Hector Pottery. Aotearoa  New Zealand   Hand made contemporary work since 1974


High Tide: New Work by John Crawford.

Gina Irish

German critic, Gabi Dewald [1] once compared Ngakawau to ‘paradise’, [2] an apt description for this stunning coastal settlement located twenty-five minutes drive north of Westport . Dewald’s perception of Ngakawau is attributed to lush native bush, miles of rugged coastline and deep green rivers; distinguishing features of this region, regarded by locals and visitors alike, as unique and untouched. It is a breathtaking landscape which leaves an imprint in the minds of many who visit the area.  

In 1974 John and Anne Crawford settled in Ngakawau, a move which paved the way for younger artists with similar aspirations. After many a battle with conservative councillors, the Crawfords established their studio and home, and later the Hector Pottery showroom directly opposite Ngakawau beach. The couple’s combined fourteen years of experience, acquired while training at Nelson’s Waimea Craft Pottery studio under the guidance of influential New Zealand potter Jack Laird, proved invaluable. From this moment onwards, John and Anne never looked back. For well over thirty years, the Crawfords have made a living from producing exquisite tableware and studio ceramics for local and international buyers.  Their efforts are commendable, for these days very few potters remain in business. Survival is based on financial know how and the identification of a niche - skills which have enabled the continuation of their enterprise.  

John Crawford thrives on isolation. Location is paramount and in the quiet of his studio, Crawford tests the boundaries of clay. From this retreat, Crawford observes the tide, surrounding bush and seasons. While many works are created in direct response to the environment, others stem from memory, in particular the artist’s childhood spent in Runanga; a small coal mining village and later years in Greymouth. Childhood toys and sinkers are just some of the non traditional forms that have evolved through this process. Place and identity are enduring themes; after all, the West Coast is Crawford’s turangawaewae; a metaphorical backbone.  

In the 1980s Crawford’s perspective seemed far removed from a New Zealand context. Bright, enigmatic forms drew on the Modern Masters: Mondrian, Picasso, Matisse, to name but a few. The need to look offshore for ideas is not uncommon as New Zealand ’s geographic isolation has in the past, been the cause of anxiety and cultural cringe. In many instances, the appropriation of western art traditions can be viewed as a means of negotiation. Crawford concedes that defining New Zealand European identity is problematic and furthermore, in terms of pottery, the definition of a local style has been slow to evolve. [3] For New Zealand potters, knowledge has largely been inherited or for a better word, imported. By the 1990s, Crawford had abandoned this international direction, a decision which coincided with overseas travel.  

Crawford’s search for what he describes as ‘a New Zealand voice in clay’ [4] was first realised while traveling throughout Europe , a venture made possible with the assistance of a QEII travel award (now known as Creative New Zealand). Throughout the 1990s, Crawford’s time was divided between Germany and the West Coast. In 1991 Renata Wunderle invited Crawford to exhibit at Galerie b15 in Munich , a watershed exhibition which launched the artist’s international profile. In the years following his inaugural exhibition, Crawford held a further two solo shows at the gallery. These exhibitions are remembered as ‘exotic events’ [5] well received by the public and critics alike.

Crawford is a master of perception; his ability to evoke a sense of place, even when exhibiting in a foreign context is admirable. Crawford skilfully captures the extremities, characteristics, textures and colours of the West Coast landscape and in doing so presents a distinct impression of New Zealand . On seeing Pacific Mirror, Crawford’s much celebrated installation at Galerie b15, Klaus Schultze [6] referred to his perception of Crawford’s world: ‘… western and indigenous cultures meet … for a German viewer an unknown world opens up through the artists’ transformation of his experience and impression of a New Zealand which glows with its own magic.’ [7] Realisation of one’s self tends to come from encountering difference, and if there is any truth to this statement; Crawford’s best work is yet to come.

Several years have passed since Crawford last exhibited in New Zealand and his absence has been noted. His recent exhibition of drawings and ceramics at Christchurch ’s Form Gallery was a surprise for many gallery goers more accustomed to Crawford’s cubist ceramics of the 1980s.  References to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, needlework, remembered objects and events elevate one’s sense of curiosity. In search of answers I embarked on my journey to the West Coast where I would meet Crawford and discuss the finer details of his practice. 

