The Gallery's ceramic collection underwent a remarkable shift during the 1980s, in both the way ceramics were regarded and in the number of works collected. However, some of the first pieces to be acquired were purchased in 1954 and 1955. They were early works by the New Zealand master ceramic artist, Len Castle (b.1924), made in 1956-7 before he went to Cornwell to study with Bernard Leach (1887-1979). Inspired by Leach and the Japanese ceramic artist Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), Castle developed an individual oeuvre that drew upon his love of the natural environment and his fascination with the symbol of the circle. Bowl Stemmed (1985), an elegant wheel - thrown bowl with a rich crackle glaze and refined stem, reflects Castle's Anglo-Japanese aesthetic and his highly developed technical skill in kiln firing.
During the 1970s under the directorship of Brian Muir and with the advice of potter and CSA Director Nola Barron, the collection began to expand, including work by Mirek Smisek, Juliet Peter, Barry Brickell, Roy Cowan and David Brokenshire. Nola Barron was an early member of the Canterbury Potter's Association, formed in 1963, to co-ordinate the common interests of potters in the Canterbury and West Coast regions. Other pioneers of ceramics include Doreen Blumhardt who published, in collaboration with Brian Brake, New Zealand Potters - Their Work and Words in 1976. The Collection also contains a significant number of ceramics by unknown Japanese artists, ranging from fired clay funerary figures and utilitarian earthenware, all generously gifted to the Gallery in 1969 and 1974 respectively, by Christchurch's sister city, Kurashiki.
Organised through the Potter's Association, Hamada and Leech visited New Zealand, (Leach visited in 1962, Hamada in 1965 and 1973). Their presence influenced a generation of New Zealand potters and cemented the Japanese influence of simple and unassuming wheel thrown pots, which stressed a restrained quality. In 1965, Hamada brought with him a major exhibition which was shown at the Canterbury Museum. He worked with potter Yvonne Rust in her studio and gave many seminars and lectures as well as sharing his glaze recipes with potters during his first visit. Other international ceramic artists to come to New Zealand included Harry and May Davis, who arrived from England in 1962, settling in Nelson, and the English potter Michael Cardew who was Guest Artist for the 1968 Arts Festival.
Since the first emphasis on Japanese aesthetics styles have changed toward a wider diversity of techniques and individual expression. By the 1980s the Collection began to focus on the sculptural three-dimensional qualities of ceramics rather than the functional domestic-ware that had dominated the market. Drawing on his experience of New Zealand native bush, James Greig, a student of Len Castle's, developed the idea of a 'growth form' pot. Many of his pieces were hand built sculptural forms emblematic of Greig's concerns for nature and the cyclic processes of transformation that occur within the earth. A figurative emphasis is seen in the work of Polish/Australian ceramist Maria Kuczynska, who was Guest Exhibitor for the 1984 Christchurch Festival Pottery Exhibition. Her porcelain sculpture, Standing Figure, exudes an archaic quality reminiscent of Classical Greek sculpture. Although fragmented, the folded porcelain evokes a bodily presence of contained energy, at once monumental and fragile.
The range of expression achievable through this medium, from the traditional to the experimental, can be seen in Rick Rudd's Raku No. 915 (1986) and in narrative works such as Jimmy Cooper's triptych, A Spot of Infidelity (1996). A traditional technique, raku fired clay originated in China during the 10th century and was refined by Japanese potters during the 16th century. Removed from the kiln with tongs while red-hot and placed in sawdust or other combustible material, the clay is smoked to create a chalky black, textured surface. Rudd's Raku No. 915, a pinched and coiled organic form, also has a burnished crackle glaze detailing the inner curve of the mobius twist (the intrinsic structure of the vessel) with a distinct earthy-beige colour. In contrast, Cooper's A Spot of Infidelity, recalls a single dramatic moment through three earthenware panels. Projecting out from the wall, they are sculptural and three dimensional with painterly and slightly abstracted coloured glazes. In its vivid colour, exaggerated expressions and sense of drama, this work is also suggestive of comic book art.
Contemporary ceramic artists continue to push the boundaries of the medium, in both decorative and sculptural genres. Prestigious awards such as Faenza in Italy, the Sidney Myer Fund International Ceramics Award and the Fletcher Challenge Award, celebrate the versatility of this practice. A selection of the Gallery's ceramic collection will be on display in the Christchurch Art Gallery's Monica Richards Gallery in 2003. Entitled Essential Forms it will also include textiles and glass art, many of which will be on public display for the first time since their acquisition into the Collection.
This striking work is about the emotional and domestic chaos of a man discovering his lover is being unfaithful. It’s a story drawn from Jimmy Cooper’s own experience. The vivid colour, exaggerated expressions and sense of drama are like a comic book but, despite their stylised features, Cooper’s figures are intensely human. He has concentrated on the most expressive parts of the body, mouth, eyes and hands, to show hurt, anger and shock. Cooper was born in Westport. He made domestic pottery in the early 1980s but began experimenting with three-dimensional ceramic figures during his studies at Otago Polytechnic. In 1993 Cooper was the joint winner of the Scotwood Award at the Cleveland Ceramics Awards in the United States and he was a finalist in the XPO New Zealand Ceramics and Glass Awards in Auckland in 1996. His first major individual show was held at the Dowse Art Museum in 1997. Since then he has participated in group and solo exhibitions throughout New Zealand.
The elegance and symmetry of this shallow bowl have much in common with Japanese ceramics and its fine texture reflects Len Castle’s profound love of nature and the alchemical processes of firing clay. There is a depth in the subtle colour achieved through a controlled technique characteristic of Castle’s work. Bowl Stemmed has been iron glazed. Castle was born in Auckland and has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Auckland. He began potting professionally in 1962 and was a founder of the studio pottery movement in New Zealand. Castle was the first New Zealand potter to have had solo exhibitions in Australia, the United States, Japan and Sweden. His work is held in numerous private and public collections, including the collection of the British Royal Family and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rick Rudd says that for most of his work he takes containers as his inspiration, then interprets them through form and texture. This freestanding, sculptural ceramic shows the influence of Japanese and Buddhist traditions. Rudd has successfully emphasised the spiral in the form by using a glassy glaze to contrast with the dark surface. ‘Raku fired’ is an oriental term relating to pottery removed from a kiln with tongs while red-hot. It is then placed in a bed of combustible materials, such as sawdust, which is what gives it its characteristic smoky finish. Rudd was born in Great Yarmouth, in England and attended the Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design from 1968 to 1969. Following further study in Germany and Wolverhampton, he came to New Zealand in 1973. Since then he has concentrated on pottery, making mainly hand-built raku pieces. Rudd has won many awards and his work is held in numerous private art collections and most major public collections.
Although it is an abstract sculpture, Maria Kuczynska’s porcelain figure brings to mind the broken remains of ancient Roman and Greek statues. The porcelain clay mirrors the smooth white surfaces of classical marble statues and the female form suggests the small figures that were created to represent goddesses. Before it is fired, porcelain is very malleable, which means it can be folded and draped like cloth, a quality Kuczynska uses to very great effect here. Once fired, it is very hard and strong, making it possible to create the kind of fine-edged details seen in this figure. Kuczynska was born in Poland and completed her art studies there. She was awarded the Grand Prize at the 1979 ‘Faenza International Ceramic Competition’ in Italy and since 1980 she has been a member of the International Academy of Ceramics in Geneva. Kuczynska has lived in Australia since 1982. She has been artist in residence at the Canberra School of Art and at the Meridian Sculpture Foundry, Melbourne.