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Heather McSwain (1921–1996)

by Dorothy Erickson

This article was published online in 2023

Heather McSwain (1921–1996), potter and designer, was born on 20 April 1921 at Mildura, Victoria, youngest of eight children of Victorian-born parents Farquhar McKenzie McSwain, horticulturalist, and his wife Frances Louisa, née Denham. Educated at Merbein Central School and Mildura High School, Heather graduated from a commercial art course at Swinburne Technical College, Melbourne, in 1941. She subsequently studied part time at the National Gallery Art School where, in 1945, she won a prize for drawing. Following Japan’s entry into World War II in 1941 until 1945, she and her lifelong friend, Marjorie Loats, worked for the Department of Aircraft Production at Fishermens Bend, McSwain in the design section.

After the war the two women set up in Melbourne as Loats and McSwain, freelance commercial display artists. In the immediate postwar years, shortages of materials meant that they had to undertake varied projects, many of them window displays, but both yearned to paint. McSwain’s brother Clement had moved to Western Australia, possibly influencing the pair to move there in the mid-1950s. They found work in Perth as commercial artists for the firm Art Photo Engravers Pty Ltd. McSwain exhibited at the Festival of Perth (1956) and also undertook commissions, including murals for the library at Adelaide Boys’ High School (1958), a poster for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth (1962), a ceramic mask sculpture for the Therry school drama awards (1963), an altarpiece for a church at Mount Pleasant, Perth, as well as textile and stained-glass commissions and portraits. The school mural in Adelaide was a striking work: it presented life as an allegory, with the students as fish emerging from a sheltered pond to swim downstream past the fossilised remains of ages to the wide-open sea of life, demonstrating various vocational possibilities.

Pottery, which commenced as recreation, soon became McSwain’s focus. Petite and compact, she developed strong arms, digging the terracotta clay herself and adapting it to suit her needs. Her oeuvre included bowls, tea sets, jars of all sizes, coffee pots, vases, candlesticks, and small table sculptures of figures and animals. In 1959 she exhibited at the newly opened Skinner Galleries in Malcolm Street, Perth, with the screen printer Ida Ott Nilsen, and the weaver Marie Miller. McSwain set up tableaux and showed pots beside her ceramic sculptures. Although consciously an artist-potter, she did not simply decorate the pots but conceived the shape and decoration as a whole entity. Elongated and geometrically stylised figures predominated in her sculptures. A coiled pot, The Crusader (1959), held by the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), is a fine example.

McSwain became an influential, popular, and respected teacher, particularly of ceramics. Her classes at the University of Western Australia’s summer school prompted an invitation in 1965 to join the staff of Fremantle Technical School, at the time a centre of artistic endeavour in the crafts. In 1969 she obtained a permanent appointment and continued at the school until the late 1980s when she retired as a senior lecturer. Financial security enabled her to visit Japan, Spain, and South America, exploring ceramics. In the 1970s she attended workshops with international visitors the craft council movement brought to Australia, including the English potters Michael Cardew and Harry Davis, and the American ceramic artist Paul Soldner. A measure of McSwain’s influence was the number of her students who became successful studio potters. One group she encouraged to band together to market their work cooperatively was the Kiln Shelf Potters, who included Stewart Scrambler, later a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He recalled that she had inspired in her students ‘an appreciation of ceramic traditions from across the globe’ (Quin 2018, 28).

In 1960 McSwain and Loats had completed a home adorned with murals, stained glass, and textiles at Salter Point, Perth, where they lived until Loats died of cancer in 1977. In retirement McSwain enjoyed sailing on the Swan River. She died on 24 April 1996 at the Cottage Hospice, Perth, and was cremated. The AGWA purchased a collection of over thirty works from her estate.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Adelaide High Schools Jubilee Magazine, 1908–1958. Adelaide: Adelaide Boys High School and Adelaide Girls High School, 1958
  • Artlook (Perth). ‘Pottery Cooperative.’ March 1980, 15
  • Australian Women's Weekly. ‘Australian Homes.’ 31 August 1960, 27
  • Ellis, C. ‘Early Spring in Arcade Alley.’ Argus (Melbourne), 27 August 1949, 7
  • Erickson, Dorothy. Inspired by Light and Land: Designers and Makers in Western Australia 1829–1969. Perth: Western Australian Museum, 2014
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Quin, Sally. ‘Natural Wonders.’ Uniview: The Magazine of the University of Western Australia, Autumn 2018, 28–29

Additional Resources

Citation details

Dorothy Erickson, 'McSwain, Heather (1921–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcswain-heather-32786/text40777, published online 2023, accessed online 27 February 2024.

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