By Adrian Newstead, on 26-Apr-2011

It is with great sadness that we learnt of the passing this week of Dr. Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher James AO, best known simply as Thancoupie, the potter. She died at Weipa Base Hospital FNQ after a long illness.

Thancoupie created pots of great beauty and, in the process, became regarded as one of Australia’s greatest artists.

Thancoupie, born Gloria Fletcher in Napranam FNQ , 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 in the Cape, to the urban environment of East Sydney Technical College. Here 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 1970’s to exhibit with the best artists, sculptors and craft-makers as a contemporary artist, rather than an Aboriginal Australian artist. In 1983 she visited Sao Paulo as Australia’s Cultural Commissioner to the 17th Biennale and her works subsequently toured Brazil and Mexico and later were included in 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 produced more than 15 solo exhibitions, in Australia and overseas, and with assistance from her close friend Jennifer Isaacs exhibited at many of Australia's finest commercial galleries including The Hogarth Galleries 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 Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Queensland.

Though continuing her art practice, Thancoupie spent much of the last 30 years mentoring aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhem Land, the desert and the Tiwi Islands as well as influencing Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in art and professional development courses. Her commitment to teaching spilt beyond her art through founding the Weipa Festival and running holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations.

Thancoupie’s creative and philosophical motivation carries a universal message 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‘ (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.

About The Author

Adrian Newstead co-founded Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Australia’s oldest exhibiting Aboriginal art gallery, in 1981. He is a valuer of Aboriginal and contemporary Australian art accredited by the Federal Department of the Arts, and acted as the Head of Aboriginal Art for Lawson~Menzies Auction House 2003-2006, and Managing Director of Menzies Art Brands 2007-2008. Adrian Newstead Fine Art Consultancy compiles and maintains profiles, statistics and market analytics on the most important 200 Aboriginal artists and acts for, and advises, collectors when buying and selling collectable Australian artworks at auction and through private sale. A widely published arts commentator and author, Adrian is based in Bondi, New South Wales.