Agnes Water artist Tobias De Maine with his Bayton Award winning piece Death and Devotion: urn with bowl
Agnes Water artist Tobias De Maine with his Bayton Award winning piece Death and Devotion: urn with bowl Rockhampton Art Gallery

Complexity to Bayton Award winner's art work

IF YOU ever sat down and had a conversation about the things Tobias De Maine knows, you'd be left scratching your head as to whether he is a surfer, an anthropologist, a geologist, a chemist, an artist, a musician or a software maker.

And just for the heck of it, let's throw in philosophy in the form of alchemy.

In fact, he is a jack of all the trades mentioned above, aiming to master some in his own way.

You could think of him as a modern day version of Leonardo Da Vinci, the 15th Century Italian artist who had a curiosity about how things worked and a knack for inventing engineering structures centuries before society was ready to use them.

De Maine spoke with The Morning Bulletin straight after his Bayton Award win at the Rockhampton Art Gallery last weekend.

The conversation flowed from how he was disillusioned with modern art as it was in the 1990s when he was at university to music festivals such as the Big Day Out, how different cultures react to death, the scientific approach to ceramics and fusion music.

De Maine and his partner Tamara Sladojevic purchased their property at Agnes Water nine years ago.

Originally it was a 'getaway' from the fast intense working world in the music festival scene, creating digital art and generative software.

His love of surfing also made Agnes appealing.

"It's a bit of a rock and roll lifestyle,” he said.

De Maine, 40, studied at the Queensland College of Art and had plans to do painting and drawing at Queensland University of Technology in 1993-97, but was too shocked by how much modern art had "taken over the world”, so he ended up doing computer art.

"I started doing digital art and that paved the way as a software engineer,” he said.

"The internet was just in its infancy and so I started working and I started getting jobs. It was a way of getting good pay. I was web building and I was starting to write software.

"I came in as a graphic designer and ended up being a full stack software developer.”

But he didn't walk away from non-digital art completely, setting up a gallery in Brisbane with 13 studios for emerging artists with a friend.

Three and half years later, he met Tamara, who was also doing digital art, and the pair ended up doing digital art at music festivals like Big Day Out for seven or eight years.

It was the death of his father two years ago, after a 24-year battle with heart disease, that sparked a life turn around.

When doctors gave De Maine's father six months to live, he relocated to the Sunshine Coast to spend time with his pottery parents and that was where he was pulled back into the ceramics world by well-known artists.

"They've taken me under their wing (in the past two years) and they've pushed me but they haven't told me what to make or what to do,” he said. "They've just shown me things and I've then gone on my own journey.”

But he didn't leave computers behind.

Instead, he has used his computers to look at mining reports, create software to help calculate the scientific side of ceramics and monitor natural disasters.

"If you want to be able to make something out of your natural environment, you have to understand the chemistry, the oxide chemistry, of what you are making and how to mix those together and how fire is going to fuse that into a physical object at the end of it and make it work,” he said.

"I used my software knowledge to be able to accelerate my knowledge of ceramics really really quickly.”

De Maine collects his materials from old mine sites, sites where testing has been done and he can see from reports what is there, along with other natural environments.

"So this piece that I've made that's in the show, the clay has come from a clay pit in Toowoomba, the basalts come from Maleny. The pumice has come from the beaches at Agnes Water which actually comes from a volcanic eruption that happened in the Pacific just above New Zealand three years ago.”

When asked how he knew the pumice had come from that specific eruption, he said between the amount of pumice on the beach at the time (he couldn't see the sand) and the different texture of different pumice, he was able to use his computer to work out where it came from.

Moving on from the science behind the piece, De Maine discussed what was going through his mind during the past two years about death and how cultures view, celebrate or mourn loss and the symbolism of pottery pieces in life and death.

For instance, the ceramic bowl in his piece could be viewed as an instrument to eat out, sustaining life. While the urn could be either a vessel to store food, or store ashes of beloved person. The bowl could also be a way of giving an offering for the deceased.

"Something that is in our culture that we don't value is our connections with other people when they die. We either glorify them or we put them away,” De Maine said. "So I'm very interested in the idea that life isn't a permanent thing. We have impermanence in life and I'm very interested in I don't know what's going to happen after or before life begins.

"The other thing that I'm interested in is alchemy.

"There is this thing with ceramics being that you are trying to create precious objects from the earth, so it's a bit like this alchemical idea of being able to forge gold from other base metals.

"And the other thing that runs with that is the whole idea of alchemy being able to liberate your mind or liberate yourself from life and understand what it means to be alive.”

As for coming up with the design of the piece, other than the symbolism and scientific aspect, there was a level of aestheticism.

"I think it was an aesthetic decision to have a glazed top and a non-glazed bottom,” De Maine said.

"But because its wood-firing, you're getting ash pushed through it and ashes settling on it. So the bowl has got exactly the same glaze and if you are able to get up and look at the bowl you can actually see different crystallisations in the actual glaze in it. It's very hard to see from afar.

"And that was actually fired towards the back of the kiln. The kiln was probably 4.5m long full of ware. There's six, seven people firing it together. So we are all sharing it, doing team work of six hours each over three days.

"In this particular firing, we decided to load it up with wood at the end and reduce cool it. It created the texture on the actual glaze.

"It gave a particular look through the whole ware.

"There's an element of chance about the way the pots going to turn out. That's the thing about wood-firing.”

For now, De Maine will continue his focus on the handmade ceramics business, Kaolin and Coal, he and Sladojevic have established.

He will also take advantage of part of his prize, an international artist residency in Singapore in 2018, to develop a new body of work for the for a solo exhibition at Rockhampton Art Gallery in 2020.