Gerry Wedd has bounced between surfing and pottery for most of his life. He’s a South Australian legend who was a surfing champion in the ‘70s and is locally known for regular hitchhikes to the beach. He’s also an acclaimed ceramicist who is represented in national and international collections.
Yewth had an opportunity to catch up with Gerry to chat about life, surfing, art and his inability to play sport.
“I probably wanted to be good at footy, but couldn’t catch a ball,” Gerry laughs. “Because I was so bad at the other sports, I seemed to have a natural inclination to surf.”
One of six kids, Gerry grew up in Port Noarlunga, not far from where he lives now at Port Elliot. It was a different era during his youth: open paddocks, kids not coming home till teatime, freedom and surfing. It was only natural Gerry would gravitate towards the surf.
“There was a really strong beach culture,” Gerry says. “I’m pretty sure I stole my brother’s board from the lifesaving club at Port Noarlunga and that’s the first time I went surfing.”
From the get-go, he was a competitive surfer who formed a deep relationship with the sea.
“I think I got good at – and this just sounds kind of wanky – but really good at reading the ocean,” he says. “So when I competed, I think I always felt like I had an advantage.”
“I was observant about all kinds of things to do with how often waves were coming, all that kind of thing. So I wasn’t better at the act, I don’t think. I think I just approached it in a different way.”
Gerry is incredibly modest about his accomplishments as a surfer, artist and host. The Yewth team were set up in his backyard studio on the main street of Port Elliot where he makes pots, plates, cups and more. He brewed some coffee for us and apologised that it’s not the best, that it’s just “okay”.
The coffee is good and tastes even better out of one of the cups Gerry has made by hand.
His studio looks more like a makeshift shed compared to his wife’s out-house studio (she also is an artist). However, the lighting is perfect and it’s all he needs.
It’s fair to say Gerry’s perception of pottery has changed immensely from his youth to now. Surfing and ceramics may seem like opposites, but the two are directly connected in his life.
“I’d surf with friends who were kind of hippy-potters when I was about 12 - 13 and my mum had already been making pots, but I just thought what she was making wasn’t very good,” he says.
Like most teenagers, Gerry thought his friends were making things that were relevant to his life and his mother was just making things she needed for the home. As Gerry put it: “‘Cause it was my mother. Of course your mother isn’t gonna be making cool shit, you know?”
After Gerry’s mother took a pottery course with his older sister, she turned a hobby into a way to bring money into the household by making and selling ceramics. Gerry was soon asked to be part of the creative process.
“She would make a plate, like a pie dish or something, and she didn’t like anything that was unadorned. She would say ‘can you draw a fish on this, can you draw a whatever on that’ – and I was just a kid, but I had drawn a lot, so I was quite happy to just do it.”
This family collaboration continued when Gerry dropped out of school in Year 11; he became somewhat of an apprentice potter with the guidance of his mother – not exactly by choice.
“I think I was kind of paying board by making work, so she taught me to make pots on the wheel and make the things that were too big. She was kind of frail and I just… I was really embarrassed,” he laughs.
However, as Gerry grew, so did his fondness for ceramics and what his mother was doing.
“My mother was a great model of someone doing what they loved, initially just doing it for fun and then people really liking it… people buying it,” he says.
“I was admiring all these people who were involved in the counter-culture, but she was a model of it, you know, in the kitchen making pots. The other great thing about making ceramics is that you can work at night, so if there was surf you could wrap things up in plastic and go. So I didn’t ever really have to get a ‘job’,” he laughs.
To put it simply, Gerry was searching for the counter-culture; going against the grain and the social norm, when his mother was part of it all along, in her own way: in the lounge room making pots.
While Gerry was a natural artist, drawing on clay is a bit like playing tennis on clay; it presents a new challenge. Luckily, he had plenty of his mother’s creations to practice on.
“I just drew willy-nilly and so I got really proficient at drawing on clay, you know, inadvertently,” he says.
Gerry understands now, that drawing on pots is considered sacrilege by some ceramicists. The way some see it, the pot, plate or cup is an artwork in itself.
“Lots of people don’t like decorating pots because they’ve invested so much time in making the object, they don’t want to kind of wreck it. It was all form follows function,” he says.
“There’s all these kind of Japanese ideas about ceramics and I wasn’t invested in any of that.”
What Gerry was invested in was becoming an artist. He applied for art school, but was unsuccessful.
“Because I was a really bad student at school, I nearly failed Year 11 – I was spending most of my time at the beach,” he admits. “So I applied for art school and didn’t get in straight from high school, which I was pretty annoyed about. I ended up doing a TAFE course in jewellery making.”
After TAFE, Gerry became a self-described hippy for about ten years, making pots and jewellery to earn his keep. Then in his late 20s living in Somerton, he met, in his words, some “more sophisticated” friends who admired his work, but said he could develop more if he gave art school another crack.
