Kiwi Kraft pt. 3: The mighty Waikato and the meaning of Value

Much of my trip was spent in the Waikato region of the North Island. Named after NZ's longest river, the region is known for adventure sports and its grass fed cattle industry. The Waikato River stretches 425 km from Mount Ruapehu to Lake Taupo.

My first weekend was spent with Duncan Shearer at the Waikato Society of Potters. He graciously shared his home and helped me with my workshop. As I was demonstrating the participants asked many great questions. I speak in my slide show about the labor of decoration creating value in the work. That was promptly followed by the question "what do you mean by value?" I find that I often say things that are filled with assumptions. Teaching helps expose those assumptions. I didn't have a concise answer for the gentleman at the time so I've been thinking about this ever since.

The value I speak about is two part: work value, or the accumulated cost of skilled labor (time=money), and cultural value, the accumulated meaning of visual symbols (pattern, image, etc). The work value is straight forward. Going back to preindustrial times skilled labor has a direct connection to monetary wealth. Objects like this couch where expensive because a skilled craftsman had to be paid to carve the rails, upholster the fabric, etc.

Cultural value is less concrete because it varies depending on context. Over time, usually decades/centuries, symbols accumulate cultural meaning. A quick example is corporate branding through logos. In the past thirty five years the Apple logo has become a symbol of innovation, design, quality, and a whole list of emotions the keep consumers attracted. As artists we have the power to use symbols appropriating the value the viewer places on the symbol. In my work this takes the form of using dogwoods, honeysuckle, and other botanicals that tie into regionalism and southern nostalgia.

As machines replaced skilled hand labor cultural value became more economically powerful than work value. This shift can break down when cultural symbols are divorced from their original context. When this happens people go back to evaluating craftsmanship and skilled labor. I see the aftermath of decontextualizing symbols in China where logos, patterns, and styles are intermixed with little regard for the original. In Chinese markets all western symbols become exotic and valuable even if there are great value distinctions in their original context. For instance, many times fake Rolexs and Casios are displayed together because the sellers don't fully understand the vast gap in perceived value that the objects have. I always get a laugh when the sales people swear the Rolex ($20,000 for a real one) isn't fake even when its displayed beside the Casio ($60 for a real one) (For an interesting look at webdesign check out the Rolex site by clicking here.)

Getting back to pots I am including a few pictures of Duncan's work and his house. He and his partner Charade Honey have a great collection of pots. I always enjoying picking through other potters cabinets. For more information on Duncan's work check out his website www.duncanshearer.co.nz. His experimentation with wood kilns is fantastic. He has built one out of phone books, a hollow log, and a block of ice.

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.

Kiwi Kraft pt 1: Dive, Jump, Climb, Paddle....I'm in love

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

Kiwi Kraft pt 3: The mighty Waikato and the meaning of Value

Kiwi Kraft pt 4: Francis Upritchard's Figures & Martino Gamper's 100 chairs

Kiwi Kraft pt 5: Windy Wellington and the Potters Association

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