Ceramic innovation

Holly Morgan’s LaVieEnRose.
Holly Morgan’s LaVieEnRose.
Through the ups and downs of the past 60 years, Ceramics New Zealand has soldiered on from its start in Dunedin. Rebecca Fox talks to ceramics judge Dr Emma Bugden about staying the course.

Exhibition judge Dr Emma Bugden.
Exhibition judge Dr Emma Bugden.
Sitting down to breakfast, Emma Bugden will be eating her cereal out of a Barry Brickell bowl and drinking her coffee from a Katherine Smyth beaker.

She loves nothing more than cradling a handmade piece of pottery.

‘‘You handle it, feel it, and it gives that connection back to the person who made it.’’

As a result, she is firmly in the view of using it rather than displaying it.

‘‘I admit I have lost a few through use, but I still believe it is better to use it, and potentially break it than having it on a shelf looking pretty. I do have a fair amount of chips in things.’’

Bugden’s love of ceramics goes back to her teenage years when she left school to study ceramics at Northland Polytechnic. However, she only did two years.

‘‘I’m not in any way a potter. I’m a fan.’’

Instead, she transferred to a fine arts degree and her career took her into the world of curating exhibitions, especially ceramics exhibitions.

‘‘I love that at the heart of ceramics is the idea of making a simple cup, bowl or vessel to use — that connection you can have to a maker whom you may never have met just simply by drinking out of a cup they made — that love of the handmade.’’

Royce McGlashan’s Grasslands Bowl.
Royce McGlashan’s Grasslands Bowl.
She became senior curator at The Dowse Art Museum, where she curated many ceramics exhibitions including ‘‘Slip Cast, A Modest Modernism: Roy Cowan & Juliet Peter’’, ‘‘Holding Holes: Lauren Winstone’’ and the nationally touring exhibition, ‘‘His Own Steam: A Barry Brickell Survey’’, co-curated with David Craig with an accompanying book.

In 2017, Bugden became the first New Zealander to be appointed to judge the Portage Ceramics Awards, the country’s premiere survey of contemporary ceramics.

She also judged the 2016 Walters Prize at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and the Signature Art Prize for the Singapore Art Museum.

Mark Hoyle’s Disparity or I Need Change.
Mark Hoyle’s Disparity or I Need Change.
Other curatorial roles she has held include at Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland, Wellington’s City Gallery and the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts.

Bugden, who is Whanganui-based, has also edited an anthology of the early years of New Zealand Potter magazine, A Partial Archive of New Zealand Potter (1958-1967).

She believes it is this history that led Ceramics New Zealand to invite her to judge its upcoming National Diamond Jubilee Exhibition being held in Dunedin as part of its 60th anniversary celebrations.

Bugden believes it is something to be proud of that Ceramics New Zealand is bringing its jubilee celebrations to Dunedin, where the first New Zealand Potters exhibition was held.

‘‘It is really significant and it acknowledges the long history Otago has had with ceramics.’’

It was organised by Dunedin potter Oswald Stephens at Otago Museum in conjunction with the Visual Arts Association, the forerunner of the Otago Arts Society. So it is fitting the Otago Arts Society is hosting the jubilee exhibition.

Yvonne Guillot’s Stupa.
Yvonne Guillot’s Stupa.
He invited 14 of the country’s top studio potters to take part including Doreen Blumhardt, Brickell, Len Castle, Peter Stichbury and Dunedin potters Helen Dawson and Grete Graetzer.

Its success led Stephens and a group of fellow potters to form a committee to organise a second exhibition and the publication of a national magazine, New Zealand Potter, which was intended to help with the financing and co-ordination of the national shows.

It gave itself the task to “provide a measure of continuity and co-ordination; to guide, at times to criticise, and to reflect the current situation as it seemed to us and to those whose opinions we sought’’, (New Zealand Potter, Volume 6 Number 2).

