Canberra region artist Hiroe Swen is 84, and still works in her Queanbeyan ceramics studio every day. Her work is owned by the Parliament House collection, the National Gallery, state galleries and embassies. Her latest exhibition, Fifty Flights of Fancy, is currently on display at the Watson Arts Centre Gallery until 9 December.
The exhibition has been so well received that David Williams, AM, former head of the Canberra Art School, couldn’t help but implore the much-loved artist to continue engaging in her craft. “We celebrate and congratulate you on your ceramics. Keep making it!” he said.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, Hiroe Swen learned her craft as an apprentice to a master potter in Japan for five years. After moving to Australia, she taught at the Canberra School of Art for nearly 30 years, helping the school to become a leading Australian ceramics institution.
“Her work is like nothing else in Australia. She has worked hard and worked diligently for years and years,” says Alan Watt, former Head of the Ceramics Workshop where Hiroe Swen taught.
“She is not one for exhibiting all over Australia and overseas but has largely stuck to Canberra, and how lucky we are to have that. In Canberra, she is a living treasure. She was a treasure as a staff member, and nothing but a treasure as a friend as well,” he adds.
Former art school staff and students packed the gallery on the exhibition opening night alongside representatives from the Japanese embassy and family friends from Queanbeyan. Sharp as a tack, Swen was in her element, working the crowd with warm hugs and firm handshakes. She is small of stature, but her grip is strong from 60 years of working with clay.
“I spent three years making work for this exhibition,” she said. “And also making other pieces in that time.”
This exhibition contains 50 pots, for the 50 years that the artist has been making ceramics in Australia. All the work is recent, and each pot has a bird motif.
“All are birds so it is very peaceful,” she says. “The Canberra cockatoo, the gang-gang is a real bird, the other birds come from my imagination.”
The bird forms relate to Japanese art, while other elements show an Australian influence. Hiroe Swen’s training in Japan shines through in the smooth surfaces and the discipline of her work, and she maintains strong connections with the Japanese community.
While at the art school, Hiroe Swen assisted with an exchange program with the Kyoto University. She also fostered Canberra’s sister-city relationship with Nara in Japan.
In 2016, Swen was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Government of Japan for her contribution to the promotion of Japanese culture and mutual understanding between Japan and Australia, as well as her achievements in ceramics.
This week saw another accolade for Hiroe Swen, as Canberra Potters’ Society board member Joanne Searle awarded her a lifetime membership to the Potters Society, for her contribution to ceramics.
Hiroe Swen is a major figure in Australian ceramics due to her impeccable work and her decades of teaching and mentoring. But despite all the accolades she has received, she remains firmly focused on making new work. She is already planning for her next exhibition in about three years’ time.
See Fifty Flights of Fancy, ceramic work by Hiroe Swen at Watson Arts Centre Gallery, 10-4 Thursday to Sunday until 9 December with free entry.