Biographical profile of Greg Barron, Potter
To consistently produce interesting and dynamic work, I need to perform at the top of my skills, to do things that are almost impossible and not quite within my control; almost to create an imbalance. I need to remain challenged all the time – Greg Barron
Greg Barron, potter, uses his accumulated skills to move towards art. Forty-six years of wide-ranging experience grants him the mastery to produce what his mind’s eye sees. Far from intellectual, it draws deeply from an otherwise inaccessible internal pool, yet the creative mode he intuitively employs is not triggered until his hands actually engage with the clay.
Born in 1947 and raised on a Matamata dairy farm, Greg had made the choice in 1966 to study at Wellington Polytechnic Industrial Design School, despite an offer from his father to help him into a farm of his own.
“At 18, my parents put me on the train at Frankton Station in Hamilton with a suitcase,” said Greg. “I’d never been to Wellington. The journey was a daunting experience for a naïve country bumpkin amongst such a diverse crowd of fellow travellers.”
The stability of life as a farmer, and the realisation his father needed a response to his offer swayed Greg from completing his studies and back to the Waikato in 1967. Explaining to his father that he’d developed what was to be an enduring passion for pottery was as awkward for Barron as it is for all youngsters choosing a path different from their parents preference.
Gregs’s fervour had been sparked at school in the clay-room where he was attracted by the makeability inherent in clay, and by the clay itself. In 1972 he veered in the direction of his passion and worked for a few months with Mirek Smisek (1925-2013) at Te Horo.
“Mirek taught me to how to set up a workshop, and the ethos of applying yourself daily to your work,” Greg says. “He introduced me to the work of Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, and fostered in me an appreciation of the East-West dichotomy, the Asian standard of beauty as opposed to the Anglo-Western ideal.”
At the end of 1972 Barron joined Yvonne Rust QSM (1922-2002) at her first Northland summer school at Parua Bay, and was invited to assist for the entire season of six summer schools. Big-hearted, warm and encouraging, Rust dissuaded him from the usual bowls and told him to go instead out into the forest and make drawings of trees. “I made abstract forms at those summer schools which adorned my mother’s garden for many years .”
Rust also made her own clay, something Barron does today. He finds he is able to work better with clay he has made and therefore understands. His interest in clay-making was strengthened in the early 1980s on a course with Harry Davis at Crewenna Pottery in Nelson during which clay-working machinery was engineered on site.
Until 2000 Barron made pots with commercial clays, many of which crazed, and he didn’t know how to fix the problem.
”Once I started making my own clay I grasped the effect of silica levels and realised that by altering the silica content, the clay and glaze could be made to fit better… or not fit, which resulted in the glaze crazing. At the other end of the spectrum I had this business where bits of glaze popped off the pots as they cooled in the kiln.”
Because he made a lot of domestic-ware which had to weather dishwashers or sinks, it needed to be strong, so it was important to source clay well-adjusted to the glazes he used. When he established himself finally in Whangarei, he looked for a good clay deposit close to his Glenbervie Pottery.
“If you’re being careful with time or money, making your own clay doesn’t make sense,” he says,” but as an artist, it increases your understanding of the material. Clay from overseas is processed there, then shipped to New Zealand, then transported again to the potter. Digging it out of the ground just down the road, and doing a little bit of rudimentary processing here with no bagging requirement makes my carbon footprint significantly smaller, and allows me to be somewhat independent.”
In a prolific work year Barron might use four tonnes of clay which is barely noticeable in the landscape. The spot is difficult to find a year or two later because weathering has filled it in. He says, Japanese Master Potter, Shoji Hamada believed potters, and craftspeople from other disciplines, should find a local source of materials and learn to work within that material’s limitations. In Mashiko where he worked, Hamada proved his point, producing extraordinarily beautiful pots from difficult local clay.
Barron says Bernard Leach talked about small working potteries around England in the early 1900s which, because they used local clays, each pottery’s work had an identifiable appearance. Bricks and roofing tiles were made from the same local materials, and a locale could be identified by the hue of its roofs. This could also be seen in other cultures.
“I live here, and want to know about and cherish what’s in my own area. Local knowledge and clay and are essential.”
He works mainly with a stoneware body based on the nearby Kiripaka fire-clay, and a porcelain body based on the halloysite deposit at Matauri Bay. Each is flexible and they combine well. Producing his own clay contributed to making better work and the development of a consistent body which could be altered to suit
Finding suitable clay sources is about looking, ‘delving around’, but Barron has found that if something on his mind is important enough, such as wanting to use his own clay, solutions often arrive unheralded. The owner of his neighbourhood clay pit happened to mention its existence one day. “Things often happen for me that way.”
