The Provenance of Pottery

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes 

As a kid, Janeen Page was always making stuff. ‘Real’, functional stuff. She was intrigued by the process of how an object – a barbie doll, for instance - would be perfectly formed, as if by magic. She wondered what went into making that item before it was sent to a store and consumed by someone willing to bet on a thing with an unknown provenance?

A few years later, Janeen began teaching herself to make clothes. Rejecting fast fashion at a young age, she'd work with clothes she found at op shops and alter them into more personal garments. With a love for vintage fabrics and colours, she would deconstruct and reconstruct patterns to make something pleasing. Once sewn piece by piece into wearable garb – a ‘real’ garment - she understood the insight gained from making a product herself.

Respecting the source and the process is a kind of creative consciousness - and Janeen makes her pottery this way, too. She’s part of the Slow Movement - a cultural shift towards a

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes 

As a kid, Janeen Page was always making stuff. ‘Real’, functional stuff. She was intrigued by the process of how an object – a barbie doll, for instance – would be perfectly formed, as if by magic. She wondered what went into making that item before it was sent to a store and consumed by someone willing to bet on a thing with an unknown provenance?

A few years later, Janeen began teaching herself to make clothes. Rejecting fast fashion at a young age, she’d work with clothes she found at op shops and alter them into more personal garments. With a love for vintage fabrics and colours, she would deconstruct and reconstruct patterns to make something pleasing. Once sewn piece by piece into wearable garb – a ‘real’ garment – she understood the insight gained from making a product herself.

Respecting the source and the process is a kind of creative consciousness – and Janeen makes her pottery this way, too. She’s part of the Slow Movement – a cultural shift towards a more thoughtful and meaningful mode of doing things.

The slow movement kicked off in the eighties rather more rapidly than you would expect. Also known as slow activism, the philosophy initially encompassed food, both growing and cooking, then developed to embrace any activity able to be decelerated. “Slowosophy” is now something that entertains everything from education, conversation, fashion, travel, media, art, and architecture. There’s even a comical slowosophy online community based in fictional Crumpetworthy Park, Rompshire called the International Institute of Not Doing Much (IINDM or slowdownnow.org) whose subscribers who must pledge to rest – when not actively ruminating or considering things – in order to belong.

Serious society’s current emphasis on mindful behaviour and ‘savouring the moment’ depicts the slow movement perfectly. Followers refer to the effect as an altered perception of life or a “peak experience” of euphoria. Makers of slow goods, such as artisans and craftspeople, have got the slow approach down pat. They are experts at peeling off layers of careful endeavour to reveal hitherto unseen and unappreciated nuances within – and Janeen Page clicked into that practice at a very young age.

Janeen making mugs in her studio

When an entire object is made by one person’s hand, the technique is necessarily slow, measured, and painstaking. Quality control takes its lead from the craftsman who is in sympathetic communication with every stage of construction. When Janeen pots, that communication digs even deeper into the history and geological ancestry of the Earth. To her, slow potting means looking closely at the ingredients of her craft and creating recipes that reflect the knowledge she’s accumulated through conscientious effort. Her domestic ware is gorgeous because of it.

I meet Janeen at her Taitaramaika studio, a tiny space taken in what was once a cheese factory at the bottom of a valley beside the ceaseless chortling of the Timaru Stream. Her business footprint there is minute, and she dedicates her activities to keeping it that way. But Janeen doesn’t need much outside help; she’s a one-woman-band – autonomous – and well-adept at scraping rock dust off the side of the road to use as her pottery glaze.

Janeen Page

Off the side of the road? A degree from Elam School of Fine Arts showed Janeen how to tap into her talent for sculpture. It also taught her resourcefulness and the importance of understanding the absolute genesis of a product. When she graduated from Elam in the late ‘90s, Janeen left Auckland to live overseas for six or so years. She came home with a baby and moved to New Plymouth in 2002 to beat the property boom, buying a cheap house in a dodgy neighbourhood. Babe in arms, Janeen attended ceramic classes at New Plymouth Potters and paid $2 a week just for something to do. She was happy making functional domestic ware and spent her time buying in bags of white powder to mix up for glaze, all the while finetuning her style. Very soon, Janeen again questioned the spirit behind her craft and the provenance of her resources.

A friend gave her a local glaze recipe and pointed her towards Mount Messenger, North Taranaki, where she made a resounding discovery. Paraninihi rock dust: six million-year-old mud particles weathered from South Island rock and pushed down streams and rivers to settle into sediment on the seafloor. Over centuries, as sea levels dropped, the Paraninihi area was revealed, and Mount Messenger was born. And throughout its marine mudstone strata, all the ancestral minerals and fossil life were there to be seen. The mountain shed the outermost layers of its tough exterior to fall unnoticed as rock dust onto the tracks beneath.

Understanding the provenance of these minerals blew Janeen’s mind. And to think that she could sweep this dust up off the ground to use as a pottery glaze: revolutionary. The colours, striations, microfossils, and calcifications in these historical particles were elements of an amazing story about geographical evolution that Janeen then started to tell. It became her soul-felt passion and her life work.

