson, played a huge part in my life; he shared his knowledge of country and culture. I walk in his footsteps and follow the path he laid down for me.
Ernabella Arts has nurtured generations of artists, including my grandmother, four of my aunts, and my cousin. It supports artists from Pukatja and surrounding homelands by providing materials, professional development, marketing, promotion, and facilities for over 100 artists working in two mediums, painting and ceramics. We are lucky at Ernabella Arts; working in a studio with more than 30 potters means that studio maintenance or other studio-related jobs are shared by everyone there, so we can all spend more time making our work.
4 Foreground: Works by Derek Jungarrayi Thompson. Background: Works by Ernabella artists Tjimpuna Williams, Vivian Thompson, and Ngunytjima Carroll. On view in “Yangupala Tjuta Waakarinyi (Many Young People Working) at Sabbia Gallery, Sydney, Australia, 2015.
Ernabella Arts has an Instagram account (@pukatjapottery) where we share images of our work, the studio, our country, and our exhibitions. We also work with some of the best galleries in Australia, including Sabbia Gallery in Sydney and raft artspace in Alice Springs.
The main challenges we face due to our remote location in NW South Australia are access to supplies and materials and access to training and professional development. Ernabella is a long way from the city and many of our materials have to travel a long way on a truck to reach us. Our works, once finished, travel far across the country and the world for exhibition and sales. However, living on our own land with family is very important to Anangu. It is our way of life.
Ernabella artists were first included in exhibitions at Sabbia Gallery in 2011. This was when I was just starting out in ceramics; however, my first pots were exhibited in a Watiku exhibition at raft artspace in Alice Springs in 2011.
5 Wati Ngintaka, 31 in. (80 cm) in height, porcelaneous stoneware, Jingdezhen underglazes, fired to cone 12–13, 2015. 6 Attila, 19 in. (47 cm) in height, porcelaneous stoneware, Jingdezhen underglazes, fired to cone 12–13, created during Thompson’s residency in Jingdezhen in 2015. 7 Pukatja Community in northwestern South Australia.
The Ernabella men have also been fortunate in that we have continued the Watiku workshop every year since 2011. In 2012 and again in 2013, Ngunytjima Carroll and I were very lucky to undertake ceramic residencies at the Australia National University in Canberra. There we were mentored by ceramic masters Janet DeBoos and Greg Daly. DeBoos and Daly are both represented by Sabbia Gallery and they first introduced the gallery staff to my work and that of many other Ernabella potters.
I have also been very fortunate to be able to visit Jingdezhen, China twice on residencies in 2013 and 2015 and to be included in competitions for several major prizes. In 2012 I was a finalist in the Gold Coast International Ceramic Art Award. In 2013 my work Ngintaka Kutjara was highly commended in the Muswellbrook Art Prize and acquired by Muswellbrook Regional Arts Center. Also in 2013, my collaborative works with Ngunytjima Carroll were selected as finalists in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the Sunshine Coast Art Prize, and the City of Hobart Art Prize. These opportunities have helped me develop and refine my practice and have enabled me to build sustainable relationships.
8 Thompson carving sgraffito patterns on one of his tall vessels using a fine loop sgraffito tool.
Ernabella has had two highly successful exhibitions at Sabbia Gallery, “Tjungu Warkarintja: Fifteen Years” in 2014 and “Yangupala Tjuta Waakarinyi (Many Young People Working)” in 2015. This year the women will exhibit their work together in “Pukatjalanguru kungka tjuta kunpu warkarinytja | Ernabella women: strong work,” and I’ll show mine in the upcoming “Abundance: Ceramic Masters” exhibition.
My advice to other potters would be to slowly build relationships, focus on making strong work, and be thoughtful and selective about where you show it. Anangu learn not by talking or reading or writing but by watching and observing. That’s the way I learned about my country and also learned to be a potter. My advice for all potters, Anangu or non-Anangu, is to watch closely and carefully, to pay attention to your elders for they hold the knowledge and the stories.
1 Derek Thompson carving through commercial underglazes on the surface of one of his vessels using a stylus. Note the way he braces his arms while working. 2 Carving a larger area using a fine loop tool.
3 Carving details of curved lines and adding wider elements to the pattern using a fine loop tool. 4 Finishing the base of the image while working on a banding wheel to elevate the piece to eye level. 5 A finished, fired piece shown with the carving tools and brushes used in the sgraffito process.
My favorite tools are fine sgraffito tools. I use different ones depending on what effect I am aiming for in my work. Some of these tools we bought in Jingdezhen when Tjimpuna Williams and I were there last in April 2015.
We buy commercial underglazes. I really enjoyed working with the amazing Chinese blue colour when we were in Jingdezhen. I was amazed how in Jingdezhen there are whole shops devoted to underglazes. It was great fun choosing the colours. In Australia we order them in bulk and they are delivered on the weekly transport truck.