For the last two months my partner Darby and I have been volunteers at Pilliga Pottery and Barkala Farmstay, located five hours drive north-west of Sydney. Pilliga Pottery is named after the forest park that surrounds us. It is a 35-year-old commercial pottery producing themed work (the native little Blue Wren features on many of the pieces) and is sold online and onsite. It is also a bush land/farm with farm stay accommodation and a café/restaurant. The business is owned and managed by the Rickert family who all live here, a small staff of full- and part-timers, and volunteers like us.
The pottery studio produces mainly wheel-thrown work which is decorated by incising, exclusively done by Julie their master ceramic artist, and then glazes are painted into the carved patterns by a team of staff. The eldest son Johannes centres nine kilograms of clay to make water purifiers that stand up to 80cm tall – one of their best sellers. I can manage up to five kilos and I’m hoping to get bigger! Maria the mum and matriarch encourages artistic license and I have produced a range of garden art which is selling well for them. They want to introduce Raku as a course, so Darby is building a kiln and tools and I am planning the workshops. There are numerous other workshops which are fairly simple taking 1–2 hours. I have introduced some new courses including a one-day course because there is a large untapped interest here in the outback for art. People drive out of their way to visit this place because they have read or heard about it.
Clay is sourced from a dam 50km away and wet sieved in an enormous plant onsite. Grog from India is added, and calcium. I was amazed to notice potters picking up large platters of green ware by the rim and them not breaking. Clay in the Pilliga area has very fine particles therefore it is enormously strong.
The property is off the grid and running on solar power, therefore all firings are done in a large tracked gas kiln. Everything is single fired to around 1100° with a very slow early ramp. Being a production pottery business, the kiln is fired weekly – sometimes fortnightly. Large areas of the pieces are left raw so every piece is dipped into a clear sealant after firing. The workshop/course pieces are all carefully packed and sent to their owners.
The pottery is just one part of the business. Barkala Farmstay offers accommodation that ranges between a pole house that appears to have been inspired by a fairy tale, to a campground with a compost toilet. There are horses and goats and sheep and guinea pigs and chickens, along with a resident wombat, a few kangaroos, and lots of noisy cockatoos and kookaburras. For those who love the outdoors, there are 44km of constructed bush tracks on the 13,000 acre farm with beautiful views from the tops. And then there is the food! The Blue Wren Cafe is ruled by Kimi, the Taiwanese cook, who prepares cooked meals for our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The café is the social meeting house for the staff and family, and the meals are often hilarious gatherings of us all. Aside from potting I am assigned chores as is everyone, like cleaning and working in the café, feeding the horses and the crazy chooks too.
We are living absolutely free, having a ball, and I am doing what I love most – potting and creating. The challenge I have for any potter who dreams about combining their love of the art with their love for life, is to come and join us! There is capacity here for more than me and as a volunteer you can stay for as little or as long as you like, come and go as you please, and eat fabulous food with an eclectic bunch of like-minded people. The weather is close to perfect. Blue skies almost every day since we’ve been here! If you would like to know more about working here, visit the website www.barkalafarmstay.com.au and write to Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org