John Mason 1928-2019

 John Mason, who died a week ago at 91,  made big things out of clay. Very big things. Abstract sculptures and walls that had to be fired inside a walk-in kiln. Artworks that required the strength of more than one man to move.


 Mason was one of the band who joined forces with Peter Voulkos and other adventurous artists – like Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Henry Takemoto and Paul Soldner et al – at the Otis Art Institute in the mid-1950s and helped to lead a revolution in clay.

Suddenly,  clay was hot — and cool. No longer restricted to utilitarian objects, clay could be pushed to its physical and expressive limits. Further, it didn’t have to be craft; it could be art. And that made clay irresistible to a variety of artists, mainly male, who resisted craft-based media but were drawn to the idea of breaking boundaries and ignoring rules. It was labelled Abstract Expressionist Ceramics (in a famous essay by Rose Slivka) and it modified the experience of some very old Japanese pottery tropes and Zen and gave it a new contemporary context to the sound of modern jazz. Ceramic tradition and Fine Art tradition were both involved in parallel ideas and sensibilities at the same time.

While Voulkos was leader, he mostly spent his time making his own work and expected his students to develop their own interests. Mason took on scale, in a grand way particularly for ceramics. He said. “I had a studio, and I had access to the materials and the equipment, it was like, here’s the challenge: Mix up a ton of clay and go to work. To make it happen, for me, was to make sculptural pieces and to make big walls. There were no prescriptions for any of this that I knew about. It was, do it and see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, change it and make it work.”

His critically acclaimed work, “Red X,” a red-glazed sculpture measured about a metre and a half square and was 40cm deep is often on display at its home, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in west LA.

John Mason's "Red X," 1966, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
John Mason’s “Red X,” 1966, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
His works initially seem minimalist but when looking at his art the surfaces are jammed full of information. You can almost envision their passage through fire. He shifted to metal, brick and stone in mid-career but in later life returned to ceramic.
Mason taught for many years and was famous for his long pauses finally followed by thought-provoking remarks and includes artists such as Chris Burden and James Turrell among his sculpture students. More of his work can be seen in the sculpture garden at the Pasadena Art Museum, east LA.
His final exhibition was at Scripps College in Claremont just last year in 2018 at age 90.
John Mason's "Geometric Form, Dark," 1966, 59 inches by 43 inches by 25 inches.
John Mason’s “Geometric Form, Dark,” 1966, 150cm x 110cm x 65cm at The American Museum of Ceramic Art in LA.
Only Nagle, who was youngest of them all, remains of that group now. He is still exhibiting regularly, with new work via Mathew Marks Gallery.


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“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.

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‘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.

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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.

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


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Flaco, 1990s 360x410x400mm.

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Pupster, 2000. 150x550x170mm.

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

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New (old) Discovery

Many are the uses of ceramic as we all know. Here is one we probably were blissfully unaware of that has been displayed, on and off but always upside down, in the British Museum for many years as a ‘vase’. Imagine the below image turned around and you can understand how that came about…Mace-head UMMA city State, Sumeria. 2400BC Brit Museum.jpg

So, what actually is it?         It is a mace-head.

A mace is a heavy club of something (latterly metal and often spiked) that was used as a weapon of death. First, the enemy would be immobilised by a thrown mesh net and then executed with a mace. This one is fired clay.  Once the inscribed cuneiform was translated it became evident this was made for  King Gishakidu of Umma – an ancient city-state in Sumeria (Mesopotamia – what is now the ‘middle east’ ). It dates from the Early Dynastic period, c.2400BC.

Who would know?   Ceramic’s uses are manifold!

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Obituary: America’s Warren McKenzie

Here is an obit on McKenzie written by Sandy Simon of Trax Gallery in San Francisco. She was a student of his many years ago.

