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Bernard Sahm (1926–2011)

by Peter Pinson and Guy Warren

In 1956, Bernard Sahm was a 30-year-old Australian potter, working in a commercial ceramics studio near St Ives, in Cornwall, England. He was throwing an amazing 100 lidded pots a day.

His impressive technical facility, combined with his strong sense of vessel design, marked him as likely to become an innovative and successful maker of functional ceramics. And so he did. What was not apparent then was that he would create remarkable ceramic objects that were witty commentaries on human frailties.

Bernard Sahm was born in Sydney in 1926. In the 1940s, he began work as an engineering draughtsman. This experience gave him an appreciation of construction and design issues that he would carry into his ceramics. He attended the National Art School, where his studies included ceramics. This led, in 1949, to his working briefly as a decorator at Martin Boyd Pottery, where Pam Court, whom he would marry in 1955, was also employed. Unlike most contemporary ceramic artists, Sahm's early ceramic training was in commercial studios — Terra Ceramics in Sydney and, in 1956, at Gutenhalde Ceramics in Stuttgart. The Sahms then travelled to Britain, where Bernard secured work at Harry and May Davis's Crowan Pottery. It was an idyllic, alternative lifestyle. Goats provided milk, water came from a well and a waterwheel provided mechanical and electrical power.

Returning to Sydney in 1958, Sahm set up a pottery in Mosman and in the early 1960s began teaching with Peter Rushforth at the National Art School's small ceramics department. To meet Department of Technical Education requirements, Sahm completed a diploma in sculpture. This conjunction between ceramics and sculpture would shape his work.

In 1963 Sahm held his first one-man exhibition in a gallery that primarily represented painters. He paid considerable attention to how the works were positioned in the gallery space and how each pot interacted with its neighbour.

Conventionally, art works in an exhibition remain in place until the end of the show. However, on this occasion the gallery director swiftly removed any work that had sold and replaced it with a fresh work from the basement. Sahm's initial satisfaction at seeing his works finding admirers soon changed to dismay as he saw his impeccable installation dismantled before his eyes.

Through the 1960s, Sahm's pottery became increasingly less utilitarian and began to concentrate on powerful flanged designs and exquisite glazes. By the late '60s, his ceramics became entirely sculptural and often figurative. Sahm's parents had been ardent socialists and, although he did not share the inflexibility of their political views, he inherited their interest in social issues. His work now came to parody the pomposities, conformities and absurdities of contemporary society. In 1975, the Sydney College of the Arts was established. Sahm's work, combining technical skill with a conceptual underpinning, reflected the spirit of the new college. He was appointed its inaugural head of ceramics. Sahm set about promoting an interdisciplinary attitude to art-making, believing students should be able to move readily between disciplines, according to the needs of whatever they were working on. After his retirement in 1984, the Sahms moved to a property in the Wollombi area of NSW.

Bernard became entranced by the vulnerable beauty of the bush and the forest. His sculptural ceramics began to find their subjects in the surrounding plants and flowers. But he had no interest in botanical accuracy: his sculptural plant-forms were ornamental, strange and surreal.

In the last months of his life, he published a book entitled A Potter Looks for God: The Energy of Evolution. It was launched, fittingly, in a former church adjoining the Mosman Art Gallery, where Gillian McCracken had curated his retrospective exhibition in 2006.

The book expressed his view that humans are responsible for their interactions with the environment and that they shouldn't assume that God will trail indulgently behind them, repairing their damage.

Reviewing an exhibition of Sahm's work, art critic James Gleeson wrote of his ceramics: ''His work is strong and elegant. He is a traditionalist but he is never dull or conventional.''

It was a good description of Sahm's ceramics and of Sahm himself.

Bernard Sahm died on February 27, aged 84. He is survived by his wife Pam and his children Richard, Katherine and Helena.

Original publication

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Citation details

Peter Pinson and Guy Warren, 'Sahm, Bernard (1926–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

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