It’s been a while since potter Paul Melser has been this busy – over 30 years in fact. In the early 80s, Paul employed two potters to keep up with demand. Today it’s just him, but he’s got more than enough work. He’d like to have more time to experiment, but keeping up with orders takes all his time.
Paul made his first pot at 10 years old and became a full-time potter at 19. Over the 60 years he’s been making pots, he’s watched the craft ebb and flow in terms of popularity. He thinks the recent increase in demand is due to people’s desire to own and experience objects with a human touch, unlike mass-produced domestic ware.
“It’s so bloody difficult [for people] to buy anything that has any human feel to it,” Paul says.
Nearly all of Paul’s work is plates, bowls, cups and other tableware. Paul has customers who have been buying from him for 30 years, returning annually to replace breakages and buy for other family members.
“People develop an intimate relationship with the plates and cups they are using every day. People drive hundreds of kilometres to [get to my studio] to replace pieces they have broken.”
Some of Paul’s customers even refuse to drink out of anything except one of his cups.
Paul’s studio is situated halfway down Norfolk Road, just south of Masterton. He loves working in Wairarapa – partly because of its location being close to Wellington, Manawatu and Hawke’s Bay, but also because he could afford to buy a large chunk of land more than 40 years ago. His 50 hectares contains his house, studio, garden, shop, cattle, sheep, and a forest of pines he planted when he moved in. “It’s just a matter of having space. I can grow my own trees for firing my kiln.” Paul likes the culture of Wairarapa, too. “People I deal with are in the same sort of framework and that’s really nice.”
Paul now sells between a quarter and a third of his work to restaurants, whose owners value the pots’ handmade qualities.
Loretta in Wellington serves its meals on only his plates and bowls. “The guy that I deal with says the restaurant is entirely branded by [my] pots. He keeps buying more and more – he realises I’m getting older,” Paul says with a wry smile. Paul’s tableware is also used by Auckland’s Hipgroup (a consortium of 14 eateries) and Sherwood in Queenstown.
Paul believes the texture of his pots is as important as the way they look. He works with his own special mix which is a combination of clay from Huntly, Temuka, Pahiatua and Nelson. He compares his clay to wholemeal flour – and says industrially-produced clay is like white flour with all the character processed out of it.
“The reason I make my clay [is so it looks] as if it could have come out of [the ground] – unprocessed.
“We’re used to associating ourselves with things we know. There’s nothing to know about industrial pots. My work has its own integrity, its own character.”
Character is what the customers of Martinborough potters Carolina Vargas Gonzalez and Rachel Bartlett are looking for as well.
“They like the fact you can see someone’s hands have produced it,” Rachel says. Rachel does most of her work on the wheel, but Carolina, who came to New Zealand from Chile 14 years ago, makes pots using the hand-building or pinch pot method. She starts with a ball of clay and uses only her hands to transform it into a bowl or cup.
“At the beginning, it was ‘ooooh let’s make a cup. [Then once it was finished], oh it’s a bowl’,” she says.
The two women met when they had children at the same kindy, but soon took up running together. Next they tried pottery at King Street Art Works in Masterton. They both loved it, but working the commute to Masterton around Carolina’s four children and Rachel’s two was difficult, so they started to pot at home.
Things really changed after they attended a workshop at Martinborough’s Ventana Creative Collective. The teacher running the course had been potting for only a few years, but was able to do it full time – so Rachel and Carolina got inspired. “It made us think ‘we can do this!’” Rachel says.
“We thought ‘there’s hope for us’,” Carolina says.
But there was another motivation. Making ceramics is expensive, and neither could afford to do pottery as just a hobby. They needed an income if they were to be able to keep going. So they decided to try selling their work.
To test the waters, they had a stall at the Martinborough Fair in 2017. They sold nearly all the pots they had.
“We had really low expectations. But people loved our stuff, they told us they loved the fact they could see it was handmade,” Rachel says.
In order to provide an outlet for their work, they set up Martinborough Makers, a collective of artisans who come together at pop-up locations within Wairarapa to sell what they make. The intention is to create a space for ‘more than just shopping’. At their first event people came and stayed for three hours.