Warren’s way of life and work touched so many. He was not without ego, as so many attribute to him, but rather he was entrenched in his belief of keeping pots affordable. He made no excuses for the pots; they were made quickly and forms were often repeated. He wanted people to use them daily. Warren was “Mingei” to his core. The word, “Mingei” was coined by a Japanese maker and author, Soetsu Yanagi, in recognition of The Unknown Craftsman, (the title of his book) which were makers of pottery sold and used without pomp and circumstance.
Warren made himself available to people, he took the time to return letters, meet with strangers, share his stories. I was lucky to have had him for a teacher, as many were during his thirty seven years at the University of Minnesota. Aside from Warren, or Mac, as we called him, the bigger part included our remarkable classmates in the late sixties; Mark Pharis, , Michael Simon, Randy Johnston, Laurie Samuelson, George Beers, to name a few. We were all energized and transformed by Warren’s warmth, his genuineness, and his commitment to making pots. He sometimes had us students over for a meal – I will never forget the warmth in his kitchen generated by so many pots by so many potters that he eagerly shared with us.
Warren was wrong telling us we could make a living without teaching, without getting our degree – “just do it” was his mantra long before Nike had it. We tried, then secretly cursed him for telling us so, yet eventually we each found a way to make enough money to continue to live and work in his way.
Many years had passed before I opened TRAX in 1994 in Berkeley, CA. I asked Warren if he would agree to a show. He said yes and he came and did the first workshop I had in our old Voulkos warehouse on the RR tracks. I was amazed at the response. It was before cell phones; I had to hold a phone in each hand to answer calls about his work. I had to rent bleachers to accommodate all of the people who wanted to attend his workshop. The response had me spinning. Where had I been? When had my old teacher gotten so famous? I really didn’t know. I continued to host Warren and workshops and exhibitions of his for the next 20 years. He would never ask me to sell his work at his prices. I bought them outright and he’d say charge what you want. Randy Johnston advised me to sell them at market prices as others were buying them from TRAX strictly for resale – nothing made Warren madder than this. For this reason he had to close his home salesroom. He realized he couldn’t continue to dictate the prices for his pots. The market for his pots was out of his control. He refused to take his share of any profits but rather told me to use the money to support the gallery so younger, less known potters could exhibit at TRAX. This was what I did and it was through his generosity that TRAX continued.
He will be missed but his legacy will go on. TRAX will go on.

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Peter Hawkesby at Anna Miles

Get on your bike or Lime scooter, or your own feet if necessary and zap along to Anna Miles’ Gallery in Upper Queen Street. Do not pass go and do not collect 200. Just get there and view, in the large old vitrine, some of the finest vessels you are likely to see this year.

Peter Hawkesby has been in evidence recently as he has tried ‘riding the bike again’, as he puts it. Active many years ago, his work was pilloried by some, viewed incomprehensibly by many but admired and enjoyed by others possessed of a different eye and way of assessing worth in a lump of fired clay. Life intervened and Hawkesby had little to do with ceramics for many years. However, with time passed, the call to ride again along with fewer work demands has meant he is back on that bike. And going for it!

There was an initial show of his assemblages at Anna Miles. Consisting various components, some of which had lain awaiting notice for many years beneath a compost heap, while others were freshly minted and still evidencing effects from their recent passage through fire. They stood, leaned or lay supine in disparate postures narrating a variety of possibilities around the exhibition’s heading of  Scratch a Cenotaph. Distinctly votive in ambiance the works nevertheless successfully held any hovering reverence pretty much at bay; instead the elements rallied together for an insouciant muster underscored by Hawkesby’s signature big fat ticks – orange peeled, glossily dribbled and dripped or starkly desiccated of surface, contributing their own positivity to the confluence while signifying enjoyment in the process.

There was an intermediate appearance of his work when he exhibited further assemblages as guest artist for the ASP’s annual event at Pah Homestead (still on – go see),  but it is the current display, as part of  Anna Miles end-of-year group show, The Ocelot Dominion, where the next manifestation of his bike riding skills become evident.

His Blunted Devil Cups have a utilitarian objective although not in any conventional sense.  They offer a sober spontaneity that makes a virtue of their uncontrived blips, runs, blow-outs and piercings which sparsely interrupt an otherwise austere, ashen, soda’d surface more akin to a heaving reflective sea or soft stone than skin of an orange.  Mounted upon variously surfaced elements that inform around their passage through fire, the layered base forms suggest altars and underscore the symbolic and ritual roles of their labelling.  There are few indications of the exuberance so apparent in the earlier assemblages but a casually draped decorative strip cloaking a lip or a spiky addition on a rim, suggestive of a horn, reassure that the adornments of his title are still within grasp. Here be magic that can embellish and colour the rituals of living with a restrained elegance while linking with the very origins of fired clay.

