Born in Czechoslovakia in 1927, Mike graduated as a ceramic chemist in 1947, just in time to massive re-building of his country's ceramic industry which had been devastated by the War. Pre-war Czechoslovakia had been responsible for producing 20% of the world's pottery, but in 1947 Mike was thrown in at the deep end to an industry in which the personnel, raw materials, and factories had either been destroyed or withdrawn, Having to work harder and longer hours with little expert guidance gave him the edge and hence the satisfaction of achieving success through his own efforts.
In 1950 Mike came to Australia and like so many 'new Australians' spent his first few weeks at the Bonegillo camp in Melbourne. His first work in Australia was to help build a new brick factory in Canberra - a far cry from ceramic chemistry but welcome all the same. After this he found work in Sydney with the ceramic production company, Fowler Ltd. Unable to explain his qualifications he was given the dirtiest work in the place and after 6 weeks left to do a range of jobs - cook, milk bottler, tree cutter, radio technician - each a steady improvement upon the other.
Around 1953 he was approached by two Czechs, one an artist, the other an investor, to join them in establishing a ceramic studio. It began as 'Kerra' and then changed to 'Coronet' and together they produced around fifty different domestic items, slip cast and underglaze decorated. On a recent visit to Sydney, Mike was amused to see these items now in antique shops. This was quite a successful venture but as the only single man in the partnership, his hours were unfairly long and in 1959 he moved to Melbourne to work at the Sylha Ceramic Studio. This was a successful giftware pottery run by Sylvia Halpern and her husband but Mike's advanced casting techniques meant that soon he was producing more than the rest of the production team could process and so he began to look for more challenging work.
He came to Western Australia in 1959 as a research and development chemist for Brisbane and Wunderlich, the firm which at the time boasted an amazingly diverse production range - hotel ware, Wembley Ware, sanitary ware, bone china, electrical porcelain, bricks, tiles pipes, crucibles for the mining industry - once again he was learning through the challenge of dealing with the whole spectrum of ceramic processes. This was even more the case than in Czechoslovakia because, while European industry had moved to buying in many of their processed raw ingredients, in 1959 Brisbane and Wunderlich were making all their own frits, glazes, stains and clay bodies.
During his first year at Brisbane and Wunderlich, Mike noticed that outsiders, amateur potters, would often come to ask for help. The other chemists would say 'Mike, quick hide' and they would all get under the table. But Mike felt sorry for these people and decided to help. The first person he remembers was Eileen Keys, a 'very persevering and authoritative person' he recalls. Mike was able to help out with such things as scavenging kiln shelves from the factory tip and recutting them, as well as with glaze problems such as peeling, crazing, shivering and non vitrification. In those early years it was always ladies who came to ask for help, it was not until the late 60s that men began to join the ranks of pottery enthusiasts.
In 1969 Mike met Ray Samson, Head of the Art Department at Perth Tech and it was Ray who started Mike on his teaching career, starting with 4 hours a week of ceramic technology. The classes were from 6-10pm but the students were so keen that the cleaners would be pushing them to leave at 11pm. Their enthusiasm made teaching a real pleasure for Mike, he recalls that in the second year of the course 50 people enrolled in the first year program. In 1974 Mike left Bristile (as Brisbane & Wunderlich was by then known), and took up full time teaching at the Western Australian Institute of Technology, now Curtin University.
Throughout this whole period, Mike's expertise was freely given to anyone who called upon him for help. He tested many hundreds of clay samples from all over the state sent to him by amateur potters. It was the appreciation and achievements of these grass roots potters that gave Mike so much pleasure over the years. The highlights of his life, he says, have been the achievements of other people in their struggles to overcome problems and achieve results often of an international standard, as in the case of the work of Pippin Drysdale and Sandra Black.
WA potters have been very fortunate to have a unique resource in Mike Kusnik - there are a thousand stories of glazing problems solved, new bodies developed, kiln constructions reworked. His contribution to the development of ceramics in this State can never be overstated and all who have benefited from his generosity know that his Order of Australia is deserved a thousand times over.
From an article by Helen Ross published in Pottery in Australia
Read articles by Mike Kusnik as published in Ceramic Study Group Fusion Newsletter