Master potters fire up the imagination

By Terry Lobb

Tripping around New Zealand it is always a treat to come across someone, quite by chance whose work you have long admired, but never thought you would ever meet.

The only evidence of the hidden treasure that lay ahead was a sign at the end of Valentine Rd, Bridge Pa, that said Pottery and along that road another at the gate.

So we ventured down the meandering driveway through a dry paddock filled with lovely trees to find a 1970s gallery and home designed by New Zealand Architect John Scott (b. 1924 - d. 1992).

John Scott's work is very distinctive, honest, simple and functional and I instantly feel in love with the building.

Typically a 70s structure with concrete floor, concrete block walls, lovely beams, high angled ceilings, large windows and steep angled roof lines and what appeared to be a cluster of boxy rooms fitted snuggly together to form this beautiful layout.

It was the home of potters Bruce Martin and his late wife Estelle Martin and Kamaka Pottery.

The gallery is simple and unpretentious and perfect for displaying the stunning collection of traditional and contemporary pots.

There is a definite Japanese influence about the pots and vessels within.

Bruce and Estelle married in 1950 and were and still are Kamaka Pottery, although sadly Estelle passed away in 2001.

They were self-taught, starting pottery as a hobby in the later 1950s - Bruce also made Estelle's first wheel and they built their first kiln in the backyard of their previous home in Hastings.

It was made from recycled bricks and had an old vacuum cleaner to blow the air through homemade burners.

In the early days they experimented with glazes from fruit wood ash and papa rock dug from the local river banks. Estelle's pottery was influenced by the writings and work of British potter and art teacher Bernard Leach and Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. Bruce gave up work as a radiographer to focus on pottery.

They were among the first potters in New Zealand to make a living from their work. They produced good basic domestic ware from jugs, teapots, mugs, casserole dishes and vases for Ikebana, a Japanese art form that Estelle had learnt.

In 1964 they found an outlet in Hastings for the pots but also sent pots to galleries throughout New Zealand.

Estelle and Bruce purchased a 10 acre block of land in 1968 which is where their existing house stands. The intention was to plant the section out in natives, unfortunately because the area is so dry this was not feasible.

The result is a beautiful park like section of native and ornamental trees probably more fitting for their Japanese-inspired New Zealand pottery. The house was duly built in 1970.

In 1978 Estelle and Bruce travelled to Japan for three months to follow their passion and interest in Japanese ceramics.

They visited museums, potteries and met and talked with potters and collectors.

This trip was a turning point in their pottery forging lasting links and friendships with Japan the people and potter Sanyo Fujii.

On their return they built a Japanese-style anagama kiln on the back of their property. This project was 2 years in the build and is the largest anagama kiln in New Zealand. The house and kiln are now under the Historic Places Trust listings. Sanyo Fujii visited Bruce and Estelle for 7 months to make pots and help them fire their Anagama.

The kiln is partially built into the ground and appears as a big mound on top of the earth under a basic roof structure.

When Bruce and Estelle were in full production the kiln was fired once a year and held 1000 pots. It is a unique firing as the pots are unglazed and reach tremendous temperatures turning the silica in the clay to molten glass and naturally glazing the work. The combination of smoke, ash and flame create a "one off" for every pot that is fired.

The kiln was fired for 10 days, consuming 25 tonnes of split pine timber, fed in every five minutes, 24 hours a day. The fire is first fed from the front then the sides through small openings on the side of the kiln.

What a tremendous task to keep the kiln burning for 10 days but the result is unique beautifully proportioned pots and vessels in unknown textures and colours.

Three clays are used in the firing which helps create the different colours from almost white glaze finishes to soft brown and even richer colours.

It must have been pure pleasure when the kiln was opened to discover the individual pots within. The kiln has not been fired since 1990 as it takes a tremendous amount of work to fill and to fire it. Bruce and Estelle first exhibited their work in the renowned Mitsukoshi Gallery of Fine Art in Asaka, in 1984. When we met Bruce he was packing a collection for another overseas gallery where he has been invited to exhibit.

I am now the proud owner of one of Estelle's pots, a beautiful shape I just wanted to touch and hold. If you have any questions about issues discussed or product supply give me a call on 0276023298 or drop me a line on (website under construction)

- Wanganui Chronicle

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