The Mad Potter

We meet ceramic artist Laurie Steer and hear about his brilliant work as well as his offbeat humour and world view.

Although the brilliant work of ceramic artist Laurie Steer raises thought-provoking questions, it’s most definitely imbued with his offbeat humour and world view.

Being greeted at the gate of local ceramic artist Laurie Steer is an experience that sets the scene
for the visit to follow. A ferocious whirlwind of teeth and noise, housed in the incredibly compact
fluffy white body of the gatekeeper Moe, who either loves or hates the intruder to his master’s domain… nothing in between. I made the cut and spent the next 90 minutes being assessed by
a now remarkably (duplicitous) doe-eyed pooch, as we sat in the midst of Laurie’s latest pottery collection in the making. We were speaking four weeks out from the launch of his exhibition that’s now open at Tauranga Art Gallery — the chaos is organised, the process fluid, the work ahead monumental, but that’s the way Laurie rolls and nothing will get in his way until the works are complete. Moe will see to that.

Laurie in the Mount Maunganui workshop that’s attached to his home.

As a born and bred Mount lad, Laurie attended Mount Maunganui College — but not for long.
“School wasn’t for me, apparently I had “issues with authority” but I think it was more that I had
issues with idiots,” he laughs. “I went on to AUT and excelled, gained a Master of Art and Design
and ended up teaching at art schools; that’s what a qualification gives you the ability to do. But
I’d always wanted to work as an artist, not teach art.”

It was a long-coveted opportunity to work with expert potter Barry Brickell, that helped Laurie transition into a full-time practice. Laurie credits his work with clay, a medium he has turned to
almost exclusively over the last 15 years, to having the chance to “learn from the maestro”, Brickell. Until his death in 2016, Brickell was a potter, writer, conservationist and founder of Coromandel’s Driving Creek Railway, which he gifted to New Zealand. Laurie is now a director of this arts
and charitable trust.

“I met Barry when I was doing a conceptual installation for my Masters — shards, primitive pots
and the concept of fake archaeology, and I was a bit star struck. He was the Southern Hemisphere’s most revered potter and I was desperate for an opportunity to work with him. He very politely
told me to piss off. Five years later he rang my wife, Natalie, and said, “come right now”. He really meant right now, so I just went straight to the Coromandel and spent three days with another
couple of artists literally fuelling the kiln fires, chopping the wood and doing all the things that facilitate an artist in the midst of creating pottery. The environment made me think of something straight out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — the crazy, mad man living in the bush, bits of machinery,
trains, a lot of other strange people wandering around. It was just amazing and inspiring and
was everything I imagined.”

Laurie creates a piece using a Leach Treadle Wheel.

Among fine-tuning techniques and opening doorways on ways to work and manipulate clay, Laurie credits Brickell for arming him with the skills to survive financially as a creative, but without selling
his soul to commercialisation. Until he met and worked with Brickell, Laurie was a self-taught potter. The ancient medium fascinates him — autonomy is a draw and the principles that guide the discipline of working with clay, which is mercurial at best, a delightful contest.

“I like the challenges of self-sufficiency in my artwork— I make it all myself, literally from going to dig my own materials in the Coromandel, or wherever the colour and consistency
I am after is available."

"It’s like playing golf apparently, you’re only playing against the course, not the other golfers.
I’m incredibly competitive by nature, but with myself and my processes.”

This current exhibition is made using a mix of reddish Coromandel clay and a whiter, finer clay
from the Waikato. The result is a purplish-brown raw product, which when glazed becomes a satiny rich black, beautifully adorned with 24kt gold. Which leads our fast-moving, Moe-patrolled and ebullient conversation to just what the inspiration was for the mock-up exhibition table Laurie is crowding with eclectic and fascinating pieces.

The 24kt gold detailing in these works is applied by hand, then melted in place.

The Tauranga Art Gallery installation features a fantastically excessive banquet setting crowded
on a simple, purpose-built sage-green table, cluttered with beautifully formed pieces — plates, goblets, platters, bowls, the richness of the black lustre effectively offset by the hand-detailed gold. Suspended and gently, but somehow ominously, swaying above are a full artillery of pottery spikes. Laurie explains the inspiration: “It’s called The Abundance of Water, which comes from a line in
a Bob Marley song, Rat Race: “In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty”, a line which is in itself inspired by an Ethiopian quote: “…you have so many cups, but can you get a drink?”.

The collection is a continuation of ideas from Deadweight Loss, which Laurie exhibited at
Auckland gallery Objectspace in 2020. That featured large pots and is one of the connections
with The Abundance of Water, where every piece resembles some kind of domestic, functional form, yet every one of them is pierced with at least one hole, rendering it useless in its accepted form.
The glossy black, the gold — this is about affluence, and the notion of ‘having it all’, but at what cost? “I want it all but once I get it, what will I do with it?!” Laurie exclaims. He uses the act and process of creating around a theme to help him further understand it, and works feverishly to form a collection.

As soon as Laurie began working with clay, he said it felt incredibly familiar, but the challenge to master it became his quest. “There is an endlessness to it that I love. Other things come and go
but clay has always been with us in its natural form, in a hole or a bank in the earth, or as a familiar form — a toilet bowl, a cup, even a crucial piece in the workings of a smart phone. It’s slow to work with and this fed into the current collection, which is all about the mass consumerism of useless
stuff in our world, whether it’s at The Warehouse or Harrods and everywhere in between, everything
is about commodities, wealth and waste.” In this vein, Laurie believes the mastery of his process is
in his mantra “make it, sell it or smash it” — the smashed pieces given new life by being reabsorbed into new work. “I love the zero waste of it.”

Moe, Laurie’s trusty gatekeeper, noisily assesses whether each visitor is friend or foe.

With each of his collections, Laurie offers the pieces for sale, releasing a retail date via social media that coincides with the end of an exhibition. Buyers can then purchase online, or at an exhibition, and there will also be “merch” associated with the collection available to purchase online, which allows supporters to continue adding to their collections of usable Laurie Steer artwork. So, the cups, jugs and vases supporting this collection will not have holes!

And as for his slogan, ‘The Best Potter in the World’? Laurie explains it’s an in-joke that came from
a derogatory comment: “I suppose you think you’re the best potter in the world, do you?” To which
he replied, “Yes.” So he’s continued to use it and, much to his delight, upset detractors along the way. “I like the invincible confidence in it and I like aspiring to greatness, especially in a country where
you are supposed to be humble. I don’t identify as a tall poppy. I’m more like gorse.”

The Abundance of Water showed at Tauranga Art Gallery until 18 July 2021.

First published in issue 33 (April/May 2021) of Our Place Magazine.

Story by Pip Crombie
Photography by Alice Veysey