Artist, Laurie Steer, is the "enfant terrible" of Ceramics NZ, and as Carly Gibbs discovers, his renegade reputation formed early.

Laurie Steer is making a pot of tea, but no ordinary tea will it be.

Nothing he makes is rudimentary.

Brewed in an olive, homemade teapot, he tilts its wavy, rainbow-shaped handle, and tea falls into a tea bowl, decorated by New Zealand painter Séraphine Pick.

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Steer's art is a complete extension of himself. It's perfectly imperfect.

The Viking mug he drinks from, and made, is rimmed with spikes.

He twists "lucky beads" around his neck, flashing a ring with a molar, set by the German-born jeweller Karl Fritsch.

"It sits just there, normally," he says pressing the ring to the side of his jaw.

"I had it fixed over and over again, and it still ached. I got it taken out as a warning to the rest of my teeth. It's like putting a skull on a stick outside your village."

Steer is a fulltime potter in Mount Maunganui and the "enfant terrible" of Ceramics NZ.

He's outspoken, swears and talks as fast as his potter's wheel spins.

His works have been exhibited in Auckland and Wellington, and his domestic ware is sold in selected New Zealand stores, but not in Tauranga, nor has he ever exhibited at Tauranga Art Gallery.

He can't say why not, other than it's just not something that has ever come up.

He's not sure how he's perceived locally but says he spends no time considering it.

He is, however, warm, hospitable and humorous.

He was born in the Mount as Laurie Lee Sherred Steer, named after the English poet, Laurie Lee.

He feels strongly that Mount Maunganui isn't an arty place but chooses to raise daughters, 10-year-old Florence Peach Blossom (his parents had a peach orchard), and Juno Buttercup, 7, here, because he's a "loyalist".

He's been married to seamstress, Natalie, for 22 years, and the family also have Maltese shih tzu Mojo Wilcock.

Their cute and whimsical house is an eclectic mix of art, vintage findings and hundreds of plants.

Laurie Steer at his home in Mount Maunganui. Photo / John Borren
Laurie Steer at his home in Mount Maunganui. Photo / John Borren

They've done away with their TV and lounge furniture, in exchange for a bed and a craft table.

He trained under the late, Barry Brickell, one of New Zealand's most celebrated ceramic artists, and creator of Driving Creek Railway and Potteries in Coromandel.

Steer worked with Brickell for 15 years on and off and believes himself to be amongst Brickell's last apprentices before he died at age 80, in 2016.

Steer, who owns some Brickell's creations, is working through Ceramics NZ to get Brickell's pottery up and running again as an educational facility.

He will run pilot classes in Coromandel at the end of this year, and again in February, with an eventual goal of having other New Zealand potters share their expertise.

The late Barry Brickell was one of New Zealand's most important ceramicists. Photo / Richard Robinson
The late Barry Brickell was one of New Zealand's most important ceramicists. Photo / Richard Robinson

Steer specialises in wood-fired ceramics, describing his style as "bogan".

His pieces have a Game of Thrones feel to them, and his workshops in Mount Maunganui and Wellington consistently sell out.

Pottery and craft in general is experiencing a resurgence, he says.

"We're certainly at a point in history (with technology), where things are as hands-off as they've ever been.

"People's experiences are largely through a screen, so anything that's tactile and sensitive has an emotional trait," he says.

Growing up, his parents owned the importers shop Antipodes, and he got a worldly taste of life through travel.

His mother has a photograph of him as a 4-year-old, fresco painting on their shed, with a fake, candy cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

"That was probably also telling that I wasn't going to be the easiest child," he notes.

He has never been one to conform.

Squirrel Trap by Laurie Steer. Photo / supplied
Squirrel Trap by Laurie Steer. Photo / supplied

At art school, he refused to live like his fellow poverty-ridden students, so he'd make paintings and hold shows at his flat.

His tutors were appalled.

He dropped out of Mount Maunganui College when he was 14 and went surfing and travelling.

When he went to parties in the 1990s, he never turned up in rugby shorts and jandals; he turned up in one of his mother's jackets with hulking shoulder pads and big jewellery.

"It didn't bother me what people thought," he says. "Although it was a dangerous occupation in the Bay of Plenty, and it still is."

Despite hating school, he gained "cool status" by decorating the covers of other students' books, or by doing their borders or bubble writing.

As a teen, he gained social acceptance by being a talented surfer.

He started off painting pictures, but his view of art expanded when he went to art school.

He went to Waikato Institute of Technology and received scholarships to Sydney College of Fine Arts, Melbourne Institute of Technology and then Auckland University of Technology, where he finished with a Master of Art and Design.

Steer has previously been a finalist in Wallace Art Awards several years in a row.

Simon Bowerbank, director of Auckland-based art gallery and auction house Bowerbank Ninow, says the "playful" Steer is one of the best ceramic artists in the country and comes from good "lineage" as a protege of Brickell's.

