Vonney Ball: Ceramics
By Helen Schamroth
Massey University Press, 2018
Reviewed by Sam Trubridge
Helen Schamroth’s monograph on ceramicist Vonney Ball is quintessential coffee-table accessorabilia. It is a historiographical account of one artist/craftsperson’s journey from a late 20th Century European milieu into a post-colonial New Zealand setting, and also a pleasing object to have, touch, and look through.
It is a book with the look and feel of a piece of ceramic art, with its pale grey surfaces and embossed lettering, castings imprinted on the inside cover, and beautifully presented images throughout. The photographs depict works from Ball’s portfolio alongside more informal snapshots from the studio, processes, workbooks, and print memorabilia. In the same spirit, Schamroth’s text relates insights from Ball’s family life to her fifty years of practice. From her early influences by the Bloomsbury Group and the UK Arts & Craft movement through to the present, it reveals a body of work that dialogues between craft and art, and between conventional European traditions, new art practices, and Toi Māori.
It is wonderful to be reminded of the poignancy of works like Settled in the Soil: a pile of slip-cast earthenware bones painted with English roses in a traditional style. Here the craft-object becomes art-object, conflating cattle bones found on NZ farmland with the shards of broken English pottery being recovered on the beaches of Auckland when Ball arrived in the mid-nineties. Another notable work that Schamroth dwells on is the ‘Artemesia’ vase, on which traditional Staffordshire decoration is given a twist, rejecting conventional pastoral scenes for pre-colonial dioramas of waka taua at sea, with Rangitoto in the background, and silhouettes of ponga in the foreground. There are risks of bourgeois ‘expat’ affectation, but Ball avoids this through her studious and sensitive commitment to engaging with her cultural environment, looking beyond decoration.
Numerous artists, designers, and craftspeople like her have brought their unique view and their traditions to the cultural melting pot of Aotearoa New Zealand. This book proves its worth by demonstrating how Ball’s work responds to, reflects, and contributes to our country’s visual and material language. Books like this provide a rich sense of texture, process, tangibility, and object – documenting bodies of work as taonga, to be shared, treasured, and discovered anew down generations.
First published ArtZone #75