It’s official. Pottery has made a major comeback in New Zealand. Not since the 70s, when as long-time potter Jim Cooper says ‘everyone was doing it’, has there been so much enthusiasm for kiwi clay. Pottery classes abound and the coolest cafes are commissioning their crockery.
Francesca Emms talks to artists Paige Jarman, Jim Cooper, Kirsty Gardiner and Brendan Adams, and curator Emma Bugden about their love of ceramics.
Pink and white potter
Paige Jarman did not intend to become a potter. She was taking a break after finishing a degree in textile design and signed up for a Saturday pottery class. She quickly became hooked, drawn to the tactility of clay and the ability to use her hands to make from start to finish a product that can be used by people in their daily lives. She considers her pieces to be products rather than art and therefore sees herself more as a maker than an artist. ‘I make pots to be used,’ she says, ‘I don't want people to be precious about them and leave them sitting on a shelf.’
Paige Jarman Ceramics was launched in 2015, selling bowls, pots and other crockery. ‘From my own interest in cooking, I've always leant towards making pieces for eating and serving food. My hope is that using handmade ceramics in meals adds to people's entire food experience – social, visual and taste.’ Working around a part-time job, Paige spends three to four days a week at the Wellington Potters Association. ‘Timing is really important with pottery, so it's not uncommon for me to be attaching handles at night after my day job, or getting up before my job to load or unload a kiln.’ While she admits that the ‘pedantic iterations’ of glaze testing is not her favourite part of the process, Paige says you can’t beat ‘opening a glaze firing and seeing that it's perfect, or that your glaze tests came out exactly how you wanted, or that they did something cool and unexpected.’
Paige’s current collection is inspired by her ‘number one time travel destination’, the pink and white terraces. Having always been in awe of volcanic landscapes, she visited Rotorua last summer for research. ‘I did all the geothermal tourist activities, including the boat trip over Lake Rotomahana where the pink and white terraces were, to get some first-hand imagery.’ After making and glaze-testing for a few months, she released her Volcanic Vessels, a small collection of pots, mugs and tumblers in three designs: Crater Lake, Treescape and Pink Terraces.
The collection is mostly sold out, but despite their popularity Paige doesn’t want to make the same things over and over. ‘I need to have balance of production and creativity,’ she says. ‘I've found that around a year of making the same work is about my limit, so this year I'll be making some new work.’ In 2018 she’s looking forward to being pushed creatively through workshops and collaborations. ‘Even if I worked with clay for the rest of my life I still wouldn't have explored every possible thing that there is to do with clay.’
Jim Cooper is known for his colourful multi-piece installations. Usually they’re groups of human figures, animals, flowers or a combination of these. ‘I make a lot,’ he says. ‘I’ll think, “that was good, I’ll make another” or “I can do better than that” and the studio fills up.’ He says the pieces start to join up and the whole group becomes a vehicle for storytelling. The largest, Peppermints and Incense, has more than 1000 individual pieces. His psychedelic installation Millbrook holiday [the league for spiritual discovery], which won the 2012 Premier Portage Award, is made up of a modest 30-odd pieces.
Jim says the installations are difficult to move around, and as ‘no one has room in their house they get broken up and sold off as bits.’ A few years ago it was suggested that one of his installations, which included 800 flowers, should be exhibited in Taiwan. It proved too difficult to ship the work so instead Jim went to Taiwan for six months and made a new one. Most recently he’s been in Denmark for a residency with the Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Centre, where he built an installation inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
Jim stayed on in Denmark after his residency with the aim of further developing his installations. ‘I have this history of so many pieces,’ he says, ‘I wanted some other way. I tried turning them sideways and upside down.’ But he says he felt finished. ‘I felt no energy for the figurative work. Whatever it was, I’d used it up.’ One day after teaching a class, he stacked up all the students’ discarded wheel work and thought ‘that’s a nice stack, they look like beads.’ He grabbed an angle grinder and made an installation of threaded beads. ‘It was the beginning of something,’ he says, ‘I made hundreds of beads. I just kept going.’
Jim is happy to be back in his studio, an old pickled onion factory in Dunedin, after an intensive year away. He came home via New York and visited as many galleries as he could. ‘It’s curious,’ he says, ‘you look at these masterpieces in famous galleries. You’ve seen them in books and they’re exciting. They’re powerful or savage or gut wrenching. But now that I’m home the thing I’ve retained is the work in those smaller, artist run, experimental galleries. They’re so fresh. So invigorating.’
With his batteries topped up Jim is drawing and painting a lot, paper being his preferred medium when working through ideas and problem solving. ‘I’m excited about this bit. Denmark provided an impetus and I can now expand on that initial idea.’
Something old, something new
Kirsty Gardiner has always been interested in English and European porcelain, museum collection stores and the history of ceramic restoration. She enjoys the term ‘make-dos’ and being able to see how and where a piece has been repaired because it was a necessary item. ‘The inventive ways in which a broken piece was put back together,’ she says, ‘sometimes with a silver addition where a spout or handle was missing. Staples used to restore a large bowl.’ Add to that a life-long love affair with op-shops and a concern for our natural world and you have Remnants, Remains currently on show at Aratoi Gallery. Kirsty describes the exhibition as ‘an accumulation of ideas that have been mixing and mingling in my mind’s eye for a few years now.’
