Potter Bruce Martin feels honoured now that Kamaka Pottery’s retrospective exhibition is here. He speaks to TANIA McCAULEY about the show, life as a potter, and the state of today’s art.
Potted history goes on show
There is something tranquil about Bruce Martin’s Bridge Pa property, despite the occasional buzz from an aeroplane taking off or landing at the aerodrome close by.
It is a shade over 4ha, with a vast expanse of lawn, dotted with more than a few trees, planted by Bruce and his late wife, Estelle, who shared his ceramic dreams.
Just visible from the road is the studio, which no longer bustles with the activity usually associated with clay artists. It is still full of a fair few of the pots Bruce and Estelle made, until her death four years ago.
The couple always had an open door to visitors, and Bruce has kept Kamaka Pottery on the Hawke’s Bay Art Trail. This time of year can be a little quiet, but the buses will start rolling in again soon.
A Peter Stichbury exhibition in Auckland last year, and renowned potter Helen Mason’s exhibition earlier this year, marking her 90th birthday in Waipawa, set wheels in motion for his own retrospective.
“It was between the two of them, really, they said it was my turn,” Bruce says with a smile.
He asked Shaw, whom he had met through an article being written on John Scott’s architectural works of art, and who had an interest in things Japanese, whether he would mind writing the essay for the catalogue and it “snowballed”.
They [There] are plenty of photographs recording their journey, but as parents of three children, most of the early examples of their work were sold to feed the family, he says.
Putting the exhibition together meant calling on quite a few private collectors. Both the Martins won merit awards in the Fletcher Brownbuilt and Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Awards, and in the Norsewear Art Award.
Bruce was surprised to discover where some of their pieces had ended up. And with a website and e-mail, he occasionally gets an inquiry from someone wanting to know more, or whether they can drop in for a look.
When asked what it feels like to have a retrospective exhibition of his and Estelle’s work, Bruce says, in his quiet way, just that he feels “quite honoured”.
The Kamaka story begins in 1957, when Bruce and Estelle began potting. Estelle was quite taken with the Japanese containers Lou Theakstone brought along to the Ikebana flower arranging classes he took at the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum, as the museum was called then.
“I foolishly said “you could make your own’, so that’s really why it (the pottery) started,” claims Bruce, who until then was a radio grapher.
There was little outside help in those days, says Bruce.
Apart from clay modelling night classes and pottery classes, and help from Stichbury in Auckland, they were largely self-taught.
Both of them grew up in Hastings, and their first house and studio was in Pakowhai Road.
They set up Kamaka Pottery in 1964 and went fulltime a year later, eventually outgrowing the property and building their John Scott-designed home at Bridge Pa in 1970.
They were told they wouldn’t last six months by themselves. “The bank manager said, ‘that’ll do until you find a real job’,” he recalls, adding that they didn’t fit the QEII art grant scheme, either, so they were completely on their own.
Well, the pessimists were wrong. Shaw, the curator, had more than 40 years of work to sift through when he worked on Kamaka: The Ceramics of Bruce and Estelle Martin, a retrospective show which opened at the Hawke’s Bay Exhibition Centre in Hastings last Friday.
In 1978, the Martins embarked on their first, three-month trip to Japan, discovering the anagama wood-fired stoneware pottery for which they were to become renowned, and leading to a huge shift away from the domestic ware with which they had established themselves. It took time for the public to catch on. They had until then only seen photographs of anagama, an ancient tradition with plenty of examples in museums.
“We still thought, then, that everything had to have a glaze on it. We made a pot in a modern version of one of these ancient kilns and realised, then, what we really liked was the directness between the raw clay and the fire.”
They eventually built a big woodfiring kiln, which they were only able to fire up once a year, because it required round-the-clock care. It was used for 10 to 12 days, a thousand pots going through at a time.
Needless to say, Bruce and Estelle would be able to watch it for perhaps the first five or so days before handing it over to others to look after, in particular, one of their sons, Craig.
Bruce last went to Japan in 2002, to a woodfire festival as one of 50 invited overseas potters who joined 20 Japanese artists.
“That was just marvellous, to meet all these people interested in woodfiring. I’d never been to anything like it before.”
He believes even now there is still a huge gulf here between what people call art and what they don’t. There are still people out there who value paintings more.
“If you used your hands, it wasn’t considered an artform, which is quite ridiculous, really.
“That (attitude) just doesn’t exist in Japan. Anybody who makes anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, they are considered an artist.”
Kamaka – The ceramics of Bruce and Estelle Martin, Hawke’s Bay Exhibition Centre, Hastings, until November 6. A Hastings Blossom Festival 05 event.
Photo caption – LIVING HISTORY: Kamaka Pottery’s Bruce Martin, in the studio gallery at his Bridge Pa home.