The New Zealand Society of Potters (later NZ Potters Inc) was officially established in 1965 to support that first editorial committee and to create a national council for the pottery community. The first annual meeting was held in Dunedin.

Since those glory days, ceramics in New Zealand has had its ups and down.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was viable for a potter to live off what they made. But in the 1980s, when the import laws changed opening the market to cheap imported crockery, many were forced out of the craft.

‘‘That was in many ways a low point for ceramics.’’

But Bugden says it was not all bad, as it forced some ceramic artists in a new direction — into sculpture or installation work.

It also forced the potters’ group to face some tough questions about its direction as an exclusive arts society or whether it needed to be more open to community makers.

In 1981, alongside the first national symposium in ceramics, selected membership was abolished as the group attempted to remain viable.

Bugden says in more recent times ceramics seems to be having ‘‘a moment’’ again.

‘‘I think at the moment it’s at an interesting time. There are a whole lot of younger makers breathing new enthusiasm into it and it’s gone in all sorts of exciting new directions. But still at the heart of it is that humble cup or bowl that you might eat your muesli out of every morning.’’

Nicole Kolig’s An Undomesticated Vessel.
Nicole Kolig’s An Undomesticated Vessel.
Social media has helped, as it provides makers with the chance to give people an insight into their craft and work.

‘‘And I think in this digital time there is this craving to have these handmade physical objects.’’

In 2018, the society was renamed the Ceramics Association of New Zealand (Ceramics NZ), as part of its efforts to remain relevant and engaged with the changing ceramics community.

‘‘It’s an extraordinary achievement to have gone on as long as they have. It really is something to celebrate. It has been a labour of love for many volunteers.’’

It plays an important role for potters and ceramicists, many of whom work alone in studios, as it provides support and advocacy.

More recently, lockdowns due to Covid have played a part in an increasing interest in craft and creative industries.

While many worried about the impact on the artists if people stopped buying their work, the opposite happened.

‘‘People were spending so much time in the house, people wanted to buy beautiful things to surround themselves with. That has been really heartening to see.’’

There are waiting lists for virtually every potters’ group in the country of people wanting to join classes.

‘‘The renewed interest is a wonderful thing.’’

Bugden says the wide variety of ceramics work being done around the country is reflected in the entries in the jubilee exhibition.

While the entries are all based in ceramics, their presentations are widely different, she says.

There are videos and photographs with ceramics as their focus and there is even a chess set made of clay and an entry using 3-D printing with ceramics.

‘‘There is this sense that there is a real explosion of new makers seeing what they can do with the material, pushing and prodding it both literally and metaphorically. It is such a versatile medium.

‘‘There is also a lot of sculpture work, a lot of work pushing the boundaries as well as some beautiful simple cups and vessels, a real range.’’

Themes varied, but many focused on the fragility of the world’s climate.

‘‘As clay is literally from the ground, it is a really strong connection makers are thinking about.’’

So, like elsewhere in the world, New Zealand potters are playing and innovating ‘‘not just throwing on the wheel’’.

‘‘There are a lot of new innovations in ceramics.’’

She found judging the competition a fun job.

‘‘It is a great thing. You get to spend a lot of time looking at beautiful objects and thinking about them.’’

When not judging, Bugden, who is co-founder and editor of Small Bore Books, is the strategic lead creative industries and arts at Whanganui & Partners and is a trustee of the Blumhardt Foundation.

When Dame Doreen Blumhardt passed away, the proceeds from her house sale and some of her collection went towards the betterment of craft education.

‘‘It’s a lovely legacy.’’

To see

Dr Emma Bugden talk, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, October 23, 2 pm; National Diamond Jubilee Exhibition of the Ceramics Association of New Zealand, Otago Art Society, October 23 to November 20. Associated activities: Ceramic Walkabout, October 23, 9am meeting at The Exchange; October 24, Dunedin School of Art, various workshops and tours of the ceramics studio. 

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