Te Puna, the place of springs, is also a place where some excellent local clays are to be found if you know where to look. Having found your clay of choice, you naturally would want a local ceramicist to mould it into an artefact, whether useful or decorative according to your needs or wants.
Your correspondent is happy to report that, based on the items on exhibition in a handsome display space at the Bob Owens Retirement Home, just down the road from the Bethlehem Pottery Club’s clubrooms, those with a yen to commission an entirely locally sourced ceramic work have, close to hand, the materials as well as the craftspeople they will need.
Reflections on this possibility invited the TPC to consider what, among the many and various characteristics of weathered earth (plastic when wet, coherent when dry) might be the unifying principle that made a club for potters even possible. After all, especially after walking through the blandly inoffensive decor of the retirement home, it was the vigorous contrasts of styles and endeavours that hit the eye on entering the exhibition. Everything from practical (and serenely impractical) vessels to wearable (and somewhat unwearable) jewellery, sculptures of extreme abstraction to intense realism, and ornaments and bibelots of no evident purpose except to demonstrate that they could be created, was there. How, one wondered as one wandered among the very respectably-sized crowd, could such diverse aesthetic and artisanal impulses occupy space under the same clubhouse roof?
The answer, of course, lies in the soil. Reduced to essentials, the two charming things about clay are its generosity and its simplicity. Complex in its composition, forgiving in its behaviour, accessible to nearly anyone, tough, durable or magically fragile depending on its type and its treatment in the kiln, the basis of nearly all plant environments and hence life as we know it on Earth, the TPC concluded that what united the potters on show was their medium, although the messages were so very diverse.
So, although ‘mudlark’ was not among the titled works (and there were some extremely odd titles, ranging from the arcane to the banal) for the TPC this show was, really, quite a lark. The joy in the material shone through, and the two live demonstrations in train on the afternoon I went – one in portrait sculpture, the other in African pot (dubiously catalogued as Afropot ) construction – offered conversational opportunities as well as the chance to get down and dirty. In a thirsty land like South Africa, even the sound of cattle walking through river mud is commemorated in the name of a village on a ford: I!xopo.
But here, in a more pluvial landscape, celebrated on the wall of the Bethlehem Pottery Clubhouse, the work was far from agricultural or utilitarian. Raffaella Cruikshank’s edgy masks and Belted cow came close to being seriously, intentionally weird; there was a strong sense of the archaic in works like Christine Cousineau’s Green flower vase, Big Brown pot, and Wood fired square box, which all looked as though they might have been cherished for years in some other civilisation and then lovingly excavated. Compare them to the breathtaking elegance of Gulielma Dowrick’s Tall vase, not for sale in its pale blue-grey glaze, or Maurie Merrick’s Pacific navigator series, where the simple sail forms, suspended from copper piping, made you really look at the clay and reminded us that pottery in the Pacific stopped at Lapita and that metal was unknown until the Europeans arrived. In a strangely compelling mix of form and flora, Suzanne Sturrock explored, perhaps, what might have happened if ceramics had come further south: the Pasifika influence on her Circular cremation urn and Flower urn invited reflections on mortality as well as brightly-coloured life.
Technical accomplishment was present as well. Len Rofe’s highly representational Basket “Weave” and Anett Pilz’s exquisitely decorated plates and dishes, showed two entirely different approaches, Len using the structure of the vessel to demonstrate virtuosity in handling his material, Anett applying her skills solely to its surface.
Just in case you were wondering – not everything was serious. The TPC has mentioned the titled works. Where’s my girl? asked one of Raywyn Lewer’s figurines. Rowena and Dotty, to say nothing of Fat cat “Freddy the fish” from Bel Watts, reminded me of the humourous work of Beryl Cook. Some was just wry, as with Robyn Judd’s The bits left over, alongside a wall plaque labelled “Cognitive” and a Steam punk ball. All made of clay. Just opposite: Shirley Frost’s erudite sculpture of an archway that required, well, deconstruction, given that it was entitled Psalm 118:22. The TPC can confirm that this indicates that the stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. Given that this stone was made of clay, we can only hope that the choice was the right one.
That, and the pleasant information that clay is also the material of choice for Murray Garner, the one-armed member of the Bethlehem Pottery Club, whose broadly-proportioned and vividly-glazed urns are happily refined by tiny, meticulous detail in their handles, must all have gone to your correspondent’s head. Tony Deanazon’s charming, square-set, wide-nosed horse now shares my living space, across the room from a replica of one of those exquisite Greek bronzes that poise themselves on three legs and have a nose that can fit into a teacup. Bronze or mud? I’m happy to have both. And, after all, there’s not a lot of bronze to be found in Te Puna.
The Te Puna Correspondent. Your TPC is a rurally-based Tauranga contributor of acerbic wit, wide cultural interests and knowledge who has written on a wide range of creative arts topics. If you have any spare time or you’re inside on a Bay of Plenty winter’s day, the TPC archive of contributions is something an ARTbop reader could enjoy (again).