Kiwi Kraft pt 2: Raglan, Tony Sly, & Clay Competition

After ten and a half hours of red eyed anticipation I landed in Auckland just before dawn. As the sun came up I was struck by the clarity of the blue sky, the vibrance of the green grass, and the sweetness of the air. Compared to smoggy Shanghai it was like someone turned up nature's color saturation. After nine months in Asia it was high time to get out, recharge, and experience one of the closest western cultures.

I spent my first night in Auckland visiting one of my high school friends. We caught up on 10 years of lost time while she gave me suggestions for my trip. My fly by night vacation included only two solid commitments both on the weekends.  For two weeks I was in a state of active wandering. I bounced from hostel to hostel picking up travel suggestions from my fellow backpackers. I got in the habit of exploring until late afternoon and then driving to my next destination. This easy pace allowed for the maximum amount of experience without feeling like I was ticking activities off of a travel plan.

My first destination was Hamilton, NZ for a gig at the Waikato Society of Potters. I had a great weekend with Duncan Shearer and the Waikato crowd. (I’ll write more about this weekend in a separate post) My second destination was the world renowned surf spot, Raglan. This sleepy west coast surf town reached international acclaim after it was featured in the 1966 surf classic, The Endless Summer. I spent two days at Manu Bay learning how to fall gracefully off of a surf board with the Raglan Surf School. By the end I could pop up long enough to feel the smooth force of a 2 foot wave. I now have a huge respect for people that are riding eight to ten footers and a healthy fear for the people that ride twenty footers. 

My second afternoon in Raglan was spent resting my sore shoulders and walking around town. Duncan had suggested I check out Tony Sly, one of NZ’s longtime utilitarian earthenware potters. His newly rebuilt studio overlooks a large inland bay surrounded by rolling hills. (Tony’s original studio burnt last year after the neighboring fish and chip shop caught on fire.) The landmark wharf attracts tourists and locals who come to fish off the piers and buy pottery. 

In true potter hospitality Tony offered me a place to stay for the night. We spent the evening talking shop and comparing the pottery scenes in NZ/US/China. At one point Tony remarked “What is it with all these competitions? When did pottery become a sport?” I appreciate this sentiment. I am all too familiar with the emotions that follow the submission of images to a major exhibition. The high that comes from being accepted, or the massive let down of a rejection letter, don't contribute physical progress to my studio practice. Mostly the jury process taps into the athlete in me that loves competition for its own sake. At times this roller coaster has been a distraction that kept me afraid to make the decisions that create actual movement in the studio. In this respect I wish jurors had time to explain their decisions so the process could function like a critique.

About fifteen years ago Tony consciously shifted his work away from the one-of-a-kind art scene and into domestic home ware galleries. He now designs solely for the table with food being the predominate decoration. We talked a lot about pots that show well in galleries but don’t function well in the home. As an obsessive mark maker I straddle the line between decoration that adds interest and decoration that battles with food presentation. Tony has a good lineup of colorful translucent glazes that provide a versatile canvas for food. 

I got to see Tony work in his studio and I picked up a few tricks. He has a great system for slipping his earthenware. He suspends his pots on dowel rods over the top of a large basin. He then walks around the pot quickly pouring slip. This is a solution I will try with my larger horizontal pieces. I was also impressed by the organization he maintains in his studio. With his quick, but casual, throwing style he can produce shelf after shelf of pots each day. He had at least 50 pots in the green ware state while I was there. Every day some are ready to trim, some ready to slip, and some ready to glaze. He has an excellent system of day to day rotation that keeps his studio moving.

The oval server below was my favorite of his forms. The large coiled handles are a good complement to the form. His glaze pools nicely in the wavy scratch marks around the rim and handles. He fires to cone 2 in the largest electric car kiln that I have ever seen. Its stacking space was about 10 x 6 x 4 ft. If your ever in NZ I highly recommend stopping in Raglan to see Tony and his studio. For more information on Tony Sly Pottery please click here.

This post is included in Kiwi Kraft, a mini series of blogs about my visits to potters and pottery centers on the North Island of New Zealand. For related posts click on the following links.

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