The Portage 2011

The Portage is billed as New Zealand’s major ceramics exhibition – it surfaced in 2001 in response, among other motivations, to the earlier demise of the Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award – last extant in 1998. The absence of an annual event was noted and, adhering to the wishes of numerous ceramists, it declaimed its focus and constituency as national, not international as had been ‘The Fletcher’. The fact that it would take place in Lopdell House Gallery, regional art centre for west Auckland, traditionally New Zealand’s historical ceramics hub with its clay deposits, Crown Lynn and several smaller factories that had been producing bricks and pipes since pioneering days seemed appropriate as clearly, under the leadership of Rodney Wilson, Auckland Museum no longer had interest in being host institution for ceramics exhibitions, had removed their fine collections to storage and eliminated the long-term annual show by the ASP from its programmes.

Eleven years and much has changed. While the venue stays, changing management teams at Lopdell have meant variations in objectives, although aiming for the best show possible remains a constant. However, on looking back through those eleven catalogues, there have been some significant changes over the years. Some of which are……

The majority of early exhibitors were drawn largely from the ranks of well known names with few unknown; currently it seems more a competition for students, particularly of, or recently from, the Distance Learning Course run by Otago Polytechnic as many exhibits sourced there.

Where the exhibits do come from those few present with long-term experience, this is demonstrated both conceptually and technically. Ann Verdcourt and Chris Weaver submitted works of finesse – there really is no better word for the grace and poise and just sheer class involved in what they offered: Weaver’s perfection of glaze surface to accompany his addenda of handles made from found wooden rulers; everything presents with a subtle patina of use offering the consistency that accompanies experience and  really looking. Verdourt’s equal surface mastery always acknowledges the clay of which her vessels are made yet conjure references to the other media she is representing be it glass, Staffordshire china, cardboard milk cartons or the surface of the etching from which sprang the original idea. Her still lifes, always meticulously arranged so they might be viewed from any angle were a little disadvantaged by being placed against a wall. Neither falls into a trap for the unwary – that of trying for the trompe l’oeil and falling into some nether space.

Chris Weaver, Made to Measure teapots

Experience shows also in work by John Parker, who has the confidence to send up his own oeuvre. Gracefully. One has to know his work well though in order to ‘get it’. But there was enough in his succinct statement to clarify. Which brings me to a second significant change – these days those catalogues contain the artists’ statements; or would if they were used for more than explications of method, as far too many are.  Some of the rest can be a tad grandiose, even specious. Title and statement are the lead-in to the thinking toward a work and can offer viewers some additional background with which to view it, or confirm a thought around it with a few well-chosen words but please, not a blow-by-blow account of process. Or too weighty for what are really small decorative works. Lighten up sometimes; the work deserves it. Statements are difficult and the very short ones are the most difficult usually. But they should reflect the feel of a work as well as offer something about the motivation or meaning.

In comparison with early shows, the current one is over-endowed with exhibits that carry the label of  ‘kitsch’. Kitsch has several manifestations. One material imitating another is one and the sentimental within the decorative but another of these (sometimes both in the same work). Both can be exploited in art. However the artist has to find another layer so as to leaven – the obvious one and the one that usually works best – is irony. Sadly, irony was almost absent from this exhibition.

I counted more than twenty works in this show on a theme of nature and the environment. If the work did not always directly evidence this then often the statement introduced it as explanation, even if the long bow was fully drawn in some instances. It seemed sometimes that artists felt they should offer some weighty raison d’etre and justification for the existence of the work and the environment/landscape is topic of the day. Well, not really, as particulars of our landscape as subject was begun by Brickell and Castle et al over fifty years ago in response to what had begun in painting some ten to twenty years earlier. It’s difficult, given such a lengthy history, to say anything new or fresh on this well-trodden route.

Some of the exhibits or their statements beckon for further comment…

Kairava Gullatz revives a Victorian commercial production technique called lithophane where layers of porcelain are removed in some pre-ordained design to various depths so that an image is created when light transmutes through the vessel walls in differing intensities according to the thickness of the remaining clay. I relish references to our long and rich histories. Not nearly enough honoring of what has gone before takes place in ceramics here in the search for a contemporary visual art expression. Gullatz handles the materials well and the images crisply project from the two lamps that stand either side of a doorway. I just wish she had not made reference or tried to locate the work with nature – in this instance the stately nikau. Not the stoneware bases, nor the flaccidly curved porcelain tops, nor the proportions could bring this strong image to mind. I hope she continues exploring this little-utilised technique but perhaps can contemporise it by introducing some present-day imagery while strengthening those profiles and making the ratios more interestingly dynamic.

Kairava Gullatz

Trish Seddon has two exhibits on show. Peking Man is a series of vertebrae forms arranged proud of the wall by somewhat clunky supports which nevertheless held the bony resemblances in a way that made the shadows cast on the wall engaging – but would clear acrylic have done the job better I wonder? The bone facsimiles might almost be transmuting to bird-in-flight forms but in the end were straightforward reproductions and one had to read the statement to discover the intent – which was simply to “remind us that we carry such things of beauty inside our own bodies”. The second exhibit (always unfortunate to display one artist’s work in two separate places I think) claims unicorn’s horns as “representing only one of any number of species on the brink of extinction…and force us to re-evaluate our concept of beauty” along with the question, “At what cost?”  While quite beautiful pieces, statements don’t need to tell viewers precisely what to think. Too much methinks for a contemporary audience and who probably consider the unicorn to be mythological anyway.

