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CERAMICIST ALISON FRASER







Happy accidents seem to be a hallmark of Alison Fraser’s life. After reading about a collaboration between a graphic designer and a ceramicist to create handmade tiles, she decided to try and combine her former career with a medium she had yet to learn. During this process Alison created a flatware range for her family that was loaned for a photo shoot after a chance meeting. That set of a chain of events, including receiving commissions from restaurants and interior designers, as well as having Slab and Slub picked up by a couple of boutique Sydney homewares stores. Creating the pieces themselves is about being open to the unexpected too. In Japan, this is known as “wabi-sabi” - the perfection of imperfection. It’s an idea that Alison is exploring in some other projects through the use of textiles and cyanotypes.

Which five words best describe you? Impatient.

How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? My first job was Santa’s Elf on a stage in a suburban shopping centre - red outfit, pointy hat, photographing children on Santa’s knee. Not long after that, I was a zoo keeper in a B-grade wildlife park in Brisbane. Hence I learnt not to work with children and animals, especially when the animals are bigger than you - like an emu. 

I did a Business Communications degree with a major in advertising at QUT in Brisbane. I did okay in the arty electives and failed all the real subjects like accounting, economics, marketing. Graduated into the recession we had to have, couldn’t get a real job in advertising, so started working in a vegan cafe in Fitzroy, then a corporate role as a trainee in Desk Top Publishing (am I sounding old yet?). I got that job because I drew a life-sized drawing of myself begging for the job, on a roll of fax paper and faxed it my future employers. It came out at the other end as a whole piece - a two-metre long application... perhaps the longest job application in the world? Loved the design work, but was rubbish at it. So went to night school for an Associate Diploma in Illustration and Design at a dodgy private art school - blessed with some fantastic teachers. (Stephen Pascoe, are you still out there?) 

So that launched my main career as a grapho. I moved to Sydney and worked corporate side mostly until I set up my own outfit. I usually had about six staff and it ran quite well for about five years. I sold it to one of the staff when first baby was coming and hubby and I were moving to Hong Kong.  

Planned to freelance but found quickly that deadlines and breastfeeding didn’t mix - then second baby 20 months later so I abandoned that career. I also longed to get much more hands on - create work that pleased me completely - not answerable to a commercial agenda. I happened to read an article about a British ceramicist collaborating with a graphic designer to produce handmade tiles, and a light bulb went off. I thought, “Yes, I could do that! No one is doing that in Australia - how hard can making tiles be? They are just flat, right?” But, of course, the answer is: extremely hard. Clay does not like to be flat! 

As I was learning how hard it is to learn about ceramics, I started fiddling with some flatware for myself and the family. Some were lent to a friend for a photo shoot and the stylist asked if they were for sale. The answer was, “They are now!” And then Sarah from Small Spaces in Redfern, whose shop we Iived behind, and was already interested in the tile idea, saw some the plates and walked out with an armload, very exciting. And from there... 

What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? Working with ceramics is the first time I have produced work to my own aesthetic. I really really dont care if other people like it or not. I just enjoy mucking around and learning about clay. Being independent of others’ opinions and an outlier of the traditional art schools, ie, mostly self-taught, has played in my favour. I was good at art as a kiddie, but my parents wouldn’t let me pursue it - so things have come full circle. Better late than never. (And, yes, I have forgiven my parents - I do know lots of interesting science facts - thanks to a traditional education.) 

What’s your proudest career achievement? Selling that first load to Sarah O’Neill at Small Spaces. Sarah has such great eye - she is one of the best in Australia, so it was very, very exciting to be in her portfolio. Another mummy friend of mine baked and delivered a batch of celebratory scones that afternoon - that friend understood how deeply important creative activity outside of the Baby Cave was to me. I think the psychologists call it self-actualisation. 

What’s been your best decision? To stick to hand building. Thanks to Kwi Rak Chuong, a fantastic ceramicist, whose guidance I was under for about six months at the Willoughby Arts Centre

Who inspires you? Sarah O’Neill from Small Spaces - again. If I am making a piece and wondering which way to go, I try to channel her, what choice would she make? Sometimes the ESP doesnt work, so I send her a text instead. 

What are you passionate about? Pursuing what you like doing the most. If you love doing it, you’ll do it a lot. If you do something a lot, youll be good at it. If you are good at something you will be successful in a way that you define as success.

Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? The fathers of my children... no, wait, only kidding. Alexander Calder - from monumental to the most delicate charming sculpture - a grand master of art who didn’t seem to take himself or the art world too seriously.

What dream do you still want to fulfil? To be able to do a cartwheel.

What are you reading? Byssus by Jen Hadfield: an exquisite, funny collection of contemporary poetry and Composting by Bob Flowerdew. Seriously. We are moving to a little farm at the end of the year and I need to know. 

images courtesy of alison fraser
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