The Portage

This year around the opening of the Portage competition exhibition there is a superabundance of other ceramic-related events. So many in fact, it ended up being called the Festival of Ceramics and included a number of facets not previously attempted alongside the exhibitions and artist’s talks at galleries and the main event itself (Portage), which are the usual. This year’s exhibition opening was accompanied by the conclusion of John Parker’s grand retrospective show and accompanying book, also at Te Uru, and we have several fresh white cube galleries joining in with shows of ceramics, a walking tour of the historical clay sites out west, a kiln firing by Nga Kaihanga Uku, slip casting demo, numerous open studio visits and a ‘collectors clinic’ for those who cannot resist the collectable allures of Crown Lynn wares and the annual ASP show had its opening dates adjusted to co-incide also. There’s probably even more I’m missing. Many of these events were already happening anyway and they have been collected together, under one label, for the eager ceramophile (albeit exhausted ceramophile). Some have been added in to enlarge or vary the event and now it’s at the point where the scale is overwhelming and it’s daunting to even start to get around. So, concentrating on the main event… (more to follow later)

The Portage was judged this year by Janet de Boos, probably well-known to most of you as former head of ceramics at Canberra and author of books on Glazes for Australian Potters. She has, over time, experienced generous cross-Tasman contact with New Zealand and its ceramics community formerly, via two-way travelers, and she was jurist for the Waiclay national event a few years ago. Janet spoke well at the opening event mentioning, as many have in the past, that absent was a good assortment of functional pots, with which she linked New Zealand’s long association. Further, she remarked upon the absence of anything risky or experimental where video representation of performance or time-based works are not unusual off-shore. However we did have some camera work included last year – which I think was the first time. Maybe that will grow. She remarked upon the ample presence, in entries, of what has been labelled , ‘sloppy clay’, a recent, mainly north American, movement that rejects, among other things, much adherence to the ‘craft’ aspect of clay practice plus an enthusiastic (sometimes over-vigorous) use of evidence of hand working. DeBoos links this with the West Coast Funk work from the 1960s and the current interest by artists with background in fine arts rather than ceramics who co-opt clay for its expressive potential displaying, to my eye, little or no interest in ceramics’ histories or traditions –some aspects of which could well, very often, strengthen the expression. However, West Coast Funk was absolutely an outgrowth of ceramic cultures and traditions but with an eye on the socio-political events of the day (plus that rarity for USA clay at the time – irony!) when one thinks about the work of initiators like Robert Arneson and Howard Kottler. With DeBoos I enjoy the best of this new style (sometimes because it challenges those long-held customs) but, like her, hold no regard for a simple re-iteration of what is currently hot off-shore (and there is a bit of that around). Anyway, she invited very little into this show despite there being names that are new.  She gave the Premier Award to a work entitled, “Clinch VI”, by Caroline Earley, American born and educated, former lecturer at Nelson Polytechnic and currently Assistant Professor at Boise State University in Indiana, USA. Caroline returns to NZ with her partner most summers and more, if possible, and has entered competitions or exhibited here and in Australia and undertaken residencies in ANU Canberra as well as in the USA. (One as prize from the Waiclay event of 2008).  The work is an apparently simple slip-cast, two-pronged double form with an apparently simple, featureless, milky white glaze coating. However, if you look carefully and think about it – the making would, since the two sections cannot be separated whole, be complicated and intricate. Conceptually it’s the work’s title that engages as much as does the making as a clinch is far more than any friendly hug and on a piece that carries intimations of the inchoately corporeal as this does, the work becomes slyly erogenous. Not a commonly found demeanor in Kiwi ceramics. It intrigued the judge enough to receive the top award.


CLINCH VI , Caroline Earley


CLINCH VI, Caroline Earley

Merit Awards were three. Jim Cooper made one of his assemblages of severally sourced, multiply pieced, vividly colourful works that exposes his interests in popular music, religious practices and cultural traditions deriving from Eastern philosophies. Modelled loosely, his work could initially be taken for a branch of the ‘sloppy clay’ fold except closer examination reveals a highly practiced hand that, despite loving the over-the-top, knows when there is enough and knows how to take risks while narrowly avoiding absolute disaster. Recently returned from his residency in Denmark at Guldagergaard, new work from Cooper may have absorbed something of his European sojourn and become even more eclectic. Any way, it could not contrast greater with this year’s winning work!


Jim Cooper, Shrine from the temple of the good shepherds.