There has been greater trend toward figuration in recent years – welcome respite from our   solid vessel culture. Much of that figuration is cartoonish in nature and again sidles up to the kitsch. Everything does not have to be amusing or cute in some way. Figuration is the prime opportunity to express emotion via a work, There are emotions other than a slight smile.

Andy Kingston’s illustrations were very worth spending time with and while understandable, it was frustrating not to be able to pick his vessels up and look more closely at all that was going on around those vessels. No slight smile here.

Andy Kingston, LongSong

There was with Marion Mewburn’s teapot that she labeled ‘constuctivist’. There was nothing constructivist I could find about her rotund jolly teapot. Suggest finding another art historical, or literary peg as Constructivism was nowhere near this teapot. It was nevertheless well made and probably pours well if given a chance. But that is not its purpose, which is to amuse.

Marion Mewburn, Comrades

Annie McIver’s hares with their sensitively modeled hands (?paws) and feet (?more paws) conveyed more than did the trunks – bland in comparison. Using animals to articulate human emotions can be powerful, provocative and often disturbing. It’s an interesting and sui generis route for this country that points toward distinction. McIver’s are progressing toward this. For a glimpse of the supremely visceral in this field – google the work of Beth Cavener Stichter.

Annie McIver, Two Hares

Then, the non-figurative…

Darryl Frost is still enamored of the effects of flame and time but these illustrations seemed  over-systematised – the ranks of same size circles presenting symmetrically arrayed elements of granite rocks and petrified wood across thick slip crosses. Anagama’s effects can be a delightful surprise on opening the kiln but control of these is not usually so evident. I still recall the kiln shelves he had the chutzpah to exhibit some years ago and enjoyed that journey through lengthy fire more.

An increase in scale drew attention to Nadine Spalter’s Mt Victoire coloration making them an engaging group that garnered a strength from the rich hues that did not transfer to the white group. One could, on close examination see the reasons for the unevenly bare bases but wonder about trying another approach that maybe works more sympathetically from further away.

Suzy Dunser’s teapots satisfy with their strong colouring and forms that are solidly grounded, crisply finished and functional – lift and pour would clearly be efficiently effective by the look of those handles and spouts.  The functional is rare, and a welcome addition to the surfeit of decorative. Again, display, for obvious reasons, had lids and bases firmly attached by museum wax – but the last test of a teapot is always weight and this is the element that prevents a teapot, or any other domestic tableware from languishing at the back of a cupboard.

Suzy Dunser

Dunser has developed the basis of a style but it might be good to see her experiment with allowing the clay itself to be more expressive? To introduce some notion that here the artist was dealing with a poke-able, prod-able plastic and malleable medium might add interest to those smoothly severe, glossy and symmetrical walls. Maybe in time, for some things take a while to come around to, but such evident technical expertise in a new artist (the result of applying hard work in several directions) offers challenging potential as a base from which to spring.

Some challenging tableware around once more would be a great pleasure. Perhaps a look at the work of Norway’s  Elisa Helland-Hansen as tableware that no-one here in NZ approaches – thick delicious porcelain but completed by fine edges to contact the mouth or stop drips;  handles pulled directly from the pot, fat and round – just one-finger size and tucked in under. Subtle variegated surfaces, quiet enough thast the form dominates yet holding interest. Tableware that seems robust enough to hint that if dropped they might even survive the encounter! While wood-fired  (and there really is nothing like wood-fired porcelain) its main recommendation for me is the obvious attribute that it could only be hand-made. Take a look at the cups, pitchers and ‘other’ as well as teapots. Mouthwatering, and indicative of the fine work coming from Scandinavia presently.

The title Strategies and Outcomes was trying to tell me something I missed until I spent more time with Brendan Adam’s quiet wall exhibit. Then that investment showed me the logic of what he had done. It was the aluminium rod that did it.  And the slip level. Thinking work.

Finally, the unpretentious, elegant, small cylindrical vessel by Amanda Shanley with its vivid interior and scribbled-on outside was a delight in its simplicity and confidence. I wanted more.

Amanda Shanley, Pencil

There are more changes over the years but these must await another occasion. One very obvious one though is the noticeable increase in budget allowing a rise in catalogue content and specifications. It is fatter, larger and glossier than previously – an expensive production. It’s conservative in design but that is not a bad thing particularly as it is the only regularly produced publication about New Zealand ceramics and thus serves as record of changes in the work over time.

The commissioned essay was a great addition from the beginning and continues with a different view around some aspect of our small ceramic world each time. The voices, and the opinions, change each year – some have proved more readable and valuable than others – rambling, obscure, defensive, quizzical, pertinent and amused have all been attitudes perceived at different times and that does not matter because overall, they provide another invaluable resource toward figuring out what is unique about our own ceramic culture.

Long may the Portage continue.



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15 responses to “The Portage 2011

