The Company of Potters

THE LOVE OF CLAY: An exhibition of pottery that tells the story of potters who gathered at Gisborne couple Ian and Sheryl Smail’s property Nodsdale on Auckland’s North Shore in the 1970s opens at Tairawhiti Museum on Friday. Picture supplied
Potters

The beards, the bushy hair, and the back-to-the-land kaupapa of 1970s New Zealand was all part of a quest for an alternative lifestyle that embraced the craft of pottery in a big way.

Among those potters was long-time Gisborne resident Ian Smail who, along with wife Sheryl, owned a property on Auckland’s North Shore called Nodsdale. With its three kilns, Nodsdale was a hub for a number of leading ceramicists who fired their pots there.

Curated by art historian Damian Skinner, a selection of the potters’ work features in The Company of Potters, an upcoming exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum. The pots made at Nodsdale from 1973 to 1984 tell a story of that time, says Smail.

“There are some very good and wonderful pots in the exhibition but a lot of them are there to illustrate the story.”

The show is a social history rather than a retrospective.

“This is the story of an era. It’s an interesting concept, not something that is done very often.”

In the 1970s, pottery, apart from expensive imported products such as Wedgewood, was not readily available in New Zealand. The 1970s was also a time when many people looked for alternative ways to make a living, says Smail.

“It was a new generation. I took up pottery because it was something I could see myself doing. I was very focused on a particular aesthetic and being true to the craft movement.

“That was the sort of group of people who became involved with Nodsdale.”

Among them were Chester Nealie, Liz Schwier, Warren Tippett, Bronwynne Cornish, Len Castle, Denis O’Connor and Nick Waterson.

“They were potters who believed in clay for clay’s sake.”

With such a strong philosophical approach, Smail was one of several potters who could not see the point of commercial, mass-produced pottery when beautiful, hand-crafted work was available.

“Round, square or smooth, perfection is quite difficult. Even so, if you’re a craftperson, accidents shouldn’t happen. People sometimes talk about happy accidents in the kiln but you should be in control of your accidents.”

The craftsman or woman should be in charge, not the kiln, says Smail.

“All kilns have their own personality.’

Named after Sheryl’s nickname, Nod, the Smails’ Redvale property was home, in 1974, to a baby oil-fired brick kiln of ten cubic feet, with a single cylinder shearing-shed motor Ian had repurposed. This kiln was in frequent use and used especially for salt glazing.

Built in 1975 or 1976, the second kiln, was stoneware and about 30 cubic feet. The inclusion of vacuum cleaner blowers in this kiln followed the connection of electricity to the property. The third was a wood-fired kiln completed by 1978.

“This one had three chambers. The end chamber was always used for salt-glazed pots otherwise the salt would go through all the chambers.”

Having recently left Gisborne to live in Mangawhai Heads, Northland, Smail the craftsman, handyman and designer has put pottery on hold for the time being.

“I’m not doing pottery right now because I’m building a house.”

  • The Company of Potters opens at Tairawhiti Museum tomorrow. Ian Smail and curator Damian Skinner will make a presentation about the exhibition at 2pm on Saturday.

The beards, the bushy hair, and the back-to-the-land kaupapa of 1970s New Zealand was all part of a quest for an alternative lifestyle that embraced the craft of pottery in a big way.

Among those potters was long-time Gisborne resident Ian Smail who, along with wife Sheryl, owned a property on Auckland’s North Shore called Nodsdale. With its three kilns, Nodsdale was a hub for a number of leading ceramicists who fired their pots there.

Curated by art historian Damian Skinner, a selection of the potters’ work features in The Company of Potters, an upcoming exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum. The pots made at Nodsdale from 1973 to 1984 tell a story of that time, says Smail.

“There are some very good and wonderful pots in the exhibition but a lot of them are there to illustrate the story.”

The show is a social history rather than a retrospective.

“This is the story of an era. It’s an interesting concept, not something that is done very often.”

In the 1970s, pottery, apart from expensive imported products such as Wedgewood, was not readily available in New Zealand. The 1970s was also a time when many people looked for alternative ways to make a living, says Smail.

“It was a new generation. I took up pottery because it was something I could see myself doing. I was very focused on a particular aesthetic and being true to the craft movement.

“That was the sort of group of people who became involved with Nodsdale.”

Among them were Chester Nealie, Liz Schwier, Warren Tippett, Bronwynne Cornish, Len Castle, Denis O’Connor and Nick Waterson.

“They were potters who believed in clay for clay’s sake.”

With such a strong philosophical approach, Smail was one of several potters who could not see the point of commercial, mass-produced pottery when beautiful, hand-crafted work was available.

“Round, square or smooth, perfection is quite difficult. Even so, if you’re a craftperson, accidents shouldn’t happen. People sometimes talk about happy accidents in the kiln but you should be in control of your accidents.”

The craftsman or woman should be in charge, not the kiln, says Smail.

“All kilns have their own personality.’

Named after Sheryl’s nickname, Nod, the Smails’ Redvale property was home, in 1974, to a baby oil-fired brick kiln of ten cubic feet, with a single cylinder shearing-shed motor Ian had repurposed. This kiln was in frequent use and used especially for salt glazing.

Built in 1975 or 1976, the second kiln, was stoneware and about 30 cubic feet. The inclusion of vacuum cleaner blowers in this kiln followed the connection of electricity to the property. The third was a wood-fired kiln completed by 1978.

“This one had three chambers. The end chamber was always used for salt-glazed pots otherwise the salt would go through all the chambers.”

Having recently left Gisborne to live in Mangawhai Heads, Northland, Smail the craftsman, handyman and designer has put pottery on hold for the time being.

“I’m not doing pottery right now because I’m building a house.”

  • The Company of Potters opens at Tairawhiti Museum tomorrow. Ian Smail and curator Damian Skinner will make a presentation about the exhibition at 2pm on Saturday.

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