The second Merit went to Susannah Bridges with a series of what might be called light sculptures. Using porcelain impressed with textured fabrics Bridges added lighting inside what were basically simple cylinders that held added dynamism via bending and squeezing. When illuminated (absolutely necessary as a part of the work) the patterns of the various lace, embroideries and knitting were clearly illustrated to produce what in some ways became a contemporary version of a Victorian technique called lithophane. These were originally used to illustrate religious scenes or bucolic rural tableaux but always illuminated by added light behind the textured clay from either an electric bulb or a window. The judge remarked that for her, the remnants of pieces of the handmade or embellished fabric, crochet or knitting still attached to each work were what moved the work to its elevated reception. It was entitled, Stick to the Knitting.


Susannah Bridges, Stick to the Knitting

The third Merit went to Emily Siddell and Mark Goody for their joint entry, Deconstructed Fables and consists of a multiply pieced chain, or over-scaled necklace as wall-hanging. A fine piece, their statement reads that ‘the work was inspired by a collection of Copeland and Spode dinnerware that was in Emily’s family since the late nineteenth century’. The Aesop’s Fables that are depicted upon the Staffordshire bone china production ware have been ‘deconstructed and re-assembled on porcelain beads much like a childhood memory can be fragmented’. The necklace represents, in its own way, family heirlooms that are often imbued with stories, memories and history. For this observer, one of the most engaging works in the show.


Emily Siddell and Mark Goody, Deconstructed Fables

Greg Barron won the scholarship to Peter’s Valley next northern summer for his fine, wood-fired, ash embellished pitcher. While I am sure Greg will be a more than useful addition to the aspects of wood-fire culture at Peters Valley it will be great, some year, to see a winning artist who can take advantage of the other teachers available for access and broadening of vision as Peter’s Valley has more courses to offer than only from the wood-firing arena.


Greg Barron

This year, for the first time, the judge included other works for special mention and they were awarded, without monetary reward, an “Honorable Mention” as she felt they deserved some elevation above the general inclusions. They were…


Maak Bow for his modernist severely profiled, high design, monochromatic, classical bowls. Darth Vader as vessel?


Susannah Bridges (yes, again) with a group of ovalled cast bowls in harmonious shades of brown.


Mel Ford with a reduced version of her Canadian residency winning work of some years ago. Shore-gathered, abraded shards inserted into a clay matrix that revivifies the discarded into something contemporary.


Madeleine Child with a group of birds and twigpots and again, about the best work statement of the show.

Kirsty Gardiner with another re-visit to former success – her winning work of some years ago only this time with a somewhat gothic ambiance and a confusing statement on the work.


Kirsty Gardiner


Chuck Joseph and what the judge saw as one of those grand European table centre-pieces (that litter so many German and French museums) and he interprets as deriving from naïve paintings and soft-paste collection items, only in Fauvist coloration. (Viola Frey made much fine work based upon junk shop finds. Great that a NZ artist derives inspiration from a similar source but gains manifestly different outcomes)


Yi-Ming Lin offered a non-functional teapot set made from flower forms set on rocks. A curious, perhaps celebratory work with an even more curious statement.


Janna van Hasselt with a group of thirty forms made from pouring porcelain slip to set on plaster and mounted upon mirror which adds a dimension not usually seen. Varied colour and pattern juxtaposed with repetition of scale, while simple, is visually effective.


Paul Winspear with a large, stoneware bowl of a type seen many times but more convincing and successful than many because of the vibrancy of the colour of the interior.


Helen Yau with work, which has received her attention for some years, linking silkworm codes with their cocoons and lace-like work to embrace both but the statement connects inadequately. (I thought the Gallery was re-jigging some of the challenging statements these days? But there are some real clunkers again this year).

Phew! Quite a list. Nice for the exhibitors of course, and a generous thought by the judge, but in a show of 52 works were an extra ten awards over the winning four really necessary? The minor awards were always a part of The Fletcher but that show contained some 200+ exhibits so the Commendations, as then called, with monetary reward, were significant. Here, the question hovers.

Mention of Portage cannot be made without reference to the catalogue, as always, a useful and well produced publication with statements by the judge and a return to the commissioned essay, a valuable  addition and useful record of issues not recorded often by other means. This essay is by Kim Paton, (fairly) new Director of Objectspace and right on the button as far as issues are concerned. Commenting on writing by Veiteberg, Greenhalgh and Clark, she cites potential loss of craft history and knowledge, via a lack of specifics of vocabulary and little critical discourse existing in our medium. This at a time when the field is currently expanding at its borders to embrace other disciplines (where critical discourses are the norm). She offers that Objectspace can support, in various ways, an expanded communication. Their new premises, to be at 13 Rose Road, Ponsonby will greatly enhance these opportunities. We must support their craft of facilitation with our craft of bringing work into existence and thus extend and enhance interpretation and communication around New Zealand ceramics. It’s important. We need attention to our histories and culture for it’s from these that much new work evolves, and therefore we need publications that address these issues via contemporary work practices. Objectspace can facilitate all this but it’s necessary to step through that open door. The alternative is being perhaps shuffled into some minor cul-de-sac where there is no communication except on a level of how to pull a handle or re-glaze a fired failed pot. Surely we are worth more than this so don’t sit and wait, support this major change for Objectspace for you are supporting yourselves by doing so.