  1. Cheryl Lucas

    Thank you for a great review; words as measured and good as the Weaver teapot in the show. Barely a feather ruffled methinks.
    I respond reluctantly. I think this needs further debate. I have a genuine concern for the survival of ceramic practice in NZ and for the public perception of what we are capable of presenting. There is nothing like a year of earth quakes to bring urgency to things that personally matter, and for me this is definitely one of those things.
    As pointed out in the Review, the Portage is billed as our most important exhibition. Whatever is shown is widely seen as being indicative of the state of ceramics in New Zealand. It would make sense then, to only show our best work. And, remembering that this “best work” is not just for the exhibition, but also the catalogue – the moveable bit that travels everywhere and far outlasts the show.
    The show’s decisions are all down to one judge. So the choice of judge could not be more crucial.
    So, I have to wonder, how the judge is chosen for such an important task. And, once saddled with the job, I wonder if the process is adequate enough for them to do their job thoroughly.
    Given what has been exhibited in the last couple of shows I can only conclude that there must be something fundamentally wrong with this initial process.
    I conclude this because, if there is nothing wrong with the process why am I, and many people I talk to, no longer excited about the Portage Awards. And, further to this, why are we seeing work which (given a few great exceptions) is little different from what we can see in every gallery/museum souvenir shop up and down the country?
    Most of the work is not what I would call cutting edge, nor even does it seem to me, to be generally indicative of what the astute makers in New Zealand are capable of. Generally, in my view most of the work submitted does not tell me that the opportunity is being used to really push the boundaries of thinking and making and more experienced practitioners are (apart from a smattering) more obvious by omission.
    And why have we now no separate category for a student award? I am concerned that students and experienced practitioners are being all lumped in together. For as much as it is wonderful for a student to win the ultimate prize, as it is for anyone, winning can actually be a burden and prevent the kind of experimental risk- taking that is essential for any serious artist in for a life time of making.
    The time, effort and resources given over for the Portage Award show are remarkable and have been greatly appreciated not only by makers but also the viewing public. To have the quality diminished in any way, adversely affects and reflects on, not just the host, sponsor and judge but all of us as makers.
    I want the Portage Ceramic Awards to not only be always in existence but to exist brilliantly; I don’t want to believe they won’t in the future.

    Cheryl Lucas

    • Chris Weaver

      Well said Cheryl. I was just thinking about posting a comment myself.

    • Moyra

      A thoughtful response Cheryl and fingers to the absence of much commentary to my blog! Well done you! I guess it takes some critical writing around an exhibition to draw commentary … well, more on the way shortly and finding its place to an inbox near you. I travelled down to Waiclay and back with a car-full of opinionated and loquacious ceramiphiles … very stimulating it was too.

      But I think your comment deserves some feedback and Oh dear did I not ruffle feathers enough? I did intend some dishevelment. It’s healthy, as is discussion and commentary because it makes folk think. Must try harder!

      Our Kiwi way with the one judge approach to competitions is unique in the world. We can take pride in that with all its advantages and its drawbacks. Really begun as a budgetary thing for the Fletcher – they were determined to draw from offshore so as to get as objective a view as possible and continued because of the favorable reaction, by those brought here to deliver their judgements, as singular and a chance to avoid the committee approach usually found in Europe or the USA – it has continued as standard here even when not necessary. The great and the good who came here to judge the Fletcher all spoke warmly of the experience of having an entire show as their disposal with no interventions and their word was law! Europeans particularly liked the one-judge approach, the usual there is often to read the submitted CV first even before looking at the work! So we got great entries from the freshly emerging – those only ten years maybe out of their training, doing fine but keen to test in a bigger milieu. Fewer from the very established. One senior artist told me he could never enter again as he understood we had not shown his CV and catalogues to the judge. I agreed we had not done that and agreed he need never enter again.

      But your point is well made Cheryl. Choosing the judge is crucial and Portage’s choices have been curious at times. I have no idea where they get their advice from but surely advice emanates from somewhere because none of the Lopdell staff has any particular expertise in the area, as far as I know. These days judges are often also teachers because they are up with what is current and usually demonstrate an ability to read works with both respect and knowledge. Making work, even if it’s generally thought of as ‘good’ – whatever that is – simply does not a judge make. I expect a judge to understand at what they are looking from the points of view of historical associations and allusions, contemporary theory, current trends, precedents and models within the genre, yes – even the technical at times and surely, whether this is new thinking(your ‘cutting edge’), in-the-style-of, or simply a copy of something from somewhere else. I think it not unreasonable for the judge to have done a little homework into our particular histories. Certainly some judges have demonstrated minimal understanding of many of these points. If I can see that then others can also, particularly with 20/30/40 years of looking and thinking, as many have. Maybe that is why so many of our very experienced makers are staying away these days?
      And you are right, why not a category for students or recent students? It seems they are encouraged, one way or another, to enter despite the fact that this can result in ‘the finished piece’ when they should be using their time to experiment and push their work more. So why not their own area where different criteria can be applied. Worth thinking about maybe, or some further discussion? What do the students think?

  2. Chris Weaver

    Thanks for the review Moyra. Having not been able to view the show, I was pleased to be able to read your thoughtful, honest and constructive writing. Often these days all I can find are soft reviews of little substance. Not so pleasing though was that it confirmed my disappointment after seeing the catalogue. I almost felt embarrassed to be included. What you wrote said everything I was thinking about a lot of the work and artists statements.
    Since the demise of the Fletcher it feels like ceramics in this country has gone down with it. That exposure to strong international ceramics seemed to lift the standard and was good for me at a time when I was developing my own work.
    There have been a lot of our leading ceramists missing from the Portage shows and I have been guilty of not entering in the past. On my part, this was me not being organised enough but as the standard drops then so does the incentive to submit.
    I read a few years ago in an Art New Zealand magazine, a review of the 2009 show and recall reading how the “Portage had come of age”. So what happened? That exhibition was tightly and controversially selected by Scott Chamberlin and although I didn’t see that show either, the work seemed a lot stronger. Perhaps they need a tougher selection process and invite our best to enter. Entry forms used to be sent out but I only find out if I remember to look at the Lopdell House website.

  3. David Sterling

    I’m really amazed at the snobbery here. I’m not a potter, rather an admirer of the art and I have been so impressed by some of the new work coming through.

