Passing of Thancoupie

Jeremy Eccles | 29.04.11

Author: Adrian Newstead
News source: aiam100

It is with great sadness that AAN learnt of the passing this week of Dr. Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher AO, best known simply as Thancoupie the Potter. She died aged 74 at Weipa Base Hospital on Cape York after a long illness.

Thancoupie, born Gloria Fletcher in Napranam, is widely credited as the founder of the Indigenous ceramics movement in Australia. Her early years were spent as a primary school teacher, and it was not until 1971, when in her mid 30's, that she gathered the courage to move from her remote home on the Cape to the big city, attempting to start a graphics course at the East Sydney Technical College. Turned down for that, she was drawn to the ceramics studio – where she was accepted. Here, after overcoming initial qualms associated with the sacred nature of clay in her homeland,she began her training under the guidance of famed Australian ceramicist, Peter Rushforth and the great Japanese potter Shiga Shigeo.

Thancoupie’s grace and charming personality enabled her to make friendships easily and created opportunities through the 1970s to exhibit with the best artists, sculptors and craft-makers as a contemporary artist, rather than being delimited as an Aboriginal artist. In 1983 she visited Sao Paulo as Australia’s Cultural Commissioner to its 17th Biennale and her works subsequently toured Brazil and Mexico, later continuing to the Portsmouth Festival in the UK.
Throughout a long and distinguished career Thancoupie’s focus was always primarily on the ‘object as art’. Her naturalistic forms and the incised decoration that adorns their surface relates her pieces directly to traditional ways of story telling. Her forms were created using the concave surfaces of her body, her knees and elbows to push the slabs of clay in to free-form shapes. Large spheres and ‘eggs’ were handbuilt and decorated by grooving Thainkuith legends and totemic creatures on to their surface.

By combining naturalistic ceramic shapes with etched surface decoration, Thancoupie created pots of great beauty and, in the process, became regarded as one of Australia’s greatest artists.

In total, she had more than 15 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas, and with assistance from her close friend and biographer, Jennifer Isaacs, showed work at many of Australia's finest commercial galleries including Hogarth in Sydney, Chapman Gallery in Canberra, and Gabrielle Pizzi and William Mora Galleries in Melbourne. Important survey shows have been held at Manly Regional Gallery in Sydney, and Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Adelaide.

In 2001, eighty works spanning her entire career were presented in a survey exhibition at the Brisbane City Gallery. She is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia as well as State art galleries and museums in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. As senior artist, she was invited to write the Preface for the QAG's important 'Story Place' show of work from Cape York and the Rainforest in 2003 – in which she was also represented as an artist

Though continuing her art practice, Thancoupie spent much of the last 30 years mentoring aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhemland, the Desert and the Tiwi Islands as well as challenging Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in art and professional development courses. Outside institutions and beyond her art, Thancoupie helped to found the Weipa Festival on Cape York and ran holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations.

Thancoupie’s creative and philosophical motivation is best expressed in her own words. ‘You are here in a lifetime to help, to understand... that is intelligence. And only intelligent people have strong friendships. I wish we all have that‘ (ABC Message Stick: 2004).

It is a message that will resonate strongly amongst all who were fortunate enough to know her, as they come to terms with the passing of this great Australian.


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