Wild clay found in Queensland town of Mount Morgan used to make pottery

Queensland mining town Mount Morgan once supplied clay to one of the richest gold mines in the world, so when Louise Jones struggled to buy some for her pottery,  she went digging.  

“Being in Mount Morgan, I found that art supplies are hard to find,” Ms Jones said.

“That got me thinking about whether there were clay seams or deposits around the mountain as well.”

The central Queensland town, about 40 kilometres south-west of Rockhampton, had its own natural clay deposits, which produced red bricks for local buildings between 1906 and 1927.

“I found under my house when we had a really big downpour here that there was a lot of sticky, muddy clay underneath there and I thought, ‘I wonder if I can do something with this?’.

“I decided to build a few basic things … my eureka moment came when the yellow clay work that I put in there [the kiln] turned out to be red when it was fired — just like the buildings.”

A woman in front of a drum kiln holding a ceramic bird
Louise Jones uses wild clay at her Mount Morgan studio.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Wild clay trend

Ms Jones is among a rising number of potters gathering ethically sourced, local clay, according to the Australian Ceramics Association.

A small bird made out of clay
Louise Jones largely makes birds from her wild clay.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

In regional Australia, many potters are digging for their own clay because commercially-bagged clay is not available or is expensive to order by post.

Brisbane resident Kim Ulrick said using unprocessed clay was about connecting to her local area.

She has sourced clay from southeast Queenskland suburnbs including Banyo, Ashgrove and Robina, 

“It’s just so varied from suburb to suburb, you get different kinds of clay,” she said.

Small brown vases
Ms Ulrick made vases with wild clay from areas such as Banyo and Ashgrove.(Supplied: Wild Clay Club)

Ms Ulrick is a co-founder of the social media based group The Wild Clay Club, which began in 2019 and has almost 6,000 members from across Australia and internationally.

“Most of the information was American … I wanted to share the Australian perspective of it and people have been really interested,” she said.

“There have always been people who are doing that [using raw clay] but … only recently has it really blossomed into normal potters — people who would otherwise be using commercial clay.”

Ms Ulrick said each sample of unprocessed clay fired in its own, unique way — even if it was collected in the same area — so information sharing was a vital learning tool.

“One of the rules of the group is that you have to share information, it’s not just about showing off your finished product, you’ve got to tell us how you made it, how you found the clay,” she said.

A clay bowl
Kim Ulrick made a bowl using clay from Robina.(Supplied: Wild Clay Club)

Local source

Australian Ceramics Association executive officer Vicki Grima, who is also the editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics, said the rise in people interested in wild clay followed other wellness and self-sufficiency trends such as eating organic or growing your own food.

A woman holds a small pot.
Vicki Grima says potters should be careful around kilns that emit fumes.(Supplied: Australian Ceramics Association)

“Self-sustainability and using local materials — you can see that coming through in restaurants … they want to source things locally, well that’s what potters are doing too,” Ms Grima said.

“They don’t want to be using clay that’s in plastic bags, they want to have found clay on their property.”

Ms Grima said wild clay was a popularised term that referred to unprocessed clay that was not commercially available.

A black and white old photo of labourers standing on roof of brick building
Labourers build a brick chimney in Mount Morgan in 1905.(Supplied: State Library of Queensland)

She said prior to the 1960s, most potters relied on their local brickworks to supply clay, which was wrapped in hessian sacks, or they had to dig their own.

Ms Grima urged anyone interested in digging their own clay to seek permission from landholders and local traditional owners.

Clumps of dirt
Some of the clay Kim Ulrick has collected.(Supplied: Wild Clay Club)

How to find clay

Ms Jones said the key to finding clay was to look for earth that was cracked when dry, and sticky and thick when wet.

“If you were to pick it up and roll it into your hand into a ball and then into a sausage and bend it in half, and it stays in a bent shape that means it’s got plasticity,” Ms Jones said.

“It’s got the ability to change shape and hold its shape together and that’s what you need when you’re going to hand build clay.”

A close up of a womans hands moulding sticky brown clay
Louise Jones says using clay from her backyard makes her art more authentic to the Mount Morgan area.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Meanwhile, Ms Ulrick said she kept an eye on social media to secure her stash.

“Because I’m just in the city, I post on a Facebook group for gardeners,” she said.

“Gardeners know they have clay in the yard because they’re trying to get rid of it most of the time.

“They’re quite happy for you to come and take clay.”

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