The story behind the successful Morris & James pottery business is a tale that transcends clay and terracotta - it's also about facing adversity and going against the grain.
Just as the firing process imbues clay pots with strength and resilience, the Matakana-based pottery business, Morris & James, has withstood a series of catastrophic events which tested its own robustness. Since its inception in the late 1970s, the company has weathered a destructive fire, financial crisis and receivership and - most traumatically for founder Anthony "Ant" Morris - the tragic death of a young worker in a factory accident.
Morris' personal saga was no less fraught. He became a solo father to three children when his marriage to Sue James, who was also his business partner, broke down. And four years ago, aged 68, Morris suffered a stroke, the effects of which linger. His left arm and leg remain "unco-operative" and he's no longer able to create the pottery that has been his life's work. "I sold Morris & James largely because I had the stroke. [Then] it was a case of: 'What am I going to do?' And then several people said: 'Look, Ant write a book'," he says. "I haven't been a word sort of person but I must admit that this has been amazingly stimulating and really has sparked a lot of words."
The book Mud and Colour Man: The Morris & James Story - the artist, the potter and the pottery company he built, which Morris co-authored with Nick Charlton, AUT lecturer and design director at Morris & James, and Barbara Reardon, long-time friend and colleague, chronicles his personal, artistic and entrepreneurial journey.
With his potting days now behind him, Morris has embarked on more "contemplative projects" such as preserving the wetlands on the Morris & James property. The pit from which the clay was extracted is being restored. "That keeps me occupied. It's a case of digging ponds and doing a lot of planting. It's just a slow steady job." Frogs, pukeko and kingfishers are among the wildlife that has returned.
Morris & James enjoyed the boom-times of the 1980s, when the collective drive to turn homes and gardens into personal masterpieces translated into consumer demand for eye-catching accessories. "I think [our pottery] came at just the right time for New Zealand. It was big terracotta which wasn't being produced in New Zealand then. It was good quality and full of integrity. We were trying to be journeyman potters."
An estimated $40 million worth of Morris & James' work has sold to date. As well as having pride of place in homes, its creations can be found in the Auckland Ferry Buildings, Prego restaurant and Wellington's Government House.
The large pots for which the brand is most well-known are said to have a "full-bodied style".They are also distinguished by vibrant glazes - notably rich red and Pacific blue that, according to the book, "looked like you were gazing into the bottom of a deep, clear stream".
In addition to pots, Morris & James creates tiles, wall hangings and kitchenware such as bowls and platters. Morris himself has a particular fondness for one of the more domestic pieces in the range. "One of the perennials is the baking dishes. I love them. They're little square baking dishes. I use them everyday myself [for] cauliflower cheese, anything that needs to be in the oven. But also I look outside the window and I see lots of big pots that I've made and glazed or made and decorated - or just big terracotta. I love the simple shape."
Although born near Gisborne and educated at King's College, Auckland, Morris created his first pot in England. "That's where I learned to become a potter. In fact I've still got two or three pots that I made then in the very early days. They're pretty miserable looking pots," he says. "When you're doing something special every time you do something new, you think it's the best thing in the whole world. And that lasts for about a week."
There have been continual artistic challenges throughout Morris & James' 33-year history - from discovering how to take studio ceramics into larger-scale production to the constant tension between Morris' creative instinct and the commercial need to produce pots that sell. "The most enjoyable time for me was when I was fit and strong and making ... completely different things. I got a bit bored making lots of pots. The worst thing that happened was I had to earn money," says Morris. "I'd often do a design ... and nobody would buy it so then I'd go to the people at Morris & James and they would work to make it more commercial."
While grateful for the input of those with a sense for what makes the cash registers sing, Morris was not always enamoured with the resulting works. "Look, there are some pots that I really don't like. There was one called a John Dory - they were big three-dimensional pieces that are decorated on the side of the pot. Well, I never liked them but they sold hundreds and hundreds. And I'm really pleased for those people who bought them. And their children might buy something even better. We're all evolving in our artistic appreciation."
Morris, who has long had an artisan's eye, recalls finding a carved soapstone fish - a recurring Morris & James' motif - on the banks of the Limpopo River in the 1990s. "All these African guys were carving and polishing. [The pieces] all looked kitsch - horrible touristy stuff. Then suddenly I saw this little fish right at the back. It was the only piece I wanted to buy. It had lovely proportions. It was stylised; it wasn't trying to be exact or anything."
The imprecise nature of this African piece is something Morris cherished in his own work although this inherent "wonkiness", as he calls it, was not always appreciated by customers as they searched for "matching" pieces. "We're all wonky. We all have blemishes. We are all imperfect and so I wanted to express that in my pots and in my tiles."
* Mud and Colour Man: The Morris & James Story ($64.99: Harper Collins).