Clay Poets
The Art of Denis O'Connor and Peter Hawkesby


Craftsmanship in the arts - poetry, music, painting - has always been held in high regard by critics. In fact, it is common in reviews of literary works to refer to the writer's 'craftsmanship' as if this were the highest form of praise possible. In the world of ceramics, on the other hand, craftsmanship tends to be taken for granted: obviously, anyone whose claim to recognition rests on the work of his or her hands is per se, a craftsman. Both Denis O'Connor and Peter Hawkesby, in so far as they work in clay, can be counted as such.

And yet there is in what they are doing another quality-a quality that rests on paradox and confuses the time-honoured and assumed distinctions between art and craft. The absorbing question is why is this so, and what are the factors and influences that have affected the remarkable transformation of two potters (whose work might in other respects be in no way distinguishable from that of twenty or so other gifted and competent workers of clay) into what must be clearly recognised as artists? The question is as intriguing as the unusual ceramic sculptures their minds and hands produce. Perhaps the answer lies in that subsumed and still thornier question: what is an artist?

DENIS O'CONNOR Paloma 1979
Swamp clay and porcelain
(Collection of the artist)

Denis O'Connor lives on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf - lives in a ramshackle house constructed of unusually large bricks in the early part of this century as overnight accommodation for the ferrymen who used to ply their trade between Auckland and Waiheke. It is a strange place to live - and one ostensibly having no connection with the gentle (or not so gentle) art of 'making' in clay. Peter Hawkesby on the other hand and as far as I know, may have no place of fixed abode, but operates out of the back of a somewhat dilapidated factory in Cole's Avenue, Mt Eden, Auckland. But they both employ the same kiln - built by O'Connor and appearing to be little more than an untidy heap of bricks - situated below the latter's house on Waiheke. And they both use the same rich, orange-red clay dug by themselves out of a swamp on the island. Thus, the primary reason for O'Connor's living in such a location, is his close proximity to the raw material he works with.

The connection between the two artists however, is not only that they use the same kiln (drip-fed, oil-fired) and clay. Hawkesby was born in Auckland in 1950, and has lived there 'most of the time except for five years (1970-75) in Christchurch and a brief period in England and Iran'. O'Connor was born in the same city in 1947, and has lived on Waiheke for the last ten years. More important, they subscribe to similar and related aesthetic views - views which are (from the traditional potter's stance) somewhat eccentric; and more akin to those of the poet than the ceramicist.

Both are light on formal training - which is no great matter for, as Yeats once wrote in regard to poetry, '. .. there is no singing school but studying monuments of its own magnificence'. Rhetoric over-weights the argument: but in the case of O'Connor and Hawkesby (just as in poetry) no formal academy exists - and if it did, it could well prove to be a limiting factor. O'Connor's artistic background includes study directed towards a Diploma in Industrial Design which he undertook in Wellington in 1969 but 'quit for family and financial reasons' before completion. Later he lived and worked for a short period (circa 1971-2) with Guy Williams at Puhoi. Hawkesby 'started on pots' in 1975, putting his initial efforts into 'production pieces' until 1977 when it 'went sour' on him. He took a year off 'working out directions, eating bread and cheese for lunch, looking for a way to go-something more liberating and true'.

PETER HAWKESBY Loop Totem 1980
Swamp clay and porcelain
(Collection of the artist)

The two met in 1977 and (at an important stage in [his] development') Hawkesby went to Waiheke where he 'could work in clay with Denis, who had lots to teach [him]'. At this stage, both seemed to have lost interest in domestic 'pots' - except for cups and teapots which still appear to have (perhaps for their phallic and other sexual attributes) a fascination for both of them. In fact, this aspect of their work produces an article which is very different from the conventional, usable thing: produces, rather, something akin to a 'metaphysical cup, a metaphysical teapot'. Similar comments could be made in regard to the 'bottles' (more than vaguely reflective of the familiar, wasp-wasted glassware which has long been the tradition of the Coca-Cola Company of America) produced by O'Connor in porcelain. These latter are usually embellished with a motif.. some small device which (like the conventional company logo on commercial products) tends to break and give greater interest to the general form and shape of the object itself.

O'Connor's bottles, though, are not bottles in the ordinary sense. While they could be used as containers, their sensual, wry, and intentionally ' magical' shape extend to the stage where they become projections of the mind, of the imagination - tokens of a fantasy which he forces the viewer to share with him, and to associate at the same time with the existence of an implied, otherwise not immediately discernible, but very real, world. A little of the same fantasy isoperative in Hawkesby's 'domestic pieces: but there are differences - the edges are sharper, harder, suggestive of an aesthetic and mental environment which is perhaps more threatening, more dangerous than O'Connor's.

The 'domestic' work has an important place in their output, to some extent for commercial reasons: but principally from the necessity of having a selling line giving some assurance of a reasonable income. The most significant aspect of the work, however, springs not from any commercial enterprise, but from their unique view of the purpose of their art - and perhaps of art in general: a view with the most unexpected connections, and based on a theory that is now beginning to make itself felt on a world basis, the idea that art is not merely 'an object out there', but principally what happens in the heads of both the artist and his audience. Thus, art is an experience, and the object which we mistake for it is the device whereby the artist both records for himself his progress in that experience and makes the experience (or something very much like it) available to others.