Serendipity doesn’t just occur. Barron says it responds to a need for which the ground has already been laid. Reading plenty of geological reports and books such as Materials for the New Zealand Potter by JC Schofield (1977), and Barry Brickell’s A New Zealand Potter’s Dictionary: Techniques and Materials for the South Pacific (1985) were useful references.
Hyde ball clay from the South Island is very good, he says. It adds plasticity and the area yields other excellent clays which throw well and behave nicely in the kiln. Golden Bay, where he lived from 1973 to 1979 at Onekaka, had abundant useable clays as opposed to Northland clays which have high silica content and require additional materials to make them workable.
One of the most challenging aspects of pottery for Barron is opening the kiln. He might spend a month making a body of work which he enjoys seeing accumulate on the bench before the glazing and firing processes.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s wood fired or gas, or electric, but when you open the kiln, you confront what you’re not expecting, and I don’t know any potter who hasn’t been through this,” he says. “Sometimes you get things you like, but it’s never what you expect. It’s not like painting where you put a colour on and that’s what it is. It always changes with the atmosphere and the little bit of extra heat there, or here, and that burner not working quite right. With a wood kiln it’s even stronger.”
Works straight from the kiln are ‘quite raw’ while he accustoms himself to them. He spends a few days sanding the bottoms of pots and handling each piece. By the time they’re in place in his gallery he’s metaphorically increased the resolution of his focus and is better able to critically appreciate the work. In August 2018 he won the inaugural Quarry Arts Centre Open Ceramics Award judged by Peter Lange in Whangarei. He had contributed a couple of ‘little pieces’ to the exhibition hoping a promising new talent might take the prize. Viewing his winning piece at the show later, he was surprised to find ‘it was nicer than I remembered.’
Works sometimes reflect aspects of their creators which they may not be aware of but viewers see and interpret, he says. It’s as disconcerting for a potter as it is for a painter, a writer, or other creatives who perhaps prefer to project only the concept they believe their work presents.
During the early years Barron used a Leach treadle wheel but these days prefers electric. He has two, and particularly likes the Brent. Some of his works are large so electric wheels represent a nod to practicality over super-sustainability.
“The early potters came out of cultures that no longer exist,” he says. “Potters like Shoji Hamada were masters of their workshops. They controlled product and design, and made most of the bigger pots, but had perhaps a dozen people working around them. These were specialists, expert mould-makers, glaze-mixers, and clay-makers who even wedged clay for the master.
“Potters often constructed their own wheels, and invariably built their own kilns including Smisek, Brickell, Rust, et al. Roy Cowan published kiln designs. It was the norm less than forty years ago.”
Without the helpers available to the old masters, modern studio potters must perform all these tasks themselves, and milling glaze materials and using a kick-wheel would be added burdens. Barron buys in all his glaze materials milled to a certain micron size, and mixes his own. He often uses local clays in slip form to produce colour on clay bodies and incorporate them into his decorative work.
He still chooses to make some domestic-ware, but these days he spends more time on individual pieces designed to take advantage of wood-firing techniques. To these he gives considerable thought and time for the actual building, utilising skills integrated from his year at design school. Being taught to look closely, to see, to observe light, shade, shape, and learning to draw, have proven valuable skills, he says.
Greg uses a smokeless wood-fired kiln designed by Masakazu Kusakabe, and always has help with firing. Earlier, Dave Huffman, a potter and old associate often assisted, but today a much younger, adept Quarry Art Centre resident, Amorangi Hikuroa, usually assists.
Finding it easier to stay focused without random interruption from others, Greg prefers not to have to talk when he’s working or firing. ”I’m more comfortable just talking with myself,” he laughs, “and Jin Ling (Barron’s wife and highly regarded clay sculptor) will tell you, I talk to myself all the time, sometimes quite loudly.”
He and Amorangi start the kiln late in the afternoon. Amorangi fires through the night while Barron sleeps. They have breakfast around 7am, then fresh for the day with the kiln having already done twelve hours Barron is on deck for the critical high temperature process.
The kiln reaches temperature at 25-30 hours. Barron fires with timber mostly from his own property and from neighbourhood windfall, but occasionally augmented with mill slabs from the Maungakaramea mill.
He had already completed the design of a new wood-fired kiln, and he’d read Steve Harrison’s book, Laid Back Wood-firing, in which the history of Australian wood-fired kilns, and the Bourry Box were outlined. He and Harrison had met at Harry Davis’ workshop 35 years earlier.
He had also had read with great interest Masakazu Kusakabe’s book, Japanese Woodfired Ceramics. Kusakabe lived close to Fukushima and was driven out of Japan by the nuclear power plant catastrophe. He and his kiwi partner called into Glenbervie Pottery by chance one day, and accepted an invitation to stay for a couple of weeks during which time talk of kilns naturally arose.
Kusakabe confirmed the likely success of Barron’s design, but suggested it was bigger than he needed, and the design was adjusted significantly as a result.
