A Life in Clay
In 2003, writer Amanda Wayers was commissioned by The Dowse Art Museum to interview potter, educator, and craft advocate Dame Doreen Blumhardt. These interviews revolve around the objects which make up the Dame Doreen Blumhardt Collection, as a means to populate the museum’s catalogue with as much information as possible.
There’s a formula to these conversations: Amanda will point towards an object, she’ll ask Doreen who made it, when they made it, how it was made, and what it’s been used for. The result of this exercise is the unfolding a life lived out of order. Each object carries us back through more than half a century of ceramics history in Aotearoa – as Doreen herself witnessed it, and made it happen. A brown octagonal dish made by legendary Japanese potter Takeichi Kawai, for instance, takes us back to two weeks in April 1964, when Kawai stayed at Doreen’s home in Northland. A slab vase decorated with a green ash glaze and brown squiggly lines takes us to Lowry Bay. Doreen describes shovelling macrocarpa ash, still warm after a scrub clearing fire, into big bags to use in her glaze mixes.
I was delighted reading through the transcripts of these interviews while researching for The Dowse’s forthcoming exhibition, Doreen Blumhardt: Jet-Powered Meteor (15 December 2017 – 1 April 2018). The interviews – all two hundred pages of them – offer a portrait of a woman who was generous, charismatic, and tireless in her commitment to the development of ceramics in Aotearoa. Below, I’ve reproduced a short edited excerpt of a conversation between Amanda, Doreen, and potter Peter Stichbury, conducted at Doreen’s home on Harbourview Road, Northland on 6th February 2004.
Simon Gennard is the 2017 Blumhardt/Creative New Zealand Curatorial Intern.
Doreen Blumhardt I think I was probably the first art specialist in New Zealand… I took courses for teachers in all different education board areas. I had twenty teachers for a week and they would have to do all the things that they were going to do with their children, not only in clay but in painting.
Peter Stichbury Yes. That’s the best way.
DB Yes… The headmasters were aghast that they had to use the brush. It was something absolutely foreign to them, a big sheet of paper and a brush and some colour, however they did it and we had lots of fun as you can imagine. I was insistent that everybody who was going to teach had to do it themselves first. And that’s what in fact happened.
PS I met Doreen through David Driver, the architect… He said to me, ‘why don’t you join the art thing.’ So when I came down to Wellington there she [Doreen] was in Braithwaite Street with all her friends.
DB And he came to live there too. I had nine students, if you like to call them that, all living there together. It was the first mixed flatting I think in Wellington. I was the boss, I never had any nonsense.
PS You can imagine that, can’t you?
DB It was a big nine roomed house and the two rooms in the front had been occupied for a long time by a lady with a wooden leg who was a martinet…I had to make enough money to pay the rent for the house and that was what, you know teacher’s salaries in those days were piffling.
Amanda Wayers What’s a martinet?
PS An old biddy. A tough old biddy, isn’t she? Bossing everybody around.
PS The movement in New Zealand was regarded as a social phenomenon. Everybody wanted to take it up.
DB It was at the beginning stages, yes…
AW People were buying as well?
DB Well, you see, there’s only a certain number of people in New Zealand who would be buying pots and by the time they bought a dozen pots they weren’t buying any more.
PS Well people, you know middle aged to elderly people would come into the shop and say aren’t they lovely, I’ve got so many at home, I’d love to buy some more but I don’t know what to do with them.
DB Exactly… There just weren’t enough people to go on buying pots.
AW So not many people did what you did, Doreen, and just filled up their house with pots?
DB … Well, I suppose not many people were in on the ground floor like I was. I’ve seen the whole thing all the way through. It’s been fascinating really.
PS Well, we had to feed three children so we didn’t collect.
DB Yes, they collected humans and I collected potted things.