Pioneer's creative drive

PIONEER: Mirek Smisek was one of New Zealand's leading studio potters
PIONEER: Mirek Smisek was one of New Zealand's leading studio potters

Mirek Smisek, OBE, born in 1925 in Czechoslovakia, died aged 88 in Wellington on Sunday.

Mirek Smisek was one of New Zealand's leading pioneer studio potters. He lived in Nelson from 1952-68, starting off at the then Nelson Brick and Pipe Company. He learnt the technique of salt glazing, then moved on to set up his own studio, frustrated by the lack of interest in what he saw as progress and innovation.

By 1954 he had built a salt-glaze kiln and was working for himself, becoming the first full-time studio potter in New Zealand. Smisek also taught pottery classes at Nelson Technical School (part of Nelson College) and in 1958 began night classes at Waimea College.

"I had about 80 students," he said. "There was such a big enthusiasm there for it. Further support came from the Nelson Suter Art Society. They were completely behind me - they adopted me as their kind of protege. That was wonderful actually."

Smisek worked from a huge shed at the rear of Tahuna School, and said he always had an audience of fascinated children, who scaled the fence to watch him throw pots.

Throughout his life Smisek was driven to create functional domestic ware, as a response to his earlier exposure to the atrocities of war in Europe, where he had been imprisoned and seen many horrors.

"I think my experiences during the war - horror upon horror - had the effect on me that I was subconsciously worried about humanity. I had seen children suffer, women suffer, who were totally innocent of the barbaric activities of men. I got that somehow the answer was to be creative," Smisek said.

In the 1960s and 70s he worked and studied with international pottery masters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada at St Ives, Cornwall, and in Japan. From 1968, Smisek established three studio potteries on the Kapiti Coast - at Manakau, Te Horo and Waikanae.

His passing has coincided with a major exhibition of his works at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. Titled 60 Years 60 Pots, works have come from private and public collections throughout New Zealand.

The show was curated by Gary Fremantle, who said Smisek was, "a survivor who has maintained a strong sense of integrity to his creative convictions, has remained resolutely a potter: a maker of functional pottery that is designed to be used, combining the dual pleasures of function and aesthetics. That is why his artform is social - it relates to people and their activities. In this way his work comes alive when people are together and the pots are being used for their intended purpose".

Mirek Smisek, 60 Years 60 Pots, New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, Queens Wharf, Wellington, to June 9.