Kia w’akatōmuri te haere w’akamua – I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past,” she says, and explains: “All the geological evolution of land has taken us to this point. Knowing the history of what’s going into your object creates something that is way more precious. Just respecting the land through understanding what happened to create that combination of minerals, then using them to imbue your product. It’s a privilege.”

Colours of Paraninihi

Sourcing the minerals to create her North Taranaki Paraninihi glaze has taken Janeen into conversations with local iwi requesting permission to gather the fallen rock dust and transform it into the unique slurry that will soon cloak her pottery. Janeen calls the glazing process “battering fish”, however, the result after gas firing at 1300 degrees Celsius is rather more beautiful. The glaze is myriad colours, earthy golds, greens, rusts, khakis, sweetly speckled, variegated, and glowing. Janeen’s 15-year analysis of the geology around her, coupled with a Creative New Zealand study of New Zealand’s heritage glazes has fuelled her passion.

“The old studio potters of the ‘70s and ‘80s are ageing,” she says. “Some, like pacifists Harry and May Davis, came to New Zealand in 1962 to escape the beginnings of the Cold War and founded Crewenna Pottery at Wakapuaka near Nelson. They helped develop the pottery movement and were part of an upsurge of other artisan practices – like permaculture – as utopian lifestyle choices fitting the scene at the time.”

Techniques and traditions were passed between potters until neoliberalist ‘Rogernomics’ destroyed much of the industry. Many potters went out of business for good, and New Zealand now risks losing the legacy of their knowledge.

In 1960, Wellington potter Minna Bondy wrote a document called Rock Glazes of New Zealand. Her book attempted to discover and observe the pottery culture by identifying New Zealand rock dust locations and encouraging potters to use indigenous materials. Janeen’s 2020 Creative New Zealand grant allowed her to retrace Bondy’s steps, gather the same rocks from 46 locations, use a ball mill to grind them into dust, then test for glaze quality on Temuka clay. During the process, Janeen has photographed, digitalised, and recorded the experimental work Bondy set out to achieve and preserved that information for future generations.

 

Confining materials to indigenous resources is central to Janeen’s potting. “The clay I use is 100% New Zealand-sourced. I throw my pot, leave it to dry, then kiln-bake at 850-900 degrees until it becomes biscuit-like (hence the term ‘bisque’). At this stage, it is porous. Remove from the kiln and dip in the glaze slurry. Back into the kiln and fire at melting rock temperature. The glazed pot is now vitrified and sturdy and will last for several lifetimes,” she tells me.

With Janeen’s focus on the regional differences of New Zealand geology and the accidental, imperfect patterns and colours naturally sourced glazes throw, she’s doing her best to undo the bias towards clean, white, bright ceramics and commercial homeware.

​”It’s incredible that I still experience cultural cringe against the brown hues of my pottery – a hangover from the ‘70s when these were the only resources we had.” But, she says, “Millennials just ‘get it’: because it’s natural, it’s from the earth, it’s whenua (land). They appreciate indigenous materials and respect the source. They understand that nature is cyclical, and that we need to sustain old knowledge and traditions.”

And the art of ceramics is old – ancient in fact, with origins in Asia dating back to 28,000 BCE. Janeen pulls out her ‘bible’ – Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, written in 1940.

Known as the “Father of British studio pottery”, Leach was born in 1887 and spent the first three years of his life in Japan. Moving between England and Japan, he began his lifelong love of ceramics in 1911 when he studied under Urano Shigekichi 浦野繁吉 in Tokyo. Returning to England in 1920, he and his wife established Leach Pottery and immediately constructed a traditional Japanese firing kiln – the first of its kind to be built in the West. Leach’s keen interest was Korean, Japanese, and Chinese pottery with a special focus on simple, utilitarian forms. A Potter’s Book was his defining project and continues to inspire and educate potters today, like Janeen Page.

“The Japanese saw the imperfections in their glazes as beauty. When I use the Paraninihi mudstone, I’m in awe of its chemistry, knowing how and when it melts, seeing the naturally-occurring iron reacting and the earthy colours coming through,” she says.

Janeen stabs gleefully at a passage in A Potter’s Book which tells of Japanese master potter Shōji Hamada’s claim that Han period (206 BC) stoneware glazes were brown and composed of a single natural stone or clay mixture with a small amount of wood ash. The use of this traditional countryside glaze was common custom, and it developed further into the rust-red glaze called kaki. Adding ten per cent medium wood ash, it became the rich black glaze tenmoku. In early glazed stoneware, the iron is the main source of colour – inherent in natural materials as a welcomed impurity. It’s this knowledge, brought to New Zealand by Leach’s work, that confirms Janeen’s natural glazes are on the right track.

“We have to adjust our eyes back to seeing beauty in the imperfection of handmade things. This whole shift against what we have been indoctrinated to believe – that pristine is best – is happening now, as is the consciousness movement towards purchasing products that have integrity,” she affirms.

“We are evolving, and while we look to the past for knowledge and inspiration, we are like Bondy’s rocks in the ball mill, ‘kind of tumbling against other people and polishing ourselves up’.

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