The Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award 1977 - 1996

The partnership between Auckland Studio Potters and Fletcher Challenge Limited which resulted in the annual Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1996. At that time it ranked, along with those at Faenza, Italy and Mino, Japan as one of the three most prestigious Ceramic Award exhibitions in the world and was eagerly supported by ceramists everywhere. Although the Fletcher sponsorship of the award ceased in 1997 the collection of prizewinning pieces assembled during the Award's twenty-year history is now part of the Fletcher Trust Art Collection.

Origins: The Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award 1977-1986

At Auckland Studio Potters' Annual General Meeting in April 1975 its President, Ian Firth, crystallising previous suggestions by others, announced the intention of establishing a permanent home for the society and organising a sponsored ceramics award of international standing which would fund its operations. The fundamental idea behind these two proposals was to lift pottery above the “Cinderella” status which at that time it held in comparison with the other arts.

Many of those associated with the establishment of the Award are familiar with a legend that it was conceived on a beach in Fiji. That legend is also part of the story. Shortly after ASP's 1975 Annual General Meeting the potter Ruth Court and her husband Ralph took a midwinter holiday at Denba with Trevor Hunt, then General Manager of Fletcher Brownbuilt, a subsidiary of Fletcher Holdings, and his wife Ailsa. One day Mrs Court talked of the suggested ceramics competition explaining that such an event might generate revenue to finance premises and a teaching facility for Auckland Studio Potters.

By August 1976 a Centre Committee had been established, its members including Ian Firth, Roger Paul, David Parton, Leo King, Ruther Court and Trevor Hunt. At its first meeting Ian Firth, not knowing that Ruth Court had already prepared the way, asked Trevor Hunt if Fletcher Brownbuilt would be prepared to sponsor an ASP organised ceramics competition. Trevor Hunt agreed at once and the planning which began immediately went on into the small hours.

A Housing Corporation house under threat of demolition to make way for the Ellerslie-Panmure highway had already been earmarked as suitable premises for ASP. The then Mayor of Onehunga, Mr Leo Manning, came to the society's rescue by gifting land in Captain Springs Road, Onehunga on to which the Panmure house was re-located. Support for this undertaking came from Sir Tom Clark, Managing Director of Crown Lynn Potteries, who provided an interest-free loan to ASP to cover the costs of removal and re-establishment in Onehunga. Goods and labour from the Fletcher Group were authorised by Trevor Hunt whose interest in both the provision of premises and the ceramics competition had already been fired.

Trevor Hunt's commitment to the Award was grounded in the conviction that industry had a moral responsibility to foster the arts, particularly those enduring financial burdens. He was interested too in advancing the quality and standards of ceramic activity in Auckland and in encouraging ceramists to explore the sculptural as well as the more traditional domestic/utilitarian aspects of their work. Not the least of his intentions was the desire to change the arts community's perception of business people and to encourage his own staff to become enthusiastically involved in a creative undertaking outside their daily eight-to-five office routine.

Fletcher Brownbuilt carried the total costs of the fledgling 1977 exhibition and supplied all the organisational skills and almost all the labour for the first decade of the Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award. Brownbuilt staff picked up the ceramics as they arrived in Auckland and set up the hall for the judge's selection process. ASP and Brownbuilt staff jointly helped to paint the display stands. In keeping with the original purpose, all profits from the Award exhibitions were directed towards Auckland Studio Potters, thus providing funds to enable it to maintain a teaching/workshop facility for existing and potential membership.

The First Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award Exhibition - 1977

The first exhibition in 1977 attracted 64 entries all of which were displayed to the public. It had been decided that judges for the Award should be from outside New Zealand and of international repute. The first to be invited was Les Blakeborough, of Australia who named John Anderson of Auckland as Premier Prizewinner for his clay replica of a pot-belly stove. People still recall that he advanced to receive his prize of $2,000 dressed in a green sweater with its elbows torn out, patched jeans and gumboots. Dramatic black-painting scaffolding formed the basis of John Parker's imaginative exhibition design.

The criterion for entry for the first exhibition was based on the sculptural aspect of ceramics. After the first exhibition it was decided that, in future, excellence would be the only criterion. The chief preoccupation of many potters at the time was the vessel and the emphasis initially given to sculptural ceramic forms was designed to counter this by encouraging a more innovative approach.

Overseas Entries

For the first two years entry submissions were not sought outside New Zealand but in 1979 overseas entries were invited. This had always been the intention of the Award's first organisers but in the interests of caution had been deferred until the event was firmly established on the New Zealand ceramics calendar.

The 1979 Award exhibition displayed 75 works, the majority of them from New Zealand, five from Australia and two from England. Australian judge Peter Travis gave the Premier Award to Carl McConnell of Australia. The following year, 1980, 23% of the works selected for exhibition were overseas entries, mostly from Australia and the USA.

