By LINDA HERRICK arts editor



If you're not having fun in this game, you may as well leave." A fine philosophy espoused and practised by ceramic artist Richard Parker, who also claims, "My life has been charmed".



So, he's a happy man - but not a smug, boasting type of man. The 56-year-old Kaeo-based potter, in Titirangi on Thursday night to pick up the top prize - $10,000 - in the prestigious Portage Ceramic Awards at Lopdell House Gallery, is merely expressing the joy of a life devoted to the thing he's always loved: art.



Parker also spends a considerable amount of time batting conversation away from his own achievements and on to others he admires: his good friend Richard Quinn, who spent years fighting to save Waitakere City's Crown Lynn heritage, whom Parker describes as a "national treasure"; potting pioneers Mirek Smisek and Harry Davis; and his ceramics teacher, the great Yvonne Rust, who founded the Quarry arts centre in Whangarei.

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The Portage Premier Award, judged out of 46 finalists by Australian artist and university lecturer Michael Keighery, supports Parker's position in the ceramics echelon in this country.



Parker's work is held in all the major public galleries, including Te Papa, the Dowse in Lower Hutt, the Otago Museum, the Suter in Nelson and the Whangarei Art Museum, along with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.



His work is coveted by private collectors around the world, from the United States to Europe and Southeast Asia. He represented New Zealand with a large-scale installation at the World Expo in Seville in 1992, a piece which is now held by Te Papa.



Yet he is thrilled the prize gives him the excuse to pop back to the "village" of Titirangi, "the place I feel most comfortable in in Auckland, the centre of the clay industry in New Zealand".



Parker's distinctive Signals won him the prize, in this case a collection of 30 pieces hanging on the wall. "I've been making small signals like that for a long time," he says. "They have little signs on them and each one is a different story about the areas I live in and move through.



"I make lots of them and I sell them individually or in big bunches. People build up their own collections or I'll make a collection for them. I really like doing that, it's very much a matter of reading a personality."



Next May, Parker will celebrate 30 years of potting full time. Born and raised in Nelson, he became aware of the art of clay in the early 1960s through potters such as Smisek and Davis, "who were just beginning the potting scene in New Zealand, down there, anyway".



"I used to bike out and watch Mirek and that really set me going," he recalls. "There was a lot of interest in potting, in a low-key sort of way, and then it grew rather rapidly. If you were interested in art, potting was one of the things you couldn't avoid. I always knew I was going to be involved - although I didn't dare say anything because in those days, you were supposed to get a 'proper' job."



In Parker's case, this was the standard option: teaching. It had its uses. "At teachers' college there was a pottery area which no one really showed you, but I hung around and got control of it.



"Then I started out in primary schools but I wanted to teach just art so I moved to secondary. I applied for jobs in the 'rough' schools like Karamea and Mangakino, which was very rough, but I was teaching art, drama and music and it was wonderful.



"I had the easy job because I didn't have to teach French or maths to the kids. We had a really good time - the kids were great and it set me up for understanding children."



But after seven years of teaching, Parker was bored beyond redemption and quit. That wasn't brave, he says, because he had met the inspirational Yvonne Rust (who died in Greymouth in July) at a summer school and, as far as she was concerned, you followed your instinct.



"She was the sort of person who believed in what you were doing and she didn't ask how you were going to make a living," says Parker. "She just made statements like, 'So you want to be a potter'. She took it as that was why I was there and, 'now we've sorted that out, away we go and after lunch I'll show you something you can make for your living'."



Which was making practical domestic ware for the first few years - but Parker sees all of his work as "very practical".



"Even if it's hanging on the wall" - he gestures towards Signals at Lopdell House - "they are set to go off on the peripheral vision. They will feed the edge of the eye when you're relaxing or walking around the house. I've got a theory about wellness and the way the eye feeds the soul. If people have beautiful things around them, it sustains them."



So Parker's house, which he shares with wife Nan, a primary-school teacher, is full of beautiful things? "Yes, it's a beautiful little house - but it wasn't when I first got it. It was so bad the farmer gave it to us. We bought the land, he gave us the house and it was a wreck.



"We've got a friend who builds sets for movies, he can make anything and the Parkers needed the inside of a house. Within seven weeks he'd done it - no mucking around, just rip, shit and bust."



Parker likes fast. "I like to work quickly as it means you're not thinking too much. It's like children - when they work they just do it but adults keep playing around, changing things. Kids are so free. When my daughter Rosie was working alongside me, she was much faster than me, I had to slow her down," he laughs. "It was a great instruction that has never left me."



The public sees only the very best of Parker's work, although he does admit that when he sees some of his older pieces in private collections, "I think, oh my God! I'm not so pleased to see them."



His success rate - how many pieces meet his exacting standards - is a secret. "I shudder to think. I don't think I'll admit it to anybody. Put it this way: I've got a very large shard heap. Sometimes I'll use shards in work, like a mosaic, but I am very strict and I don't have seconds. Sometimes I give things away to kids, but usually they get the hammer, and I've got lots of help with that."



Twenty years ago, Parker planted a pine forest on his land to provide wood-kiln fuel in the future. Those trees are now mature, and he has recently built a huge, arched kiln which leans on to the side of a hill on his property.



Creative New Zealand gave Parker $15,000 "to develop a new body of work experimenting with [the] tunnel kiln". The Portage Award underpins the faith funding organisations have shown towards him. "Winning the award is a real thrill; it is very helpful because it's good exposure, and it reassures the people who I'm asking for money that I'm okay and worth it."



* The Portage Ceramics Award finalists are on display at Lopdell House Gallery, Titirangi, until January 27. The other winners are: Kate Fitzharris of Dunedin, Open Award of Merit; Aidan Howse of Dunedin, Emergent Artist Award; Sanderson Kindleysides, of Waitakere, Waitakere City Artist Award.