“It was really good advice,” Greg says, “I not only got a smokeless kiln, but a smaller one. My design was quite big, and probably less manageable.”
The eco-friendly smokeless kiln incorporates a firebox (Bourry box) with four brick arches forming a grate to support the timber as it burns in the firebox. Smaller blocks of wood remain suspended instead of burning through the middle and falling into the ash pit.
Using a wood-fired kiln seems counter to sustainability but Barron says timber eventually rots down and naturally releases methane into the atmosphere. Whether it’s burned or is allowed to rot, it produces greenhouse gases, but less gas is contributed to the atmosphere if the wood is gathered locally.
He and Jin Ling lessen their carbon footprint by gathering windfall and prunings for kiln fuel from the neighbourhood, running an electric vehicle, firing a smokeless kiln, and making their own clay. Jin Ling grows a prolific vegetable garden and orchard. Both are vegetarians, and support wholeheartedly the concepts of organic farming. They built their earth house and workshop themselves from local materials and have both a solar water heating system and photovoltaic power generation.
Barron isn’t trained in carpentry but building is something he prefers to do himself. His first building in his mid-twenties was a simple iron roof over the large kiln in Golden Bay. Then he built a workshop, and decided he’d like to build a house, ‘because it’s actually not that difficult. It’s just doing the day to day persistent labour until the job is complete’.
His home and Glenbervie Pottery are built from a wet-mix system known as ‘poured earth’ and made from adobe mix (brown rock, also known as rotten rock, sourced from a nearby quarry). Adobe mix includes some of the overburden which is pulled down onto it and mixed with a digger. With advice from Whangarei earth-building consultant, Ian Redfern, both buildings were constructed virtually single-handedly.
“I’m really worried about greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing alarm from scientists about the speed at which the oceans are warming and affecting the climate,” Barron says. “It seems unstoppable. It’s obvious now that civilisation is a heat engine. We point to agriculture and the fossil fuel industry but as a society, we need to find answers. Individually we must do what we can.
“In the early 70s, people talked about what conventional farming did to the soils when fertilisers and pesticides were applied. In Golden Bay people were into organic farming and had compost bins. We’d get seaweed and put it on our gardens and around fruit trees. It was New Age and those ideals resonated with me.”
What Barron doesn’t say is what his farming background bestowed on him; an appreciation of working with natural cycles and the elements; the stoicism that underpins his sturdy work ethic; and the capacity for self-reliance, knowing that hiring someone to come and fix things was expensive.
The difficult loss of his marriage in 1993 and subsequent move into the more artistic, as opposed to production environment of the Quarry Arts Centre, had significant impact on Barron’s life and work.
“I reflected deeply on my life and who I was for two or three years. I think a crisis point like that can be quite valuable, and that’s how I regard it. It made me think carefully about my direction, especially in my work. Being in the Quarry also brought me into contact with other people which I hadn’t had for a long time, and they included Peter Alger whose work I admired and found inspirational. It was the beginning of working towards more one-off pieces.”
“Sometimes we can be torn between the things other people expect of us,” he says, “and the things inside us which make us individuals. Ultimately we have to come back to being the person we really are; to our own inner selves.”
He and Jin Ling have travelled frequently in recent years to China, the US, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, India, Mexico and other cultural destinations, keeping a fine look-out for interesting objects which inspire, or design elements which can be incorporated. Visiting museums (the Metropolitan Museum in New York was a favourite for its’ vast collection of Central American and historic global pottery collection) and researching whatever he can find from indigenous and older cultures provides Barron with a constant reference to New Zealand and consistent questioning of his own culture.
“Many forms and decorative motifs are universal; spirals, squares, crosses, and zig-zag patterns,” he says. “Older cultures express a vitality and freshness in their work I’d like to capture, and that requires a certain confidence in what you’re doing. I’m able to teach a lot to a young woman who occasionally works with me, but at 73, I’ve got quite a lot to call on. Provided I can keep my body going I’ve probably got ten, maybe 15 years of creative work left.”
The more he wood-fires, taking copious notes because he can’t remember everything (I’ve got books of them now), the more Barron refines direction for the next firing. It’s his primary development mode.
The work itself is on a larger scale, but his designs lean ever more towards the abstract; a jug with an altered spout, feet on traditionally footless forms.
“Integrity is paramount,” he says, “so that what is felt or sensed within is translated to the work.”
Greg Barron’s work is held in many private collections, as well as in the Whangarei Art Museum, James Wallace Trust, Portage Trust, Ron Sang Collection, Shanghai Craft Museum, and The Australasian Museum-Fuping, China. He is the recipient of multiple awards including, the Premier Imerys National Tableware Exhibition Award, and the Peters Valley Scholarship at 2016 Portage Ceramic Awards.
© Theresa Sjoquist August 2020 – from interview with Greg Barron at Glenbervie Pottery