Deborah Halpern's ceramics present a nerve-wracking challenge to any category lover. Take her work, Chest of Drawers: a life-size dressing table consisting of 27 drawers, above which sits a 'mirror' which 'reflects' a woman cheerfully arranging her hair. The articles of her toilette are before her: lipstick, comb, brush, hair-pins and a bottle of port (she's theatrical). All the surfaces are gaudily decorated with Halpern's loose painterly under-glazes, including the unseen inner surfaces of the drawers. Pulling the drawers in an out is like examining the contents of a treasure chest, each of the myriad surfaces bears a different pattern or decorative image. One drawer even contains a small, beautifully sculpted, reclining female nude.
Is this a piece of functional ceramic furniture; a decorated ceramic sculpture; a conceptual art object charged with sophisticated references to the nature of art and illusion; or a fantastic piece of ceramic buffoonery destined for the private apartment of a court jester? While it might seem safe to opt for 'sculpture' or 'conceptual object', Deborah is keen to point out that Chest of Drawers, like her five-story teapots and other 'functional' wares, has been crafted with its eventual use in mind. The drawers are easy to slide, and conveniently knobbed. Perfect for storage. Chest of Drawers simply defies categorization, except as a highly imaginative example of the expressive and technical potential of the ceramic medium. It is the kind of work which exemplifies the diversity and freedom Australian ceramic art has attained.
The artists Deborah most admires, and who have consequently had a profound effect on her development, have been painters as well as makers of ceramics: Picasso, John Perceval and her uncle, Stanislaw Halpern. Halpern took up painting herself six years ago and her approach to decorating her forms has become progressively more like a painter's: bold lines; vigorous, seemingly spontaneous application; uninhibited use of colour. She makes little distinction between applying paint to canvas and colour to clay.
Her work also has affinities with surrealism with the organic forms and the predilection for exotic and fantastic, even bizarre, imagery. She can transform a once modest, domestic object like a teapot into an anthropomorphic creature and endow it with a curiously life-like presence. Considerations, such as 'artistic restraint', 'good taste and 'fitting in with décor' are simply thrown out the window.
Her North Melbourne home/studio is crammed with grinning, scowling, peering and cavorting ceramic creatures that offer themselves as lamp-bases, soap containers, teapots, wall vases and candelabra. Halpern's finely tuned sense of the absurd is evident in touches like a Groucho Marx mask sitting jauntily atop a sensuously modelled female torso. Above the rough an tumble profusion of ceramics, looking slightly disdainful, looms Oceanic Ballet, a two-metre high, tiered aquatic creature.
It all comes very close to the Halpern dream of a 'total ceramic environment' which was precipitated by looking at pictures of Guell Park in Barcelona, Spain, the ceramic and stone garden of mysteries designed by the fantastic Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). Here mosaic viaducts and serpentine rows of benches trail through the park like a giant surrealist caterpillar. The scope of Gaudi's achievement opened the flood-gates of Deborah's imagination by showing that a maker of ceramics could be as adventurous as any other kind of artist and seek inspiration from as many different sources. Which she does. 'I have a mind like a rubbish tip. I take everything in.'
She also takes anything on. Her early ambition was to be a journalist. She studied journalism at RMIT for a year but found the teaching methods dull and constricting. She ventured into building and constructing a charming and impressive two-storey mud-brick and timber house at St. Andrews with McGregor Knox. They were both 19. Then came a brief but highly successful stint as a cabaret performance artist. As one of the 'Flaming Starts', Deborah performed as part of the Whittle Family Act at the 'Flying Trapeze Café' and a 'Missing Person' at the 'Last Laugh' in Melbourne. John Hindle, reviewing the in the Sunday Observer, described her a 'singing and dancing threat of sexual combustion whose style reminds these ageing eyes of the young Judy Holliday'.
Traces of this astonishing variety of experiences are all to be found in her ceramics: the literary imagination, the patience and physical labour required for large projects, the element of theatrical showiness and a certain fine madness.
Deborah Halpern has had little formal training as a potter. Predictably, she is temperamentally disinclined to 'structured' learning and, besides, a conventional schooling in ceramics was unnecessary since she grew up in a family of accomplished potters. Her parents, Sylvia and Artur Halpern, and her uncle Stanislaw Halpern, are significant figures in the development of pottery in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s.
