Barry Brickell is one of New Zealand’s most influential potters, yet he refuses to identify himself as an artist. “I don’t call myself an artist at all, it’s a bit conceited. I’m a workman. I just work, whether it’s bending rails, or doing drawings or paintings or making pots. Ralph Hotere said ‘what is art, it’s just work.’ Therefore digging a drain could be art if you like.” Despite trying to sidestep the label of ‘artist’ Brickell has undoubtedly made a noteworthy contribution to New Zealand’s cultural landscape for the last 35 years. Recently, he became the subject of a significant retrospective curated by Emma Bugden and David Craig at The Dowse in Lower Hutt, an institution noted for its ceramics. Entitled His Own Steam, the exhibition featured some of the artist’s own collection as well as private and corporate collections from around the country. A book of the same name was written by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien to compliment the exhibition. His Own Steam has now come to the Waikato Museum and is showing from now until February 16th 2014. The original exhibition has been added to, with several rarely-seen works from the Waikato Museum collection being given an airing.
In order to understand Brickell’s work, one must first understand his life and his passions. His life “is consumed by mixing art, conservation and engineering” and all his enthusiasms were fostered from an early age. Born in New Plymouth in 1935, Brickell soon moved to Devonport in Auckland where he was to spend his formative years. His interest in pottery was first sparked aged 9, when a teacher brought in a potter’s wheel and taught his students to throw clay. His interest deepened when he started exploring gas and brickworks, and began constructing his own kilns under his house. It was while at Takapuna Grammar School he formed a potter’s society and first met the preeminent potter Len Castle. Upon completing his degree in Science and Teaching at Auckland University he had a short-lived stint as a teacher at Coromandel District High School in 1961. Afterwards, he decided to become a full-time potter and purchased his first property near Coromandel Town. In 1974 he purchased the neighbouring property which became the current location of his Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, and his home ever since. It was at Driving Creek where Brickell’s passions were able to completely merge together; He set about designing and building his own kilns, and constructed a railway complete with steam engine that was initially to help transport local clay dug from the hills to his studio. It has since become one of the Coromandel’s star tourist attractions. Brickell cares deeply about conservation, and as such any disturbance to the natural environment is kept to a minimum.
It may sound as though Brickell adheres to long-held romantic notions of the solitary artist returning to nature; however that would be trivialising his significance on our cultural landscape. Brickell’s creations, which range from cups to murals and politically-charged instillations, have found their way to top galleries, museums and collectors throughout the country. He has sought throughout his career to find a New Zealand identity that merged an indigenous and modern aesthetic. While his contemporaries were looking to Japan for inspiration, Brickell was more fascinated by Sepik pottery and Fijian gourds as well as provincial medieval pottery. This was combined with elements of engineering and interest in steam to create what David Craig describes as an “explicitly counter-colonial, hybrid Aoeteroan practice.” During a time in New Zealand’s history when we were paralysed by a cultural cringe, this was an iconoclastic notion. In now typically nationalistic form, Brickell produces work that speaks of our landscape and our relationship to it both literally and figuratively. His pieces are created using a concoction of yellow Coromandel clay mixed with local river sand as well as fine plastic ball clay from Central Otago. The final products are bound by their timelessness and ties to the Pacific. Coarse primitive textures are juxtaposed with sweeping curves, abrupt cuts, and formidable forms are coloured by a local palette. These idiosyncrasies deftly capture the essence of our nation’s landscape with its most primal material. Brickell’s works pulsate with socially-conscious vigour, earthy practicality, and wryly satirical humour. Much like Brickell himself, who simply describes his art as “a form of communication.”
Brickell as a character has become just as significant to the New Zealand artistic landscape as the work he produces. His Own Steam showcases Barry Brickell the engineer, the potter, the conservationist, the political commentator, and workman. Visitors will be sure to leave with a broad appreciation of this multifaceted “workman.”
This article was first published in the Waikato Times, November 2013.