    Surely the best way to ensure a strong future for ceramics is to encourage the new blood to enter and in my opinion the judge chose very well. I for one wouldn’t want to go along year after year and see the same style repeated.

    Chris, if you are embarrassed to be included I suggest you opt-out next year. Those teapots you entered are beautiful but the same that we have seen before from you.

    • Moyra

      Hello David and it is good to see someone not intimately embedded within the medium making comment. Thank you for contributing. Long may it continue as if ceramics loses ever more sight of its public then it truly is doomed! I am talking about here in NZ of course as there is ample going on off-shore. It just seems that things are fairly static here with repetitions of the same ideas being endlessly recycled. What we need are injections of fresh thinking and new approaches as was the case in the days of the lamentably departed Fletcher and its stimulus factor.

      I must endorse Chris here however, (not that he isn’t perfectly capable of asserting his own position) But I have followed Chris’s work for about 25 years and while much of it has been within the same genre – that of well designed functional ware – his are also immaculately made and stay conceptually fresh as he has worked his way through various series incorporating historical, environmental, ethnic and cultural ideas plus most engagingly, that of the materiality of his medium where he has explored some of the potential and properties incorporated within clay itself – something very little considered in NZ ceramics.

      So, I am not sure why you think you have seen these before. Do you mean well designed and made, conceptually intriguing tableware? In which case you are quite right because he has made this category his very own here and is the sole practitioner at this time. I am sure he, as well as I, eagerly awaits the emergence of more makers of such ware. But Weaver never stays in one place long and, familiar as I am with his work, I have not seen either that glaze surface or the use of found rulers as handles. Make the most of them while they are around because he will stay moving right along, and before you know it that series too will be categorised as ‘long gone’. Or do you mean he should leave the genre that is currently his exclusive domain and explore new territory? if so, why so?

      I’d be the last to deny there is promise in some of the new work coming through but it is mainly potential only at this stage, in my opinion. The newer entrants (can’t call all of them grads because many are not yet through their courses) seem to think they must deal with weighty issues -and some try to do this with even weightier statements rather than via the work – or by making what they term as ‘sculpture’, or via the decorative rather than the functional. Believe it or not, it is generally more difficult making something that is beautiful yet functions well than something that is jokey, kitsch or ‘organic’. And there is another issue arising when those still students gain early success and that is that they often remain where that success occurred allowing the work to stay static for longer than it should. Success is seduction. That can also crop up with senior artists too of course – some loiter too long in an area, the work stagnates and repeats so that the eye glides over instead of engaging afresh each time. It’s a constant trap but then, someone far wiser than I said that really good ideas only come along once or twice in an art career and after that it’s just a re-work! So these are all issues to keep in mind. But in particular, newer artists must keep investing time and work and thinking and reading and listening so as to linger in flux for as long as possible and allow the work to develop until something very personal emerges.

      Of course the new artists must be encouraged but maybe Cheryl Lucas made a good point about categories of entry as student work clearly demonstrates its genesis for the experienced eye and one wonders what happened to the line on the entry form that said – ‘work can not be entered that was made in a class of instruction’. ?? No, we don’t want to go along to Portage and see the same style and concept repeated year after year, and I wish we didn’t, but we do. While manifestations may differ, the variance in ideas is very narrow. Dismaying but true.

      Portage is probably in need of a re-jig as it has largely settled into a formula that feels a tad stale, where ceramics needs injections of vibrant new ideas to stay relevant. But its less the manifestations like Portage than the ennui existing within teaching practices that the core issues lie, but that is opening another whole can of worms!
      But returning to the manifestations…the days of competitions like Portage, or Fletcher for that matter, are long gone as this idea has been colonised by the Asians and none can compete with what they are doing, or spending by way of such events. We have need of the stimulation engendered but the manifestation must be very different in order to have appeal for our stay-at-home senior artists as well as the eagerly-out-there newer breeds and all those in between. All manner of things are being scrutinised and tried out off-shore – we must do the same here. There are some new ideas generating away – I just hope some of them make it to fruition.

  4. Chris Weaver

    I’m serious about ceramics. If snobbery is a desire for excellence then I’m guilty of that. We should be celebrating excellence and striving for better. Why should we accept less than that?

    I agree that “the best way to ensure a strong future is to encourage new blood” and I am always encouraged and excited to see new work of high calibre from emerging ceramic artists but they can only benefit from the inclusion of the more experienced makers being alongside them as I did. I still feel that these shows are important as an opportunity to measure my work against others and to participate in this prestigious exhibition.

    These awards are about excellence but not all of our best are represented and that bothers me. We should be encouraging more of our established ceramicists to enter to make it stronger and it should be difficult to get accepted, even for some of us who have been around for a long time.

    Finally, I don’t know where you would have seen the teapots that I entered into this year’s Portage Awards before as they are the latest of a series that I began last year. They are similar, in that they are also teapots, but I am constantly rethinking and redesigning the form. The latest are different to those that I have shown before and are certainly nothing like the work that I have entered into the Portage in the past.

  5. Suzy Dünser

    I am one of the many Diploma students who entered the Portage this year (for the first time), and one who was lucky enough to have my work chosen for exhibition. I’d put off entering for the last few years because I didn’t feel I was ready for it: in order for a piece to be worthy of a competition at this level, all the components have to be up to speed – concept, form, and surface treatment. This year I still wasn’t totally convinced, but I’d promised a few people who were encouraging me to enter that I would. I was thrilled to get in, and have tried to take the mixed comments I’ve heard on the show for what they probably are – an indication that this year, like all others I can remember, some people are on the same wavelength as the judge, and some are not.

