Gloria Thancoupie and Tiwi potter Eddy Puruntatamerri are widely credited as having been the two founders of Australia’s Indigenous ceramic art movement. During her early years as a primary school teacher she created her first artworks in ochres on bark. It was not until 1971, when in her mid 30's, that she gathered the courage to move from her home in Weipa (Napranum), Northern Queensland, to the urban environment of East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) and began her training under the guidance of famed Australian ceramicist Peter Rushforth, the head of the ceramics department at that time.
She had been drawn to ceramics, as clay was sacred in her heritage, and making art with it was somehow ‘strange but exciting‘ (Isaacs 1982: 35). Initially her work was influenced by Japanese functional ware, and during her training she worked at refining both her iconography and her forms through a series of transformations. In the process she developed a unique style of hand-built large bowls that first gave way to spherical shapes, and later to more organic and minimal forms that were more closely drawn from nature. At this early stage in her development as an artist, the elegant simplicity of her line and brushwork, representing animals and her traditional creation stories, evolved from working with her teacher, the Japanese potter Shiga Shigeo. As her art practice evolved she had opportunities to meet and mix with people in the wider artistic world. These friendships influenced her artistic practice and created opportunities for her to exhibit with the best artists, sculptors and craft-makers as a contemporary artist, rather than an Aboriginal Australian artist. In 1983 she visited Sao Paulo as Australia’s Cultural Commissioner to the 17th Biennale and her works subsequently toured Brazil and Mexico and later were included in the Portsmouth Festival in the UK.
The primary focus throughout Thancoupie’s distinguished career was on the ‘object as art’. Her naturalistic forms, the methods of making them, and the incised decoration that adorns the surface relate these objects directly to traditional ways of story telling. Her forms were created by building with slabs and using the concave surfaces of her own body, her knees and elbows, to push the walls of clay into free-form shapes. Large spheres and ‘eggs’ were created using semi circular moulds as a template, and then building upon the shapes created with small pieces of clay from the inside out as the walls reared up from the mould. Thancoupie’s surface decoration, consisting of grooved out Thainkuith legends and totemic creatures, demonstrated the connection between her work and traditional sand drawing. Her sculptural pieces assert the three dimensional quality common to Australian Aboriginal painting, differing from the European concept of painting as a two dimensional activity. In her work, important Dreaming narratives, for generations held precariously in song and living memory, are encoded alchemically in rock-like permanence from the numinous materials of clay and pigment. By creating this visual language, combining the ceramic shape with the etched surface decoration, Thancoupie produced pots of great beauty and, in the process, became regarded as one of Australia’s great artists. Thancoupie has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas. She was represented by her friend Jennifer Isaacs who assisted in staging exhibitions at many of Australia's finest commercial galleries including The Hogarth Galleries in Sydney, Chapman Gallery in Canberra, as well as Gabrielle Pizzi and William Mora Galleries in Melbourne. Other important survey shows have been held at Manly Regional Gallery in Sydney, and Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Adelaide. In 2001, eighty works spanning her entire career were presented in a survey exhibition at the Brisbane City Gallery. She is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia as well as State art galleries and museums in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Queensland.
Thancoupie’s creative influence can be compared to that of the great Native American Pueblo artist Maria Martinez, in that it has provided the impetus for the development of the Indigenous ceramic art movement in this country. Yet her prime motivation was steadfastly a personal one. Her unique interaction with artists from a range of creative disciplines here in Australia and overseas served only to strengthen her intimate relationship with her own culture. Throughout the last 30 years of her life, Thancoupie mentored aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhem Land, the desert and the Tiwi Islands. Furthermore she has influenced Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in art and professional development courses, and others in her extensive travels as an artist of international acclaim. Her commitment to teaching spilled beyond her art through founding the Weipa Festival and running holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations. Thancoupie’s creative and philosophical motivation carries a universal message best expressed in her own words. ‘You are here in a lifetime to help, to understand… That is intelligence. And only intelligent people have strong friendships. I wish we all have that‘ (Message Stick: 2004).