“Not a Retrospective” at The Suter

So said Steve Fullmer, formerly of California but for the past 40 or more years, from Tasman in Nelson Province. Steve bothers that if it’s called a retrospective, ‘that would mean my best work was behind me and people could smell death on me’. So it’s a survey.

I have not seen the show. Sadly, nor can I unless it travels this way. But I have seen the refreshingly modest and charming catalogue which informs me that his oeuvre is somewhat wider than I thought. Yes, the two vessels that won, in 1986, and jointly in 1987, the Fletcher Brownbuilt Premier Award, plus the first ‘Pilot’ pot which he sent up as his first entry for the show and that won a Merit Award in 1985 are there in the catalogue, as you’d expect. But in addition, there is a range of large scale discoid and vessel forms, stamped, scribed, sprayed and sponged on, which push his ideas, narratives and humour beyond what we are familiar with up this end of the country, where he has not exhibited for a very long time.

I still recall the effect that first ‘Pilot’ had. ‘The Fletcher’ in 1985 was still largely monopolised by NZ entries and Anglo-orientalism remained paramount within the national oeuvre despite a few venturing into the newly available colourants from Europe or displaying an awareness of the fresh international winds blowing through concept, form, function and firing temps. The subdued sobriety of reduced stoneware retained its dominance via market preferences and exhibiting opportunities. And suddenly, there was ‘Pilot’, glowing with neon insouciance – all day-glo oranges, yellows and pinks so very evocative of the American south-west desert landscapes. What was it? Well, there was a spout, and possibly a handle (of sorts – or was it a fin?) but that was all the familiarity on offer. It was clearly far too large to function as a pouring vessel. The rest was colorific planes adorned with stamps, scribed lines and piercings here and there. And all in this extraordinarily intense, almost iridescent, hue. Labels, for such work, were scant at the time. It was perhaps one of the first, we had seen here, of what Garth Clark labelled ‘the super-object’, although the dry low-fire glaze derived more from Funk. Both were American movements with ‘super-objects’ being newest – begun in the late 70s. We had not seen its like before. It was quite something.

Fullmer Pilot.jpg

‘Pilot’ , 1986.  500x830x500mm. Not the prize one but very similar and produced in the same period as part of a series of ‘Pilots’.

When Steve followed up the next year by winning the Premier Award with ‘Sapodilla Canyon’ and the year after that by doing it again, with ‘Cutting a New Orbit’, in joint with Chester Nealie, he became established as one of our major players.

Already somewhat proficient on arrival in New Zealand in 1973 he began here by working as a production potter beside the redoubtable Dan Steenstra at Beach Artware. Steenstra was a Dutch-trained production thrower who had been imported by Crown Lynn. Steve followed this up with travel around and further production work in Australia (where he went while awaiting permanent NZ residence permission).  This achieved, he returned to NZ and soon moved to the Nelson area where, in 1976 he built his own wood-fired kiln in Mahana, firing with modest success. But those early years were something of a struggle.

The transitions in his work from wood-fired stoneware to a drop in temperature, a change in atmosphere and a highly personal approach to surface appear to have taken place on return visits to America over the three years from 1979 to ’81. He had returned there with the honed skills learned in production throwing in New Zealand and Australia. This experience served as foundation for that American visit because what he saw were his ‘roots’ and ‘North American and Native American pots …where the story-telling is so beautiful’ and while his skills allowed him to take chances, in America he ‘saw what really taking chances in design and art could look like. These were abstract paintings but in clay’. He came back ‘really excited and full of new ideas’.

If the catalogue, which is otherwise charming, is lacking it is in not offering more detail on what he observed over those three years and how his thinking altered. America is huge with a very lively ceramic culture that offers, for obvious reasons, far more diversity than might be found in Australia or here. His experiences there would make interesting reading. There is a Timeline at back, and attending workshops by firstly Yvonne Rust then Harry Davis here in NZ and later, in the USA, another workshop from Otto and Vivika Heino in Los Angeles could have been useful to some degree. Davis was a superb thrower, as was Vivika Heino, while Otto was a well-regarded glaze chemist.  A later journey to, and stay in, California (1981), records workshops by Paul Soldner, Kris Cox and Jack Troy while his return to Nelson included workshops again by a visiting Jack Troy and also Ray Rogers plus Australian Alan Peascod (in ’85) demonstrate that he was, for a long period, very open to investigating what might be learned, absorbed and transformed.

The innovations in thinking and technological approaches to his work that manifested in his first success, in 1985 at the Fletcher Awards, are still recognisably present as foundations although he has clearly encouraged variations as they surfaced and embellished them with his humour. He also cannot resist what might be called ‘animalia’ which might be human or piscine, bovine, canine or…  anything… or its hybrid really. They often have legs no matter the derivation, are going somewhere in his personal and inimitable style and all are designed to produce a smile, and do. Take a look at the following images and their dates.

The catalogue will be available from the Suter Gallery in Nelson and is absolutely worth getting. In it are Steve’s often delightful responses to a wide range of questions put to him by The Suter’s curator, Sarah McClintock. I’m told the show looks great – it’s still up but closing soon –  10 February. Clearly, worth the visit if you can.

For sure, there’s not a whiff of death. He’s still got a ways to go and in his words, ‘Just see what happens’. It’s not a retrospective but his first survey.

Fullmer In the Trench - main.jpg

In The Trench,  2018. 260x455x340mm. One of the most recent works in the show – wonderful use of pale slips over dark clay and some idiosyncratic mark making.

Fullmer Cities.jpg

Cities, 1990.  300x363x360mm. The text says, ‘Jesus said Buy Steve Fullmer art”


Fullmer  Flaco.jpg

Flaco, 1990s 360x410x400mm.

Fullmer Pupster.jpg

Pupster, 2000. 150x550x170mm.

Fullmer Steven come and tidy your room now.jpg

Steven, come and clean up your room now, 2000.230x215x92mm


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