There is also a splendid Edo-ish two-part vase, its sections secured with macaroni elbows at the juncture and surfaced with splotches of deep blue and slashes and scratches that catch and contain rivulets of soda, plus a hand-built teapot of similar ilk that expresses the surface of the clay in ways that relate to the immediacy of pre-industrial wares. These pieces are more than decorative and demonstrate that function can be both explicit and implied.

While at Anna Miles Gallery you will find a range of work by Richard Stratton – very different in their precision assemblies and adherence to historical methods long buried in out-of-date technical tomes and as he looks at ceramics’ inheritances he’s also reconfiguring how a vessel should, or can, simply be. In this case – referencing structuralist architecture.

Both these artist’s work revel in some of the rich potential of their chosen medium; in its subtleties and malleability in riposte to spontaneity or its responses to lengthy, painstaking and well-researched process and subversive cognition. Both are worth spending time with and that’s possible until the gallery closes on December 22nd.


The vitrine with Devil Cups.

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Blunted Devil Cup II

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Blunted Devil Cup I

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Blunted Devil Cup

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Reverse side


Vase approx 31cmH.


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Another Competition…

This one is a major though. It’s the LOEWE Foundation Craft Prize. LOEWE is a Spanish high-end leather goods manufacturer which began as a craft cooperative in 1846 and now being run by its fifth generation.  They have provided a private Cultural Foundation since 1988 which supports creative, educational and heritage programmes in the fields of poetry, dance, photography, art and craft. One of their primary functions is to support design and craftsmanship and, since 2016 they have offered a competitive, annual, Craft Prize to celebrate excellence and craftsmanship that aims to set a standard for the future. Artists in areas of applied art such as ceramics, bookbinding, enamelwork, lacquer, glass, jewellery, metal, wood, paper or textiles etc are invited to enter.

The prize for the winning entry is Euros 50,000 (over NZ$91,000 ) and along with other finalists be featured in a catalogue and exhibitions in Loewe galleries in major cities around the world. The judging and initial exhibition will take place in Tokyo, Japan. Entries may be single works or a series – understood as a number of objects considered as a single artistic creation.

They state, in this search for excellence in craftsmanship,  ”Craft artists who leave their individual imprint on their work dig into the quicksands of art and claim the chance of making trades flourish once again, recycling and not forgetting the past. The LOEWE FOUNDATION aims to recognise outstanding works that show artistic vision and innovation, and which reflect the personal language and distinct hand of their maker. The LOEWE FOUNDATION aims to support artistic craft and acknowledge leading artisans from around the world at the forefront of their fields. The winning work should reinterpret tradition to make it relevant now and demonstrate the continuing valuable contribution to the culture of our time.”    So,  it seems they seek a contemporary, innovative version of the traditional that acknowledges its history somehow…

As you’d expect with a European based event, entry process is a tad complicated. Two to five good images or film of the entry, a portfolio showing up to five other works from the maker’s career,  CV information with short biography, a brief conceptual statement, copy of passport or ID document.

Initial judgement will be from images and by a panel of nine experts consisting representatives of LOEWE  and museums and magazines featuring Craft, plus expert makers of high reputation. Following this initial decision the resultant 15-30 finalists are notified and the selected works will be sent to Japan for the final decision by another, different panel of eleven experts. This panel is somewhat different in that the only artist involved is the previous year’s winner (Jennifer Lee – ceramist, U.K., was winner for 2017) The remainder are Heads of Museums and Arts Trusts, well-known designers and architects and representatives of LOEWE. All organisation and costs of transport to Japan plus insurances are covered by LOEWE. Winners are also taken to Japan at LOEWE’s expense and as their guests.


