Book Review

ETCHED IN FIRE

Chester Nealie 

Edited by Damian Skinner, with contributions by – Grace Cochrane, Morag Fraser, Andrew Grigg, Lucy Hammonds, Peter Lange, Denis O’Connor, Gillian McCracken, Justine Olsen, Owen Rye and biographical notes from Jan Irvine-Nealie.

Ron Sang Publications, 2016.

This is a heavyweight thumper of a book that can never be a bed-time read. It’s a sit up straight in a well supported chair book with over 300 pages – high quality, glossy, large format, with nine essays, several dozens of illustrations – some biographical but mainly of pots all made by Nealie, four interviews by the editor with the subject, extensive biographical notes and curricula vitae. Then there are luxurious addenda such as inserts of richly coloured substantial card (in bush green, ochre yellow, iron red and clay grey) embossed with scallop shell pattern, marking each of the four sections (on Making, Firing, Exhibiting and Owning) and further clusters of inserts, again differing in scale, colour, texture and weight to the main text paper and to the section entree type, with Nealie’s drawings of pots – sketchy, linear and lightly water-coloured here and there, with notations on, perhaps, kiln position or the clay used or planned for, or a pot spotted somewhere, and there are end-papers of great heft illustrated with fossil imagery. And, of course, hard covers. It all adds up to extraordinary production values and makes it probably the most sumptuous book on a potter yet produced in this country. The only addenda not included are a dust cover or slip case and maybe watermarks.

Photography of the work is uniformly excellent in spite of it being carried out by a number of different photographers each with their own style. The methods vary from the clear-cut ‘floating in space’ approach that I enjoy least, to the well-grounded as a pot should, and must, be, set weightily upon a surface so that its heft can be assessed visually. All photographers, however, have successfully captured the haptic qualities and surface diversity so evident in Nealie’s work and toward which he clearly invests much consideration and energy, as evidenced by reading some of the essay texts, particularly the editor’s interviews. The range of surfaces is spectacular and illustrates what must approach an almost complete compendium of what is possible with a small, select bunch of carefully edited glazes, a wood-fired kiln and skilled, experienced, stacking and firing.

Other photography documents a variety of subjects such as various kilns, pottery studios, working situations, exhibitions, landscapes, domestic interiors, and social occasions. These too are, in the main, excellently reproduced, considering the means of capture could range from a Box Brownie and real film negatives through to a cell-phone, when the time-span is taken into consideration. They serve their purpose well. A few have not survived the enlargement to full double page and needed use on a smaller scale, as they are far from crisply in focus. There must be reasons that escaped me as to why that scale was necessary for the information those images presented. But considering that it is a large book with so many images, those exemplary production values are on continuum.

It took me a while to work my way through all nine essays, four interviews and the biographical pages, but I did it in the end.  As you’d expect, they are a mixed bag and value to readers will vary depending upon interests and so reactions will be individual.

I enjoyed best the comments along with the occasional revelation offered by some of his old friends or colleagues who wrote with respect, humour and honesty. Most are probably familiar with the extroverted public side of Chester that irrepressibly comes to the fore before an audience, but here we are sometimes offered some avenues into the private man, whose interests are broad and collecting habits diverse and who can bring all those concerns into play in his pots’ surfaces, or at least make analogies that imply cogent links. This is also something he talks of in detail in his interviews with the editor. These lengthy passages on his work and firing indicate his primary interest to be surface. His perceptions and judgements with their subsequent actions, from the form of, and addenda to, his pots to the choices of slip and glaze along with which wood to be utilised, and when, through to treatment of post-firing unsatisfactory patches (which never occurred to me before as I’d always imagined a liberal dab of asceticism in the wood-firing processes) signify that it is this final aesthetic to which his attentions are mainly directed. The results generously underline this focus as attested by the many remarkably handsome pots illustrated.

Other essays that substantially engaged this reader were those under the banner of ‘Owning’, and here I learned something of Australian collections and their foci together with some thought-provoking discourse around display and audience experience. I was further beguiled by one man’s journey from chimney pots and drainage pipes moving steadily through to acquiring contemporary work in clay. Both essays read sincerely and record candidly the writers’ personal responses to encounters with Nealie’s pots along with some of the considerations and situations around them.

They contrast with some other tracts that read as detached and uninvolved and more as records of events made consequential to information received rather than any first-hand association or personal involvement. A third party viewpoint can be useful particularly if it’s also analytical. But this is largely lacking. I’d have interest in some interpretation of some of Nealie’s major exhibitions. As example, in his principal venture into work outside the vessel, the text reports his disappointment with the, “very little reaction”, to his exhibits generated from the expedition to the Auckland Islands and shown in the subsequent travelling group exhibition, ‘Art in the Subantarctic’. The minimal response, “definitely put me off”, presumably his doing more in that vein. “It was strange. The work sort of became dead”. His recounts of his readings and research on, and various adventures in, the Auckland Islands are most engaging; some of it enthralling. Then he describes his subsequent work and process in detail. But a broader viewpoint on the exhibition is not there. Surely there were, at least, newspaper and art magazine reviews about the exhibition? This was a large scale, multi-artist, well-funded venture that was seen in major venues up and down the country. More was required to help understand that, “very little reaction”.

There has been a mountain of work and effort contributed to this publication. Record must be made of the stalwart task undertaken by Jan Irvine-Nealie who compiled the extensive biographical notes and lists and further researched in support of various texts, as acknowledged by the editor – a mammoth task clearly accomplished meticulously. Along with the book design and values it’s impressive and contains every fact you ever wanted to know about Chester Nealie. Record should also be made of the mutable team that supported production of this book which has been in preparation over a prolonged period. Funding issues, movement of key players, changing team members, retiring publishers, replacement designers and such complicating issues all have affected the length of time it has taken for this publication to come to fruition. Getting a book, particularly a large complex one as this is, into production is a multifarious mission and all who furnished time and effort can take tribute for a task well completed. It’s not easy to tell but it seems likely that it’s been the vision of Chester and Jan Nealie which has been the constant and driving factor for this lengthy process. But all who supported also deserve accolades for a job well done.

So, does this book tap into and crack the Nealie code? Not really. That’s not what this book is designed to do. It’s an encyclopaedic celebration of the career of a man who found making pots more engaging than teaching; who began during the absolute dominance of the Anglo-oriental ethos in NZ ceramics and then discovered that the Oriental, with its particular potential for exploration, to be the most appealing part of that for him. From this developed a fascination for wood-firing with its culture, particularly the Japanese anagama approaches and their historical, aesthetic and romantic appeal for someone with his individual blend of background elements and talents. The diverse surface effects that can enliven an intelligently restricted range of pot forms are considered, pursued and explored in great depth and with myriad variations, until his expertise, within this discrete spectrum of ceramic expression, surpasses most. And it’s been under development for more than fifty years with a number of great adventures on the way. The personal is largely unseen and insights remain indistinct. So, this is a commemoration, not an interpretation.

This large, well designed and handsome tome is available from the Chester Nealie Book Committee – suggest, if you love his pots or have interest in wood-firing that you be in contact with Trien at the ASP or contact Masterworks Gallery for your copy. Cost $95.00 per.

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