Mention of the Portage cannot be complete without mention of their fine exhibition of John Parker’s work in the downstairs gallery. It’s an almost completely comprehensive display of his oeuvre over fifty years of practice. The only thing I noted absent were the very early, reduced stoneware domestic vessels that I have seen occasionally in private collections, but they do not fit this show anyway. This exhibition covers early, pre RCA work with the text-bearing ‘Nixon and Laird’ and ‘Love Potion’ bottles, the pastel hued glazed and agate bottles he made on return from London for a show at New Vision that stunned many of us ( there were no commercial colorants available here in the mid-late 70s!) along with samples from many other of his series – the evilly coloured and textured ‘hobby’ ceramics glazes, the marvelously pitted cratered glazes (I bought a large turquoise one for the Dowse collection), the departure to hand-building with the lattice bowls and the revelation of his self-deprecating humor with the ‘fake’ series (which I loved!) and the fun and importance of his Vortex Ware and much, much more. It’s all here and amazingly most exhibits are drawn from his own collection. It’s a pleasurable re-visit to an oeuvre that has maintained clear parameters yet shown infinite variation within those applied precincts of form and function. There is a beautifully produced book accompanying the exhibition that contains useful and informative essays by a variety of good writers, excellent design and images and modestly sized (in comparison with other recent publications), at 143 pages. This show is touring to other galleries – Te Papa is next. Don’t miss it!



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7 responses to “The Portage

  1. Liz Fea

    Portage blues
    The pdf entry form available on the website for months said the artist statement should be between 60 and 100 words. Those of us who worked with that were shocked to discover when using the online system for submissions, that you could only write 60 words (not a word more) or the whole submission was rejected. I used the online system at the last minute and when I queried this with Te Uru, they said the pdf form was wrong. They changed the pdf form then and there but this was on the last day submissions were to be received.

    What transpired though was that artists who totally ignored the word stipulation on the pdf and wrote as much as they wanted and sent it by my email were not required to shorten their statements so that Janet received all manner of submissions. I asked Te Uru if the judge was going to be told about the disparity in word count depending on the system used but got no reply. Janet confirmed she wasn’t told this and emphasised how important the artist statements were to her as well as the bios.

    In my opinion, a restriction is probably a good idea but it has to be a level playing field. Some statements in the catalogue which were lengthy and well over twice the word count allowed on the online form and also well beyond the suggestion in the pdf, fully explained the work which I think gave those artists an advantage. Those who had to make last minute decisions as to what to leave off were disadvantaged. At the very least, the judge should have been told about the disparity.

    • Thanks for that Liz. It explains perhaps the fact that some catalogue statements this time were totally baffling! (As I noted in my review – some were incomprehensible – it was mainly the syntax) They must have been somehow caught up in this apparent muddle. I have been remarking on, and complaining about, some of the statements for quite a while now. Technical info is not necessary – expansion on concept is. That’s the best way to get ideas across. It may be possible in some instances to do that in 60 words but obviously, sometimes not. The problem here was that a dual system was allowed, and supported by publication.
      Its all very strange as last year I noted a vast improvement in many statements. Not fully believing such a change could come about all at once I checked and discovered that the gallery has a staff member who altered/improved them – with permission of the artist of course. Who, uncertain of what to say or how to say it, is going to refuse that?
      I can understand a gallery’s frustration with some statements for publication in a catalogue they produce and have their logo on but am not sure that altering the finished product is the way to go and hope the jurist saw the originals. As Janet told Liz, statements (and bios!) were read with care. I do think artist’s statements should be available to the judge- a good one or a poor one tells so much, usually enough to make a decision on the work (apart from what the main avenue – the eyes – can). But there are other ways to improve statements – clinics for one might be a good idea. Excellent examples could be published. I try to point out good ones (it’s usually Madeleine Child’s!) in this blog. The classes for the Diploma should cover such issues as part of the curricula. Those judging entries could offer comments – as used to happen for the regional shows around the country. I don’t think it appropriate for international jurists to be requested to do this but it perhaps could be re-instated regionally with particular emphasis upon statements. Anyone with other ideas out there? Anyway, it’s not just the gallery’s job – theirs is to deal with finished product. However, that there was confusion this year and failure to standardise entries prior to judging was their responsibility. But, it’s the responsibility of every aspiring entrant to get their statement up to standard and in my view a gallery should allow artists to stand or fall with what they produce – work or words.