Time is short this year as entry must be made by end of October. Initial judgement will be made in January and finalist’s works to be in Japan by April 1, 2019. Decisions announced in May, 2019. However it’s not impossible if you have good work on hand plus good images of earlier work.  Entry fee not required. There is a heap of information about copyright issues for both entrants and to protect LOEWE, plus, clearly, LOEWE intend to control all press information.                                                                                            Obviously you need to be confident  about your work and CV but if so this seems aimed at being one of, if not the, world’s major competitions for craft media as other European events reduce in presence or have narrow constituent aims and some Asian competitions are either implicated in discredited practices while others simply do not offer access to international press and resultant prestige for finalists. Much more information can be gained from or or or

It would be great to see a Kiwi among the finalists.

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Rick’s Emergent Award and Things to come…

This morning the winner of the Quartz Museum’s inaugural Emergent Practitioner in Clay Award was announced by our Prime Minister, in her role as Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, in a gracious short speech. Jacinda looked as delighted as I feel sure that the winner of the $10,000 must be. His name is Oliver Morse, he’s from Wellington and the winning work is entitled House of Dee and here are images of its front and back, I am unsure which is which and it really doesn’t matter, but it seems, from its presentation, to distinctly have front and back. It’s a tad hard to tell but I assume the pot is round. Jacinda displayed it with the large aperture to the front so maybe she understood how it should be.winner #2_MG_6279 medium res-1 (2).jpg

The Award was judged by the Trustees for the Rick Rudd Foundation, Collector Tom Seaman and artists Paul Rayner and Rick Rudd. No technical details are given but its size can be judged by watching Jacinda hold it and it’s somewhere about 30cm high maybe a bit more. Go to…  It looks hand built of terracotta clay with a white slip as background for the hand scribed and painted figurative surface illustrations. More importantly, the judges’ statement mentions that “the work could only have been made in the 21st Century….” And that’s dead right. Much of the new work seen in international sites is either loosely handbuilt and artfully, extravagantly textured with vibrant colour that takes it past the natural base often cited as source. Drips and blobs, lumpen and fissured, slumped and perforated surfaces and all in glorious technicolour. The other principal avenue is the figurative – modelled or drawn and painted, in toto or simply parts. Works present narratives or play with organised religion, sexuality or gender; they are often sourced in the feminine or the domestic but further viewing can reveal something deeper and darker. Always however, the hand-built, and often loosely so, is paramount and demonstrable skill often eschewed – even if often there.

Go to some of the online sites for art or ceramics and find their lists of the ‘new artists in clay’ and these two genres will be much in evidence. Or open any one of about five or six new print publications on the ‘new expression in ceramics’ and there are many, many more. And with few repeats of names. So this really is quite a movement happening. Possibly the strongest for a very long time.

Oliver Morse’s exhibit taps into this figurative genre. According to the press release, he has a history in painting and theatre and the work is autobiographical. That’s hard to see from the images but we’ll look forward to seeing more from this artist who has been but two years in this interesting avenue, one with a long history, from ancient Egyptians, Persians and Greeks to the Peruvian Moche and Mexican Aztecs to Majolica and Delft of European origins. It’s the stuff by which cultures and civilisations are known.  Morse’s painting is charmingly loose as it floats around the vessel, which the judges stated, “… is simply canvas…the drawing confident, lively and sketchy, in keeping with the vessel itself.” As can be observed from the other side, he has not left the interior unembellished either. There is a dark figure, horned, painted inside. Is “Dee’s house” where the devil lurks one wonders? There is no artist’s statement to offer some clues but the lightly clothed figures around the outside surface might suggest some contemporary bacchanale? A wild night in Wellington?

Speculation aside, the Trust intends to offer this Award triannually and focus particularly upon early career artists. The criteria, about the word ‘emergent’, which apparently confused some of the 65 entrants this year, will be clarified then. There are some 37 works selected by the judges that will be on exhibition at Quartz until March next year. This includes Morse’s winning work so you can see what moved the judging committee. Meanwhile he has a most useful $10,000 to invest in his work and career. We’ll look forward to seeing what his win brings to his oeuvre in the future.

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Images, courtesy Quartz Museum, by Richard Wooton.

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