A big show of Barry Brickell's pottery and a book on it coincide to shine a light on a potter who has eschewed fashion for half a century.
Brilliant colour and imported clay are anathema to Brickell and he won't answer to the trendy title "ceramicist". The word, even if not directed at him, annoys the Coromandel potter no end.
The 100 pieces of his work on display in a retrospective exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum are pots, works in clay, he says.
"I'm not a ceramicist. It's a horrible word, for goodness sake. I'm a potter. I make pots, tiles and bricks. The word ceramicist is trying to put you on a pedestal."
Brickell, 77, is nothing if not direct, and unwavering. He has related his work to his environment and rejected all fashionable influences since pottery first became the bulky dinnerware du jour in the 1960s and 70s. These days he makes only sculptures, some massive, and smaller pieces like coffee mugs on request.
"The drive to make pots for commercial return is now gone. It had to be there for years.
"My motivation came from the railway. I still make things in clay. I do it if I'm asked or if I want to."
The railway is on his Driving Creek property, a 2.7-kilometre-long line that he initially built to transport clay and wood to his kiln. It terminates with the "Eyeful Tower" and is open to tourists.
The Dowse show, which coincides with an Auckland University Press book on Brickell, was curated by David Craig and Emma Bugden. Craig also co-authored the book.
Brickell, says Bugden, is long overdue for recognition. "Right now is Barry's moment."
That moment came as the result of a complete coincidence about three years ago. Bugden and Craig, who did not know each other, happened to be seated next to each other on a flight from Dunedin to Auckland.
Craig, a sociologist with an interest in the arts, was working on, with a view to publishing, a collection of Brickell's writing, another of his creative endeavours. Brickell enthusiast Bugden, at that time in charge of an Auckland gallery, was looking over his shoulder and trying not to appear rude
"She said, 'You're writing about Barry'." The pair agreed, by the end of the journey, that Brickell deserved a retrospective exhibition, but not where or how it could be mounted.
"She sent a couple of emails over the years and then one saying, 'Lo and behold, I'm at The Dowse. Are you still keen to do it?' " Craig immediately contacted Brickell, "and he was pretty keen. He's [nearly] 78. It's time."
Simon Manchester is a serious collector of and authority on New Zealand pottery. He features in a photograph in the new book, His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell. Manchester rates Brickell with Len Castle and Jim Greig. All three speak in their pots about being in New Zealand, without being obvious, in an organic way.
"Brickell is the last great one of them alive. This is the most important show since the Castle retrospective in 1994, and the book is the most important on New Zealand ceramics because of its integrity. It illustrates and examines the work of Brickell, a quirky individual of high integrity."
Manchester has "not enough" of Brickell's pots. "I have four really big ones, another half dozen medium ones and about 40 smaller ones. He's always made small, simple, raw domestic ware. He's also made huge sculptural works."
Craig says many people in the craft world believed it was time there was a survey exhibition of Brickell's work, including him. "When it looked like it was possible, there was huge excitement among collectors and potters."
Craig came across Brickell's work many years ago when he called at the Coromandel studio and bought a bowl to celebrate a wedding anniversary. "It turned out we had a lot to talk about."
Brickell worked at the heart of a seminal period of New Zealand's potting history when there was "a Driving Creek kind of style of forms and glazing", Craig says.
Brickell concentrated on and stuck to local materials, clay and glazes. He created work that "shouldn't be too slick, shouldn't be too flashy, or show that they were beholden to fashion colours".
"He used textures and a palette of colours of the landscape."
Brickell became "increasingly autonomistic and he felt that an oddity. Sometimes he played up to it and sometimes it outraged him. For him it had to be indigenous, from here."
To have employed the brilliant colours of Castle "would have been outside his natural circuits".
"He could be regarded as the main visionary of indigenous clay culture. He was producing work that resonated across the New Zealand aesthetic we had in the 1960s and 70s, a very fruitful moment of New Zealand art."
On the Coromandel, Brickell's daily concern is with his narrow-gauge railway, among its regenerating native bush and wildlife sanctuary. The property has grown from a useful adjunct to potting to a major business.
"The railway is the most popular tourist attraction on the peninsula. We had our one-millionth visitor at Christmas. It supports a staff of about 12 and because of it I've been able to build an art gallery and a beautiful house, solid and warm, designed by Ron Sang.
"I've been living in shacks all my life and this is quite different – no rats, mice or draughts."
Brickell paints "outsider" art.
"Ron Sang designed me a beautiful studio and I can't stop painting in it, more than making pots in it."
The exhibition focuses on his work with clay, "but I've been drawing and painting for the past 60 years. People don't see them. I don't exhibit them.
"The reason I paint is I love handling paint. One day there may be a major exhibition of them, when someone decides to, like The Dowse has done with the clay work. Painting and drawing and cartoons are immensely important to me."
His Own Steam: A Barry Brickell Survey, Dowse Art Museum, Hutt, May 4-August 11.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?