Once I made it through the Arthur’s Pass, leaving the parched Canterbury plains in my midst, I began to recognise landforms, colours and fauna represented in Crawford’s Hand-Line series. Earth, Water and Air represent a fundamental landscape, each vessel decorated with bold, minimal hand painted designs: harakeke blooms, feathers and continuous lines; much like the markings left by the tide or the formation of waves breaking on the shore, support these themes. Crawford’s graphics, concepts and forms are synonymous with the West Coast landscape: a relationship reinforced as I travel towards Ngakawau.  

On my arrival I joined the Crawfords for a stroll on the beach. Ngakawau beach is by no means calm; the Tasman Sea brings with it ever changing weather patterns and at times this wild coastline is treacherous. Combing for Neptune ’s treasures is a regular activity: pebbles, feathers, driftwood, worn glass and plastic are stored in the studio. Nothing escapes John and Anne Crawford as they scan the shoreline. These found objects inspire new projects and from time to time are incorporated into collages and sculptural forms. As I walked, one thing became increasingly clear: the coastline, a life force of sorts, is imperative to the couple’s existence.  

The Hand-Line series is closely related to the sea. Fishing hooks and line are painted onto many of the forms. Crawford recalls line fishing with his father and the many hours he spent at the beach as a child. Lure with Ceramic Shells and Sinker, emphasise the artists’ relationship with the landscape. Woven kits and line reiterate Crawford’ s experience with the sea and on an aesthetic note, a new interest in weaving and alternative materials.  

Occasionally, the meaning attached to certain motifs may seem obscure or perhaps unrelated to the theme of place. Whereas generations of New Zealand children have grown up with Maori myths and legends, Crawford’s childhood stories originate from Europe . Eat or Be Eaten and Caged Bird are perhaps the most dramatic of all ceramics exhibited at Form. The bird is a metaphor for the artist’s journey to Europe , a construct which dominates this series. Feather Bird carries this theme and returns to the process of collection: feathers are among the objects that Crawford finds abandoned on the beach. The shoreline becomes a platform for themes of arrival and departure as the tide carries objects over many miles. Crawford’s Egyptian Hearts blend local material with Wilde’s narrative. Driftwood and shells are set in ceramic hearts which are painted cobalt blue and gold, suggestive of New Zealand ’s distinctive light and the depth of the Tasman Sea . 

Overall, colour is restricted to a minimum. Works are muted and at times the surfaces are weathered in appearance, as if left outside for long periods of time, exposed to the rain and sun. The artist’s palette is likened to the landscape; Pacific colours – earth tones reminiscent of tapa cloth (a sample seen pinned to Crawford’s studio notice board), brown hues similar to those of West Coast rocks and cliff faces, even fossils. Crawford’s signature style glazes have developed over a period of years. Works are fired at 1150 degrees centigrade. Matt slips and glaze are applied to the form and over painted with a reactive black stain. This technique softens the designs, many of which appear burnt into the surface of the work. Patterns bleed into the clay, smudged like charcoal; possibly a reference to the artist’s childhood in Runanga; his coal mining ancestry and the extraction of materials from the earth. The manual process of creation is often referenced both in the needlework imagery and the marks left on the surface of the clay. Fragile in appearance, each vessel is coiled and pinched to form a robust structure. 

Crawford is as much an artist on paper and canvas as he is in clay. The illustrative qualities of the Hand-Line series have grown from his love of drawing, a passion instilled by his father and one which allows him to work quickly, a factor which he enjoys given the time it takes to create ceramics. Crawford has many sketch books stored in his studio. The correlation between his three dimensional works and drawings are indisputable. The Hand-Line series uses illustrative detail to great effect. Like Scrimshaw art, Crawford makes use of simple designs, motifs and scenes to communicate ideas and experiences.  


[1] Gabi Dewald lives in Germany where he is the editor of Keramic Magazine, a critic and freelance writer.

[2] Gabi Dewald, ‘From the Water’s Edge’, Ceramics: Art and Perception, 20, 1995, p. 90.

[3] John Crawford. Email to author. 16 September 2003 .

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dewald, p. 91.

[6] Klaus Schultze lives in Germany as a ceramic artist. He is now retired from his teaching position at Munich Art Academy where he was the Professor of Ceramics.

[7] Klaus Schultze, ‘Pacific Mirror’, Craft New Zealand , 37, 1991, p. 22.