The family pre-occupation with pottery stems from Sylvia Halpern, who learnt the basics of modelling and throwing from Klytie Pate at RMIT in 1944-5. Sylvia taught both Stanislaw and Artur these basic skills. Stanislaw, because he was a painter, was well acquainted with the folk pottery of his Polish homeland and often decorated his pots or small ceramic sculptures with loose, painterly daubs of colour. Deborah's work most resembles his and she names him as a major influence; not only on her work but on her attitude to art.
Arthur Boyd once described Stanislaw Halpern as 'a painter of walls in the broadest sense'. Stanislaw had visions of ceramic fountains and large ceramic murals which unfortunately were realised only at the model stage due to lack of public patronage, according to Terry Lane of the National Gallery of Victoria.
It is tempting, although perhaps not entirely accurate, (and certainly not the whole story) to attribute Deborah Halpern's liberated attitude to the making of ceramics to the fact that she played with clay as a child, watched her parents firing the kilns and grew up surrounded by the tool and processes: 'If you're familiar with the paraphernalia, you're up to base one already'. Deborah also inherited no small measure of the resourcefulness and tenacity demonstrated by her parents in establishing a living as potters in Melbourne during the 1950s.
Artur and Sylvia Halpern began with a small pottery in the backyard of their home in Murrumbeena. Artur had been an engineer in Poland and he applied his technical skills to designing and building a small electric kiln in 1950. The pair would pile their wares into suitcases and hawk them to big stores like Georges or, the one bright light in a dismal marketing landscape, Miss MacMillans' Primrose Pottery Shop. Unlike the department store managers, Miss MacMillan had faith in the group of potters who sold through her and didn't fuss about minor flaws such as small firing cracks.
Within a few years Artur had set up a small factory/workshop, Sylha Ceramics in Huntingdale, an outer suburb of Melbourne. There he employed two Italian potters and working with them, he learnt the skills of mould-making and slip-casting. Several kilns were built and in a relatively short time Artur was earning a livelihood as a potter. Artur imported 'cupboards full' of glaze colours from England and Germany as these were unavailable in Australia at the time. Deborah later became 'besotted' with this palette of colours when she was apprenticed to her father at 'Sylha'. She still uses them.
Initially, Deborah Halpern viewed making ceramics as a means of supporting herself while she pursued a literary career. She describes herself as being 'cleverly coerced' into become a potter by her parents, whose commonsense argument, 'You've got all the stuff here. Why not use it?', had the desired effect.
In 1976, Deborah became a student at the Potters' Cottage school. She learnt the discipline of pottery by throwing cylinders on a kick-wheel for two days a week. Both Dulcie Herd, Deborah's teacher, and Sylvia Halpern believed this to be the most valuable way to learn to throw. Deborah remembers Sylvia saying, 'From the form of a cylinder you get anything. It is the basis of it all. You can make a bowl or close the top in'.
The rest of the week was spent as Artur Halpern's apprentice at 'Sylha', where she 'sat in a corner with all the colours and just went berserk.' More than anything else, it was the excitement of colour which drew her to ceramics. She learned through experimentation the technical skills that enabled her to realize her dreams of large, fanciful, extravagant ceramics.
'I wanted to get away from the bowl and cup and do something different. I explored shapes like gorillas or ballerinas or pure fantasy forms. These pieces were still functional: within these little creatures or buildings you could use that or put something in there. 'Functional' doesn't necessarily have to be straightforward and dull. I fiddled around and discovered how to put a coloured slip under a glaze, but I was never interested in technique for its own sake. I still love the feel of clay, but throwing is tedious. It's falling back on technique; that's the craft side of things, a means to an end. It's the technical thing you have to do until you get to the point where you want to explode yourself into your work. I become excited when I'm putting the colour on. That's when I become an artist'.
At the time of writing (1987), Victoria Hammond was Director of the Shepparton Art Gallery.
Author's Note: I am grateful to Deborah Halpern and Sylvia Halpern for most of the information contained in this article