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Anna Culliton

Anna Culliton, 2016 by Mark Mohell
Anna Culliton, 2016 by Mark Mohell

Anna Culliton never had a colouring-in book when she was little. Her parents –Tony, a filmmaker, and Stephanie, a painter – wouldn’t let her have one. Instead, they insisted on her drawing her own pictures to colour-in. Anna wasn’t very good at drawing but her big sister, Lucinda, was a whiz at it. She asked Lucy to show her how; Lucy tried, but all Anna could do was copy Lucy. Mostly, then, Lucy drew the pictures and Anna filled them in with colour. The girls weren’t brought up to be anxious about keeping inside the lines. What Anna really loved most was playing with dolls, but as she got close to starting high school, she knew she’d have to stop it. She didn’t want to; but she made herself give up the pleasure. It was better than being derided.

It was her eldest child, Reuben, who got Anna into making pots. When he was born, Anna and her musician husband Boris Hunt were sharing a house with Lucy in Sydney. In the mid-1990s, when Reuben was three, he, Anna, Boris and the one-year-old Lucius moved to the Kanimbla Valley in the Blue Mountains. A few years passed, Stella was born, and one by one the children started at Hampton Public School, which had a couple of dozen kids and two teachers. On Tuesday afternoons the pupils split up into interest groups. Reuben started making pottery and bringing it home; Anna was envious. She went down to the school herself, and Michael Conlon, the ‘Hampton Potter’, showed her how to throw a dish. The more she practised, the more she fell in love with the idea of her family eating from plates and drinking from vessels she’d made; she imagined whole dinner sets stacked in their kitchen cupboards. In 2001 Lucy gave her a present: an enrolment in a summer school course at the National Art School.  

Thylacine boy, 2015 by Anna Culliton

In Little Hartley, Anna wasn’t far from the Lithgow pottery, which opened in the late 1890s and grew into a huge business making bricks, pipes, roof tiles and chimney pots that were transported through the mountains to Sydney. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the pottery stood behind a shopping centre, a remnant, reduced to little more than the old accommodation for the pit ponies – but the master potter Cameron Williams had his studio there. He took Anna on, one day a week; once all her children were at school, she was there every available minute. When Williams moved to Bodalla on the south coast of New South Wales, she took over his space. She spent fourteen years in the cold and dank studio, throwing dinner sets galore. Toward the end of 2015 she left the Lithgow pottery to work closer to home.

Anna with Miku, 2016 by Anna Culliton

For a while, the Culliton clan lived in a kind of commune in the valley. In their house, Boris set up a recording studio full of vintage gear, still an Aladdin’s cave for indie musicians. Tony and Stephanie live across the road and up a steep rise; between the many windows of their house, which afford stupendous views, hang paintings, floor to ceiling. When Lucy won the Mosman Art Prize in 2000 she built a structure known as Lucy’s shed, uphill from her sister’s place and downhill from their parents’. You can see Lucy was there because she planted cactuses – her signature plant – all around. After Lucy moved six hours’ drive south to Bibbenluke in 2008 (Anna still shakes her head about it), the north-facing, fully insulated shed stood unoccupied until the beginning of 2016, when Anna commandeered the space. Now she walks up the punishing stretch of dirt road to the studio every day, with her two dogs frolicking around her and Miku the wallaby, if she’s in the mood, bringing up the rear. The bigger dog, Hutch, likes to carry a golf club. He swings it around so vigorously that he’s even dented a visitor’s car with it. It’s still a novelty for Anna to be warm at her wheel.

Sitting with Dingo, 2011 by Anna Culliton

Anna’s figures started off as reliefs, bits sticking out from plates and vessels. Gradually, they got bigger and more elaborate: the boy with the dingo is an early piece. The artist found that having the capacity to make presents for everyone in her life was a wonderful thing; she started out giving away things she’d made without forethought, and moved onto making objects carrying scenes that’d suit her intended recipients. So it was that she became a ceramic storyteller.  

Molly and the circus dogs, 2011 by Anna Culliton

Anna’s figures first climbed off their vessels to stand independently after the family went to see the Edison Family Circus. As a youngster, Reuben had loved everything circus-related – he was a unicyclist himself – so even though he was a bit past it by that stage, the family went along. They paid the lovely blonde girl at the ticket booth. Once the performance began, the same girl appeared on a trapeze, got cut in half and presided over a pair of goats on a seesaw. In the end, she put some dogs, who were dressed in elephant and lion costumes, through their paces.  Anna was bewitched by the kitsch, the silliness, the enthusiasm and the sheer humanity of the undertaking. The blonde girl, Molly Edison, became the inspiration for a series of small sculptures that were exhibited in Sydney in 2010. In these works she lies on a bed of nails, stands on the back of a galloping pony, tops a human pyramid, gets sawn up. That’s Molly in the little sculpture of the girl in the spotted blue dress, with the circus dogs half-in, half-out of their mad outfits. That’s her essence coming through, too, in the blue vessels from which the girl hangs upside down and belly-out from the rings.

