Midway down a leafy Erskineville lane lies the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School. Founded by the celebrated Australian sculptor Tom Bass in 1974. Inside the lofty warehouse, students of all skill levels mould clay-based bodies, busts and abstract figures. Here, the fundamental philosophy of the sage sculptor is kept alive, and his ideas, concepts and time-honoured techniques are passed on to fresh apprentices.

The work of the late artist is featured across Australian cities. The towering, six-metre-high winged Ethos cradles the sun at Civic Square in Canberra. At the main gates of Sydney University is The Student, and The Arts and the Sciences rests in the niches of its Great Hall. Tom Bass created more than 60 major public pieces spanning an active 25-year career, and was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1988 for his services to sculpture. Usually sporting a well-kept beard and classic artist’s beret, Bass was interested in the totemic function of sculpture – its ability to tribute the histories of a community.

“After an intense career as a public sculptor, Bass felt that sculpture as a medium of social communication was losing its relevance,” says the school’s manager, Melanie Watkins. While Bass did begin his teaching career at Sydney’s National Art School, he quickly discovered it was not possible for him to teach the way he wanted to under the regular arts instruction system. “[Bass] conceived the idea of setting up an independent school of sculpture,” Watkins says. “He began a long search to find an appropriate place.”

The school’s first set up was an old goldsmith workshop above Broadway. Some of Bass’s original benches and equipment are still used at the present Esrkineville space. For Bass, the aim of the school was to impart the fundamentals of sculpture – technique, form and concept – in a relaxed workshop-style environment. “Teachers are key to the ‘atelier’ learning experience,” explains Watkins. “Each of our staff members is a former top student of Tom Bass, with a wide range of experience and knowledge of techniques and above all, the ability to encourage and guide students to understand the language of sculpture through learning to see.”

Regular workshop classes run for 10 weeks, with students attending a three-hour workshop each week. “These workshops are available to all skill levels and aim to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of all aspects of creating sculpture in a range of media,” says Watkins. “Students are encouraged to work on their own projects with teachers to guide and advise.” Generally classes are centred on clay and casting-based practice. The clay used by the studio was originally dug out by Bass at his Minto property in south-west Sydney more than 60 years ago and is still being recycled and reused by students. “This ‘master clay’ is a treasured material that has been used to create many extraordinary sculptures by Bass, his peers and students.”

Tom Bass classes are social but focused. There is always a break for tea or a sweet treat (and maybe even a glass of wine at an evening session) and time to chat about sculpture, art or current affairs. Students are invited to work figuratively, as well as in the abstract. Outside of the scheduled terms, the school offers speciality workshops throughout the year with established sculptors and artists, as well as a series of short workshops in wax, carving stone and sculptural ceramics.

“Over the years we have had teaching and mentoring from a lot of well-known sculptors such as Richard Goodwin, Paul Hopmeier, Jim Croke, Vince Vozzo, Linda Bowden, Orest Keywan, and many overseas artists who come to Sydney as part of Sculpture by the Sea,” says Watkins. “Students are able to build a library of sculptural knowledge here as they travel along their artistic journey.”

Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School
1A Clara Street, Erskineville
(02) 9565 4851

tbsss.org.au