Madeleine Cruise is a painter and printmaker from Sydney who now calls Ballarat home and Ruby Pilven is a Ballarat born-and-bred ceramicist. Their collaborative exhibition The golden pantomime is a bold and vibrant celebration of domestic spaces and the rituals of everyday life, an explosion of colour featuring paintings, prints and ceramics produced individually and in response to each other’s work.

The intriguing title references the way the exhibition’s everyday objects come to life to tell stories and put on a show. Cruise says that the two artists wanted a title which references performance but also has an element of fun.

‘We wanted to refer to tradition because we are both makers – the concept of the pantomime came from the idea of telling stories and setting the stage. We are playing with the idea that the exhibition is a performance of objects.

Ruby Pilven and Madeleine Cruise in Pilven's studio near Ballarat
Ruby Pilven and Madeleine Cruise in Pilven's studio near Ballarat

This exhibition is centred around a dining table that celebrates the domestic environment and the theatricality of everyday life. It is both a functional and ornamental artwork that represents the two main themes of this exhibition: story telling and domestic spaces.

With this exhibition, the artists have called attention to the importance of domestic rituals, celebrating their value in a shared language of joyous colour and ornamentation.

Cruise’s paintings in this exhibition are a varied mix of landscape and still compositions with a strong use of personal symbolism and expressive colour. They operate as both backdrops to ceramic works and worlds unto themselves – that speak of the people and places of Ballarat.

Cruise says, ‘The dining table becomes a stage, the tablecloth a stage curtain, paintings appear like backdrops and ceramic objects are both vases, pots and plates that dance on the plinths around the gallery.’

Pilven said that the artists chose to include the word ‘golden’ in the title because they wanted an adjective that is not just connected to their work but also represented their personalities.

‘We are both pretty sassy and colourful characters and a lot of my work has gold in it. I am from Ballarat so it makes sense to refer to gold – my Dad (ceramicist Peter Pilven) used a lot of gold in his ceramics in the 1980s and then I started using it in my own work.’

Installation view of The golden pantomime
Installation view of The golden pantomime

‘Some of the works we’ve made reflect Ballarat and our life here. There’s a personal connection which I think is important.’

Much of the imagery in Cruise’s paintings is derived from the landscape and personalities of Ballarat, golden nuggets, birds and plants are familiar and recurrent motifs that represent personal narratives about friendship and discovery. Iconic Ballarat images such as the swan and the Begonia also appear in the pair’s collaborative works, where Cruise has glazed vessels made by Pilven, the shapes of which are themselves based on shapes in Cruise’s paintings.

Other works reference broader social and environmental concerns shared by the artists, including the effects of the recent catastrophic bushfires. A fiery red and burnt black palette is used by both artists in a series of paintings and bowls that represent the ecological impact of the fires. Poppies for remembrance and images of native wildlife are incorporated into Cruise’s paintings, as are portraits of indifferent political figures, marking the artists’ concern for the state of the environment.

Ballarat’s architecture is reflected in the decorative timber shelving for ceramic works and stage-like wall relief pieces, made collaboratively by the artists. This display method has been used to draw the gaze upwards as it would be walking down Sturt Street. The elevated placement also creates a homage effect, to objects and imagery from everyday life and highlight the artists appreciation for domesticity as a significant theme in both their practices.

While Pilven and Cruise have an impressive history of making and exhibiting works around Australia as individual artists, both say working collaboratively on the exhibition has expanded their horizons. One area where the collaboration is expressed is in the forms and shapes of their different artworks.

Pilven says, ‘I reference both historical and traditional forms and reinterpret them through a modern lens. My contemporary take on ancient pottery forms can be seen in the bottle and vase forms and the abstracted porcelain Nerikomi plates.

‘Working with Madeleine, I have started to see shapes within her paintings, such as the negative space around objects, which I have recreated in vessel form. I often find that my pots have hips and necks and take the form of curious characters.’

Cruise says, ‘I have been painting and designing vessel forms for some time and since moving to Ballarat, I have taken up life drawing again. The human form has unintentionally come out through my paintings and the body form has come into those vessels without being purely human.

Drawing inspiration from each other’s work, the pair challenged themselves by introducing new materials and techniques and creating both miniature and large-scale works.

Cruise has made a series of monotype prints using processes from lino and screen printing that helped the development of her dry brush painting techniques. Both the shapes and negative spaces in these prints then inspired Pilven to create new patterns in her clay surfaces.

Working collaboratively the artists have created a series of ‘stage set’ artworks that transform ceramic objects into performers who tell stories from their daily lives. This theatrical orchestration of objects celebrates ordinary activities such as ‘feather dusting’ and the catharsis that comes from domestic activities.

For both artists, colour plays an important role in their creative practice and this also also been further influenced by the collaborative process.

Cruise’s colour palette is mostly psychologically motivated, with her colour choices driven by emotional responses to her subjects. Many works feature deeply saturated colour, layered with dry brush work to create a sense of vibration. In contrast, Pilven’s works are often inspired by the landscape, such as the bush that surround her studio. For for The golden pantomime she has experimented with new combinations of colour inspired by Cruise’s work.

Cruise says ‘My colour palettes are instinctive, but for this exhibition I have needed to be more focussed and to develop palates in response to what Ruby has made. There is a tension in that – I love her vibrant combinations of colour, but the moment I try to rein in my palate it becomes difficult and the colour ends up exploding. I think we both struggle with that, keeping the colour under control.’

Pilven adds, ‘My colours are mostly based on my immediate environment. I have been looking at Madeleine’s paintings in my studio and have needed to mix up new colours based on her work. Sometimes this is challenging, because I would not necessarily put certain colours together in ceramics, but it has been refreshing to try new colour palates.’

It is also significant that the two artists were doing much of the work for the exhibition during a period of isolation. Pilven felt that for her, the period of isolation created some great working conditions, without the pressure of making so many commercial products.

‘It is nice to have a break from that and to explore ideas just for the exhibition. I have found some of this creative process mentally tiring – I go through periods of being very productive but then need a break to recover. Although this kind of work takes a lot more mental effort than my commercial range, I have been able to experiment and explore ideas that I have had in mind for a long time.’

Pilven and Cruise in the studio
Pilven and Cruise in the studio

Cruise also found that the studio was a place to channel some of her nervous energy.

‘I have a busy mind and find that it is important to focus on something both practical and soothing – that has only increased during this uncertain time. The biggest challenge I have faced is the unknown that is now unfolding in all aspects of life. When I go into the studio I am not solving those problems but channelling nervous energy and putting out ideas and propositions. Finding resolution in my painting is a metaphor for trying to find resolution in other concerns I have about life.”

The exhibition reflects the Art Gallery of Ballarat’s commitment to showcasing Ballarat artists and telling Ballarat stories.

Art Gallery of Ballarat Curator Julie McLaren, who worked with the artists in developing the exhibition, believes it is important that the Gallery reflects the community, tells Ballarat’s stories and translates the exciting work being undertaken by the city’s creative community into thought-provoking and engaging exhibitions.


After the Gallery re-opens, this exhibition is scheduled to run until 22 November 2020


Due to safety concerns, the Art Gallery of Ballarat will not be presenting any public programs relating to this exhibition.


Artworks from this exhibition are available for purchase and may be viewed at the Gallery’s online shop here

Selected works

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