These sculptures with their whirly, flying quality are typical of Anna’s productions in several ways. First is the demure apparel and demeanour of the adventurous girl. Even while she’s boldly clowning around, there’s a very attractive air of modesty about her: her ear-length bob; her loose cotton frock, with its Peter Pan collar, flaring in fluted folds; her turned-down white socks and big boots. When she’s upside down, she holds her dress to prevent it from falling down over her head; just the hem of her britches is showing. Secondly, there’s the elasticity of her sculpted limbs – like the blue dress, a legacy of Anna’s years with dolls, by the look of it. It feels as if the self-taught sculptor works from a physical memory when it comes to the turn of a lithe leg, the angle of a big boot, or the suggestion of a shinbone. Thirdly, she has certain physical traits that recur amongst Anna’s ceramic people, including a long, flattish nose and lengthy thumbs. The fourth element that’s characteristic in these pieces is the curly-coated, square-snouted dog. Anna says she loves creating the wormlike curls with a needle in the clay. But there’s a personal story there, of a darker inspiration.

Anna’s patently a person with an instinct to protect, nurture and heal. An upshot of these characteristics of hers is that, up to a certain point, all the dogs the family had housed had come to them from situations of need. While they mostly turned out to be a success, none of them was actually picked. A few years ago, the Culliton-Hunts found themselves with an opportunity. Their elderly dog had died, and Hutch, the young one, needed a companion. For a long time, Anna had wanted an Airedale, but she was worried about a big animal chasing kangaroos; it just wouldn’t have been practical. However, she’d seen another sort of dog that looked just right: a Lakeland terrier. She went ahead and got one from a breeder, without taking pains to investigate the breed online (where they’re characterised, ominously, as ‘impish and assertive’ and ‘lovable rascals’).  When Anna talks about Flora, she lowers her voice; she stresses that she adores her, and says she has to be careful not to say anything mean. However, while Flora’s ravishingly pretty, there’s no getting around the admission that she’s a terrible bitch – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She’s proved untrainable, has bitten children and adult visitors alike, and even tugs, snarling, at the hem of Anna’s jeans while she’s talking. Since Flora came into her life Anna’s been saying to herself and everyone else ‘she’ll come good . . . she’ll come good’; but at the age of five, she hasn’t – the best that can be said of her is that she couldn’t get any worse. An unlovable rascal, she’s only nice when she’s profoundly exhausted, but Anna’s committed to her now – and she’s a muse, of sorts, for better or worse.  

Companians, 2016 by Anna Culliton

After her circus series, Anna was looking for a new theme when she went to the Taralga Rodeo one Australia Day. There, the name of a nineteen-year-old quarter horse rider – Clay Bush – got under her potter’s skin. With his dusty jeans and Western shirt, he became the touchstone for her next collection of figures, of cowboys, steer-wrestlers and calf-ropers. She called it Cowboy Clay. Later, she was looking for inspiration for a show at Tamworth Regional Gallery when she saw the Perch Creek Family Jug Band perform. There were five of them making music together. She started making the musicians in clay, loving dressing them; then she put them atop jugs in a hokey ceramic pun. The Perch Creek band’s deservedly famous world-wide, now, so it’s easy to see footage of them on Youtube. As you thrill to them playing ‘Rollin in my sweet baby’s arms’, you’ll see what a perfect fit they are as portrait subjects for Anna, with their fashionably dowdy Frankie-style waisted dresses and stockings and haircuts and jumpers and hats and spectacles. They’re Culliton sculptures sprung to exuberant life.

When you walk into Anna’s studio, you’re greeted by a crowd of ceramic figures. If you were a whimsical person, it’d be very easy to believe they run around the room, dancing and laughing, when there aren’t any people there. Throughout, there’s evidence of her experimentation with mediums – metallic glazes, for example, such as those used on the big Girl with native pets and Lap full of pets. The golden Coat of arms removes the trappings of government from Australia’s national symbol. In the regulation Australian coat of arms the kangaroo stands in profile, so that only one of its legs is visible, but two legs can be seen on the emu, which has one foot near the shield and one foot back (on the original coat of arms of 1908, the emu seemed to have been caught fooling around with its foot up ridiculously high on the shield). In Anna’s sculpture the kangaroo squats loosely with her legs rakishly apart, while the emu’s feet are neatly together; the shield and its emblems are replaced by a girl who tenderly hugs them both, resting her cheek on the emu’s skull. She wears a heavy over-garment, with a lavishly textured trim around the collar and cuffs and down the centre front opening: it puts the ‘coat’ into the coat of arms.