    Moyra, I found your review of the show insightful, and of course personally encouraging for me. Although you rightly pointed out weaknesses in the exhibition, overall the review was thoughtful and considered. The comments afterwards by Cheryl Lucas and Chris Weaver were, in contrast, downright depressing. Even though I have to accept this is their perception of the situation, and that does give me pause, I can’t quite accept some of the assertions put forward:

    Cheryl questions the method of selecting the judge – Is the implication that Janet Mansfield is unqualified to be a judge? I also have some trouble with her reasoning that the students shouldn’t be in the main competition because winning the prize would be bad for them. If it’s a full lifetime of creative thinking we’re after, and I agree that it is, at what point is it okay to win a major prize?

    Chris then follows up by condemning this show, and lauding a previous one, without having seen the work of either one in actuality, just the catalogues. I find this quite tough, as I have often been disappointed by the poor ability of a photo to capture the essence of a piece. I also wonder about the suggestion that top ceramic artists refrain from entering the competition because they’re unimpressed by the standard of work. Surely the potential to win a $15,000 prize would be somewhat motivating, especially if you anticipate being at the front of the pack.

    It is disappointing that more of our accomplished practitioners aren’t entering exhibitions and competitions in New Zealand, and I think the recommendation to send entry forms out to encourage people to enter is a good one. It may also be true that the standard of work here really is declining; I don’t know enough to judge that. But overall I found these responses unduly negative. Discouraging students and the not-yet-venerable from entering competitions, and suggesting that their participation in the ceramics world cheapens it, is probably not the way to improve things in the long term.

  6. Moyra

    Hello Suzy, thanks for your contribution and I am going to dissent from some of your points. I have dealt with some elsewhere in recent posts and I wont repeat or amplify unless requested to. However I did not find the comments by either Lucas or Weaver ‘downright depressing’ in any way. They simply came forward and wrote what has been circulating around the traps for quite a while. It is surely a healthy sign that it’s out there instead of being quietly exchanged over a beer or behind a hand! And such views are not depressing. Depressing in what way? I am curious. I found your interpretation of what they were trying for somewhat depressing because I read in their contributions only a desire for generating discussion, and an interest in being constructive while having a clear-eyed view of the state of things. Nowhere did I see reference to cheapening the competition or to a prize being bad for students. I think they both stated their own positions with clarity while not clobbering anyone – perspectives to be encouraged every time! They evidently wish for change and so do many of us for the status quo, in a number of directions, can be stifling of fresh ceramic expression here. They understand this, in part because like some others of us, they get off-shore to different ceramic events all over the world. As one continues in the ceramic milieu, here in godzone, one realises that external stimulation is a necessary regular appendix to the personal practice – which ever area one inhabits be it as maker or as commentator, organiser, teacher or possibly even collector for that matter. We must get out there because it is very difficult without far more money thrown at it than is remotely possible under present circumstances, to make what’s out there come to us!

    I wonder can it be that the regular reassuring reinforcement offered here to students at about every stage of their learning (teachers are prompted to be encouraging and find the positive) makes people super-sensitive to anything that does not fit this category? I once had the privilege of being at Alfred University in the USA – considered one of their top 3/4 Masters programmes – and saw the first session where the new Masters students presented their work for initial assessment at the start of their two years of study and work. I should clarify that Alfred gets about 200 applicants with BFA or similar from every quarter of the States every year and takes a maximum of eight. Furthermore there are four full-time and also visiting lecturers that work with them and with the small contingency of undergraduates. I watched this crit session with amazement as each of those students was dissected, one by one, their work analysed, shredded, steadily stripped of the years of study and effort that had gone into getting them that far in the first place. They were a chosen few and clearly did not expect such treatment. Neither did I, because almost any of their work would gain instant success and attention here! There was clearly a competition going on between two male teachers to be more savage in assessment than the last, while at the end, the motherly Andrea Gilll went around sobbing students (boys as well as girls in some instances) and mopped them up! This situation took place with all other Master’s students, and me, in attendance and taking notes!
    This is a strategy there, as it turned out, and I also witnessed the start of the processes of building them up again. But that would take the whole two years. It was brutal to say the least. However a Masters grad from Alfred can write his/her own job ticket as a rule as well as gaining exhibition opportunities not extended to others. And in the highly competitive situation that is American ceramics. What do you think, I wonder? Does this seem constructive or simply destructive? Should we have more of it or stay as mute as we usually are? What other course might entice NZ ceramic practices into new directions? Do we, indeed, need new directions?

    We don’t have the USA scale of things – hundreds of programmes at four different levels, a national annual gathering of 5-6000 attendees and several more specialised congresses of more intimate scale, so that it’s possible to be outspoken and speak the mind, even to be extremely confronting, and they surely do and are, while remaining largely anonymous. Here in our cosy milieu where most know most others we are more careful not to rock any perceived boats. Such a shame because this is where change and development can arise. I think this is one of the things NZ ceramics needs, hence this blog which has reached record readership strikes over the past few days so it seems others might also. But you might disagree.
    Please, feel free to contribute.

    • Suzy Dünser

      I guess being new to the competition scene I didn’t realise how down people were about the Portage. Realising that was mostly what was depressing. I did feel somewhat more hopeful after reading your reply to Cheryl, because it gave me more of an idea of options we can explore to improve things. I am not averse to discussing things to try to improve them; I hope you can put up with the occasional ignorant question or comment as I climb a pretty steep learning curve about this topic!

