In conversation with Ebony Russell

Q. Congratulations on winning the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2022. You have been a finalist in the past three exhibitions – what has the art prize meant to you and your career?

I returned to my art career after a 13-year hiatus, during which time I worked as an art educator and I had my two daughters. When we moved to Sydney in 2017, I applied for a Master of Fine Art at the National Art School (NAS) with the aim to re-emerge as an artist – flipping my life from teacher of art to artist who teaches.

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize was the first exhibition that accepted my application for my piece Idle embellishment in 2018. The experience and opportunity filled me with hope and confidence as I started establishing my career as an artist outside of NAS. As I continued working and building my practice, the art prize became a focus on my art competition calendar and I dove deeper into the history, characters and objects in the Meroogal collection.

The competition has given me so much. My 2018 finalist entry, Idle embellishment, was later that year awarded first prize in the international FRANZ Rising Star Award for excellence in porcelain, and I received a scholarship to travel and attend a residency in Jingdezhen, China. My 2020 finalist piece, She could rearrange the flowers, was exhibited in Spain this year as part of a ceramic group exhibition called Sabotaje Estético at the Yusto/Giner gallery. And of course this year I won first place in the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize!

So, you can see that each entry was not only successful in the art prize but has also lived a life beyond the exhibition and given me international opportunities and experiences.

Q. How did you come to work in ceramics and to develop the focus of your art practice?

Ceramics has always been my passion. After graduating high school and working with local potters in my home area of The Otways in southern Victoria, I began a Bachelor of Applied Arts in ceramics at Monash University in 2000.

From that time, women’s art and social/gender roles have been a focus in my art practice. Creating sculptures that connected to my lived experience as a cis-gendered female, and the matrilineal art practised in my family, led me to working with porcelain to imitate icing, cake decorating and objects collected by the women in my family. This was my main area of concentration during my MFA at NAS where I developed my current non-conventional porcelain technique.

Q. What challenges and opportunities does responding to Meroogal, its stories and collection offer to you artistically?

It’s always been important for me to respond directly to the history of Meroogal. I make each artwork based on research, and not to fit an existing artwork to Meroogal. This is a challenge and risk as it can take a lot of time, energy and resources to make an artwork that, if unsuccessful, may not find another audience. So making an artwork that directly responds to the history and lives lived at Meroogal, while also having a greater context, is my biggest challenge when developing a piece for the art prize.

Meroogal has offered me so much artistically. Looking back into the lives of immigrant women in Australia connects to my own ancestry, and the societal structures, values and rituals have been a rich source of inspiration, especially the relationships between the women (and men) and across the generations of Meroogal inhabitants. The available resources make the research easy – published books, blog posts and the Caroline Simpson Collection database are deep wells of knowledge, inspiration and history.

Q. There are so many strong works in the exhibitions. Is there a piece you have particularly admired that captured the spirit of the place?

A piece that has always stayed with me is Longing by Anita Johnson (Larkin) in 2018. I really connected to the maternal experience that it conjured.

I’ve always been interested in the story of Margaret Hannah Thorburn who died in childbirth in 1886 with her second son. Her two sons then went on to live with their aunts at Meroogal – the youngest son dying within the first year. It is often incorrectly thought that only women lived at Meroogal, but this is not the case.

Q. We can’t wait to see the results of your Bundanon residency. Have you had any preliminary thoughts as to what you might explore?

I’ve begun researching the strong ceramic practice that runs through the Boyd family, in particular the Boyd women. I grew up looking at the ceramics made by Doris and Merric Boyd in Victoria, on display at the National Gallery of Victoria and Heide Museum of Modern Art. I’d like to learn more about the art practice of their daughter Lucy Boyd Beck and their daughter-in-law Hermia Boyd. I’m planning to take my wheel with me on the residency, and a small kiln that I purchased with the art prize winnings.

Judges statement

Boe-Lin Bastian, Curator, Bundanon

It’s been a pleasure to continue the relationship between Bundanon and the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize in 2022, with the shortlisted artists weaving a strong narrative around the history of the house and the women who lived there. The winning works stood out for their intriguing use of material and intelligent response to the site, and we are delighted to congratulate and welcome Ebony Russell through the Bundanon artist-in-residence program in 2023.

Q. It was so good to see you with your daughters at the launch, it must have been very special to share your win with them.

Sharing my win with my daughters by my side was wonderful. Winning an art prize that celebrates women’s stories and represents women artists in NSW is a privilege. To have my young daughters witness my success as an artist is the best thing that I can do to support their future success and encourage their future goals.

Thank you for the opportunity and I can’t wait to enter the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize again in 2024.

Hero image: Ebony Russell, Our manifold nature: loutrophoros for the new woman, terracotta. Photo © Joshua Morris

Exterior of Meroogal with Jacaranda trees in bloom
Past exhibition

Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2022

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize celebrates the creativity and achievements of female artists across NSW

Rendez-vous by Vita Cochran

Celebrating women artists across NSW

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize, now in its 19th year, was launched on 16 September 2022

Published on 
Joanna Nicholas

Joanna Nicholas

Regional Coordinator

Joanna is the Regional Coordinator for MHNSW, the curator of the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize and coordinates the volunteer Soft Furnishings Group. Following degrees in Fine Arts (Hons) and Museum Studies at the University of Sydney, Joanna worked for the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and also lectured with the University of Sydney’s Museum Studies Unit. She is a reviewer for the Standards Program for Museums and Galleries NSW and a member of the Collections Committee for the National Trust. Prior to her current role, Joanna was a curator at SLM/HHT for over 20 years. Joanna’s current role sees her coordinating regional engagement and programming for MHNSW across NSW.