Anna with Roley, 2016 by Anna Culliton

Anna’s succoured many native animals that came to her as orphans, and she’s a gentle advocate for changes to laws that prohibit the keeping of creatureslike quolls, bilbies and sugar gliders as domestic companions. Amongst the wall-mounted portraits, she’s the woman in the plum-coloured spotted dress, squeezed onto the end of the sofa with a kangaroo taking up the lion’s share.  He came to Anna as a miniscule joey. His name was Roley – short for Rollercoaster, which seemed like the best description of what it was like trying to keep him alive: one minute he seemed to be coming along, the next he was fading; a week later he was thriving, then he seemed to be dying. He lived, however, to become a very large, muscular beast who was particularly attached to Anna; he really did lie on the sofa with her, although his feet were surely a threat to its wickerwork arm panels (they’re not called macropods for nothing). Eventually, as he was becoming an awkward threat to male visitors, he made his way out into the wider world; Anna was pained and proud to see him go. Amongst the free-standing figures is Anna again, in a spotted skirt this time, with her companion wallaby Miku, also an orphan raised from babyhood. To get the most enjoyment out of the freestanding sculptures you need to look at them from different angles; Miku’s particularly sweet from above, with her pointed snout in the air and her round body spreading out below. She may be the only wallaby in Australian history to have been named in honour of a Japanese exchange student.

There’s one vessel in Anna’s studio that tells a story of an experience that some people are spared; by happy chance, they get through life without firsthand knowledge of the worst thing that can happen to you. Anna didn’t. It’s a round pot, and encircling it, on a continuous bench, sit the figures of the artist’s supporters. Anna’s amongst them; she’s the one with her head in her hands, Boris’s arm around her shoulders. It was the first pot she made after their firstborn, Reuben, died, after falling asleep as he drove back home from a surf in 2011. He was seventeen. The work is called Us.   

In the past year friends and family of Anna’s have made their way into framed vignettes and freestanding figures, like Lucius’s girlfriend Hayley, wearing the sprigged floral dress, who doesn’t live with Salty but dreams of being a mermaid. Bearded Charlie, in the V-necked cardigan, has a Tasmanian devil because Anna thinks he should have one. When making her wall plaques she starts by considering the chairs and sofas, picturing herself at her friends’ places looking at them sitting across from her. Hugo wrangles the unwieldy wombat Dodge in a flamboyant tub chair, while Louisa, a friend of Anna’s from childhood, sits with her gumboots up on a chaise longue. Louisa lives in Sydney’s inner west, with a dog called Daisy; but Anna’s made Daisy into a bilby, ears-up, because she thinks a bilby would be the perfect pet for city-dwellers. Mike, in the leather club chair, really did have a quoll, and he loved him dearly; but the animal died after eating an introduced cane toad. Negdet and Trea, on the blue two-seater with the skirt – they both have glasses, and Trea’s wearing ceramic Ugg slippers – really are raising an orphaned Eastern grey kangaroo, Baby June. The woman with the emu is Lucy. Clyde lives at Bibbenluke Lodge, amongst Lucy’s other animal friends, but Anna’s taken a little licence with the degree of affection between them. She’s put her own sister on the most uncomfortable seat: a spindly yellow stool. She says it’s because all Lucy’s comfy chairs have dogs on them.

In contemporary Australian art, figurative ceramics are usually ironic or subversive. What are we supposed to make of Anna’s, which are neither? There’s no point in trying to see her works in a broader politico-aesthetic context, in positioning them somewhere on the contested spectrum between craft and art, because she’s so unfazed by any concerns about her place in the scene, herself. The key to appreciating Anna’s productions is to move constantly between seeing them as a crowd, and focusing patiently on the specifics. The sheer numbers indicate her obsession with her craft. It’s a whole benign community she’s creating, down there in that beautiful dip in the hills. When you look at the details, you see her distinctive personality and dextrous skill. Time and again, she’ll slice the face portion off a sculpture and re-make it. She explains that what she’s trying to do, all the time, is to make the human and animal figures she makes look like they care. She says that softly, because she knows it’s open to scorn. But she who celebrates the ingenuousness of animals, their capacity for trust and their enthusiasm for their brief time on the planet shares many of their shining qualities. 

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