Leading Ladies is a historical ceramics exhibition currently at Te Uru in Titirangi. The Gallery invited me to curate a show of early women potters, in part as counterpoint to the generous numbers of male potter surveys and retrospectives prevalent in recent times. Fair enough, mid-century ceramics was very much a period of male dominance with the Anglo-oriental here, and everywhere it had a presence, also for Abstract Expressionist clay in the USA and the Sodeisha movement in Japan – all very male, all very mid-century. (Could have been something in the water perhaps?) However, as we called a chapter title in Cone Ten Down – ‘In the Beginning was Earthenware’. Indeed, prior to the Anglo-oriental era the earliest studio ceramics in this country were made by women. Although, there were some immigrant, industrially trained men who came to start, or work in, our infant clay industries, as early as the mid-1800s.
The pioneer women in the early 20thC had no books such as A Potters Book as guide but required to find out for themselves – often the hard way. They dug and prepared their own clay and built their own kilns, firing initially with wood or coal and slowly learned and shared what they knew. Some went off-shore to learn more, others we know not how they acquired information. That there were a number is without doubt and there is a scattering of records in old pamphlets, newspapers and art catalogues telling us of their presence although we don’t always know their work.
My own search for suitable works for Te Uru’s exhibition was necessarily confined to private collectors in the Auckland area. There was little budget for distant research and while there are some great pieces in public collections most major galleries require six months notice for borrowing collection works and it’s really necessary to actually see and handle potential works for maximum information. You can guess how something was made from an image, but its heft can give definitive information.
While there was some activity in decorating cast forms produced, often by industry, in the early 20th C. I was concerned to source only hand made ceramics. I set about visiting the private collectors I knew such as our own John Parker who was a great supporter of both Briar Gardner and Olive Jones – the two Auckland based early potters. I knew other collectors and checked several out for their holdings and apart from Gardner and Jones saw works by Elizabeth Lissaman and Elizabeth Matheson as named potters. There are other works from perhaps around the early 1900s in some collections that have no provenance and dates and makers are unknown. Then I came across some new clay works that I had not seen before. But these had a name. They were by Minnie Frances White who had some reputation as a painter and a member of the Phoenix Group of post-Elam artists led by John Weeks. It transpired that she too made wheel thrown and decorated pieces, but also slab-built works in an Art Deco influenced style with abstract linear decoration in strong diagonals on sometimes dynamic planes. White’s work in clay was not known to me previously and this is the first NZ-made, contemporary, Deco-styled work I have seen. I assume that her Deco characteristics in richly coloured slips on those strongly planar forms could have derived from her extensive art schools training plus the on-going contact with practicing artists in Phoenix Group who were abreast of current trends like Art Deco which followed and is, in some ways, an extension of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles.
Anyway, hers were not the only fresh and interesting finds in the project. Elizabeth Lissaman’s fine 3D modelling of frogs and waterlilies on and around a dish, fitted perfectly with her slip and glaze painted decorations. She was, so it seemed most interested in applying her characteristic decorative designs to a range of forms that stayed modestly scaled and cleanly surfaced so as to better display her designs. She was, of all five women, clearly the one most interested in surface.
The other Elizabeth, Ms Matheson, not at all, as even with quite extensive searching I could find but one piece with sgraffito fish by way of surface embellishment. The remainder were quietly coated with single hues of glossy glaze and reliance upon clarity of function for their presence.
Briar Gardner made, by far, the tallest works and viewing the film of her working, which accompanied the exhibition, her energy levels were impressive, especially considering she would have been in her fifties when the film was made. Whether shovelling coal or taking down the wicket, vigour was very much in evidence.
As for Olive Jones, without question she possessed the greatest range of skills. And so she should considering she had by far the longest and most wide-ranging training in ceramics. The show’s only cast works were hers, in finely modelled Maori canoe prows or female Grecian-mode figures – forming bookends, and they show how considerable was her expertise for she made every stage. There were two partially reduced, thrown, copper red vases that had been fired in saggars. Apparently their mixed red, green and black surfaces made them amongst her most sought-after work. Most impressive was the ‘Islamic lustre’ (so called because the potters of the Middle East famously used the technique with great finesse although it was around before the advent of Islam). Induced while the kiln is cooling or through a third firing it is sometimes known as ‘true lustre’ because it’s brought about via heavy reduction rather than bought in a tiny expensive bottle. Jones made a simple spherical vase glazed in ‘true’ copper lustre and despite being quite small, its surface positively glowed a soft melon pinkish-red colour.
All was displayed, at eye level, on and in specially-made wall shelves and boxes. Putting such small works on a plinth or table-top seemed inappropriate as they were quite humble domestic pieces and not intended for a white cube display, as art. Never their intention. And they’d be lost on a table-top. The wall shelves, so I learned, are a very English (working class) mid 20th C. thing and mostly used for the display of household chattels, often ceramics. So that seemed very appropriate for their presentation. It was easy to view them – even advantageous for such unpretentious things; there was plenty to observe close-up.
To round off the display I added two portrait busts, by the Rayner Brothers of Whanganui. They played homage to these pioneers by modelling Elizabeth Lissaman and Briar Gardner. As they are possibly the first two, that’s fitting. Wish though that the Rayners had also done busts of Matheson and Jones but as these four were not necessarily the only pioneers we have, it would be difficult, I guess, to know when to stop…
The show opened a week or so prior to the Portage and comes to the end of its run on January 28th after being, apparently, quite popular viewing throughout the summer. Certainly I have received a number of emails and notes from people with lots of positive feedback and even been sent images of a couple of works asking if I can verify that these (imaged) pieces, in family keeping, have been made by some of these pioneer potters (they were indeed.) So maybe there will be some new additions to the auction rooms very soon.
Springboarding from this project, there will be a Wikipedia Editathon on behalf of these pioneer potters of ours and followed ‘with a focus on female artists working with ceramics with the aim of improving the balance of artists represented online’. This will be hosted at Te Uru on…
SUNDAY 21st January (NEXT SUNDAY!) from 12 midday to 4pm
to be led by Courtney Johnston, Director of The Dowse Art Museum.
Courtney is experienced with Wikipedia projects having already overseen a project that created or enhanced more than 100 entries related to craft and craft arts to Wikipaedia already, so has considerable expertise in the area.
So, if you have a pet artist in our field you think deserves to be featured in Wikipedia, or would simply like to learn how this can be achieved for future reference, come along! Bring your laptop and any relevant research material. Or just your laptop as Te Uru will have research material on site anyway. Please go to Te Uru’s site for further information. Absolutely worth doing! Great idea! See you there!