"His work is good because it straddles two different arenas," he says.

"The ceramic world and the art world are quite different ordinarily, and there's not really all that much overlap, but his work is kind of unique in that it exists in both of those areas.

"It's contemporary art, and it's also ceramics, and engages with the history of (both). It's not something a lot of ceramicists do, and it's not something a lot of artists do."

Hamish McKay of Wellington's Hamish McKay Gallery, says Steer relishes in the "ugliness" of his work and to push the boundaries of domestic aesthetics.

"The unconventional forms reflect this," he says.

Laurie Steer has always been his own person. Photo/ John Borren
Laurie Steer has always been his own person. Photo/ John Borren

When Steer began working with clay, he was in his mid-20s, and the decision was utterly unintentional.

He was playing around with installation art, and in true Steer style, was blowing up sculptures on the Papamoa Hills and rebuilding them.

It was then he started experimenting with the shards of baked clay left behind.

He admired the work of Barry Brickell and wrote to him asking to be his understudy.

Brickell would always write back "no", until one day Brickell's need for help outweighed his want.

"Eventually, he rang me up one day: 'Can you come and help me fire this kiln?'

"He was very much like that - it (was) just practical. He just wanted someone to lift the wood."

Barry Brickell famously spent 33 years building the Driving Creek Railway - a popular tourist attraction in Coromandel. Photo / Lesley Staniland
Barry Brickell famously spent 33 years building the Driving Creek Railway - a popular tourist attraction in Coromandel. Photo / Lesley Staniland

What followed was a journey over a decade where Steer would become a part-time apprentice, travelling between Mount Maunganui and Coromandel to observe the masterful Brickell, learning slowly and richly over time.

"Barry was the most famous potter in the southern hemisphere, and he'd made the ugliest pots that I'd ever seen, and those two things attracted me," Steer says.

"I learnt a lot about philosophy from Barry too.

"He was a subsistence liver sort of guy. His approach about pushing the edge and being an individual resonated with me, because that's how I'd always felt. It was comforting."

In saying that, with Brickell's genius came challenging and off-the-wall personality traits.

"Half the time, I came back from Coromandel swearing I'd never return."

Transcendental Avalanche by Laurie Steer. Photo / supplied
Transcendental Avalanche by Laurie Steer. Photo / supplied

His impact on Steer's career cannot be underestimated though.

"Now, at a lot of my workshops, I talk about Barry embarrassingly obsessively. He's not saying it any more, so I do feel compelled to pass it on."

The main message is that the arts have value in society and it's not a "trivial" career choice - something Steer was made to feel as a teenager.

"It's satisfying to have a reached a certain level of success to be able to stick it back to the people," he says.

"Half are thrilled I've been able to survive as an arty person for so long. The other half are waiting for me to admit it's over."

He was famously unplugged at his old high school when trying to voice these exact views some years back.

At the time, he was in charge of the art department at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology).

"I said: 'I've got a minivan outside with the engine running. If you've been told there's no career in art, get in the van, I'll take you to the polytech, and I'll enrol you right now'. This young Māori guy stands up, and he's got a pashmina on, and he goes: 'Take me with you!' It was a highlight moment," Steer grins.

"And then they unplugged me shortly after that."

Nowadays, Steer is on the council for Ceramics NZ.

For most of his career, he's been the country's youngest fulltime potter, even though he's 41.

He has a tribal tattoo on his shoulder that he lied to get when he was age 15, and he also bears the line: "To thine ownself be true" on the underside of his forearm, which he tattooed himself.

He spends time in Wellington, and overseas, where he is good friends with London-based Italian designer Martino Gamper, and his partner, contemporary artist Francis Upritchard, who has represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale.

However, his influence can be seen locally, where he helped design restaurants Astrolabe Brew Bar, Postbank and Papamoa Beach Tavern.

Laurie Steer in his kitchen with a collection of pottery. Photo / Carly Gibbs
Laurie Steer in his kitchen with a collection of pottery. Photo / Carly Gibbs

You may have also seen him swimming at Mount Maunganui Beach, with his pottery bobbing around him.

The idea came to him when working in Coromandel. There was no hose nearby to wash off soot and ash from anagama firings, so pots would be washed in a creek.

He jokes that at the Mount, it's fun to sink his pots out the back of waves, come in and swim out again, and see if he can find them.

"I made a couple of big flat round ones, and they're great body surfers," he grins.

Being an artist is not a lifestyle, but a life, he reckons.

"The stories generate themselves," he says of his daily doings.

"If you chop the wood, and build these big kilns and fire them, and collect your own clay, you are naturally going to bump into other interesting people doing interesting things."

Steer will keep on creating until he can't.

"The best thing about being me is that I never have to retire," he says.

"The idea that at some point I have to stop is the worst thing that could happen to me."