October 25, 1941 – June 13, 2019.
It’s with great personal sorrow that I record the passing of Merilyn Wiseman.
Merilyn was for many years, one of our most prominent makers in clay which she always called, ‘hands-on, hands-in stuff’. As a maker she was pretty well supreme, a perfectionist who could do almost anything with her beloved ‘stuff’ from small, immaculately thrown works through to large scale press-moulded pieces and a lot in between.
Following what she sometimes said was a ‘pretty priviledged childhood’ in Auckland’s eastern suburbs, she experienced a memorable journey. As a young woman, in 1960, at the end of an amazing few months travelling, with her twin sister and her younger sister under guidance and leadership of their redoubtable mother (known to family as ‘the Ayatollah’), through much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe, she undertook a period of study majoring in art teaching at Goldsmiths College in London. Those travels stayed with her for the rest of her life and she often referred to some of what she encountered from that rich period. After Goldsmith’s, she embarked upon a work experience at a pottery in Ireland and seriously ‘caught the bug’ for working with clay. By this time she had more than adequate resources banked as a result of those travels around many of the best archaeological sites and museums of the countries they had visited and she returned to NZ to set out to be as good as she could be.
Merilyn with her ‘Fletcher’ winner.
This was very good indeed as she was the most honoured and very possibly the most successful of all of her generation. She came to national prominence winning the Premier Award for the 1984 Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award, and the judge of that year, American Don Reitz, referred to what attracted him to her piece by explaining that her decoration – slip trailed – touched the edge of the wood-fired dish rim and this was something also practised by Native American potters, ‘so that the spirit might escape’. She was, in 1988 a member of the only national symposium in clay ever undertaken in NZ, where the self-styled ‘Lucky 13’ lived and worked together for three weeks in Otago School of Art, with all found: accommodation in student quarters, food, transport and all the clay that could be heated toward being unofficially groomed for the Faenza event as country of focus – that eventually did not transpire due to funding, or lack thereof. I shared a workspace with Christine Thacker (as the two most junior members of the troop along with Philip Luxton), and Merilyn and Ann Verdcourt were also in the same large room. I recall being impressed with Merilyn’s ability to concentrate on her work when the rest of us were too easily, willingly distracted. The experience was memorable, if less for the ‘new work’ expected than for the close working quarters shared with artists from all over NZ, often known only by reputation. There developed a sense of collegiality that for most has never departed. We learned so very much on every front.
Shortly after this, Merilyn was the clay artist selected to represent NZ at an international ceramics symposium held in Australia where she observed much about the international scene and reported back with useful information. Following this there came a fertile time of experimenting, making, developing, firing and exhibiting at highest levels in NZ and off-shore.
In Dunedin at Otago SofA.
In 2005 she won The Portage Award where the judge was Robert Bell – Decorative Arts and Design Senior Curator of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, and who loved her Arctic Rim piece that flared gracefully to more than 1.1metres wide (and by then she was in her mid-60s!) I was ‘Production Assistant ‘, that year, and so at the award ceremony positioned myself so I might see her face at Robert’s announcement. She was so genuinely surprised she almost dropped and I thought I’d have to pick her up from the floor! She made more work in that series – lyrical dishes, elegant candlesticks, handsome lidded boxes and large moulded vessels on a scale, combed, slip trailed or finger modelled in her characteristic style, with sumptuously rich, colour charged, turquoise and green glazes. The clay responded in rhapsodic fashion to her stroking and persuasion of touch so that edges of dishes and attachments of feet displayed such distinctive flourishes that they could be by no one else, while she made slip trailing her very own.
‘Arctic Rim’. Portage winner.
Meri with the ‘Rim’ Series mould.
In 2007, she was the first ceramic artist to receive the prestigious Laureate Award and with the (then) $50,000 free-from-tags gift she was able to invest in converting a newly built double garage into a very functional studio that came at a propitious time when she had made the decision to be a solo, self-supporting artist.
After wood firing for many years then to a gas kiln and finally to electric with its computerised controls she turned, again with the use of moulds, to making decorative vessels of two and a half dimensions, most often in a simple pearly white glaze that offered a serene surface for her carefully applied textures. Always stylishly varied, these vessels demonstrated her continued ability to adjust the variables she sensed, based upon simple generative forms. Sometimes their stance was defiant with arms akimbo while others’ postures were quietly demure. Without doubt, Meri was always a vessels girl but her vessels, from the looser, wood and ash-flashed early work to the more recent, crisply linear late pieces, could be as expressive as sculpture when she chose.
But alongside the many dishes that carried her familiar rich palette and with pale green and soft blue later developments, I only ever knew one teapot and it was a cracker! Ovalled, soda’d copper blue and straight sided while tacitly elegant, like much of her work, it nevertheless demonstrated that she knew how to get a good pour and prevent a lid dropping out! I am unsure what happened to it – but hope it’s in a good collection somewhere.
We discussed at length, several times, the prospect of a survey show covering all her series and variations of work as I, and several others felt sure there should be ample interest. We even, once, got as far as loosely planning the show’s layout. Always, she had ideas and opinions. She eventually disagreed and thought there would be little support and decided that she would not, even with the temptation of a well-illustrated catalogue to record her achievements and work. It’s hard to understand why she was apprehensive of the prospect, for of the many members of this senior generation and their various survey shows that have graced a variety of venues, she, as possibly the most rewarded and awarded of all, surely deserved an opportunity for close engagement with her total body of work, more than most. It would have withstood any challenge with grace.
She disliked and could be scornful of displays of ego, particularly where she sensed it evidenced in work. Over a number of years, we went together, often with others, to exhibitions and events and no one could match Meri in scorn, on the way home again, when she discerned that it manifested. She could rage, like no other, on what she considered missing opportunities presented in work and no carefully articulated counter-arguments could persuade her of merits when she saw none, or too few. Her opinions were always worth considering and it was very possible to agree that priorities could differ hugely no matter the acknowledged conjoined passions. But when she liked something, some work or some aspect of a work, she was generous and unstinting in her praise. Ever engaged, her standards were high.
There was always a warm welcome and a cuppa, if one dropped in, and sometimes a showing of perhaps part of a film she had watched and kept just to show something she thought wonderful (such as the opening shots of ‘The English Patient’ with its cave drawings, or a written passage to share, like part of ‘A Room of 0ne’s Own’), for her interests were manifold and discussion points various and intelligent. However no matter how receptive she was, we knew we had to be gone before 5pm, or if she was out she always left in good time, prior to five, because that was family calling time and that was always a priority. When her son, Paul, was playing cricket for NZ she kept the TV on inside while throwing in the shed with the radio turned to the match coverage. As soon as his name was mentioned she hopped off the wheel and went inside to watch him play and only returned once his innings was over. When her Kate was due to give birth we knew she’d be in Christchurch. She held family close and most dear as her family also clearly held her, and our sympathy must extend to them in their loss.
She will be greatly missed by all.
Any who would view her service, Go to Dils Funeral Services, Oneroom and click on Merilyn Dawn Wiseman. Held on 21st June.