The 1851 Great Exhibition, held in London, initiated a series of international exhibitions around the world. Aotearoa soon followed suit with its own exhibitions, displaying craft alongside technology and manufactured goods.
Also on display was another aspect of craft: the skilled interactions between materials and maker. As the history of New Zealand studio pottery illustrates, the performance of craft continued to be on show into the 21st century.
By Rigel Sorzano
Craft on display
The 1851 Great Exhibition was the first of its kind, a magnificent spectacle that brought together works of art, craft, science and technology from many different nations in a vast glass pavilion, known as the 'Crystal Palace'. Britain's show of prowess was bolstered by displays from its colonies, New Zealand's modest exhibits included hats, baskets, and a table-top "composed of 19 specimens of Taranaki woods". The success of the Great Exhibition led to a series of similar events around the world, and Aotearoa soon followed the trend, hosting international exhibitions in 1865, 1882, 1889, 1906 and 1925.
Nearly two million people attended the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries in Christchurch, which ran for a year (1906-7). The New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1925-6 was even more successful, attracting more than three million visitors. The buildings occupied some 16 acres, and attractions included a fernery with streams and a waterfall, and an amusement park, complete with scenic railway. A notable feature of the exhibition was the women's court, where "the arts and crafts of the British Empire's women were on display", including spinning, weaving, lace-making, and pottery. As well as craft displays, there were 'working exhibits', in which women took turns at demonstrating their craft; amongst those taking part was Mrs. A.L. Edwards, throwing pottery on the wheel. These working exhibits ran throughout the duration of the exhibition, and, as reported in the Exhibition Official Record, "were always great centres of attraction."
Potting in public
For the pioneer studio potters of the early 20th century, giving demonstrations at exhibitions, fairs and other public events was an important way of drawing attention to their work, and promoting sales. Elizabeth Lissaman began selling her pottery through the D.I.C. department store chain in the late 1920s, and gave demonstrations in the china section of D.I.C.'s Christchurch branch from 6th to 12th November 1929. It was no picnic: twice-daily sessions, from 10 am to 12.30 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm, with an additional two-hour evening session on Friday. At the 1939-40 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, Olive Jones and Elizabeth Matheson took on an even more intense schedule. They held a continuous pottery demonstration and display, one throwing at the exhibition while the other stayed in the studio, producing more pots to replace those that sold. Their joint exhibit was an enormous success, and the demonstrations were described as "entrancing to watch".
Jovan (Jova) Rancich immigrated to New Zealand in the 1920s, setting up as a potter in West Auckland the early 1930s, and giving public demonstrations at the Auckland Winter Shows to promote his work. Rancich was a skilled thrower, and fascinated the crowd with his ability to manipulate clay into any shape or size. His studio became a popular attraction, with tourist buses regularly stopping there on their way to the scenic West Coast and Waitakere Ranges. According to Rancich's daughter Branca, "The tourists seldom left without making a purchase."
Look and learn
Putting on a show was important for sales, but it benefitted the growth and health of New Zealand studio pottery in other ways. Olive Jones' demonstrations at events like the Auckland Easter Show, and her exhibit with Matheson at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition, "gave modern pottery a high profile and inspired others to take up the craft".
As studio pottery networks began to develop from the 1950s, the exchange of information and knowledge about clay became easier, but the opportunity to learn about clay by watching others at work remained invaluable. Workshops and demonstrations featuring international potters became more frequent, and important visitors included Bernard Leach, and Shoji Hamada, among others. Hamada held a throwing and decorating workshop, and "worked steadily at making pots in Yvonne Rust's studio whenever the time could be found". Legendary American potter Peter Voulkos gave a memorable performance at a Rotorua conference in 1985, "swaggering" onto the stage to "sway and reel and wrestle" with enormous mounds of clay.
Playing with fire
The transformation of a lump of wet clay into a vase, bowl or jug takes place partly in the hands and partly in the kiln, where the pot is changed forever by its encounter with fire. The encounter itself is often invisible, with the pot hidden in the kiln for hours, even days; but potters delight in playing with fire, and find ways of bringing it out into the open. In raku firings, for example, the pot is taken hot from the kiln and plunged into sawdust or other combustible material, burning away the oxygen to create a distinctive surface finish. These are popular community events, even though the "definite presence of fire and heat is not for those of an anxious disposition," as Vivienne Bailey reported after attending the Otaki Pottery Club's annual raku firing in 2014.
Auckland Studio Potters (ASP) have taken this even further, building experimental performance kilns which may actually fire pots, but "mostly provide a brief and fiery spectacle" for the public. Over the years ASP members have constructed kilns from a filing cabinet, potatoes and pumpkin, phonebooks, a motor car, and even ice. The Ice Kiln created for Guy Fawkes Night in 2006 survived
for over forty minutes, and successfully fired one small pot, the roaring flame inside clearly visible through the ice. Fireworks were let off inside the kiln, and metal salts were added for an even more spectacular effect.
Such fiery experiments seem worlds apart from Elizabeth Lissaman's demonstrations in the D.I.C. china department. Yet underneath it all, what's on show is essentially the same: creative energy, skill and knowledge, hard work and a passion for clay.
Header image: One of many "performance kilns" built by members of Auckland Studio Potters over the years, the Ice Kiln survived for over 40 minutes, successfully firing one small pot. All Rights Reserved © Duncan Shearer