Barry Brickell is no longer with us. He died on Saturday afternoon in Coromandel. There is a private ceremony on Tuesday next and a Memorial Service on Wednesday at 1pm to which all are invited.
It’s the end of an era; one that has been called pioneering, and it was in many ways although those ‘50s blokes, of which Barry was absolutely one, were not pathfinders in the sense that they started the studio pot-making thing – here in NZ, that was women of the ‘30s, working in earthenware – but they were in the sense that pottery made in reduced stoneware and styled in the anglo-oriental manner prescribed by Bernard Leach and cohorts, was de rigueur by the mid-‘50s. It was part of a move towards a different way of life in the post-war world; one where there was a simpler, more creative, elemental and co-operative way of dealing with life. And Barry Brickell lived that life. In fact he, while the youngest, was in many ways the flag-bearer of that whole ethos. As a young man and several different attempts at education toward a parentally satisfying ‘respectable’ career and ‘a carpet on my office floor’ he turned his back and left school-teaching after two terms and became a full-time potter in Coromandel in 1961. He was preceded in that aim by Mirek Smisek, but as Barry would say, he was ‘the first New Zealand born, full-time, maker of stoneware pots’. He bought a small property and simply began. Building his own wheel the first to make a pot on it was Bernard Leach himself when visiting in 1962.
He lived there in Coromandel his whole life, moving to the present Driving Creek a little later, but many influences came his way. Once he had discovered pot-making the earliest was Len Castle when Barry was just 15. Barry, as became his lifelong habit, began a lively correspondence but Castle participated, ‘less so’; as was his wont. Barry, during one successful stint at higher education that culminated in a science degree, flatted with Hamish Keith in Newton – an enclave peopled with many from the arts – where they both built kilns and made pots and ‘generated amazing creative energy’. That year he also met Yvonne Rust in Christchurch who became a lifelong friend and who invited him to come meet Shoji Hamada when he visited Christchurch in 1965. Michael Illingworth came to stay in Coromandel and they worked together ‘and art blossomed’ until Illingworth was evicted by Barry’s father because of his habits with the other sort of pot. By 1963 many began arriving, drawn by the creative environment, and Barry built a railway, with much help, to transport clay, later commissioning the building of his first locomotive to pull his, by then, four wagons. He later bought his own boat, that was eventually followed by several others, so as to make trading his wares to Auckland much easier. One idea seemed to simply open up another and Barry was always busy, working long hours with his Herculean energy achieving more than seemed possible for one man. And it wasn’t really one man. Somehow, his inquiring mind and highly individual persona along with what could be viewed as a romantic way of life attracted all sorts. Many arrived. Idealistic young potters arrived looking for teaching but found themselves instead being asked to dig clay, hump river shingle or plant native trees where pines had been extracted. Older men came, looking to be engineers on the railway and hoping to drive the train and while there were requested to help build viaduct structures or plaster cutting walls with the mountains of empty wine bottles that were generated on the property. Arriving , seeking a place to meditate and hang out discussing philosophies, would be profoundly disappointing as there was no guru to be found for he was too busy working and planning the next development. Not that there was no time for fun. A couple of car-loads of potters, one day and following the imbibing of much good whiskey were given a train ride at speed that ended with derailment and ejection into the clay pits, fortunately with no serious injury.
Barry travelled to various places – Australia, Canada, Europe, USA, where the histories (of trains or ceramics) interested him but viewed all with a critical eye and an inquiring attitude returning with ever deeper convictions that his own path was where he needed to be and always, there were the pots. I use the term pots in the Kiwi sense that works of clay, made in studio, are pots but in Barry’s case that included domestic ware that never really left the 1960s behind, large one-off pots of scale and presence that were thrown and hand-worked, free-standing sculpture with subject matter ranging from curious llama-like creatures to totems of a more abstract nature and always his own ‘Spiromorphs’ individually, distinctly his and more sculptures around the subject of railways and engines sometimes on a scale beyond imagining. Finally, what were, in many opinions, his finest works – the commissioned wall mural bas-relief tile works where subject matter was usually concerned with industry. The domestic ware ranged from coffee mugs through a range of bowls to the handsome ‘Fatso’ and ‘Thinso’ Jugs where the corpulent numbers won hands down and where he and I once had a spirited discussion on the merits of various forms of handle – for which he asserted there was only one possible formula.