The most popular items the women make are tumblers, cups and bowls. Rachel has had two orders for full dinner sets. But it’s still not enough for the women to work full-time as potters – although they both spend a lot of time working with clay.
“I went to bed at 1.30am last night. If I need to make six cups, I stay up ‘til I’m finished. I can spend hours,” Carolina says.
She even works in bed, watching television. Carolina’s been able to calculate her productivity – one cup per commercial television hour!
And it’s that time and energy Rachel and Carolina devote to hand-crafting their pots that they believe makes them popular.
“In the past [people bought handmade] because they couldn’t afford anything better. Now what’s handmade is popular, trendy, cool,” Carolina says.
“There’s a current worldwide climate for green living and sustainable lifestyles. Handmade artisan products go with that philosophy. You can feel I work on [the pots] with my hands… they’re never perfect,” Rachel says.
“I do put a lot of love into what I make and people respond,” Carolina says.
It was Sam Ludden’s love of the way of life potting offered that first attracted him to the craft, and it was Paul Melser who was Sam’s early role model.
“Paul had open days, with craftsmen of all types. I went along and fell in love with his lifestyle rather than the pots… it was seductive,” Sam says.
After a couple of years’ work experience, Sam “was nosing around for a job” as a potter with Paul, but instead Paul suggested study at Whanganui Polytech. It was there that Sam fell in love with the rhythm of pottery – making the pottery, letting it dry, filling the kiln, firing, glazing and firing again.
“It’s really addictive.”
Sam, based in Masterton, is known for his sculptural work as well as his pots. After potting for 24 years, Sam particularly enjoys that much of his work has become instinctive. When he’s making a bowl, a cup or one of his sculptures, he’s done it so many times before that his hands know what they are doing without needing too much deliberation.
“I don’t need to think about it… it’s quite Zen. There’s a disconnect between mind and body,” he says.
Sam estimates 30 to 40 per cent of his work is pottery, the rest is sculpture – in particular, his representations of eels (tuna). He began making them about 15 years ago to keep himself afloat, as “you couldn’t sell pots in the 90s and early 2000s”. So to create a viable business, he made sculpture instead.
Another indicator that pottery was on the ebb at this time was the easy availability of equipment.
“I got my wheel for $50; [the owner] was going to give it to me. I got two free kilns, as people didn’t want them. There were multiple garages around Masterton and Wairarapa full of [potting] equipment. It felt like I needed to keep going to keep the tradition alive.”
But the tide has turned, and these days equipment is “getting really expensive”.
Even though pottery’s popularity is increasing, it’s still not an easy way to make money. Up until he had his children seven years ago, Sam supplemented his potting with other work. Now pottery is all he does, but he still augments what he makes from his sculpture and pots with teaching and workshops. Luckily, interest from the public in learning to pot is increasing.
Sam attributes some of the craft’s growth to “accessibility of inspiration” thanks to social media.
“When I was starting, you had to buy rare pottery magazines and now you can go down a rabbit hole on YouTube [watching people make pots]. It’s made it a bit sexy.”
He also connects pottery’s renaissance to the worldwide interest in food.
“It’s connected to the food movement, grow-your-own. People are more in touch with the things they have in their life. I haven’t met a person who doesn’t have a favourite cup.”
Pottery winner in 10th Wairarapa Art Review
Surprise was the first emotion Sam Ludden felt after he was announced a winner in Aratoi’s 2017 Wairarapa Art Review in December. He won the Rosewood Premier Award for his pottery sculpture “Cumec Unit”, described by judge Mark Amery as “a wheel of eels”. The sculpture of twelve eels in a writhing, muscular mass is a reflection of Sam’s concerns about water quality and rivers.
“I don’t like to preach too much. I use my art to speak for me. Eels are the canary in the coal mine, an indicator of the health of water. Their numbers are in decline and that’s what this work is about,” he says.
“The eels are having a meeting… I imagine what their concern would be and it would be [the lack of ] water.”
Sam says he felt honoured to be picked as the winner from a group of artists he knows and admires.
“Across the board, every single one of those artists deserved to be there. It bodes well for the future of art in Wairarapa.”
And perhaps confirms pottery and sculpture from clay is on the rise.