On a cold Bendigo winter morning, Graham Masters puts on a beanie from his well-used collection. At his desk he organises his tools to their exact positons on his right, heats up an ice-cream container of water which he places in front of him, and puts on thermal gloves, then rubber gloves over the top. He checks what orders need making, collects his clay and turns on his pottery wheel.
Graham, who is in his late 60s, has wrinkles around his eyes which are highlighted when he smiles. He has a slight hunch from working at a desk for 47 years but unlike most desk jobs, his doesn’t involve a computer or an office; he works on a pottery wheel. Graham is a potter at the Bendigo Pottery and has his own business called Sweenies Creek pottery.
Graham is one of the few potters at Bendigo pottery. He says he will keep going “until I drop dead” and doesn’t plan to retire because he’s been “retired for 47 years”. His clay-covered plants and faded apron suggest he has spent many hours spinning pots. Yet he feels as though he isn’t working because he’s really just meditating, he says, describing pottery-making as “a bit of a meditation process.
“Meditation is a focus in duration so when you’re making something you’ve got to focus on what you’re doing,” he says, picking up a small carving tool and making an incision into the spinning pot. “Your mind might wander off from time to time but it does that in meditation. Your brain is always active.”
Maxine Anderson, a retailer at Bendigo pottery, says: “Graham is brilliant”. She enjoys showing customers the detailed, hand-carved artwork he has designed. It features on various items, including mugs, bowls and plates around the showroom. Maxine also mentions that pottery “can be therapeutic for children with difficulties” – easy to understand when you have seen the calmness which envelops Graham when he’s at work.
Ross Thompson, Bendigo Pottery’s owner, says all of his potters are “relaxed and easy-going sorts of people”. He thinks this is an essential trait; “if you were too tense it would show in the work”. He also laughs as he reminds himself that he is not a potter.
As he begins to spin a new pot Graham recalls that the pottery industry was “booming” in the ‘70s. “Everyone wanted hand-crafted Australian pottery.” He is interrupted by an elderly man, a passing customer, who reminds him about bread crocks. “Bread crocks were all the rage,” the customer says as Graham politely smiles and nods. “It was trendy to have one and you bought it here.”
“That was in the good old days when you could make anything,” Graham says with a sparkle in his eye, as though recalling a time when he and his wife Linda, a masseuse, worked full-time from home. The pottery business was thriving and Graham had his own pottery production. But during the recession of the 1990s, the craft shops Graham had supplied began closing down. So in 2000, he started working two days a week at Bendigo Pottery. “I love it here, you get to meet people.”
Graham and Linda raised two boys, Andrew, 40 and Richard, 35, who always had a parent to pick them up from school – although Graham suspects “they probably wanted us to go out more so they could have parties”. He recalls that when his sons were younger “they all had a go on the pots”. They were quick to copy their dad’s every move, including his potter’s nod – a motion the head makes when a potter is spinning a pot, although he is not aware of it, Graham explains. Whenever his boys watched him on the pots, they imitated his nod. “The potters nod comes with the territory.”
Debbie Lee started working at the pottery when she was 17; 33 years later she is the longest-serving female employee at Bendigo Pottery. She wears multiple layers of clothing even though it is a warm day because the warehouse is still cool. Her sleeves are rolled up and her hair is tied neatly in a bun so nothing is in the way while she finishes and prepares Graham’s work to be glazed. Debbie can remember when the pottery switched from wood-fire to gas and finally to electricity-powered kilns.
Over the decades, Debbie’s and Graham’s hands have seen far more wear and tear than those of an office worker and, like their equipment, need more maintenance. For Graham, hand cream is a must and Debbie, too, uses good moisturiser. But he also jokes that he has developed another technique: “I keep another set of hands in the fridge so when these wear out I put on a set of new ones. I just click these off and put another pair on,” he chuckles as he looks at his dry, clay covered hands.
It is this clay that is the key to the pottery’s success – not just the handcrafted pots and mugs Graham produces. Although tourism and retail RA major part of Bendigo pottery, Ross explains the pottery is successful due to both its production and retail products. “We make packaged clay and produce about 70 tonne a month for our two main suppliers down in Melbourne”. It is this which allows Graham to continue to make a living as a potter. “I don’t get bored… I treat each mug as a challenge. You put something of yourself into each piece of work.”