Scoop Review of Books

Barry Brickell – Man of Steam and Clay

The following essay by Dunedin writer Pauline Dawson appears in the recently released Barry Brickell, Six Spiromorphs Kilmog Press, 2009. The edition is limited to just 45 copies and is only available at Parsons Bookshop in Auckland.

How to write of a man that defies and even rejects definition? As some home-grown New Zealand version of Vulcan, god of fire and craftsmanship, Barry Brickell could be variously described as railway and steam enthusiast, engineer, obsessive, writer, eccentric, conservationist, master potter, craftsman, artisan, and also very much an artist. He is a man that has created his own way and from his search for original forms has sprung undoubtedly elemental art; a literal product of the land.

Born in 1935, Brickell grew up in Devonport, Auckland. He had an early passion for fire, steam and clay and these interests were eventually channelled into a science degree at Auckland University. The late 1950s in Auckland was a time of a great creative ferment. The relatively small scale of the artistic community brought together key figures of the time. Brickell took painting lessons with Colin McCahon, was mentored by Len Castle and lived for a time among the artistic milieu that trailed through his bohemian flats with Keith Patterson, Hamish Keith and others. All the while Brickell continued making his great warty stoneware pots. While many ceramic artists of the time had an oriental influence, Keith describes Brickell’s aesthetic as hovering “somewhere miraculously between New Guinea Sepik River and a 13th Century European rubbish tip”[1].

In 1961 Brickell left Auckland to go teaching in the Coromandel, but a year later he left regular work to become one of New Zealand’s first full-time potters. He supported himself by making mainly domestic ware while developing techniques and making plans until 1973, when he moved to a larger property and was able to fully realise his vision of a largely sustainable potting community.

Brickell’s Driving Creek was established at a time when Sam Hunt replied to James K Baxter’s invitation to join him at the Jerusalem commune with “No Jim, I‘ve got to find my own Jerusalem.”[2] While not identifying with such hippy movements, Brickell shared some of their ideals. Brickell was a pioneer in his move to the Coromandel, and in many ways he made his own Jerusalem there. He said: “I have to do something nobody else has done before…literally forge [a culture] for myself…by creating symbols, by creating a language for myself.”[3] In Barry Brickell’s world in the Coromandel hills he sought to “reinvent the industrial revolution, but with a conservational rather than exploitive twist.”[4] His bush railway, painstakingly built by hand originally to transport clay and wood for kilns, wends it way through bush regenerating due to Brickell’s replanting efforts while steam boilers drive equipment in the potteries.

Through various incarnations, always with dedication and hard work and a division of his energies between his passions, Brickell shaped a style and practice wholly his own and indigenous to New Zealand. Ceramic artist John Parker, who studied with Brickell has spoken of the ethos of New Zealand potter around the 1960s “We had such a reaction to the bone china that you had in your china cabinet at home. Crown Lynn, which one worships now, was part of what you were reacting against.”[5]

The use of natural, local materials, predominantly the distinctive gritty Coromandel clays reflected Brickell’s contention that culture and place should be plainly shown in his works. In an essay Brickell wrote in response to Bernard Leach’s work, he asserted that a truly New Zealand form of pottery would develop, engaging with the specific nature the country, environmentally, geographically and culturally and “generating a kind of indigenous modernism”[6].

Brickell has worked with many New Zealand artists. In 1975 he built a kiln for Ralph Hotere in Otago and in return was encouraged to pursue his own artistic practice. He often stayed with Toss Woollaston in Greymouth during his rail travels, and they spent time drawing together. In return, like pilgrims, many artists came, stayed and laboured with Brickell at Driving Creek. A significant early influence, Bernard Leach (known as the father of British studio pottery) took time from a tight schedule to visit in the early 1960s. Tony Fomison stayed with Brickell in the 1980s, and produced his own clay works at Driving Creek. Latterly, after an extended stay, Nigel Brown introduced the Brickell spiromorph into his personal lexicon of New Zealand iconography in his 2007 series of paintings ‘Will to Meaning’.[7]

It is in Brickell’s spiromorph forms (large spiral shaped sculptures, built up using a coil technique) and spiromorphic drawings that his life’s work speaks most clearly. His personal code, the phrase “not the thing but how” is key to the value Brickell places on process and a holistic and spiritual approach to his art-making. The spiromorph form epitomises this, the spiral being one of the oldest world symbols representing “a schematic image of the evolution of the Universe”[8]. The form allows for great diversity within the theme and reflects Brickell’s multivariate enthusiasms. Many incorporate rivet-like detail and these motifs with the terracotta finish are visually reminiscent of rusting tram remnants rescued from the bush by the artist. But blending with this industrial character are elemental factors; flora, fauna, anthro- and geomorphic forms, hinting at the complex systems and organisms of Gaia Theory. Many objects also take on the sensuous curves of the Goddess mother, giving form to his Pandora, but they also morph into pansexual, even post-gendered figures. Brickell’s investigations into botany, zoology, ecology, industry, religion and sexuality all come together in this intricate spiromorphic universe.

Respected in the world of rail, praised for his environmental work, Brickell has created a wide-reaching legacy with his work. He has formed his own definitions of art and craft, professing the word art as sacred, with real art associated with the flight of the soul, while the discipline of craft being necessary for sustaining the human will[9]. It is in his sculptural works that these philosophies are borne out.

As Hamish Keith notes “Clay is a material that holds the marks of the hands that made objects from it and even tiny fragments of ancient things can hold a fingerprint that evokes the living person that made it”[10].Although impacted by firing, the very essence of the maker is imbued into the clay by the hand crafting process. It is fitting then, that although Brickell’s legacy will have great longevity echoing his ethos of sustainability and oneness with the natural world, all will one day return to the earth.

[1] Hamish Keith. (2008) Native Wit Auckland: Random House. Pg 156.
[2] Sam Hunt & Gary McCormick. (1995) Roaring Forties. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett. Pg. 78
[3] Janet Mansfield (1995) Contemporary Ceramic Art in Australia and New Zealand. Roseville East: Craftsman House. Pg. 152
[4] Christine Leov-Lealand. (1996) Barry Brickell: A Head of Steam. Auckland: Exisle Publishing. Pg. 136
[5] Radiating Excellence. (2001) John Parker interviewed by Jim Barr and Mary Barr
[6] M Elliot & D Skinner (2009) Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945-1980 Auckland: David Bateman. Pg 130
[7] Will to Meaning exhibition (2007) Warwick Henderson Gallery
[8] JE Cirlot. (2002) Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Dover Publications. Pg. 305
[9] Barry Brickell (1985) A New Zealand Potter’s Dictionary. Auckland: Reed Methuen. Pg 19-20
[10] Hamish Keith. (2008) Native Wit. Auckland: Random House. Pg 156


Kilmog Press