Kirsty has imagined an op-shop at the end of the 19th Century. A time when high tea was a regular event, served in parlours filled with displays of taxidermied birds and other artefacts. ‘I have endeavoured to make some of these items with a twist of my own,’ she says. ‘They are whimsical yet serious. The drinking bowl cannot hold water. The transfer inside the bowl is fired too high and has a rough feel to it.’ She has pushed her technical skills as far as possible ‘to create an apparently mass-produced object, but with the addition of the human touch of a fingerprint or indent.’ Kirsty hopes that her exhibition gives visitors ‘a sense of being. What we have created in our lives as individuals and as a populace over hundreds of years.’ The disappearance of New Zealand’s flora and fauna is a theme, but Kirsty says, ‘instead of castigating the audience, I would like them to embrace what was and have an understanding of the beauty of life.’
Working from her home in the Wairarapa, Kirsty spends most days in her studio, starting with a cup of tea, looking through her visual dairies and then working on whatever piece is on the work table at that time. She is a creature of habit and says ‘ceramics are so much part of my life that I cannot think of not having clay as part of my daily routine.’ Drawn to the tactile three-dimensionality of clay, Kirsty feels she can express herself precisely with this medium. Yet she will often add textiles, collage, ephemera and any other materials to create a work. ‘I like to think of my work as a trans-cultural mix of myths, ceramic archetypes and often extinct birds,’ she says.
Cups runneth over
In 2017 Brendan Adams made a year’s worth of cups. Drawing on his 30 years experience and using as many styles and techniques as he could, he created the Cup Project, an exhibition of 365 ceramic cups. This came after his 2016 Teapot Project where he made one teapot a week. So what’s Brendan’s goal for 2018? Hourly? He laughs and says while he does enjoy the process of working towards a number, he’s moving away from multiples. As he neared the end of the Cup Project the idea of playing with acoustic forms was already ticking away in the back of his mind.
Seventeen years ago Brendan was attempting to make radios with ceramic bodies and speakers. More recently he was making ceramic cone forms to amplify phone speakers. Now, ‘technology has caught up with my ideas. It’s given me freedom.’ And he’s back to working on ceramic radios.
His studio radio is his own work, hand pinched in coarse terracotta. It has an FM receiver and a Bluetooth receiver so it can be connected to other electronics. ‘The pottery case has a good density and with reasonable speakers in it the sound quality is not bad,’ he says.
He likes the contrast between hand-pinching his pottery (estimated to be a 27,000-year-old process) and then dropping in a brand new, high-tech little unit that’s arrived via eBay or AliExpress. These units are attached to dials or switches on the outside of the ceramic body. He wants the dials to be as simple as possible. You can flick between Bluetooth and radio, and there’s a volume dial. He’s using the shape of a traditional Edison cone, or acoustic megaphone, to amplify the sound.
He’s still working through the physical restrictions of ceramics, and ‘once I’ve figured out the technical things I can play with form.’ The process takes a lot of planning. If things move in the kiln then the holes for the wires don’t line up and he needs to get out the diamond drill. The trumpet-like shape is paramount to the success of the radio. ‘If you get the shape wrong it sounds like a toilet.’
We won’t get to see Brendan’s radios until later in the year, but 80 to 100 of his cups will be on display at Waiheke Community Art Gallery opening at Easter. The collection features some of the original 365 cups, including eight of his September Cups – famous for being a perfect 30-day run of ‘no duds, no breakages’. The rest are remakes to replace ones that sold, and some brand new ones, using ‘some of the ideas I didn’t get around to,’ he says.
In 2017, for the first time in its seventeen year history, the Portage Ceramics Awards appointed a New Zealand judge. Curator and writer Emma Bugden says she was very pleased to be the judge. ‘What I love about clay is its contradictory qualities,’ she says. ‘It can be elegant and immaculate or sloppy and delightfully misbehaved. The minute you attempt to pin it down it shape-shifts somewhere else.’ About being the first local judge, she says, ‘I think it’s important to have a dialogue between local and international—but it’s also good to honour and celebrate our own. You might argue that an overseas judge is more objective, but judging is a subjective process, no matter who you are.’
Emma believes that New Zealand ceramics are at a crucial point, and is heartened to see ceramics being shown at dealer galleries and public galleries, not just in the gift shop. ‘I’m hugely optimistic at the new surge of interest in ceramics, from the massive increase in membership at club level (thanks, Great Pottery Throw Down!) to the way so many artists are now using clay, often heedless of technique but with experimentation and playfulness,’ she says.
However, Emma doesn’t wear rose-tinted glasses. ‘I worry that most of our dedicated craft programmes at tertiary level have disappeared, leaving a significant gap in the kinds of makers we’re developing. Does it matter? Maybe not, but it’s certainly changing the pottery scene.’ And yet, ‘every time I eat off a Paul Melser plate at Wellington’s Loretta café I feel hopeful. For the first time since the lifting of import restrictions in the 1980s a return to commissioning potters for tableware is noticeable at hipster eateries around the country. Bowls are back. It certainly makes studio pottery a more viable career.’
Emma began her own arts training as a ceramics major, but says ‘these days I’d describe myself as strictly a fan.’ As a curator she has worked on many ceramics exhibitions, including the major monographic exhibition His Own Steam: A Barry Brickell Survey, which toured nationally, and Slip Cast, a contemporary ceramics survey at The Dowse Art Museum. In short, she’s got her finger on the ceramics pulse.
'Arguably the smartest, most provocative ceramics show last year was Terrestrials by Dave Marshall at Wellington's Enjoy Gallery. He's a formidable technician with a deep connection to craft history and a speculative approach to making which feels fresh.’ And who should we be keeping an eye on? ‘I'm excited to see what Dunedin maker Kate Fitzharris will produce in her upcoming residency at Whanganui's Tylee Cottage. Ditto Davina Duke, who's been making for a long time but is really hitting her stride with her powerful work for the Nga Kaihanga Uku collective.’
First published Art Zone #73