      I think a students’ competition would be a good thing. I also think more ceramics students, and better ceramics education in New Zealand, would be a good thing – I’m looking forward to the time you write about that, because as you indicated, this is a whole other topic waiting to be discussed. As it is, I don’t know – do we have enough students to have a national students’ competition? Could we include recent graduates, say, 5 years or less? I will concede the point that winning (or even being a finalist in) a prestigious competition could make someone think it was safer to stay with the work they were doing at that time (which is what I interpreted as “bad” for the student). I can reassure you I, at least, had no such thoughts – I know my work still has a ways to go. The one thing I hope would be obvious to entrants (but maybe not), is that with a different sole judge each year, there is no guarantee that work that gets accepted one year by one judge will make it in the next year with a different one, so staying the same is not necessarily “safe.”

      As for the super-supportive nature of ceramics education here, I can only agree with you that it is too soft. I know a few people I can go to if I want an honest critique of my work, but you’re right that it’s not the norm. Although my ceramics education has been in New Zealand, I previously studied design at two universities in the US, and I know what it’s like to be shredded in a crit. I don’t know if actively trying to make people cry is necessary, but certainly there’s nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Maybe the instructors here are afraid of losing the few students they have. Is it just a vicious circle?

    • Chris Weaver

      Interesting about the lack of constructive criticism for students these days. When I was a student at Otago, Michael Trumic used to tear us to shreds and we were all the better for it. I remember him looking at something I felt quite proud of and him saying “stop trying to be so F—ing cleaver and just get on with it”! It was the best thing he ever taught me and I still hear that voice over my shoulder every now and then.

      • Moyra

        Yes, sounds like the Kiwi way alright. My experience in Alfred was different. Like their Congressional assemblies, all was very polite. No bombast at all – we must remember that suing is a national sport over there! It was a carefully constructed dissection of every aspect of the new student’s work…. technical, haptic, theoretical et al. I watched as these young people (most in late 20s as I recall) who had already gained success, many had their own studio situation as well as publications and exhibitions (you don’t get accepted at Masters level in Alfred on hope and a promise!) over the half hour or so, steadily move from a position of pride in their work to abject dismay. What were they thinking of? You could see that running through their minds. It was devastating, and deliberate and disturbing. But in the end the aim, as I imagine was Trumic’s aim also, was to prompt the student to think through every single facet of their work and develop clarity around their own position; to turn over all possible challenges to their thinking – because in the end the work emerges stronger and any issues can be met.
        Good artist’s statements then usually follow simply and effortlessly.

  7. Moyra

    I appreciate your points Suzy. Thank you. When you are pretty new to this strange culture it’s hard to know what things were like before and these days, most students don’t appear to have much idea about what might be possible. They have no experience of ‘the Fletcher’ days and the broad spectrum of stimulation across a wide range that arrived with its annual advent and then the international profile it gave us. When the Portage is held up as the pinnacle of things to aim for and artists are given hearty congratulations when accepted, let alone the zenith of an award I, for one, can perfectly understand depression at the realisation that some more senior artists are a tad underwhelmed. But it is a major on our calendar, as it stands at present and as such should be receptive to both scrutiny and suggestions for change. But that is up to Portage and whoever advises them. But I, for one, am always open to ‘ignorant questions and comment’ – it’s the way we learn.
    But just trying to replace ‘Fletcher’ is pointless as the days of the international competition are over for small economies like NZ – like I said, that is thoroughly colonised by Asia now. But there are other ways of making a mark internationally, just as there are ways to re-jig something like Portage and revive its relevance to NZ ceramics. It’s mostly students that enter competitions these days – organisers must work from that as a starting point and perhaps engage some consultation. If not, and it’s their right to ignore such opinion, then perhaps even fewer senior artists will submit work.

    As for the education in ceramics in New Zealand – I have been researching aspects of that for a couple of years now and still a ways to go! But I’d be happy to hear commentary from any current or recent students as to what they might like to see happen. There are some things in the wind, on several fronts, but this is not the time to air them. Later perhaps, when things mature more.

