The annual Portage Ceramic Awards exhibition opens today at Te Uru. Irish ceramic artist Ingrid Murphy, who judged this year’s entries, describes the process of whittling down 236 entries to the finalists and winners

I must admit it took me all of a split-second to accept the invitation to be this year's judge of the Portage Ceramic competition. What better way to get to know and understand a culture than through the eyes of its makers and the objects that they make?

My journey as Portage judge began like most things these days - with a ping in my inbox announcing the arrival of a PDF file of digital applications. The email was shortly followed by a rather large container holding their physical counterparts in lever arch box-files. I was impressed by the sheer weight of that box as I heaved it into my office: a total of 236 applications were held within. Its weight alone demonstrates the importance the Portage competition holds for ceramicists in New Zealand.

As a ceramicist and educator of many years, I find there is a simple yet profound joy in looking at ceramic objects; they are my vernacular, my way of mediating with the world, so for me to delve into that box of applications was pure adventure. As a material-based practitioner, I feel a liberty denied my colleagues in discipline-based practice, for in material practice, once the material is selected - in my case, clay - there are no further rules, only choices. To see how other makers address their myriad of choices through clay, glaze and fire is always a thrill.

Each application within the box held images of objects, and each object demonstrated the sum of its choices. The lever arch files released their grip and these choices were spilling forth across my desk, up my wall, across the floor and along the shelves: choices that were made across the length and breadth of New Zealand were now pinned to a wall in distant Wales. In that immersive visual diorama of objects, a nation's ceramic voice could be heard. This is one of the significant factors of open competitions like Portage; they enable every voice to come to the choir. As Camile Paglia so eloquently writes: "All objects, all phases of culture are alive. They have voices. They speak of their history and interrelatedness. And they are all talking at once!"

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And it was surrounded by this din of objects that the enormity of my task struck home; as judge I was going to have to put over 180 voices back in the box.

A competition of this nature is a strange beast in creative practice. With ceramics, there is no chequered flag to speed past, no points to score, and to appoint a sole judge is both unusual and brave. Lacking the collective verdict of a panel, you are reliant on one set of eyes, one set of experiences to draw upon, and in my case, one indecisive Irish mind. I lived with my ceramic diorama for days. I read the applications, the backstories, the statements, and the biographies; I shuffled my diorama around; I walked out of the room and then back in as if to surprise it. It didn't get any easier. But slowly, over days in my ceramic cave, some voices began to emerge as objects pushed themselves forward from the crowd. There were objects that held the eye longer, objects where skill spoke with a distinct voice; there were objects that whispered poetically and ones that screamed to be heard. There were objects that pushed boundaries of physical ability and objects that made me laugh; objects I longed to use, objects that informed me and objects that transported me to other places and other times. A collection of objects materialised, judged not against some strict criteria of what is "good", but on the ability of an object to speak.

So that is what we see here at Te Uru and the Portage Ceramic Awards competition of 2015: one mind's selection of what New Zealand has to offer to the world of contemporary ceramic practice. As you view the work on display, I hope you will agree that it's a rich and diverse offering; one that is both strong in traditional values, yet also seeks a new language for writing new tales.

Arriving in New Zealand and physically seeing the works I had selected was akin to meeting an online date: did they match up to my expectations, had they lied about their height? An image never fully prepares you for experiencing an object in the flesh, and to see the gaggle of objects I had selected in the beautiful space that is Te Uru did not disappoint. It was like meeting old friends in unfamiliar surroundings.

I spent a further two days in the gallery with Kenny Willis, selecting the finalists, conjugating the display and completing the most difficult of tasks: selecting the prize winners. These final decisions went through many permutations and, like any distillation process, the stronger elements bubbled their way to the top. These final works posses a range of qualities ranging from poetic beauty to brutal power. For me these objects address themes, which are both specific yet universal and of significant importance in our time. I feel that is the role of the Portage competition: it is a barometer of ceramic practice here and now, and I hope this selection fully reflects the high standards and diverse ceramic practice that forms a vibrant part of the creative culture of New Zealand.

And the winners are

Premier Award Winner ($15,000):
Raewyn Atkinson of Wellington for Wasters III (Accumulate):

"This work belongs to a series that initially used found 'wasters' from a ceramic factory and has progressed to the reworking of my own. It has evolved from an accumulation of a range of influences and experiences including a beach in Northern California composed entirely of ceramic shards, a Delft 'waster' in the Victoria and Albert Museum and an interest in the discarded.

"In the making of porcelain tableware, my own expectations and the limitations prescribed by function results in a high rate of 'wasters'. By stacking and balancing the losses that occur in the firing process, Wasters III (Accumulate) is my reflection on personal and global fragility and responsibility. I am wanting to make the discarded visible."

Merit Award ($2000):
Virginia Leonard of Warkworth for Too Many Surgeons:

"Chronic pain has no biological value. Modern medicine cannot reliably treat chronic pain. It lacks language and voice. I have sought a voice for my own pain ... the language of my clay-making is my attempt to rid my body of trauma and reduce my level of chronic pain."

Merit Award ($1000):
Paul Maseyk of New Plymouth for Essential Equipment for an Arsonist:

"Essential equipment for a competent arsonist - cigarettes, matches, lighter, petrol, molotov cocktail - all useful tools if trying to start a fire for mischievous purposes."

Ceramic Research Centre in Guldagergaard, Denmark, Residency:
John Parker of West Auckland:

"I usually work in isolation in my own studio, so I would welcome the chance to explore new methods and to develop new work in the highly collaborative environment of the Guldagergaard Ceramic Research Centre. Acknowledging their expertise in the wider continuum of ceramics my experience there, engaging with technicians and other ceramicists, will be professionally extending and invaluable in my future practice as an artist."

Ingrid Murphy has been a ceramicist and educator for more than 20 years. She led the renowned Ceramics Department at Cardiff School of Art & Design in Wales and leads the school's new trans-disciplinary Maker Department and the FAB-Cre8 research center. She has just been shortlisted for the British Ceramics Biennial Award.