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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McKay, Ian Calder (1943–1990)

by Alison Ransome

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ian Calder McKay (1943-1990), potter, was born on 14 August 1943 at Mackay, Queensland, eldest of four children of Queensland-born parents Frank Alexander McKay, fitter with the Royal Australian Air Force, and his wife Jessie Burnett Gordon, née Allan. Four of Ian’s uncles, including Rev. Fred McKay of the Australian Inland Mission, were Presbyterian ministers. Raised in Brisbane, Ian attended Coorparoo and Moorooka State, and Brisbane and Cavendish Road State High schools. He studied English and music at the University of Queensland (BA, 1966). In 1968 he started a librarianship course at the University of New South Wales (Dip. Lib., 1970). A promising painter and pianist, he became, in his own words, ‘obsessively interested in pottery’; he returned to Brisbane to tutor (1970-73) in English at UQ. In vacations he learned about pottery from Col Levy at Bowen Mountain, New South Wales, and locally from Errol Barnes. On 2 December 1972 at St Thérèse’s Catholic Church, Kedron, he married Mary Elizabeth Baartz, then a student. His wife supported him in his decision to be a full-time potter; neither was ‘under any illusion that it would be easy to make a living’.

Briefly assisted (1974) by the Australia Council’s Crafts Board while he worked with Levy, McKay then occupied his own studio-workshops at Mullumbimby, New South Wales (1974-76), and at Stanthorpe, Queensland (1976-77). Refining his skills, he searched for an Australian aesthetic based on local materials and made ‘things to be used and to enhance the lives of the users’, in what he termed ‘loosely the ‘‘[Michael] Cardew tradition”’. He lived frugally, close to nature, inspired by traditional Japanese tea ceremony ware and Chinese Song dynasty tenmoku bowls. After suffering a perforated ulcer in 1976, he had periods of ill health, but exhibited and also taught (1978-81) ceramics at Queensland College of Art and at the Gold Coast College of Technical and Further Education. In 1981 he gained Australia-Japan Foundation funding to study tea ceremony pots for two months in Japan. Manager (1982-86) of Sturt Pottery, Mittagong, New South Wales, he incorporated the approach of its founder Ivan McMeekin into an Australian variant of the Song idiom. He taught (1985-87) at the National Art School, Sydney, and travelled in 1986 to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and to Japan where he studied tenmoku. With Australia-China Council sponsorship he investigated Song dynasty-type glazes in China in 1987.

That year McKay established a studio-workshop at Mittagong. He had separated from his wife and formed a relationship with Mary Taguchi. Single-mindedly he produced much-admired oil-spot and celadon-glazed pots. He exhibited jointly with Levy, Peter Rushforth, and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott at David Jones’ Art Gallery, Sydney, in 1989, and in other group and solo shows in Brisbane, Sydney, Mittagong and Canberra.

McKay, an aesthete in appearance, with black hair and expressive hands, was darkly ironic and waggish. He wrote on ceramics and reviewed the work of other Australian potters; observant and astute, he could be provocative. Survived by his wife and their two sons, and by his partner, he died suddenly of a subarachnoid haemorrhage on 30 March 1990 at Westmead Hospital, Sydney, and was buried in Welby cemetery, Mittagong. Retrospective exhibitions were held at Victor Mace Fine Art Gallery, Brisbane, and at David Jones’ gallery. McKay’s work is represented in the Queensland Art Gallery, the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, civic galleries, and private collections in Australia and Japan.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Moult, Craft in Australia (1984)
  • B. Anderson and J. Hoare (introd), Clay Statements (1985)
  • J. Hoare (ed), Clay Statements 2 (1987)
  • Ceramics, Art and Perception, no 2, 1990, p 45
  • Pottery in Australia, vol 29, no 3, 1990, p 34
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Alison Ransome, 'McKay, Ian Calder (1943–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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