Book Review – Playing With Fire: Auckland Studio Potters turns 50

Lange, Peter and Newby, Stuart: eds.

PLAYING WITH FIRE; Auckland Studio Potters Society turns 50.

Auckland, New Zealand. National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries at University of Auckland. 2011. 317 pp. hard cover.

NZ$75 plus $5.50 p&p. ASP members NZ$55 plus $5.50 p&p.

Reviewed by Moyra Elliott

The foreword says it all; it is a miscellany. One that commemorates 50 years of ceramics and pottery in Auckland, of which the Auckland Studio Potters centre and its staff has been a major player through activities in exhibiting and teaching as well as social centre. Intended as a “mix of history, comment, autobiography and controversial material with only two compulsory elements: ‘Auckland’ and ‘ceramics’ ”, the book ventures a broad interpretation on these parameters and while the comment and autobiography are there in abundance, history and the controversial are more sparse.  While it was “not to be one of those dry historical books, full of facts and accolades for all the worthy hardworking members”, something on those from north of the shore who started the amalgamation and consolidation of people that developed into the ASP, might have been worthy of addition. There is simply a list of initial committee members in the later, southern shore manifestation.

Such issues are minor in the face of the contemporary celebration that is the real intent of the book. Gathered under headings of Context for Creativity, The Family Album, The Centre of the ASP, Past and Future, Archives, Biographies of those involved in the book compilation and the seemingly inevitable Glossary – which assumes a readership that needs such explanations. But this is a book for those in the know rather than anyone outside. It is full of camaraderie, bonhomie and conviviality and an absorbing read for those who are part of the community and know, or at least know of, the various authors involved. And not a glaze recipe in sight!

There are some fine essays here. The first, by Justin Paton is an elaboration of his keynote talk at a crafts symposium in Napier a few years back. It was a good discussion then and is now expanded into a good essay that raises some key issues for ceramics, not just local but there are some issues here that are subject for discussions globally at a variety of forums. Paton makes strong points aimed at making the ceramics community think. He disillusions those who claim ‘My work speaks for itself’ and explains that without an interested community finding words for the work, it doesn’t exist past its show time. He writes of changes to the status of objects (to use one phrase currently describing what is done in clay and other such media) and importantly of the words surrounding the objects as being in a state of confusion and ‘wavering uncertainty of purpose’. Ceramics at the start of the 21stC is ‘dispossessed’, anxious about its old names (Craft and Pottery) while not settled on a new one (Object, Object Art, Applied Art, Design, Art). Until such issues have resolve whither writing about them?    Paton deals to ceramic’s ‘Craft Cringe’, as he puts it and cites reasons like ceramic’s own defensiveness. He also challenges ‘art that borrows art school formulas’, calling the process a ‘dumbing up’ and makes a case for discarding much ‘conceptual thinking’ suggesting  that the ‘conceptual sophistication is already there in the work’s modesty, sufficiency and  companionable roughness’.

There exists food for thought here and these and other issues he discusses are subject for scrutiny elsewhere. It is the stuff of a potentially good talk-fest within New Zealand ceramics also, alongside those taking place in other parts of the world.

Paton’s essay about merits the cost of the book alone but there are other worthwhile pieces of reading that are lighter and less hard upon the ego.

Essays about and by a variety of makers make up the book’s ‘Context for Creativity’ and all are worth reading and considering. Some are too short, some a tad self-aggrandising, some are modestly in third person, some gave me the ‘warm fuzzies’,  some are positioning; while all are revealing and well written. This is the largest section of the book, as it deserves to be considering the aim of the publication is not about airing issues but honouring achievements. It’s probably the section that will be most thumbed and poured over.

There is a re-visit to a book, Fire on the Clay: The Pakeha Comes to West Auckland by Dick Scott and published in 1979, offering excerpts from the chapters about the development of the potteries industries and some early studio/small industry efforts out west. It was nostalgia time for me with memories of those Crum kilns with their short stalagmites of salt plunging solidly from the vaults and shown me by Ian Crum (great-grandson of the founder) at a time when my interest was just developing. It led me back to my own copy of the Scott book. History was also in evidence in Greer Twiss’s small piece on early ‘chancy and exciting’ connections between the pottery and the sculpting communities drawn together by commonalities of media and method. Biggest smile of the book is probably a small piece by Peter Lange on the inspired detective processes uncovering a strange smell during a firing that concluded with mysterious and unexpected effects within a couple of bowls.

