Petersham Escarpment: The mountain comes to the city

Simon Reece

1 March 2024

Through the mysterious alchemy of the kiln, Simon Reece brings the landscape of the majestic Blue Mountains to an inner urban plaza.

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Despite its modernity, the city of Sydney contains ancient escarpments, such as the Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst. These geological rifts form an amphitheatre for the stage of the sparkling harbour below.

But Sydney itself is just a prelude for the epic escarpments in the Blue Mountains to the West. This sandstone tableland was formed one million years ago during the Pliocene Era, when earth movements caused the region to uplift, forming a plateau. There are 300-metre escarpments along the Grose and Megalong valleys, framing one million acres of eucalypt forest, including the rare Wollemi pine. This is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As a teenager, Simon Reece went on many walks in the Blue Mountains, particularly around Blackheath. He has lived there now for 25 years in total.

“I’ve always collected rocks from an early age as a kid and now I grind rocks that I fire at high temperatures: very much akin to a geological process.”

Simon studied ceramics at the National Art School 1980-82 before setting up a studio in Blackheath, Blue Mountains. In 1985 he travelled to Japan to work under the ceramic master Uneo Norihide in Bizen. He is influenced by the modernist Sodeisha school.

Back in Sydney, he developed tableware for specialist restaurants, including Tetsuya, Justin North (The Centennial and formerly Becasse), Neil Perry’s Rockpool, and Sean Presland of Sake Restaurant. He also maintains a worldly practice. In 2011 he taught Anangu men at the Ernabella Art Centre. He has also visited many ceramicists in Spain and taught ceramic workshops in Shigaraki, Japan.

Meanwhile, Inner West Council was looking for some public art to “softscape” a plaza in Petersham, which is under the shadow of the Great Western Highway. They sought a proposal from Simon, who suggested bringing the landscape of escarpment to this highly urbanised space.

It was Simon’s biggest public commission yet. The mural is 23m wide, up to 3.5m high and contains 350 large tiles (each 40 x 40cm). The owner of the building whose wall is used did not want anything applied directly, so a frame was developed by Tilt Industrial Design.

The colours were critical.

“I had white ochre from Leichardt. I had a red ochre local to where I live. And then I had various ashes: ash glazes that I made up and four different green glazes and a yellow. The greys came out a bit purpley, but they’re all based around copper, ash, feldspar and a bit of clay.”

Some ochre was sourced with the help of a First Nations elder in Leichhardt. pipis, scallops and crushed oysters were also used in the glazes. “The green glaze will be atop the mural and running down so as to look like a rock face with forest above.” The base was Hallam Fire clay.

The background was naturally painted blue, which gives the region its name. The blue derives from the tiny particles the size of light wavelengths that create the phenomenon of mie scattering.

This slice of the ancient Blue Mountains now lines the plaza wall, holding back the traffic and business of the city. The responses have been very positive so far. A key sign of success is the lack of tagging, “So there must be some mild form of respect there.”

Meanwhile, Simon has moved on to smaller works that directly reflect his location on a plateau: ceramic tables.


About Simon Reece

Simon Reece studied ceramics at The National Art School (formerly East Sydney Technical College), in 1980 for three years. Completing his studies, he set up a studio in Blackheath, NSW, and taught ceramics at Nepean TAFE before travelling to Japan and working for ceramic master, Uneo Norihide in Bizen in 1985, where he learned the art of wood firing ceramics and developed a strong sense of ceramic aesthetics. His work has been exhibited at numerous galleries including The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Campbelltown Regional Gallery, WA School for Art, Perth, Penrith Regional Gallery, Manly Art Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, Gold Coast Art Gallery. His work is held in private collections in Australia, USA, Japan, Europe, Manly Art Gallery and The Newcastle Regional Gallery. Visit and follow @simonreececeramics.

All images are by Silversalt except the one of the Blue Mountains from Anvil Rock by Simon Reece. 

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