Vital Materiality

Exhibiting Artist: Pie Bolton

Written by Shannon Dowling


Image Courtesy: Sarah Lay

Pie Bolton is a Melbourne based artist, working predominantly with natural materials, and ceramic processes. Beginning her studies in 1980 at Melbourne University in the Earth Sciences department, Bolton expresses an enduring affinity with the earth, natural matter, the science of geology, and the environment. Her recent solo exhibition at First Site Gallery is an ode to all things earthen, and a celebration of Bolton’s dedication to practice.

In 2009, after seeing an advertisement in The Age, Bolton applied for a ceramic technician position, despite having no experience with ceramics. To prepare, Bolton bought a ceramics magazine on the way to the interview and realised that, actually, she did know a lot about ceramics; “This is just igneous and metamorphic petrology!” After transferring to the RMIT ceramics department in 2014, Bolton is now in her second year of her Masters in Fine Arts. Bolton’s work as a ceramic technician has given her the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of ceramics, and broaden her practice, incorporating ceramic processes into her work with geological materials.

After years working with large scale explosives, the corporate side of Pie’s work as a geologist began to alienate Bolton from her interests in the natural environment, and geological research. A common thread when talking to Bolton is the feeling that she has been living in two worlds, and always felt the need to make a choice between them: art or science, corporate or independent; “am I geologist or an artist?”. Now, however, with this exhibition, it seems that Bolton has been able to unify these previously disparate halves, finding a place where she can work, study, and make.


Image Courtesy: Sarah Lay

With over 20 years of study and employment in the area, Bolton has developed a wealth of knowledge and understanding of geology, with a particular interest in the Anthropocene and stratigraphy. However, she is sure there’s more to learn, and so has dedicated herself to an experimental research-based practice exploring the properties of natural materials in alignment with New Materialist art theory. New Materialism: a philosophical movement in art theory that prioritises the force of the inhuman, over the human. New Materialism focusses on the significance, presence, and essence objects, outside of human-assigned value.

Bolton’s research has changed drastically in scale from seismic explosions to delicate kiln firings of earth materials and her show, Vital Materiality, has allowed Bolton to continue her research on sedimentary rocks in order to better understand our earth. Bolton seeks to “embed energy in [objects] so they present an ambiguity” and encourage people to contemplate deep time with them.

Following on from new materialist art theory, Vital Materiality sheds light on the properties inherent in rocks by subjecting them to ceramic processes (essentially melting them in a kiln at extreme temperatures) to expose elements of their existence often hidden beyond human intelligence or understanding. In doing this, Bolton elevates the status of the rock from that of an understood piece of natural detritus, to a beautiful, almost magical object that holds time, information and intelligence. The potential of the objects opens a dialogue surrounding the infinite nature of organic life, and investigates the life of objects that transcends human knowledge and interaction.


Image Courtesy: Sarah Lay

Taking inspiration from other artists that investigate geologies such as Kelly Jazvac and Tania Kovats, Bolton’s art practice is a strand of her broader interrogation into what separates humans from the inanimate, or rather, what unites humans and the inanimate. Given the limited number of elements in our world, humans perhaps aren’t so different from say, rocks or metal suggests Bolton. Bolton is enthralled by the process of arts practice, and although admitting to having some control over what she makes, is most inspired by the element of chance when working with natural or found materials, and such intense ceramic processes (firing pebbles at 1300 degrees Celsius in the kiln). Bolton believes that the non-human engagement (the kiln) with her materials is what makes them precious, and moves them beyond a human-product, assigned human values of beauty or worth.

This experimental approach to practice is a way for Bolton to bring out the “innate energy” in the earth objects she works with. This innate force, and transformative process gives the pebbles in Vital Materiality an otherworldly feeling, and makes one cross examine themselves and surroundings. By exposing the complex nature of these rocks, Bolton has created a series of objects that seem more like geological masses from another planet than anything we could find on earth. It’s precisely this reference to the infinite universe that makes one realise that our own, small earthly universe is one of wonder.

Throughout her considerable exhibition history, Bolton has matured into her practice and is keen to continue studying to complete a PhD, as well as taking part in further research-based travel. Bolton has reflected on the value of international art exchange, and the importance, particularly in ceramics, of developing strong community connections. Building a network of support and a context for discussion, practice and display of ceramic-based art has culminated in Bolton’s intriguing Vital Materiality at First Site Gallery.


Anthropocene: relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

New Materialism: a series of movements in several fields that criticise anthropocentrism, rethink subjectivity by playing up the role of inhuman forces within the human, emphasise the self-organising powers of several nonhuman processes, explore dissonant relations between those processes and cultural practice, rethink the sources of ethics, and commend the need to fold a planetary dimension more actively and regularly into studies of global, interstate and state politics.

Stratigraphy: the branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological timescale.


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