  2. Campbell Hegan

    Congratulations to all exhibitors and winners in the latest Portage Ceramics Award.
    As usual, I found the exhibition diverse, interesting, and in places, challenging. However, I have deep concerns about what I see as a corrupted process in the selection of the exhibition and prizewinners.

    It is incomprehensible to me that the judge, Janet de Boos had, not only the artists’ names and statements, but also their full cv’s before the selection was made. Whilst I have great respect for Ms de Boos as both artist and educator, I think it most unfair to expect of her, any serious depth of objectivity when faced with the selective histories and artists’ statements. Of course, the choice of the prizewinners is to a great extent mediated by both the personal tastes and experience of the judge. So it should be. This is why the sole judge is, in most circumstances, better than a panel, where inevitable compromises between panel members so often result in bland safe choices.

    However, objectivity and courage of conviction is inevitably compromised when the judge has so much information between himself or herself – and the work, which is, supposedly, what is being judged. Given these circumstances the complete outsider, or young inexperienced artist who happens to arrive with something very special, stands slight chance against those with very substantial “reputations or qualifications.”

    One of the great successes of the old Fletcher Challenge competition was it’s exemplary international reputation for being completely fair and “clean.” Judges had no information about the artists’ names or their histories. The works were judged against themselves. Statements of intention played no part.

    The plot is now on the brink of being seriously lost with regard to the Portage Awards. The danger of this ceramics competition becoming a reputation, writing or philosophy competition is very real. Moyra, in her above critique of the show has already referred to the “real clunkers” of artist’s statements. However misguided, I understood this to be a show of the work of visual artists, some very good ones of whom can’t write to save themselves. Does this make them somehow lesser visual artists? I think that it is coming to mean just that.

    For many creative artists, the making of a statement to accompany their work is important to them – for some others, it is clearly difficult or undesirable for any number of reasons. And yet, increasingly it is becoming the default position that a statement must be provided. No choice. I know some very fine major international artists who are not the least bit interested in providing explanations of their work. The late, great painter, Ralph Hotere, for one, refused to provide explanations or statements about his work. It stood on its own, the viewer/judge free to observe, interpret and feel as they happened to. That was his choice and preference. Did this make him somehow a lesser artist? I don’t think so.

    If however, specificity of intention is important to the artist, there is the opportunity to convey that intention in the title of the work. There, mercifully brief in the current environment where lengthy, and often tiresome explanations seem to be becoming de rigueur.

    It takes more courage, intelligence, awareness and experience to judge and make these choices without explanations – to see very deeply into the work. It’s why we employ judges with a depth of experience – and hopefully, courage. There is always the possibility that a major artist’s work is going to be overlooked and embarrassments suffered. That goes with the territory.

    Campbell Hegan

    • Pertinent issues, Cam. Since Portage was set up to replace, to a degree, ‘the Fletcher’, we have expected that its management principles would remain much as were stringently applied for the Fletcher event. That is, a single judge/jurist derived from off-shore and thus possessing no/little knowledge of NZ work or artists, no information given to the jurist by way of CV or name – simply an image of the work, its title and country of origin and the same applied when in contact with the actual works at final judgement time. Title is necessary as it’s can be a ‘way in’ often, to the work’s meaning and country of origin because, any jurist worth their salt could recognise style/mannerisms of some well known entrant’s work but, if the country of origin was (say) Romania but the well-known artist whose style was evident hailed from (say) Wales then the jurist would know this work was probably derivative and so make a decision as to whether they wanted it sent for further viewing. Or not. Photography might not always tell the whole story.

      I worked with seven of those international judges and not once did any request further information. Sometimes we had lots, as it is the norm in Europe for the large panel of judges to read all CVs and any other material before viewing commences, hence, often, tucked into the shipping crate would be a stack of catalogues and CV material. This was kept as adjunct to sales and gifted to the purchaser. While photographs may not fully tell the whole story, experienced eyes can usually and there are always the hands. Just holding work can reveal much.

