Driving south from Coromandel town on an autumnal afternoon, the low sun casts dramatic shadows to accentuate the curves of bare golden hills. It’s a sensual, undulating landscape of fertile mounds, reminiscent of paintings by Michael Illingworth, who stayed for several months in 1963 at potter Barry Brickell’s nearby Driving Creek Railway settlement, until Brickell’s father had him evicted by the police for using cannabis. This landscape is also ever-present in Brickell’s pots, with their rotund anthropomorphic contours and bulbous appendages, both erotic and hilarious in their homage to the human form’s ungainly diversity.
I’m returning from Driving Creek, conscious of five decades of predecessors that have made the same pilgrimage to see Brickell, who seems to relish his status as a geographic and social outsider despite the frequent traffic. So much so, there is now a book about him: His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell, published by Auckland University Press to coincide with a touring retrospective exhibition organised by the Dowse Art Museum. Its pages are populated with kindred spirits that have visited since Brickell established a pottery at Driving Creek in 1961. As well as Illingworth and a long list of potters, there are Nigel Brown, Tony Fomison, Pat Hanly, Fatu Feu’u. Equally revealing is the evidence of visits by photographers, including Marti Friedlander, Robin Morrison, Ans Westra and Gil Hanly, who provide an impressive visual history.
This diverse network of associations is also apparent in Brickell’s art collection, now on display, alongside his pots and paintings, in a new gallery at Driving Creek designed by architect, art collector and publisher Ron Sang.
The book’s first photo, taken in 1971 by Steve Rumsey, shows Brickell with his head and entire torso bent, ostrich-like, into a giant round pot, as if the vessel was trying to swallow him whole, or had grown its own pair of alien legs – a curious hybrid of earth, earthling and engineering as a perfect portrait of the artist, even with little more than his feet visible.
The following page spread, also by Rumsey, has Brickell with a large pot, just fired and perched on a small wagon, which he pushes across a railway bridge. This is the original Driving Creek Railway, established soon after he aborted a two-term attempt at a teaching career at Coromandel District High School. In 1973, he bought the adjacent 24ha property and immediately set to work establishing rail lines to help move around wood, clay and pots, and restoring native bush to a district that had been ravaged by mining and farmers’ land-clearing burn-offs – a much more inspiring use for his university studies in botany and geology.
In typically didactic fashion (Brickell is also a recidivist letter writer, to politicians, publications or anyone else that needs to be put right, including several to the Listener), Brickell has already written his own review of His Own Steam, which he has just finished pecking out on his electric typewriter when I arrive to see him. He notes the high quality production in photography, design and scholarship, although he suspects many readers will need glasses for the small picture captions. Maybe more economy in writing would have left room for bolder printing, he suggests, perhaps a little uncomfortable at having others interpret his works and intentions.
“I felt for their own struggles at trying to interpret how I as the subject feel and think,” he states, acknowledging his own efforts in “the most difficult and torturous craft” of writing, including several attempts at an autobiography. In his new office-studio, a large pigeonhole shelving unit found in a Devonport second-hand store is used to sort dozens of manuscripts and essays waiting to be developed into a comprehensive manifesto of his thoughts and deeds.
Haru Sameshima is the latest photographer to spend time with Brickell, capturing in the book Driving Creek Railway’s many idiosyncratic features, as well as travelling the country to document numerous pots that have left the nest to reside in private and public collections. Brickell seems pleased to see them again.
“I began to feel that some of those ‘children’ of mine were worth knowing after all,” he writes, “even though I had fathered them. Having not bothered or had time to reflect on my own work, due to life’s urgency to keep up the doing, I was now being given time to reflect. Pieces simply get made, to hell with the consequences … then dispatched to outer space. This book is as much a tribute to Haru Sameshima’s integrity and skills as a photographer as anything I have ever made with my erotic and sensuous fingers in clay.”
Those clay children have now been gathered for the first retrospective exhibition of his work, set to tour the country until 2015. Brickell claims little involvement in the project, although he can’t wait to see what’s happening, and we can presumably expect his review soon after it opens.
This distance may be the effect of decades of producing mugs to make a living, reluctantly having to sell each one; handmade with clay from his own property, transported from the hills using the railway he designed and built, and fired in his own kilns. Brickell is one of New Zealand’s first full-time potters, and the relentless production for market is unlikely to allow much thought of retrieving and curating works for later exhibitions.
