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Ivan Junior McMeekin (1919–1993)

by Owen Rye

This article was published:

Ivan Junior McMeekin (1919–1993), potter and university teacher, was born on 15 September 1919 in Melbourne, youngest of four children of John Ewing Duncan (‘Ivan’) McMeekin, electrical engineer, and his wife Ethel Miriam, née Plaisted, pianist. Ivan’s family moved to Sydney and he attended Manly Boys’ Intermediate High School, where he passed the Leaving certificate. He studied painting and drawing with J. S. Watkins and later with Hayward (Bill) Veal. Mobilised in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on 5 September 1939, he served at sea in HMA ships Coolebar and Manoora before being commissioned in December 1940. He then went back to sea in HMA ships Arawa (1941) and Kanimbla (1941–42), and was promoted to sub-lieutenant in March 1941. His appointment was terminated on 5 May 1942, as a result, McMeekin claimed, of his ‘protest’ about his war work (McMeekin 1965), and he entered the merchant navy. In 1946 he joined the China Navigation Co. Ltd, spending three years in merchant ships plying the Chinese coast and visiting Asian ports. He began collecting Chinese ceramics, especially Sung dynasty.

Intending to study pottery making in China, McMeekin resigned in 1949. The political situation in China made this impractical, so he travelled instead to Paris and then London. Bernard Leach recommended he start classes with Michael, Bernard’s son, at Penzance School of Art. Subsequently, he was employed to assist Michael Cardew at his Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall. There McMeekin developed the principles that would guide his practice: he would use local materials to make useful pots from stoneware clays, finished with Oriental-style glazes. On 3 January 1950 he married Australian-born Colleen Holmes, a musician, at the parish church of St Breward, Cornwall. The following year Cardew moved to Northern Nigeria, where he developed a pottery training centre at Abuja.  McMeekin became a partner in Wenford Bridge Pottery during Cardew’s absence.

In 1952 Winifred West and McMeekin discussed establishing a pottery at her Sturt workshops at Mittagong, New South Wales, encouraging the McMeekin family’s return to Australia. Little was then known in Australia about stoneware technology. Throughout 1953 he investigated local clays and glaze materials. In 1954 he began a five-year contract at Sturt, developing domestic vessels, working with local materials, designing a wood-fired kiln, and learning about Australian wood fuels.

During all this time the pottery ran at a loss. Increasingly McMeekin and West disagreed about the directions and management of the Sturt pottery. By late 1958 the rift became irreconcilable. His contract was not renewed. McMeekin also clashed with assistants Les Blakebrough and Col Levy; they and Gwyn John (Hanssen Pigott), his first Sturt apprentice, later became highly regarded Australian potters.

Away from Sturt, McMeekin was regarded as ‘a leader in the post-war pottery movement in Australia … who showed potters the unique qualities of local materials,’ and expounded a philosophy ‘related to aesthetics and use’ (Rushforth et al. 1993, 19). With Mollie Douglas, Peter Rushforth, and Ivan Englund, in 1956 he formed the Potters’ Society of New South Wales, the first ceramics organisation in Australia (now the Australian Ceramics Association). He was also a foundation member (1964) and president (1969) of the Craft Association of Australia, New South Wales branch.

From 1959 McMeekin worked at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in the departments of ceramic engineering and later industrial arts, which employed practising artists as teachers. He published Notes for Potters in Australia in 1967, and established teaching and production potteries at his home at Woronora. Some of his industrial arts students ultimately became recognised in the ceramics world, including Owen Rye and Geoff Crispin.

In 1966 Sir Philip Baxter, the university’s vice-chancellor, invited McMeekin to start a pottery at Bagot, Darwin, to promote Aboriginal employment. In May 1968 Cardew, then a visiting fellow at UNSW, went to Bagot to train potters. Disagreements arose between Cardew and McMeekin, who departed, leaving Cardew in control. H. C. Coombs and Eddie Puruntatameri involved McMeekin in the early 1970s to assist in setting up a pottery on Bathurst Island.

McMeekin’s health deteriorated in the mid-1970s. Diagnosed with cancer, he retired from the university in 1978. With his daughter Susie as apprentice, he made pottery, first at Woronora, then at Beryl, near Gulgong, where he established another pottery. Despite ill health he continued working and writing. He was awarded the OAM in 1982 for his services to pottery. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 28 May 1993 in St George Hospital, Kogarah, and was cremated. McMeekin was a strong-minded, even stubborn holder of principles that did not allow compromise, often causing rifts with colleagues. At the same time, these characteristics allowed him to persevere with his search for high standards in his art, and to become recognised as an Australian authority on the materials and technology of Oriental-style stoneware.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • McMeekin, Ivan. ‘As It’s Been for Me.’ Pottery in Australia 20, no. 2 (November-December 1981): 9–12
  • McMeekin, Ivan. ‘In His Own Words.’ Ceramics: Art and Perception, no. 13 (1993): 61–65
  • McMeekin, Ivan. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 22 November 1965. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • McMeekin, Ivan. Interview by Paul Bugden, September 1980. National Film and Sound Archive
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, McMeekin I. J.
  • Rushforth, Peter, Ivan Englund, Mollie Douglas, Geoff Crispin, Stephen Anderson, Eddie Puruntatameri, and Tony Martin. ‘A Tribute to Ivan McMeekin OAM.’ Pottery in Australia 32, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 19–23

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Owen Rye, 'McMeekin, Ivan Junior (1919–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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