One of Robyn’s large semi-enclosed pieces that are, perhaps, her signature works. This one, 52cm dia. x 14cm h., is finished in burnished and matte surfaced style.
Robyn Stewart came to clay in the mid-70s, like many others of the time, after another career. She learned some basics from Pat Perrin and Margaret Milne knowing she was moving, with family, to a Northland farm where there was ample earthenware clay beneath the thin crust of topsoil. She wanted a creative outlet while there and it was while she was attending classes with Margaret Milne that the students were shown a film about the Native American pueblo potter, Maria Martinez, from the San Ildefonso pueblo near Santa Fe in New Mexico. In it Martinez demonstrated her re-making of traditional vessels –something that had faded in vigour due to the advent of enamelled tin pots and jars well suited for cooking and uses for ceremonial vessels reduced as the culture declined. Martinez led a revival that economically revitalised not only her own San Ildefonso Pueblo but, along with Nampeyo from the Hopi tribal group, did much to restore cultural values in several tribal areas by identifying and pioneering a route to economic independence through making pots in traditional styles. This activity generated toward Santa Fe becoming the second most valuable art market in the USA. Maria Martinez’s method of leavening the clay with sand, coiling, burnishing and dung firing (loosely covered with discarded vehicle number plates) immediately struck Robyn as a perfect methodology for her intended activities on that Northland farm.
She experimented and after about eighteen months of failures where improvements came frustratingly slowly she succeeded in producing some small, charming, burnished vessels with Maori designs that she continued to expand into a considerable oeuvre over the course of her lifetime of potting. She was never tempted to join the ranks of domestic ware makers – dominant at the time. Within NZ she pioneered burnished vessel forms and experimented boldly with scale, form and decoration. Early on she went to a Northland Polytech Summer School where she met Manos Nathan who had returned to his marae from the UK in response to a call from his seniors. He, a design graduate, was wanted for carving and worked at Matatina learning from Mauri Marsden. Nathan had books brought back by his father who had been with the party that went to the USA as part of the Te Maori exhibition that toured to several main centres. The books were on traditional Southwest potting, Nampeyo and Maria Martinez. So when Robyn met Manos there was much to discuss and they subsequently worked together. Manos found the burnished surface a perfect vehicle for his carving and developed new forms in clay for Maori traditions in returning umbilical cords and afterbirths to home soil, and Urupa uses. Robyn was subsequently invited to join the first art hui that Manos set up at his marae at Matatina and from those hui the Kaihanga Uku group of clayworkers was formed (although they called themselves ‘the muddies’! Robyn was made an honorary member.
Robyn subsequently travelled to many places to teach her ‘low tech’ method of making in clay, often returning several times to places such as Rarotonga, or Zimbabwe and other east African countries, Indonesia and India. Wherever she landed she made friends through her enthusiasm, warmth and enjoyment of her meditative processes. Her work had enormous appeal due to scale, tactility, a refined gleam of surface and the elegant simplification of design. It was interesting to hear the credit she gave, for the immaculate finish, to her jeweller’s ‘bloodstone’ – her principal tool, apart from her clever fingers. Vessels would range from a few centimetres to more than 50cm across and her work was regularly in great demand by various government departments for official gifts, for they fitted their criteria to perfection.
Robyn, always was sensitive to the troubles of others and kind and thoughtful in her responses. She has maintained a low profile in recent years due to health issues she could not overcome. Her friends will be relieved that she is no longer suffering but will miss her and mourn her passing.