The great pottery comeback

Pottery transcends class, ability and age, says Seymour May

Pottery transcends class, ability and age, says Seymour May

CLAY WITH MAY: Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
Pottery has been Seymour May’s focus for 25 years. He has three kilns on his property like this 25 cubic foot one on rails that he built himself.

Pottery transcends class, ability and age, says Seymour May. The well-known Gisborne potter began his working life as a dairy farmer. He chats to Sophie Rishworth about the recent rejuvenation of pottery.

Seymour May is an ideas man. A problem solver of the good old Kiwi no 8 wire generation. If he needs something bigger, faster or a different method . . . he will think and think. It’s fun coming up with ideas, he says, even if sometimes they are “bonkers ones”, he laughs.

“In the middle of the night if you get good ideas you have to write them down.”

He explains that there are not a lot of potters who can make a full living out of pottery these days. But back in the glory days of the 60s and 70s you “could sell everything you’d made”. That was before imports.

Seymour remembers his plan to make plates crashed after container loads of them were imported at cheap prices from Italy.

“Instead of them paying me $15 a plate, they were going to pay me $4 a plate.”

But 40 years later, people are returning to the beauty of quality and hand made —something different from the mass-produced. And it is no coincidence this renaissance has happened around the same time pottery hit the heights of reality television.

Seymour says the British programme “The Great Pottery Throw Down” on Saturday nights is a “good show”. After advertising pottery classes for close to 40 years, they are suddenly fielding calls from people wanting to do pottery.

“It has taken that show to glamorise pottery again.”

A Gisborne restaurant has also commissioned Seymour to make their dinner set. He is trying to make it personal and local. To do this Seymour is adding crushed papa rock from the Waioeka Gorge into the white clay as he works. The end result is a speckled pattern of shiny black rock that dates back millions of years.

“Auckland people don’t want Waioeka plates but Gisborne people do. It’s a local thing — where else are you going to get white clay added together with million-year-old Waioeka Gorge rock?”

The idea came while driving through the gorge. He stopped and took some crumbling rock that so often gets shovelled away.

Seymour has been a full time potter since 1991 — 25 years ago. Since then he has contributed to kitchen cupboards, gardens and public spaces with his talent. He also works with schools, disabled people and holds classes at Beetham Village.

“Pottery transcends age, ability and class,” he says.

He and his wife Helen, who have been married for 50 years, live in the first home built on Clifford Street in 1901. They have four girls, Kim, Sheryl, Amanda and Victoria, and consider themselves very fortunate they all live in Gisborne with their four grandchildren.

Their home is a showcase of all the creative endeavours enjoyed by the May family. Pottery lampshades cover every light, pottery flowers sit in gardens, and pottery gulls, kingfishers and keas line the fence and attract their real life counterparts. A pottery letterbox lets visitors know they are at the right place, as Seymour sells his pottery from home, and Helen runs a sewing and pattern exchange from home as well.

Seymour has always been an ideas man and the start of his working life is a good example of this. He left school in 1959 and went straight to Farm Training School. In 1963 he and his brother Graeme bought a dairy farm at Waerenga-a-Hika and the daily morning milking began for Gisborne’s town supply. They did 16-20 hour days for about 20 years.

Seymour won’t say how old he is but rough calculations put him in his 20s and 30s about that time. He and Graeme would discuss things, both of them advanced thinkers.

“By throwing ideas around you can actually work things out. We built the first unloading trailer in New Zealand and instead of grass, which dies during dry periods, we planted lucerne, which grew enough to feed 120 cows every day of the year.”

They ended up with twice as many cows per hectare — the most in New Zealand. The brothers were getting noticed.

“You have to do things otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere.”

The May brothers also invented a head for a combine harvester that picked maize, even though people told them that it couldn’t be done. Well it could.

A representative from New Holland in America heard about it and hopped on an old Friendship plane. He flew to what must have felt like the ends of the earth to see what these two guys were doing in New Zealand, where they could produce twice as much maize per acre as they were doing in the United States.

Seymour doesn’t believe in patents. If you patent anything, someone can just change the idea slightly and it is no longer your idea. He’s not upset about that, more realistic and philosophical. He is not looking for attention or adulation but he’s got it.

For a potter, a dairy farmer, a family man and someone who is part of the Gisborne community, he has made it a more vibrant place.

“People probably think that you are half mad but that doesn’t matter. Artists are individual people doing their thing. To paint a picture you have to put paintbrush on paper. Whatever you do, you actually have got to start to do it.”