“Most of my [sculptural] works are not for sale,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to sell anything. Selling and money are anathema to me. I have sold truckloads of pottery in order to make a living, in order to survive. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was much better than school teaching, and I could dress as I wanted to. What I’m trying to say is the drudgery is still there of making money or surviving,” he says in reference to the thousands of coffee mugs he’s churned out over the years on what His Own Steam contributor David Craig describes as the “domestic pottery treadmill”.
One reason Brickell settled in Coromandel is the easy access to Auckland by sea, and for many years he delivered pots by boat to his various distributors, sometimes selling them straight from the wharf. Like the many sculptural works that make reference to his interest in rail, there are also boats and funnels, demonstrating a career that tightly fuses together practicalities and passions into a unique mix of art, conservation and engineering (ACE), which has become a maxim for all his activities. He suggest one day there might be a super-survey that gives equal weight to the last two, as well as the paintings and drawings he has privately produced since attending night classes with Colin McCahon at Auckland Art Gallery in 1958. But it is hard to discuss one aspect of Brickell without having to explain the others, so his multifaceted lifestyle underpins the exhibition and book, whatever the emphasis.
Brickell’s renegade reputation came early. As a seven-year-old, he is said to have nearly set alight the family home by building and firing his first brick kiln under their Devonport villa. In the following years, neighbourhood washing lines were frequently blackened. When Brickell was a teenager, Keith Patterson moved into the neighbourhood, the first artist he met, who in turn introduced him to the local scene. “He’d heard I was making pots, but in particular he’d heard my father was making very good home brew … I didn’t know what art was in those days. I just thought it was that boring bloody European stuff – nothing to do with my land and my country.”
In the 1960s, rural Coromandel wasn’t yet a magnet for bohemian environmentalists, as it is today, so from this safe distance Brickell remained on the periphery of New Zealand’s growing studio pottery movement, led by close friends, including Len Castle and Yvonne Rust. Brickell regularly wrote for New Zealand Potter magazine, from its first issue in 1958, culminating in the 1985 publication of his A New Zealand Potter’s Dictionary, which he now describes as having a more reactionary purpose than the utilitarian title suggests.
“It was done in rebellion because I smelt the waft of overseas influence affecting our pottery, and our painters and sculptors,” he says. “While my contemporaries in our twenties were flitting off overseas, I needed – not wanted – to stay powerfully at home, getting to know my own country and its own aesthetics, and its own nature and so on. Then I might be persuaded to go overseas.”
Despite Brickell’s reputation as a recluse, for the first few years Driving Creek hosted many apprentice potters, until this was scaled back in 1976 to allow him more time of his own. He also managed to escape around the country, often by rail, including several trips to stay with Ralph Hotere in Port Chalmers, where they built a kiln together. Or to sketch landscapes with Toss Woollaston in Greymouth.
By 1990, Brickell’s expensive hobby of building complex trains and tracks had become a significant form of revenue and Driving Creek Railway quickly became a major tourist attraction – the 2.7km line was completed in 2004 and had its millionth passenger on Christmas Eve, 2011. So in recent years he has had to escape to the Michael King Writers’ Centre in hometurf Devonport, where he can develop what he refers to as “wrerting” projects in peace.
Brickell is committed to indigenous forms, has done much research into Maori history of the land, insists on using Maori place names and has another strong interest in the use of pottery in Pacific cultures.
He notes an admiration for Baye Riddell and Manos Nathan, who, like him, have both worked to develop a Maori culture of working with clay – a subject he discusses in a forthcoming book of his own, Plastic Memories. “It’s going to be a long slow process for me to involve local Maori into accepting terracotta as an art medium, because there’s not much wood left any longer but there is terracotta, and it’s carvable in the same manner with the same chisels.”
The latest significant addition to Driving Creek Railway is a 2ha wildlife sanctuary, which Brickell notes is “the only totally vermin-proof fenced enclosure on the entire Coromandel Peninsula”. Combined with the legacy of tens of thousands of native trees he has had planted throughout his property, his presence will continue to affect the Coromandel region for a long time.
HIS OWN STEAM: THE WORK OF BARRY BRICKELL, by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien (AUP, $65), released May 3; HIS OWN STEAM: A BARRY BRICKELL SURVEY, Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, May 4-August 11, then touring nationwide until 2015.