Ceramics are hot right now.

This month's Auckland Festival of Ceramics has more than 60 events on its programme, including coach tours, workshops, walks, expert talks, collectors' clinics, open studios and markets.

Classes at the Auckland Society of Potters are booked out; at Te Tuhi Gallery in Pakuranga, Ruby White (aka Miss Changy) is serving up Chinese-Malaysian inspired food on her own bespoke dinnerware and the Portage Ceramic Awards are showcasing 54 pieces by some of our most inventive artists working with clay.

But an exhibition that complements the annual Portage awards shows that New Zealand ceramics has a longer and livelier history than we may imagine. Curated by Moyra Elliott, Leading Ladies looks at five female potters who were working in the early 20th century: Briar Gardner, Elizabeth Matheson, Minnie F White, Olive Jones and Elizabeth Lissaman.


As the exhibition notes, most histories of NZ studio pottery begin in the mid-20th century but here were a group of women making - surprisingly contemporary-looking - pottery several decades before, possibly influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement.

"In the early 20th century it was necessary to be a woman of singular purpose and determination if making pottery was the aim, whether for economic independence, contributing towards family income or artistic expression," Elliott says.

Long-time collector Sandra Coney says the stories of the women's lives - the obstacles they overcame, the reasons they made the work they did, the equipment and the techniques themselves - provide a fascinating insight into our wider social history.

"It [this exhibition] is really doing them justice and it is about time because I think they've been forgotten but people will be fascinated to see how different and colourful their work was."

Coney says she long believed NZ potters produced only brown, slightly craggy looking work partly based on the kind of things her own mother, Doris Pearce, used to make. She was delighted to discover otherwise.

The longevity of some of these women's careers may also surprise. Elizabeth Lissaman was making pottery until her death, at 89, in 1990 and is thought to have had the longest career in ceramics in NZ; when Olive Jones passed away, also aged 89, she still had pots for turning waiting on her wheel.

That ceramics can become so addictive isn't news to artist and theatre designer John Parker, the only Auckland recipient of one of this year's Portage awards.

Parker started night-school pottery classes when he was "very unhappy" at university. It became a lifelong profession and passion.

"It's magnificent when you're at the wheel and the clay starts to swell - it's like magic," he says, adding that each success outweighs the failures so you're left thinking you'll just have one more go.

Premier Prize: Richard Stratton for Forced-Turned Teapot.
Residency Award at the International Ceramic Centre in Denmark: Andrea du Chatenier for Yellow Stack.
Merit Awards: John Parker, Amanda Shanley and Cheryl Lucas.

What: Auckland Festival of Ceramics
Where: various venues, until November 26
See: facebook.com/festivalofceramics
What: Leading Ladies and Portage Ceramic Awards 17
Where and when: Te Uru - Waitakere Contemporary Gallery; Ladies until January 28, Portage until February 11