  8. There has been comment on the solo judge predicament v. the curated arrangement. A solo judge is given a doubled-edged sword, particularly if asked to choose work without background information. The freedom to choose subjectively is tempered by the risk of making a gigantic clanger. But all the same a previously-unconfronted ceramic piece is just that …a ceramic piece, without baggage or clue, a lump of clay fired (in most cases) – it may come from an artistically advanced PhD from Alfred who has been shredded, rehabilitated and garthclarked, a skilled Nigerian village potter, or the cleaner who makes stuff in secret after the students have gone home. The only way to judge it is to use the “goosebump response” (GR). I also use the “Covet Test” …. would I want to take it home and live with it for 20 years, not just 6 months?” It’s a risky business, not having the comfort of pages of the artist’s waffle, or even the name, even the handwriting on the entry form might help – just one clue in case it turns out to be a piece by a 4-year-old at playcentre in a bad mood before lunchtime. A potter with decades of competent output may not be able to raise a single bump. The GR reading should over-ride the artist’s statement, the cloying words, the CV, the collectible stamp, and any ability to make clay do smart tricks. Janet Mansfield’s GR will not register the same as anyone else’s, she has been around clay longer than most of us, she is from another country (when she stops still), another social or political structure, for some of us she is from another gender (cf: another country), she will have recognised some work, she may even be a friend of some of the entrants, a common dilemma that can easily confuse the response. Her choices did not completely convince me but they clearly convinced her. And that’s the end to it. She was the judge; it was her show. I’ve done it myself. It’s a crap job – you make 3 friends and lose 100.
    If these idiosyncratic and “blind” selections, that risk the inclusion of a small number of one-off lucky hits, are irritating to entrants to the point where they stop entering, then the reliable and most common alternative is either a jury (almost never happens in this country – economics maybe? shortage of peers perhaps) or a curator. Both of these approaches, with their increased access to background information, can easily eliminate the new chum, the presumptuous student or the real clanger. They produce much more substantial and, in one sense anyway, less surprising, shows – exhibitions that leave the viewer confronted with, and hopefully proud of, the state of clay in their part of the world. Apart from the wonderful “Raising Boys” down in Hawkes Bay, the only studio ceramic show that has made me feel like that about our part of the world recently was the controversial Scott Chamberlin selection for the Portage a couple of years ago when he broke a few house rules and virtually curated a show of people that he had done homework on and shamelessly indulged himself with, and it was a great result. He did have the advantage of living in NZ for a period around the exhibition and getting to know the deal here.
    And Richard Fahey’s “Clay Economies” at Objectspace, was a fine example of sharp curatorial skill involving ceramics from every possible source, not just studio potters. If there were equally good shows – forgive me I didn’t see them.
    Here’s a guess: Solo judges get it right 80% of the time, juries and curators 95%. Perhaps the people who select the solo judges get it 20% wrong. (You can’t argue with facts like these).
    The Waiclay exhibition this year is an interesting combination of both – half of it is the usual blind selection and half is curated. It is a great chance to compare both approaches in one space at the same time.
    The blind selection includes new entrants – they will all move through the sieving process over the years (a new sieve every time the event is held) and the duds will eventually go down the drain like the bloody zinc oxide lumps that never break down (does anyone reckon it makes any difference to the glaze if you throw them out?). The curated section is a disparate but high-quality collection as Moyra points out.
    I would prefer the Portage to continue the inclusive, lottery approach. Perhaps Waiclay could concentrate on the curated exhibition and we could have two distinct shows each year (sorry Waiclay girls, your farms will have to lie fallow for a while yet) – get the best of both worlds, massage the old buggers’ egos at one event and give the new faces the right to foot it with the rest of the country at another. Some of my students were in the Portage this year – their work is light years ahead of mine at the same stage of my career and they will rise to the top by way of experiences like this. They are proud and motivated now, they all sold, and the whole thing has given them a real confidence boost. There’s a fair chance they would not have been invited on to a curated show.
    Most of the contributors to this thread were beginner potters a decade or two or more back, feeling nervous, inadequate, lie-awake hopeful as we all took a tentative first step into the exhibition scene. I am not sure I would have been too impressed if I had been required to enter a nursery section before being allowed into the big kids’ area.
    The S word has cropped up in this thread – international ceramics has its share of snobs; it is also full of dedicated people who want our beloved medium to be given its full recognition. Sometimes the two groups overlap – it’s a tightrope walk made all the more difficult by having to balance the power of the shredder against the pain of the shredded. Potters are part of humanity too, only more sensitive and inclined to weep at the sight of a dunt or a rejection slip. Who knows if the Alfred University Boot Camp approach has any effect (positive or negative) or whether the victim was going to make it anyway? After all they are carefully filtered before they get there. I would happily waterboard some of my students if I thought it would help. At least it would get the clay off the end of their noses.
    Interested to hear more whispers of what developments are in the wind for ceramic education in NZ. We are part of the DCA programme at the ASP and finding it financially less worthwhile each year, although the effect of the programme, as critically soft as it sometimes is, has been very positive for the Centre with a wide range of the best local ceramic artists turning up to teach.

  9. Moyra

    Well, and a Happy New Year to all readers of this blog, of which this particular thread has been longest and strongest so far.

    I’m not sure that the comments were particularly aimed at any ‘curated vs solo judge predicament’ but seemed to me more a general airing of a number of matters around what is promoted as our principal competition. If this is indeed the main annual event on the ceramic calendar here in NZ then ventilating some of the issues that have cropped up fairly regularly since its inception is valuable and informative but could even rise to qualifying as constructive if Portage event management would join the discussion. They are, one assumes, doing this for the ceramic community of New Zealand – although having worked in and around several publicly funded institutions that exhibit art one can be forgiven wondering if the event is mainly for promoting the art form and artists or the institution – so it is surely useful for commentary, by those for which the event presumably exists, to have an outing. It would be good to know that the fact that they are issues for some of the community is recognised. Agreement is never mandatory but acknowledgement would be pretty acceptable and some clarification received with interest.

    For example, to repeat an earlier point, when and why was the ‘work must not carried out in a class of instruction’ rule removed from the entry form? Did the Gallery realize that many/most entries were from current students, so accommodated this? If so, this was changing one of the fundamentals of NZ ceramic competitions since the inception of the first, The Fletcher, back in 1977, and one that is part of most international competitions. Were they persuaded that allowing students/recent grads from the DLC would be a useful boost for enrolling more students or setting them upon a particular career track or great experience for students? Were they persuaded that entries would be boosted if students had access? If so, by whom? Is there another reason? Has it just been forgotten?
    Teachers usually recognize how much of their own input is involved in a work and I can recall an occasional member of a teaching staff, over the years, remarking such when viewing exhibitions or competitions. I can think of a number of questions around just this; questions of creativity and inventiveness, questions around methodology, yes, even integrity. But all that assumes the students are/were unaware of that line in the rules.

    Still, many of the issues do surround the judge question.