      Our principles meant, as what we were about steadily became better known, we received entries from young artists who maybe had been graduated possibly ten years, were established in home base and ready to test fresh waters knowing if they did well, they’d have their work in almost every ceramics magazine in the world. Fletcher was the ideal means and meant we saw new innovative thinking here, in Auckland Museum, once every year. Those works came in, in part, because CVs were not requested. If that applied, artists such as Lara Scobie (Scotland), Tim Currey (NZ) or Prue Venables (Australia) might not have carried off the Premier Award as they were not, at the time, known outside immediate circles. It also meant that established artists, such as Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (Aus), Torbjorn Kvasbo (Norway) or Karen Karnes (USA) understanding our mores, did us honour and sent entries, without concern for prizes but simply seeking to register support.
      But that was international, and for economic reasons plus pressure from NZ ceramic quarters, Portage is national only. Too many did not relish the wider field drawn to the Fletcher and we could not engage the amount of volunteer assistance necessary any more – times have changed. But when Portage was set up, with Lopdell House Gallery, back in 2000, all those former principles that could be applied, were.

      However everything evolves and Te Uru runs its own ship now with maybe a query to someone on who might make a good judge? Perhaps they are applying what happens in what is probably fine arts most prestigious competition, the Walter’s Prize? That has a single off-shore final judge but what he/she selects from is already sorted by a panel located here and is based on a work selected from what’s been exhibited over the past two years. I do not know if CV material is available to the final jurist but certainly the panel members will have knowledge. But it’s focussed upon the work, not the CV as far as I understand. The Award is given to the best work, in that judge’s view.

      But, for Portage times are changing and somewhere along the line, statements (and CV content at times) have been included, at first in the back of the catalogue and now on the artist’s work page alongside the image. Someone must consider they have relevance but I return to my first comment on them – some real clunkers. However, with stronger aspirations to making art these days maybe some amplification is needed? Do the statements do that for what might otherwise be difficult works? Makes it difficult for those who wish to enter some functional ware though. Maybe that’s why there is so little as regularly remarked on. These are real issues for the ceramic community and it would be good to hear further opinions.

  3. Liz Fea

    Interesting comments. I’d like to add an addendum to my earlier post and include something new.

    I think it’s time Te Uru dropped multiple platforms for entry into the P and require the use of the e-form in common with most other art exhibitions.

    As one example, the online entry form instructions for the 2017 International Ceramics Exhibition at Minto Japan, provides excellent guidance for entrants with particularly specific instructions for images so that the work is shown to its best advantage. Vitally important when selection is by image alone. Interestingly, there is an optional box to use if the artist wishes to explain the work’s concept but is limited to 100 characters.
    No biographical information is required either. Perhaps this is a model worth considering.

  4. Thank you not only for this excellent review of the Portage
    (and other exhibitions in this column) but to the commentators too with their insights into the politics and pros and cons of different methods of selection. As a newcomer to ceramics, ( I blush – with that dreaded ‘art’ background), I appreciate the commentators putting the current Portage into both historical and International context. Although, as students, we are encouraged (and many by nature inclined) to strive to understand more of the craft and its traditions; the best context and history has unfailingly come from the senior potter at conferences or the local club who takes the time to share their history and knowledge. The tension between those of us who consider ourselves ‘artists’ who have ‘discovered’ a new media and those who find it deeply frustrating when our technical faults undermine the end work is palpable. You touched on this too in your 2016 Gulgong review (‘..the art world’s wanabee ceramists who are barely at adult education level’ – ouch). I beg a little patience – we will get there – especially if our ‘masterpieces are inevitably knocked back a few times. The Portage was a revelation for me and this, and other insightful comments on the entries, essential to assist in understanding, or at a least a caution to go back and look again (Jim Cooper’s skillful avoidance of the ‘sloppy clay’ categorization being a case in point). In the interim, it is not simply the seduction of the materials that continues to lure us from paint but the unprecedented and unfailing generosity of the larger tribe itself.

    • Sorry about the ‘ouch’. I don’t remember it – must be a while ago maybe last year? Don’t get me wrong…I am most interested in what artists trained in other disciplines can bring to clay as it can be something new and fresh. Yes, poor technique can let things down but there is a difference between poor technique and relaxed craftsmanship as you can see in work like Betty Woodman’s or Jim Coopers – both can make a polite pot when needed and they choose to…its just not the primary aim with that particular work and its usually simple to tell through reading the work and sorting what the intent was for that particular piece. I suppose the urge to exhibit is to maybe get feedback but sometimes one wonders why work was there…. and called an exhibition when its clearly unresolved, still in development or seen many times before…. an awful lot is called ‘exhibition’ so some discussion of what is one might be useful. There are other ways to get feedback. They are simply not utilised regularly.

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