To avoid prohibitive costs in the first years, organisers looked across the Tasman for judges, drawing on both Australian nationals and potters visiting that country. Robin Welch, an English potter working in Australia in 1980, was available to accept the initiation to select and judge the exhibition for that year. In 1982 the invited judge was Gwyn Hanssen Pigott who each year continues to contribute works for exhibition. Polish clay artist Maria Kuczynska was secured as judge for the 1985 award under similar circumstances. Among other Australian judges was Jeff Mincham, who had been Premier Award Winner in 1985 and who returned in 1986 as a judge.

Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award 1987-1996

In 1987, following the retirement of Trevor Hunt, Fletcher Challenge Limited inherited the funding role previously held by its subsidiary Fletcher Brownbuilt. The company's contribution to the re-named Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award became a monetary grant, organisational aspects being undertaken by an Auckland Studio Potters committee or committee appointees under the overall direction of Leo King. The same year heralded an increase in the Award prizes from $5,000 to $10,000 in order to give the Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award parity with other international ceramics competitions.

The 1987 Award exhibition was the first occasion on which two potters were jointly awarded the Premier prize. They were Chester Nealie (NZ) for a wood-fired jar of traditional form and treatment and Steve Fullmer (NZ) for a vessel which, as judge John Maltby of England put it, exemplified the essence of modern ceramic expression.

In 1988 the major prizewinner was Sandra Black from Australia while six other entries received Certificates of Merit from American judge Patti Warashina. The following year, 1989, Peter Lane from England chose Jeff Mincham as Premier winner and awarded 15 Certificates of Merit.

Into the 90s

In 1990 Moyra Elliott took over from Leo King as director of the Award for ASP. Her mandate was to increase international participation in the Award, a task she performed with considerable success. In that year overseas entries number 179. Of these 79 pieces were included in a display totalling 178 ceramic works, the largest selected exhibition to date. It included entries from West Germany, Belgium, Spain, Peru and India along with more than 20 pieces from Japan. Contacts made with Mr Shigenori Itoh, director of the prestigious Akasaka Green Gallery, Tokyo were an invaluable means of encouraging the ongoing participation of Japanese ceramists in the Award.

The 1990 judge was Elizabeth Fritsch from England who selected joint winners Eiichi Kawano and Seiji Kobayashi, from Japan. The winning works were both containers, contemporary in form and concept and featuring variegated patterns with vivid colour and metallic slips. Design for the 1990 exhibition was again in John Parker's hands while Penny Evans continued as exhibition officer. She later moved into a secretarial and administration role which she performed until the concluding exhibition.

In the past, any number of Certificates of Merit had been awarded at the Judge's discretion but in 1990 provision for an allocation of five $1,000 Awards of Merit was introduced. The number of Judges' Commendations awarded continued to vary at the discretion of individual judges.

Efforts to increase international awareness were particularly rewarded in 1991 when overseas entries from 233 ceramists eclipsed the number of New Zealand entries, 220, for the first time. In that year Ron Nagle, from San Francisco, USA, was the invited judge. His choice for Premier Award winner and for a special double Award of Merit to the value of $2,000, were both unprecedented. The winner was new Zealander Tim Currey of Port Charles, Coromandel for his Rock Column while the double Award of Merit went to a large, tenmoku-glazed teapot by Jeff Oestreich of USA. These works continue to stand well among their peers and define the year of their winning as a triumph for ceramic diversity.

In keeping with international exhibitions of similar structure and prize status, for the first time in 1992 colour transparency entries were called for. This alleviated increasing pressure arising from transit and storage of entries which eventually might not be accepted for exhibition. Slide selection proved an enticement for a greater number of international ceramists who might otherwise not have sent work due to high costs.

Again entries from 38 individual overseas countries outnumbered those from New Zealand although, with 35% of its entries accepted, New Zealand was on par with other leading countries in the statistics tables, being surpassed only by Australia with 46% and Japan with 61%. South America was represented for the first time with 9 entries from Argentina of which one, a wall piece by Vilma Villaverde, was accepted. She gained an Award of Merit and $NZ1,000 for her work El Juguette, a positive/negative representation of disappearing childhood.

The judge, Akio Takamori, a Japanese-born United States resident, chose Lara Scobie of Scotland's Stoneware Vessels for the 1992 Premier Award. This consisted of a pair of vessels at once contemporary and yet ancient, with rich detailing and containing references to vessels, architecture, basketry and jewellery. The judge gave Awards of Merit to work from Hungary, Netherlands, USA and New Zealand as well as Argentina. His ten Merit Certificates were awarded to ceramists from Australia, Japan, Netherlands, England, Denmark, Germany, USA and New Zealand. Contemporary and traditionally sourced vessels through to smaller and large scale sculpture were all singled out for praise by the judge.

The 1992 exhibition of 166 pieces filled the Auckland Museum's two large exhibition halls for the first time and was stunning in its impact, bringing many favourable remarks from the public and over 13,000 viewers to the show. 500 entries had been received and coverage of the Award in the international ceramic press was unprecedented. ASP's profit from the exhibition designed by Jeannie van der Putten was an all-time high.