“I ignored them for a couple of years,” Gerry says. “But then I gave in and did a degree at Underdale, which is UniSA basically.”
Very soon the surfing artist was making the most of the facilities available to him.
“I just loved it, there were giant studios open basically 24 hours, and all the equipment I had ever dreamed of. I think I was lucky because I’d spent so many years with not much money – very slender means – and so all of sudden there was all this new equipment and materials,” he enthuses.
“I feel very lucky because it was the next very obvious step [art school] and it was great… I’m probably looking back with rose coloured glasses, slightly, because it’s always a bit tough and I know it’s tough for people now. You’ve got all these great opportunities, but there’s quite a lot of pressure to come up with a product or the goods quite quickly, and it’s a tough thing to do particularly if you’re trying to develop your own kind of signature.”
It’s evident that Gerry applied his competitiveness in surfing to art school, but having been there and crafted that, he has some valuable advice for art students.
“It’s school, you know, it’s a very important part that people forget. You’ve got to throw out a whole lot of preconceptions to learn. Rather than just [saying] ‘I’ve arrived and this is me’; ‘It’s first year; I’m having a show; I’m an artist’.”
Near the end of Underdale in the mid 80s Gerry gravitated towards an Australian surf counter-culture brand by the name of Mambo.
“I used to draw in this thing called sgraffito, which means to scrape away. It’s like using scraper board and I used to make birthday cards for people and this friend in Sydney said, ‘The things that you’re putting on these things look like this company called Mambo’.”
Gerry first noticed the brand in 1987 after seeing a clip of Mental As Anything at a concert series called Australian Made. On the bill were other iconic Aussie acts including INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Divinyls, Models, The Saints, The Triffids and I’m Talking, but it was Mental As Anything and their outfits that caught the artist’s attention.
“They were wearing these suits with these wild images on them,” he says. “I found out that this company were making board shorts.”
While Mambo wasn’t popular yet, Gerry needed to get his hands on a pair.
“I went and bought the board shorts. They were selling them in this shop in Port Noarlunga. It used to be called Wind & Wave, now it’s called Preece’s Surf Shop. Anyway the guy running the shop, once I expressed interest, said ‘look you can have two pairs, because there is no way anyone’s going to buy this stuff’.”
At this time the designs didn’t fit the aesthetics of other big surf companies. Quicksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong were all about the large logos and were based on other sportswear.
“Immediately the Mambo stuff appealed to me, I knew a surfer from Port Lincoln was working at Mambo. He was the ‘garment constructor’ – basically they would pull apart Quicksilver clothes, recut them slightly, and then put them back together. Anyway so I contacted him about it and he said ‘ah look, I don’t know… you can try’.”
Gerry found an address for Mambo and sent two drawings to the art director. He didn’t hear anything for two months and then out of nowhere, he received a response.
“I was sitting at the art school and I got a phone call there from the office of the technician. They said ‘oh both drawings are in print. When can you come to Sydney?’ So it was one of those weird fairy-tale things. I worked with them on and off for about 15 years.”
After so many years, the artist is still surprised and humbled by his success.
“Basically the drawings landed on the desk the day before they had to go to print and they were short, you know, like honestly – that’s what happened and they went ‘oh well, these’ll do; you know, these kind of fit’,” he laughs.
“I got to meet artists that I would never have met before and so the way it worked was, I would get a phone call from the art director, Wayne Golding, and he’d say ‘oh this summer we’ve got this theme, knock up a few ideas and send them.”
All the while Gerry was designing for Mambo from Adelaide with the odd trip to Sydney where he’d work on things like swing tags and patches in the studio.
Gerry had pulled off what some designers can only dream of; resonating with a brand, sending them your stuff and getting the call up to join the design team.
“It came pretty thick and fast after that [working for Mambo] – I think my graphic style suited the 90s – it was wild because I’d be watching Rage and some English dance band would come on and they were all wearing [my] print, so it was kind of exciting.”
In-between the Mambo golden years and with an art degree under his belt, Gerry started working out of Jam Factory at St Peters (now located on Morphett Street) – a craft and design initiative launched by the Dunstan government in 1973.
“The thing about ceramics is there is so much failure involved in it, it’s good to have people there that understand that. The Jam Factory set up a great model for communal spaces,” he says.
“After the Jam, I helped set up a communal studio at Welland called Jamboree, which was there for about 12 years and we basically took everything we learnt from the Jam Factory to this other studio and so you share all costs, you share lunches, you share music, you share grant applications – that whole idea of strength in union.”
Nowadays Gerry prefers working solo in his backyard studio at Port Elliot and has reprioritised what is most important in life: going for a surf.
“I reached a point where I was living in the city and realised that my surfing was going more downhill than ever. It seemed a bit silly to spend your life in the suburbs when all you want to do, really, was have the opportunity to go surfing.”