DENIS O'CONNOR The Lighthouse
Swamp clay
(Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt)

O'Connor and Hawkesby arrived at this kind of approach not through any formal study, but through their own personal experience and development, and its consolidation through contact with (and this may not seem credible to those committed to more conventional views of art) the 'beat' and 'open form' poets of San Francisco which they visited for three months in 1978.

In the United States, O'Connor and Hawkesby followed up their interest in poetry by attending readings, visiting City lights bookshop and meeting poets such as Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Both artists look upon Kerouac as 'the archetype' in poetry of the kind of thing they are attempting in clay; and O'Connor, particularly, has strong feelings for the writings of Michael McLure. They want a ceramic art that follows poetry, an art of 'free form' that is 'mythological in a personal sense', that 'creates myth', and is 'arcane'. To accomplish this, they see a necessity for 'abandoning traditional and conventional modes and coming at things from a new direction'. They believe that they are not the only New Zealand ceramicists interested in 'a new approach' and identify themselves with Bronwynne Cornish, John Parker, Rick Rudd, Russell Moses, and (more recently) Christine Hellyar.

An additional and detectable influence (not unexpected in terms of sculptural ceramics) is that of the so-called 'naive' artists. O'Connor, for example, is well acquainted with the work of the Tongan artist and writer, Ialoma Mataele (1916-79), and the Jugoslavian, J. Alach - in fact, possesses examples of the work of both. But while the influence is there, neither O'Connor nor Hawkesby could themselves be termed 'naive'. Both read widely, and both have given a great deal of time and attention to the work of other professional ceramicists. In San Francisco they called on and observed as many such artists at work 'as possible' - including the former abstract-expressionist, Peter Voulkos, and Ron Nagle who specialises in cup forms and low-fired ware - earthenware as opposed to stoneware.

DENIS O'CONNOR The Vessel Maker 1981
Swamp clay
(Collection of Warren Tippett)

The most important (and plainly significant) part of O'Connor's and Hawkesby's work is, obviously, sculptural - low-fired, free-standing pieces that are often as far removed from the traditional craft of the potter as it is possible to go. In O'Connor's case, several distinctive 'themes' emerge-or it might be more appropriate to say, grow out of each other.

The first is the line of work he refers to as 'magic boxes': which consists of exactly that-ceramic boxes suggestive of and derived from the boxes usually employed in the performances of stage magicians. Some of them can be used as containers: but it is the magical quality he has captured through their design and firing that lifts them above the level normally associated with ceramics for daily use. Most of these (and his other sculptural pieces) also follow the conventions of poetry and sculpture in being named (The Sorcerer, and the like) rather than being left simply as a 'box' or an unidentified 'pot'. More recently, his 'magic' boxes have begun to be decorated with complementary porcelain lid-inserts-panels of white, blue, and green, of dreams, myths, and dramas.

Another series in the O'Connor repertoire, is that of 'stones'-usually modelled after the shape of circular grindstones carrying brief inscriptions ('breathe in, breathe out'), and named (The Keystone, for example). In his Boatload of Stones (1980) he combines this line of development with that of the sculpture form of a boat and produces an experimental work of quiet distinction. Glaze is used sparingly and gives the pieces a subtle warmth, and a greater depth and variety of colour than might otherwise be possible. Most of his sculptured works however, (and those of Hawkesby) are glazed in the simplest possible manner by blowing commercial grade salt into the kiln during the process of firing. In this respect, and through their deliberate employment of the accidental, many of their pieces have a similar surface patina (in addition to the effects that result from their using the same clay, porcelain, and kiln). 

PETER HAWKESBY Incinerator 1979
Swamp clay
(Collection of Jane Zusters, Auckland)

Nevertheless, Hawkesby's larger items have a characteristic difference from those of O'Connor - a difference occasioned by his unconscious allegiance to Vorticism. In many of his works, the result is an extremely high energy product of sweeping curves, vaguely reminiscent of Byzantine architecture or Russian churches and cathedrals. They are 'physical' in the best sense of the word, composed of life, the energy that went into their making. Further, they have masculine and feminine qualities which appear in his fondness for production pieces that are either squat, lumpy, or else arrogantly phallic; yet his 'feminine' pieces, in spite of their 'lumpiness', are curiously attractive, warm, and indefinably felicitous.

As Hawkesby says, I think I've been attempting to demolish preconceptions concerning what to do with clay, to abandon neatness' (which to some extent explains the apparent formlessness of his teapots), 'get away from things that are well-finished, static, lifeless. Instead I'm after what's here - what's happening with "the seeing hand": what's going on inside the head and happens to the feelings that control one's hands at the moment of making; and I want people who see and handle these things, to have something of those same feelings, that exact experience.' In this respect, Hawkesby articulates some of the concepts that lie behind both his and O'Connor's work, and shows its linkage with the 'open form' theory that has come to be an attribute of a great deal of the poetry now being written.

Boatload of Stones
Salt-glazed swamp clay and porcelain (Private collection, Auckland)

Both O'Connor and Hawkesby are plainly contributing to a new development in New Zealand ceramics. and opening the craft of the potter in such a way that it is becoming capable of drawing more immediately on the theory and practice of the other arts. In this respect, they are members of a growing body of artists who have initiated and are experimenting with what is likely to prove to be an exciting new direction in this country's ceramic art.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 20 Winter 1981