    Peter says that the Portage is Janet Mansfield’s show; she was the designated judge and her choices stand. Quite right. But that does not mean that her choices cannot be challenged or discussed. Of course they always are, but usually in private. This is one of the principal drivers for this blog – up-front dialogue, which is something that happens far too infrequently in New Zealand. It seems sometimes that when, very occasionally, someone sticks out neck and offers an opinion or ventures some challenge or even asks a question that they become defeated by our clobbering machine and swiftly relegated to silence by what appears a more authoritative voice. We take it that this is the final word – big mistake. While I would not necessarily want the opposite situation to happen such as in the USA where at ceramic (and doubtless other) conferences, before the speaker has even completed their talk, a line of commentators is forming at the microphone in the centre-aisle of the audience so as to oppose or compound. This, too often, appears to be principally aimed at drawing attention to the provocateur in some way rather than address the issue at hand. Still, it can be stimulating and, to my way of thinking, preferable to our generally mute acceptance. Which does not mean that there are no opinions, simply that they are seldom publicly voiced.

    So, while I agree that Janet’s choices might not totally convince me either, I accept them knowing she has been around the traps for longer than most of us and having experienced seven Fletcher judges, close up and personal when deliberating, I know that no two approach the job in quite the same way but that there are factors in common. One or two have initially used a sort-of ‘goose bump response’, allowing that embryonic seduction of what appears fresh, but then clearly applied analysis to augment that. All brought to the task accumulated experience: years of looking, teaching, thinking and sound knowledge of ceramic culture and history to gauge any originality in technique or philosophical stance, whether they have seen this notion before and how the idea has been applied this time. Total originality is extremely rare and probably would not first appear in a competition situation. They would know, whether this is from some pre-prandial 4 year old or a Nigerian villager. Janet would also know that this year’s winning entry is a relative beginner’s work; careful observation and logic makes such things obvious but she must have decided that, for her, the positives outweighed any negatives and what she saw and appreciated deserved reward. As well, she of all possible judges would be aware of the place of Portage in the grand scheme of things having been on panels of varying types all over the world. I’m sure she, along with each Fletcher judge and all those previous Portage jurors relish the chance to be sole arbiter, for the panel route is discussion and compromise which can be both draining and frustrating…. . But here be blessed anonymity. And you can blame the others.

    As long as we maintain our unique down-under one-judge policy we will have these results that bewilder, challenge, even exasperate, our positions around what is acceptable. But is it only OK to question when a student wins? Of course not. There are often just as many disputative comments when one of our established senior practitioners has won. It’s our nature, in a small community, to take issue around various aspects when the occasion demands. We are very close to these debates and results are inescapable. So good for everyone who has entered the discussion, no matter their position: those wondering if there is something fundamentally wrong with the initial processes of judge selection, those no longer excited by the Portage, those who wonder where the boundary pushing might appear from, those asking if a separate student area might be productive, those tired of soft reviews of little substance, those asking if snobbery is a part of general attitudes, those who find some things downright depressing and those objecting to the soft nature of ceramic education and those defending student’s rights to enter a competition and etcetera as we covered a lot of ground in this dialogue… all healthy stuff and every bit of it useful to air.

    I don’t have any definitive answers, and neither does anyone else but am aware that some change in a number of directions could be productive for NZ ceramics as so much has been static for quite a while. Everything just jogging along in agreeable and sedate fashion – no boat rocking and the status quo unchallenged. Comfy eh? But most of art is not like that, most artists are kept on their toes and often left gasping as radical change descends once more before they are ready for it. The ceramic competition is one of the areas that exists in a particular comfort zone of which Scott Chamberlin was aware, hence his attempt to bring stringent structural transformation to the Portage by reducing his selection of artists right down and asking them for more work so that the ‘one-pot-shot’ nature of the show went by the wayside and we might see a group of works from each artist and maybe follow a train of thought or track a development or view several manifestations of an idea. This was always my main problem with The Fletcher – the one pot (or piece) shot, hence always a disparate show. Not that it mattered for one show – the problem arose when many other competitions sprang like some virulent fungus all over the country (22 at one count in the mid-90s…) and all followed the same format instead of varying the approach. Portage has largely done likewise and good for the management allowing Chamberlin to attempt effecting change which evidences an open approach. Chamberlin’s show was controversial, in part because in that particular instance the idea did not work all that well. Artists were unprepared in many instances for the request for more work to illuminate his selections and there was insufficient time to complete more pieces. The idea was worthwhile, but like many ideas the first attempt was not 100% successful… just needed some tuning for the next time. But the next time things reverted to the former formula so maybe the judges have more input than we are aware of? Or maybe the Lopdell House Gallery was more comfortable with the predictability of the standard approach, or even Portage itself had a finger in the pie? We’ll probably never know.
    The other main problem was the mixed – media nature of a winning work. While the artist/judge walk and talk was useful in airing this issue and differing positions on this made abundantly clear it might have made even more mileage in blog form had this existed at the time.

    Education in ceramics is another area that might do well with a touch of upheaval. The dominant Distance Course out of Otago Polytech works pretty well in some locations and not so well in others. But does that mean that everything should be on that track? I’d like a hot dinner for every time I have been called in for a chat, asked to a meeting, sat on a panel, returned invited written comment and so on and so on about education in ceramics here. Nothing much changes, ever, so does this mean viewers are happy with what is being produced? If so who is doing the measuring? Or does it mean that change is resisted for a variety of (mainly) financial reasons?
    Once again there are modifications and adaptations in the wind arising not particularly from the established methods but augmenting what is already in place. I have no idea if these might be put into operation, or not, but plan that this blog will be a means of airing the relevant issues once things are further down the track – if they get that far.

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