Using profits accrued from past Awards work began the following year on building Auckland Studio Potters' new premises in Onehunga. The original building had gradually become too small to accommodate a growing number of members and there had been problems with its upkeep.

The 1993 judge was Kari Christensen of Norway who, as intended by Award Director Moyra Elliott, brought a distinctive focus to her choice of exhibition. This was the year which favoured European influences as John Hood, Fletcher Challenge's Chief Executive Officer, Building Industries, pointed out in his Opening Night speech. With their clearly defined abstract shapes, often hard edged and invariably “scratched” with sgraffito, these ceramic pieces were of undoubted interest to all who viewed the exhibition. Ms Christensen's selection did not however neglect the more exuberant American tradition nor the Anglo-Japanese, from which so many New Zealand ceramists have drawn their inspiration.

The 1994 exhibition, judged by Jindra Vikova from Hungary, created enormous interest. Mitsuo Shoji's Many Wishes took the Premier Award, while the Double Merit Award given to New Zealander Matt McLean's Dancing Wall brought cheers of approval from the ceramic community assembled on Opening Night.

Writing in the NZ Listener, Peter Gibbs commented that Vikova's show would be remembered for its sculptural, even architectural bias and the huge numbers of world class entries. Of Matt McLean's Dancing Wall he wrote that “In an exhibition hall full of pieces where the clay had been subjugated to the whim of the maker, McLean's piece remained true to the material, revealing the nature of the clay and carrying the marks of its ordeal by fire.”

The popular 1995 judge was Takeshi Yasuda, internationally renowned as a clay artist for his love of sensual form and his dramatic tableware. Contrary to expectations he selected a show which included a significant amount of sculptural work. On Opening Night he spoke with great eloquence of his feelings for clay and warded the Premier Prize to one of the smallest and most delicate exhibits, young Australian ceramist Prue Venables' Group of Jugs. As other judges have, Takeshi Yasuda contributed significantly to the New Zealand ceramic community by sharing his philosophy and experience at ASP workshops, attending the New Zealand Society of Potters' Convention at Palmerston North and conducting a workshop at Wanganui.

In order to mark the anniversary of the Award's twentieth year in 1996 prize money was significantly increased. The Premier Award winner received a $20,000 prize and Awards of Merit were valued at $4,000. To mark the occasion all previous Premier Award winning ceramics now held as part of the Fletcher Challenge Art Collection were displayed in a special exhibition at Auckland Museum. All exhibitors in the 1996 show received a commemorative medallion.

Canadian Judge John Chalke participated in a forum on contemporary ceramics with other distinguished overseas guests including Australia's Janet Mansfield, editor of Ceramics, Art and Perception; Michael Robinson of Northern Ireland, curator, historian and lecturer at the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum and Gabi Dewald, arts commentator and editor of the prestigious German language international magazine Keramik. New Zealand participants included Linden Cowell, former head of exhibitions at Otago Museum and lecturer in Ceramic History at Otago Polytechnic; Justin Paton, arts writer and critic and Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, design historian, writer and teacher.

For twenty years the Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award was firmly placed on the artistic calendar, not only of Auckland, but the whole of New Zealand. It annually enabled New Zealanders and, latterly, overseas visitors to view one of the world's most prestigious ceramic events and attracted international attention to New Zealand as the sponsoring country. Its results were eagerly sought by ceramic and arts magazines and periodicals worldwide. Its catalogues, beautifully illustrated by photographer Haru Sameshima, quickly became collectors' items.
Peter Shaw

April 2004
Grande Coquille Fouilhoux Jean – Francois
Grande Coquille
Neoteric Vessel Mincham Jeff
Neoteric Vessel
Rites of Passage Ill Black Sandra
Rites of Passage Ill
Jar Nealie Chester
Cutting a New Orbit Fullmer Steve
Cutting a New Orbit
Sapodilla Canyon Fullmer Steve
Sapodilla Canyon
Large Raku Jar Mincham Jeff
Large Raku Jar
Platter Wiseman Merilyn
Fungoid Form Rogers Ray
Fungoid Form
Wood Fired Jar Nealie Chester
Wood Fired Jar
Bowl Luxton Beverley
All being equal, all being different Barde Philippe
All being equal, all being different
Bowl Pointon Debbie
Blossum Jar McConnell Carl
Blossum Jar
Raku Bottle Rudd Rick
Raku Bottle
Pot Belly Stove Anderson John
Pot Belly Stove
A Pair with Shadows Sakurai Yasuko
A Pair with Shadows
Group of Jugs Venables Prue
Group of Jugs
Many Wishes Shoji Mitsuo
Many Wishes
Lobo California, 1992 Israel Susannah
Lobo California, 1992
Handbuilt Stoneware Vessels Scobie Lara
Handbuilt Stoneware Vessels
Rock Column Currey Tim
Rock Column
Illusion from April Clouds Kobayashi Seiji
Illusion from April Clouds
Battle at Ohaeawai
Battle at Ohaeawai
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