The large vessels were capped by his work for the Seville World Fair Exhibition and its subsequent display in the Niewe Kirk in Dam Square in Amsterdam. I saw the exhibition there and recall thinking at the time that it was Barry’s large, fat-rimmed heavily fingered vessel of distinctly Polynesian extraction that stood up possibly the best to the soaring architecture within that old 17thC church. It stopped me in my tracks when I came across it and that salty, heavily grogged, wood-fired surface somehow made me homesick.
The spiromorphs were distinctly his own and he did them in a variety of scales and surfaces but always they bulged in sensuous or spirited fashion or sometimes danced and sliced sideways in a variety of rhythms that made their expressions almost musical. Here are three…
The sculptural ‘creatures’… were singular beings, often four legged with peaceful expressions above long necks and with curled tails. A few morphed into engines in curious ways.
Closer to his heart probably were the sculptures involving his parallel love of anything railway. This one lives outside the gallery at Driving Creek and has an iron body but with ceramic additions.
Biggest of all was the commissioned one that belched real steam, for the Matthews collection in New Plymouth, and that was a part of the touring exhibition of two years ago. Sadly this, and others, was destroyed in the fire at Matthews Gallery and home last year.
And here is a smaller but salted hybrid pot/engine from Andrew Grigg’s collection
The large commissioned tile murals are hard to view because they reside in industrial works and offices from Invercargill to London; they are magnificent, thoroughly researched and designed works that rightly receive many plaudits. This is the one in New Plymouth at the Shell Todd offices.
Here are my personal favourites. James Mack commissioned a set of tiles commemorating workers on the railways for The Dowse collection.
These are the works that rise first to mind when thinking of the work of Barry Brickell. They contain all that was special about the man.
Finally here are two portraits, taken many years apart.
The first by the late Steve Rumsey who was only one of the photographers who made the pilgrimage to DCR fairly regularly. It shows a young Barry with an early rail version, no engine but his own muscle and one of the clay carts plus a huge pot.
The second, shows his good humour, hand-cut hair and relaxed mien when in good company.
There are multiple images of Barry taken over the years. Many of them really good ones and by a notable array of prominent photographers. Some were used for the excellent book, His Own Steam on Barry’s lifetime’s work produced by The Dowse on the occasion of his major retrospective exhibition in 2013 which toured around the country to most centres. The essays by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien are well worth reading and the one by David Craig, in unedited form, has been reproduced in the publication, Empire of Dirt produced by Objectspace in late 2015 and is still available and highly recommended as a superb rendering of the whole man, warts and all, just as it should be.
Barry was in many ways the poster boy for the entire clay culture of the time. His was the seemingly romantic retreat from city life, the peaceful rural situation, the idyllic lifestyle. It was so through to late in the 20thC. It was a singular time and has reproduced favourably in many images and publications. Far fewer saw the hard work, the dawn to dusk labour, the constant planning and the financial strains that were mercifully relieved once the railway was utilised for the enjoyment of visitors and then the hordes of tourists. Few saw the times he was isolated and even labelled eccentric in later years until the Dowse retrospective rectified that with a wide show that examined all aspects of the man and his oeuvre. It was a worthy tribute. Sadly, he never received the nation’s Arts Laureate accolade, which honour he richly deserved. But he would not worry on that score at all.
For a man who enjoyed his body, loved to work with no or barely any clothes (to the shock-horror of occasional unprepared visitors) it was his body that finally let him down. At 80, after all those years of hard physical labour from dawn to dusk, things wore out and ‘bits began to go awfully wrong’ as he said one evening. He bore the results of the very drastic treatments received with grace and fortitude however, and complained not at all. He would still manage a large helping of roast lamb, mint sauce and roast vegetables with ‘real gravy!’ His mind, always sharp and questioning was still enjoying a challenge to some theory of his and even as he lay in bed he would relish waiting impatiently until the argument reached some conclusion so he might demolish it, often using his own invented language from whose twists and curls and meaning he derived further delight to explain!
We shall not see his like again. He was truly a one-off.