Pottery transcends class, ability and age, says Seymour May. The well-known Gisborne potter began his working life as a dairy farmer. He chats to Sophie Rishworth about the recent rejuvenation of pottery.

Seymour May is an ideas man. A problem solver of the good old Kiwi no 8 wire generation. If he needs something bigger, faster or a different method . . . he will think and think. It’s fun coming up with ideas, he says, even if sometimes they are “bonkers ones”, he laughs.

“In the middle of the night if you get good ideas you have to write them down.”

He explains that there are not a lot of potters who can make a full living out of pottery these days. But back in the glory days of the 60s and 70s you “could sell everything you’d made”. That was before imports.

Seymour remembers his plan to make plates crashed after container loads of them were imported at cheap prices from Italy.

“Instead of them paying me $15 a plate, they were going to pay me $4 a plate.”

But 40 years later, people are returning to the beauty of quality and hand made —something different from the mass-produced. And it is no coincidence this renaissance has happened around the same time pottery hit the heights of reality television.

Seymour says the British programme “The Great Pottery Throw Down” on Saturday nights is a “good show”. After advertising pottery classes for close to 40 years, they are suddenly fielding calls from people wanting to do pottery.

“It has taken that show to glamorise pottery again.”

A Gisborne restaurant has also commissioned Seymour to make their dinner set. He is trying to make it personal and local. To do this Seymour is adding crushed papa rock from the Waioeka Gorge into the white clay as he works. The end result is a speckled pattern of shiny black rock that dates back millions of years.

“Auckland people don’t want Waioeka plates but Gisborne people do. It’s a local thing — where else are you going to get white clay added together with million-year-old Waioeka Gorge rock?”

The idea came while driving through the gorge. He stopped and took some crumbling rock that so often gets shovelled away.

Seymour has been a full time potter since 1991 — 25 years ago. Since then he has contributed to kitchen cupboards, gardens and public spaces with his talent. He also works with schools, disabled people and holds classes at Beetham Village.

“Pottery transcends age, ability and class,” he says.

He and his wife Helen, who have been married for 50 years, live in the first home built on Clifford Street in 1901. They have four girls, Kim, Sheryl, Amanda and Victoria, and consider themselves very fortunate they all live in Gisborne with their four grandchildren.

Their home is a showcase of all the creative endeavours enjoyed by the May family. Pottery lampshades cover every light, pottery flowers sit in gardens, and pottery gulls, kingfishers and keas line the fence and attract their real life counterparts. A pottery letterbox lets visitors know they are at the right place, as Seymour sells his pottery from home, and Helen runs a sewing and pattern exchange from home as well.

Seymour has always been an ideas man and the start of his working life is a good example of this. He left school in 1959 and went straight to Farm Training School. In 1963 he and his brother Graeme bought a dairy farm at Waerenga-a-Hika and the daily morning milking began for Gisborne’s town supply. They did 16-20 hour days for about 20 years.

Seymour won’t say how old he is but rough calculations put him in his 20s and 30s about that time. He and Graeme would discuss things, both of them advanced thinkers.

“By throwing ideas around you can actually work things out. We built the first unloading trailer in New Zealand and instead of grass, which dies during dry periods, we planted lucerne, which grew enough to feed 120 cows every day of the year.”

They ended up with twice as many cows per hectare — the most in New Zealand. The brothers were getting noticed.

“You have to do things otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere.”

The May brothers also invented a head for a combine harvester that picked maize, even though people told them that it couldn’t be done. Well it could.

A representative from New Holland in America heard about it and hopped on an old Friendship plane. He flew to what must have felt like the ends of the earth to see what these two guys were doing in New Zealand, where they could produce twice as much maize per acre as they were doing in the United States.

Seymour doesn’t believe in patents. If you patent anything, someone can just change the idea slightly and it is no longer your idea. He’s not upset about that, more realistic and philosophical. He is not looking for attention or adulation but he’s got it.

For a potter, a dairy farmer, a family man and someone who is part of the Gisborne community, he has made it a more vibrant place.

“People probably think that you are half mad but that doesn’t matter. Artists are individual people doing their thing. To paint a picture you have to put paintbrush on paper. Whatever you do, you actually have got to start to do it.”

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Kathi McLean - 1 year ago
A great story and yes pottery can be for everyone of any age. Although the journey can sometimes be frustrating - you can learn the craft/ basic skills and then let your creativity take over.