First a disclaimer. I know the author. We’re Facebook friends and we’ve even met in unpixellated life. We worked on a common project without knowing each other, and met subsequently. Her coffee is great, and was it pecan pie? Something magnificent. Aotearoa New Zealand is a small country.
So small. Years ago I worked in Rust Ave, Whangarei. I don’t suppose it ever occurred to me that it was named after someone (Alexander Rust) or that his descendant would be the subject of a book that I would one day read.
I would have been astounded all the more if the crystal ball-gazer told me I would be reading about a potter at all. Pottery was something I bought from time to time for wedding gifts, but with little consideration of the art: anything I attempted to create from clay ended up in crumbs on the floor. Oh, excepting a woeful ashtray that resembled a pink, hollowed out elephant’s turd and which I gave to my blessedly tongue-tied father when I was about nine.
Though I’m fairly sure I met Mirek Smíšek somewhere in my youth. Or maybe just knew someone who knew him. He appears often in the pages of this biography, and bells of familiarity rang in the head of this pottery Philistine. Never mind. Maybe I purchased a pot from him. Here endeth the disclaimers.
So I picked up Maverick Spirit as a sort of clay virgin. I am fascinated by books that take me into unknown realms, and for God knows what reasons all the more interested by mavericks. The stars aligned.
And immediately I was captivated. I’m too slow a reader to read at a sitting, and from time to time life got in the way, but this was a glorious if serendipitous encounter. Sjoquist received funding-assistance from the Yvonne Rust West Coast Arts Trust, the genesis of which she describes late in the book (204), and had the herculean task of researching a clearly cyclonic life.
Sjoquist refers to Rust’s “chaotic writings,” and it is impossible not to have the sense that this would inevitably be the case of a character who lived so eccentric a life at such breakneck speed. It’s not a case of sows’ ears and silk purses, but Sjoquist has had to breathe order into a life that all but defied order and, probably, orders. Rust was a maverick indeed.
So Sjoquist weaves in and out of Rust’s own narrative and her own herculean effort of research. The Rust whakapapa may have been reasonably easy to access, but the manner in which Sjoquist brings alive the harsh world of Yvonne’s childhood is utterly captivating. The Tai Tokerau/Northland region remains one of the country’s more isolated and distinctive districts, and Sjoquist conveys well the isolation and even deprivation that were a part of Yvonne Rust’s up-bringing.
Sjoquist also in passing lays the foundation for her later passing explorations of Rust’s all but triangular relationship with Māori: respect, adoration, disappointment, all weave together in Rust’s relationship with Māori, and Sjoquist makes it clear that those complexities find their roots in Rust’s early childhood experience as a little blonde pākehā girl in one of Aotearoa’s most remote Māori settlements (punch “Te Hapua + Map” into a search engine and you’ll get my drift). For Rust there was to be brutal parturition as she discovered that Māori and Pākehā were different races rather than mere flukes of pigmentation (28). Rust will wrestle with questions of belonging, and belonging as an artist, throughout her life (84), experiencing frustration, admiration (143, 153), and eventually a degree of integration (143, 170, 175) of cultural kaupapa, cultural history and spirituality.
Sjoquist tells a fluent and poignant tale of Rust’s complex childhood, of a world filled by surrounding illness, parental marriage tensions, and cultural complexities and spirituality that must have been at the very bedrock of Rust’s subsequent worldview. As Rust, more or less aided by genetic predetermination, drifts into teaching a sense forms that this young woman is going to paint life on a vast canvas. The winds blow benevolently, and as this maverick spirit arrives in the world of teacher training so Peter Fraser becomes Minister of Education (61) and appoints visionary leaders to develop curricula. In an era of increasing “applied education” and “vocational training” in schools and universities it is hard to read of this wonderful parenthesis in educational formation and to breathe a sigh of thanks to the winds that allowed an Yvonne Rust to blossom.
From the neophyte teacher’s eccentricity a potter was born. By 1955 the teacher of art is beginning to enjoy dirt beneath her fingernails. But not just any dirt. She begins, more or less instinctively, to learn dirtology, and Sjoquist manages to reveal the slow-growing love Rust develops of the potter’s balance of instinctive and scientific knowledge of clay, of fire, and of the complex interactions between the two. Any impression a casual reader like myself might have that a lump of pink wet stuff thrown into an oven would turn into other than an elephant’s turd is disavowed: Rust works like a Trojan, intellectually and physically to hone her growing skills. Sjoquist allows glimpses of Rust’s flirtations with bohemia, but it is sheer applied physical and intellectual labour that emerges most powerfully from the tale.
Rust was no accident as she emerged at the top of her craft, and Sjoquist subtly ensures that we know it.
Sjoquist avoids voyeuristic glimpses into Rust’s private life: bohemian perhaps, but the ramifications of bohemia are rightly off limits (and probably tame). Rust was an artist, not a glitterato.
If I am not careful my review could become longer than Sjoquist’s book. Her narrative weaves in and out of Rust’s, media’s, and Rusts’s cohorts’ accounts of a remarkable life, a life “about as eccentric as a comma,” as Barry Newbold put it (189). The establishment of The Quarry, and Rust’s ambivalence around it, the Queen’s Service Medal (Rust, as it happened, was a paradoxical royalist who even sent the Queen a few bucks when Diana died), the peripatetic wanderings between two of Aotearoa’s most distinctive regions (West Coast/Te Tai Poutini and Nortlhand/Te Tai Tokerau), glimpses of orthodox and unorthodox spirituality and faith, interactions with international (especially Japanese) potters, and the partial late segue back to stunning canvas art, all these and more are recounted with mesmerizing ease. Sjoquist has researched hard and though occasionally the chaotic nature of Rust’s own reflections force a degree of staccato on Sjoquist’s story they don’t detract from the biographer’s art. As it happens Rust too can tell a tale: the journal extract spanning 179-180 is a gem, too long to quote here, and the allusions to Wellington’s two taniwha (193) no less so.
Sjoquist has produced a treasure. Her narrative has taken me far from my realms of expertise, and I have been inspired throughout. There are one or two tiny glitches, a typo or two (81, 209), and a peculiar spasmodic typographical one en-space separation of “Th” and whatever follows it, but I suspect everyone who has published a book knows the sneaky habits of gremlins. They do not mar a gem.
May neither Rust’s memory nor Sjoquist’s telling of her tale grow dusty on forgotten shelves. This beautifully written, beautifully presented taonga should ensure memories stay fresh.