John died on Friday, 3rd February at Christchurch Hospital.
Always a non-smoker, John had a rare form of lung cancer that he had been combating for quite some time and when last seen earlier last year, which was after surgical treatment, he seemed confident that the chemotherapy was doing what was needed. He was in hospital in Christchurch to receive more chemo and succumbed on Friday evening, unfortunately not near his beloved home, studio and the beach at Granity, on the west coast of the north of the South Island.
This area of verdant native bush with impressive stands of nikau and harakeke, a ruggedly indented coastline and deep green rivers feels, indeed is, largely untouched. It is not a gentle coastline but vibrant, full of drama and turbulence, even a sense of potential danger with imposing cliff faces and swirling weather patterns that can be seen, over the low horizon, for vast distances.
His spectacular environment was, for most of his more than forty-year career as a significant maker upon the NZ scene, his principal source of stimulation. He and his wife Anne were both trained in Jack Laird’s apprenticeship scheme, at Waimea Potteries in Nelson, in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1974 John and Anne moved to Ngakawau, a coastal settlement about a half-hour drive north of Westport on the only road; one which goes no further on reaching Karamea and an entrance to Kahurangi National Park. In this they were part of a gravitation by potters, perfectly viable at the time, to rural situations where they made, and sold from the gate, their domestic ware. After long battles and negotiations with conservative bureaucrats they established their studio and home and later a larger studio at Hector, directly opposite the beach. In time, as those weekend trips to the country for pots declined, they added a retail outlet in Westport that stood out among neighboring shops for its contemporary design and presence.
The isolation and environment enabled was what Gina Irish called Crawford’s ‘metaphorical backbone’ and daily walks upon the beach offered flotsam such as feathers, bones, stones and shells from the natural world as well as tide-worn plastic and glass, fishing detritus and metals. These were carefully collected and kept alongside his many note and sketchbooks as resource material for both the tableware he and Anne produced and his personal work.
The tableware, at its zenith, was marketed not only in the declining numbers of pottery outlets but found a ready situation in trendy cooking ware shops that carried the latest tools from Italy, finely crafted Japanese steel knives and all-white traditional commercial ware from France. Here the product of Hector Pottery stood out for the sensibility of design that perfectly suited local produce but also the unmistakably hand brushed, elegantly rendered, linear surface decoration depicting seasonal fruits and vegetables, sea-foods and edible native plants. These were counterbalanced with plain coloured ware in subdued hues that reflected local colour from the West Coast –several greens, soft greys and blues with flashes of coral that served well the sophisticated food they were intended to complement.
John’s personal work was often divided between drawing, which he did all his life, to large, commanding of space, sculptural vessels and small sculptures often scaled to hold in the hand. All of this work carries reverberant echoes of the West Coast landscape and memories of a childhood in Rununga and Greymouth, fishing and drawing with his father and his daily combing of the beach at Hector. The signature large vessels, often complex in form, were of restricted palette despite his facility with a brush. He had a unique way of surface, applying his motifs – mainly sourced in that flotsam and jetsam from the beach and patterns from the tides, in a reactive black slip that bleeds into the surface of the dry matte base so that it appears weathered and almost burnt into the substance of the clay. His drawings, more abstract than his ceramic art, nevertheless reflected his regard of and for his surroundings. They were exhibited, alongside the vessels and sculptural works in a large solo exhibition, Return’. at the Suter Gallery in Nelson in 2010. Titles such as ‘A Cold and Bitter Wind’ and ‘Stars reflected in Sand’ were given the drawings and the pots were called ‘Light Falling through Water’, ‘Five Feathers’ and ‘The Flesh of a Fish’. All offered strong reference to his sources and an appreciation of the unique qualities to be found in his environment. This was further demonstrated in the last words of a small poem he wrote for the catalogue:
… I favour flotsam
The sea worn pebble
A remembered reflection
The most welcome cloud
A street sign I pass each day
All things that are small and
not always noticed.
John Crawford was one of the principal exponents of an expression of place in his work – a theme begun in the early-1960s and still extant in New Zealand ceramics. Living where he did, he never felt any need to move his work away from this basic leitmotif. His regard and responsiveness, cherishing both the grand gestures as well as the minute details contained within his small, yet vast, horizons and which resonated with such vibrancy within all aspects of his work, elevated his expression to a level not attained by many.
His forty+ year career was marked by many successes: three exhibitions in Germany at B15 in Munich during the 1990s and in Hong Kong and Taiwan at Koru Galleries in the new century. John served as President of the NZSP for several years in the late 1980s and represented New Zealand at an international young ceramics artists’ symposium in Canberra in 1986. He participated in many group, two-person with Anne and solo exhibitions over the years – the last being at the Suter.
There is a memorial service at 2pm on Wednesday 8th at the pottery at Hector to remember John.