There is a section around collecting, an activity that seems mainly engaged in by the pottery community itself and some closely involved. (But maybe one becomes closely involved via the collecting process?) It is useful and interesting but dotted with superlative adjectives like ‘incredible’, ‘wonderful’,  ‘outstanding’ and ‘stunning’; words that carry little by way of real meaning for application to any art when images of few are present. The ceramic lexicon, while in dire need of a sort-out in some areas, carries greater sophistication than that. If something is cited as ‘arguably one of the best’ of a potter’s oeuvre – I’d like to know how those arguments are drawn. Curiously, as this collection deals with mainly Auckland based collections (as in various other parts of the book, diversions to different geographical areas are included), mention of what I understand as Auckland’s largest and most well-documented private collection is entirely absent. But there is some sound advice for intending collectors in the conclusion.

The central section is on the ASP itself, as it is today, a successful, profitable, well-patronised business that disseminates information about making in clay while offering a community spirit that is hard to find elsewhere in what are still often referred to as ‘The Crafts’ and not at all in ‘The Fine Arts’. (Such references are 20thC conceits) This is well discussed in its broadest context in writing by Richard Fahey who looks at the accrual of benefits concomitant with being a joiner of a club – the webs of information ‘transformed into practical understanding that facilitates an individual’s capacity for action’ where ‘levels of risk and uncertainty are greatly reduced, via conducive grounds for creative innovation’. Fahey also mentions the ‘downers’ that can sometimes be consequent – insularity, unyielding conformism, paternalism and so on and makes the case that both, in differing amounts can be found, often at the same time, in any such group. Constructively he offers the ‘club’ as a model of ‘social capital in action’ as a possible set of co-ordinates for theorising how craft practice might be sustained in the future  and usefully advocates some form of return to the ‘guild’ as means for preserving and continuing specialist craft knowledge. As a lecturer in a Polytechnic that formerly offered courses in ceramics, he writes with full knowledge of what might be offered at his institution in the near future. We should take note.

And so it goes. There is an absorbing section called ‘The Future of New Zealand Ceramics’ where the same questions are asked of  Philip Clarke – Director of Objectspace which institution claims to represent and exhibit the pointy end of craft/applied art/design practices, Anna Miles – owner of a gallery that has and does show ceramics as part of its exhibition programme, Duncan Shearer – Hamilton based potter and tutor making wood-fired, traditionally-sourced vessels and Richard Stratton – Wellington based ‘ceramic artist’ and tutor who makes oxidised, narrative, socially conscious works while resurrecting age-old techniques and blending their application with some new uses of computer imagery.

The answers to the questions around significant developments, exemplars, challenges, gallery roles, resources and personal visions for the future make thought-provoking reading around some potent attitudes and telling insights into positions held.

The final ‘Archives’ section is a selection of various exhibitions from the past; memoirs of visits by Bernard Leach, Takeichi Kawai and Shoji Hamada by now-deceased recorders so presumably plucked from old copies of NZ Potter or ASP newsletters; a too brief recount of the 40 year history of the NZ Potter magazine; another brief recount, this of the start of the Otago Polytechnic Diploma Ceramic Arts that is administered by the ASP, listing tutors and numbering graduates and enrolments rather than accounts of how and why, together with a re-print of Peter Shaw’s account of the history of the Fletcher Challenge Award. It is ‘dry… full of facts and accolades for all of the worthy hardworking… ’.

There is more, much more, in this book with its first-rate binding and printing and clean design supported by some dramatic images of ceramics and accomplished portraits of the people involved. It is a joyous celebration of the ASP today – a ‘snapshot in time’ more than any historical account around the ASP’s fifty years of history supplying ceramic know-how to hundreds (maybe thousands) of students over the decades, running a successful series of educational evenings, exhibitions and selling events for its members and all those associated aficionados of the genre, occasional conferences and regular production of a newsletter. Supported with funding by Creative New Zealand. It fulfils its intended function well, and is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read.



