Bernard Sahm was a greatly respected potter whose work is represented in all the major galleries of Australia. He trained and practiced as an industrial draughtsman which gave him skills he was to use in his distinctive ceramic output that frequently included drawn and applied detail. Sahm’s intellectual and frequently original approach to his art took up the counter-cultural spirit of the times – especially from the 1970s – but even as early as 1963 James Gleeson in the Sydney Morning Herald noted Sahm was ‘was never dull or conventional’.
Sahm’s work was tremendously varied with only the columnar ‘pipe’ shape in many works maintaining a thread of kinship from the 1960s through to the 2000s.
After working briefly in the 1940s with the Forestry Commission in country NSW he began studying painting and sculpture, and eventually ceramics, at the National Art School, Sydney (1945-52). During his time there he also worked as a decorator at the Martin Boyd Pottery (1949) and, showing his flexibility, also submitted paintings in the 1948, 1949 and 1950 Sulman Prize and the 1951 Wynne, and Blake Prizes.
Sahm married Pam in 1955 and their travels in Europe saw Bernard gain more experience in commercial potteries including six months in ‘Gutenhalde Ceramics’ in Stuttgart, a year at the Crowan Pottery in Cornwall, UK and also visits to potteries in Italy and Greece. In 1959 Sahm established his own pottery at Mosman, in 1961 he began teaching at the National Art School in 1961 and in 1977 became the inaugural Head of Ceramics, Sydney College of the Arts. During his tenure there he succeeded in introducing a cross-disciplinary approach that reflected his own expansive attitude to materials and technique.
At the same time as he was teaching Sahm industriously continued producing bodies of work that were shown at numerous galleries and institutions. Over time the nature of his output increasingly blurred the distinction between ceramics and sculpture while at the same time critiquing society and specifically the art world. His ‘Art Machine No. III’ at the Powerhouse Museum criticises art as a consumable item able to be distilled to a liquid. Part of a large series first presented at the Watters Gallery, Sydney in 1976, such sentiments shocked the sensibilities of the time. After his retirement to a bushland setting in 1984, Sahm turned to nature for his inspiration – but still often large scale and never predictable.
With thanks to the catalogue entry by Gillian McCracken, ‘Wit and Wonder: The ceramic sculptures of Bernard Sahm’, Mosman Art Gallery (10 June – 16 July 2006) pp10-21