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Celebrating New Zealand Made. Studio visit—potter Kirsten Dryburgh

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published March 8 2022

Ceramicist Kirsten Dryburgh is crushworthy for sure. Residing in Tāmaki Makaurau, an explorer of form and texture, Dryburgh’s work is at the same time easy to grasp, visibly outspoken everyday objects, tableware and curiosities. Whether she’s turning her attention to making the perfect plate for a restaurateur or sculptured objects for the home, her wild and wonderful world of textures and forms and highly developed “ancient-future” aesthetic makes each piece unique and highly covetable.

To complete a photography assignment from The Photographer’s Playbook, Richard Barnes—collaborating across disciplines, required that you find a collaborator and offer your photography services. When you find someone to work with, you create a portfolio based on the experience. I have been dying to visit a ceramics or textile studio and was aware of Kirsten Dryburgh, forever in awe of any artist who takes a natural material and turns it into something that looks simultaneously made by nature, but also perhaps made in another universe. I published the selected portfolio on my Instagram feed and additional photographs are below accompanied by words on Dryburgh and why we should (where possible), support local artists or makers and consume locally, cultivating local economic resilience.

Control of imports into New Zealand had been critical in the success of the early pottery movement. Dryburhg’s career began during the early 90’s considered the downward trend in the nations’ pottery boom as mass-produced pottery flowed into the country. And yet, trends aside, there were talented potters who had no difficulty in selling their work to the public that had an insatiable appetite for handmade pottery. ‘Geoff Scholes, Andrew and Jeannie Van Der Puttens, Harriet Stockman, Christine Harris were some of the names I was most aware of,’ says Dryburgh.

Dryburgh did not receive formal training as a potter, the resultant consequence of available studio space provided an environment for self-education. ‘Harriet Stockman, a very good friend of mine and wonderful local potter was going overseas. She had a studio space within College Hill Studios which was a cooperative space run by an amazing bunch of women in Ponsonby. She needed somebody to mind her space whilst she was away.'

It was during this period that Dryburgh taught herself how to pot. 'I also had help from Christine Harris who was running her ceramics business from the space. She was really generous and inspirational and gave me advice. By the time Harriet came back, I had created enough work to go along to a craft fair. I sold all of my work and with the sales records, I went to the bank and got a small loan—enough to buy a wheel and kiln et cetera. Eventually, Harriet and I started our own shop and studio called Fictillia Studios—Fictillia being the Latin name for earthenware clay, on Jervois Road in Herne Bay.’ Dryburgh worked in the Herne Bay space as a studio potter for around four years until her son was born. 'At the time, people were mostly working with earthenware clays. Bob Steiner, Chuck and Louise of Edge city studios, Jo Larkin were those whose work I was most familiar with.'

'There was a big trend toward brightly hand-painted work heavily influenced by the Italian Majolica ware, which features highly decorative dishes with fruit or vegetables or other foods hand painted. These images are applied onto a tin-based glazed then fired to relatively low temperatures. There was a really good supplier or quarry that used to supply the clay which unfortunately has since closed, which was called Abbott’s Clays.’

After the birth of her son, Dryburgh began illustrating children’s books, later attending Elam Art School at Auckland University completing a Fine Arts Degree where she majored in sculpture—although she did not use any clay. Dryburgh’s present-day studio opened in 2015, having evolved out of a Wednesday Night Pottery Group held in a garden shed. ‘There was about ten or so of us and the group was intended as a skills exchange between ex-art school friends. It ran for a year or so,’ recalls Dryburgh.

I view my pottery practice as a vehicle for exploration and experimentation. What draws me to pottery is its scale. It encompasses many aspects—the science, the craft and artistry of it. There is enough there to keep you interested for a lifetime. You’ll discover a beautiful clay that lends itself to certain forms, then you’ll experiment with different glazes, textures et cetera and then perhaps experiment, blending it with other clays. And on it goes.

More recently, collaborations such as the Curio Clay Relics featuring handcrafted carriers of parfum and candles are made exclusively for Curionoir by Dryburgh. Inspired by the ancient Egyptians during the New Kingdom period, each vessel is made from clay sourced from the South Island, glazed and fired multiple times, producing a unique finish. ‘I am interested in the history and ethnology of pottery and the stories that come with that, and I enjoy playing with those stories and putting them in a modern context. I suppose you would describe my work as a blend between modern and classic,’ she muses.

Pottery has become an obvious choice for the relentless cycle of use in restaurants, there are tasting plates scattered about the studio space, a recent commission. And Dryburgh’s studio days are full. When she is not at the wheel, there are discussions with her considerable portfolio of collaborators and local retailers about their upcoming requirements.

‘I think this has been driven by a market and conversation aimed towards environment and sustainability. The studio potter has that history and story of living close to the land, being in tune with nature and making things that weren’t only meant to be practical, but also to be treasured, the way things used to be made before mass production and cheap plastics et cetera. That and general computer-driven lack of kinaesthetic knowledge leaving people craving tactile information and wanting to do something with their hands.’

‘There is a massive interest in potting. At least half the people who visit my studio are interested in finding out about lessons (which by the way I’m sorry, I don’t do). So there are a lot of new faces in the pottery world. It’s exciting to see. It has also been great to see the art schools embracing ceramics. For a long time, pottery and ceramics were seen as secondary to the fine arts, but there is really healthy discussion and practice which has been moving firmly back into New Zealand’s creative arts scene which is exactly as it should be. Countries like Japan and Korea have known intuitively and dedicate equally their museums and galleries to their arts and crafts.’

In today's hype-driven world, ceramics, as old as a civilisation, act as a reminder of how we are part of a continuum. Ceramics outlive the one who makes them. So in a way, ceramics don’t belong to any one era. 21st-century ceramic artists are proving that the medium has as much potential for the concept as function. A person might not understand art but they can understand pottery.

For summer studio open times, retailers and recent collaborations visit Instagram.

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