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4 responses to “Book Review – Playing With Fire: Auckland Studio Potters turns 50

  1. stuart newby

    As author of the essay on Collections in ‘Playing With Fire’, I found your comments strange.Your observation of the essay as being dotted with ‘superlative adjectives’ followed by a list of the few adjectives used seemed petty. What are you trying to do here? Kill passion! The “arguably the best” comment on the Tippett pot was actually a direct quote from a comment YOU made to me at the Tippett exhibition. I thought about your comment and finally agreed you were right. You pointed out that a major collection was ‘entirely absent’ from my essay and from your comments I can only conclude that this collection was one you have not seen. I have. Its point of interest to me was only its size. One observation would be that in your Tippett exhibition, the Richard Parker exhibition, the Denis O’Connor exhibition, the Hawkesby exhibition, there did not appear to be any pots from this ‘major’ collection you refer to. I wonder why?

  2. Stuart –

    Thanks for your response and pleased to have feedback, but I must demur, only some of the superlative adjectives are included in my comments, not all. Look again. The blog is principally to encourage critical writing on ceramics in NZ in part resulting from encouragement by CNZ so this is what editorial must keep in mind. Certainly the intent is never to kill passion but passion is no excuse for unthinking commentary and such a powerful emotion should feed into the intelligent, the constructive and the critical in writing.

    Anything spoken that is transferred to text should have in mind that text lasts a lot longer and so must undergo more consideration than any conversational comment and care taken for the record. It’s the written text that is quoted in other texts and that is how canons are steadily formed. Balanced histories are at risk if personal passions and opinions are the only basis for written record and this has been an issue in many texts on NZ ceramics for a long time. It’s important that objections to the opinion are on record also or canons are built only by those with the passion or opportunity to write.

    As for collections… my remark was that a major Auckland collection was inexplicably absent, when collections further away in the North Island are mentioned, in a book purportedly around Auckland practices. If you were covering all private collections in the country then there are still more that are absent – and much closer to home than some mentioned. It was a curious collection of collections, the basis of which was unclear and deserving of some scrutiny. Your text did not state, what you now imply, that in your opinion those mentioned are the ‘best’ collections so that is why they are included. If you were applying judgement calls on private collectors’ choices then that should be declared in the interests of sound critical writing practice. And this followed by why those judgements are applied. It is absolutely OK for personal biases to be written about – that happens all the time after all. But such partisanship should be clearly stated so that readers are informed and not expected to simply accept opinion because it is written. It’s not stone after all and that is one hope for this blog – that more opinion can be aired.

    As for curatorial choices, why any curator takes a work into a show is usually to do with whether that work tells the story or takes the role that is required of it to fit the curatorial premise. There should be no other judgement applied so where the work is sourced is to do with that, usually. However there are also considerations about several from one source being easier than similar, but single, works from another… practical considerations are also part of the curator’s charge.

    I hope that responds adequately to your comments? But ripostes are welcome.


  3. Geoff Perkins

    It’s really good to see books on NZ pots and potters being published and discussed. As for the section in the book on collectors and collections, obviously there are as many reasons for people collecting ceramics as there are people collecting them, as I think Stuart Newby indirectly acknowledges. To judge the success or worth of any collection one needs to understand the reasons for it being put together. Stuart’s strident response to Moyra’s comments about his chapter in the book suggest he might sometimes have missed this point. Stuart has put forward his opinions in the book. That’s great. His response to Moyra above gives us further insight into how he assesses the merits of collections. That’s enlightening. In the end, collectors only have to satisfy themselves, without regard to reviewers, writers or show curators. Like potters, they should all be encouraged.

  4. Moyra

    You are right Geoff. That Collecting section is just one aspect of the book but the one that immediately stood out. I could have been more austere in the review as there was plenty to reprove if one so chose. I chose not because there are some fine essays in there besides the dross and the fillers. I was keen that folk read the book and decide for themselves on its merits. We keep anticipating some critical dialogue so was hopeful this might instigate a little and swung to the positive so that reaction from the wider culture might instigate some – after all there are many off-the-record comments around.
    However I was not prepared to give fulsome, uncritical praise – that was not called for either. We have been far too accepting of poorly syntaxed, ill-researched and blatantly biased texts around our NZ ceramic culture for far too long. This is not tolerated off-shore so why is it we here are only comfortable with oleaginous eulogies? Why cannot we have dialogue about the merits and strengths while acknowledging where imperfections and the insubstantial lie, and appraise evaluatively instead of gathering forces to destroy any critical assessment or react punitively. It amply demonstrates how immature our culture around critical texts is here in comparison to other art forms and off-shore. Growing up and accepting wider points of view than our own would be great start. And you’re right, collectors have only to please their own eye and aims.

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