From the ground up: Terracotta way markers

Nick Charlton Ceramics Art + Perception 106 2017 Technical Home

Auckland City Council (ACC - New Zealand) has run a lively programme promoting public art work for many years, and at regular intervals requests for ‘expressions of interest’ are circulated in the community. When we were alerted to a sculpture project for the Matakana to Point Wells cycle/walkway, which passes right in front of the pottery, it was only natural that we would take an interest.

Planned as part of a much more extensive network of trails, this picturesque seven kilometre stretch winds its way through farmland, over hills and down onto the coastal flats of Omaha, finishing up in the ‘garden village’ of Point Wells. Morris and James has occupied its site on the river bank just outside Matakana village for over thirty years and being one of the larger local employers has a real stake in the community. For a variety of reasons we have not had a chance to explore larger sculptural works, and have only a small visible presence beyond the boundaries of the three acres that the pottery occupies. The opportunity to look at a series of sculptural works using our local clay and the practical and creative resources to hand was immediately interesting.

The project sought ideas for sculptural way-markers that not only artistically complemented the environment but were ‘informative’, providing in one way or another insights about the route that users would follow. At one end the community had also expressed a desire for a ‘gateway’ to mark the entry to their village.

The Council’s aim was not necessarily to create a sculpture trail, but to insert a series of sculptural objects that in some way would create a sense of ‘passage’, drawing walkers (and cyclists) along the pathway towards their destination, while reflecting the rich local history and natural environment. As a product designer the ‘communication function’ of the brief was interesting, although quite ambitious given the relatively small budget ($74K) and the length of the trail. Some consideration also had to be given to getting the work into place, because while not too remote, the trail does roam across farmland and up some quite steep hillsides. Placement would be important for practical, conceptual and informative perspectives.

The opportunity to look at a series of sculptural works using our local clay and the practical and creative resources to hand was immediately interesting.

As with many community art projects there are often many agendas at play, and in this case with the recent amalgamation of Rodney District with its larger neighbour Auckland City (part of the creation of the ‘Super City’ administration), there were some reservations and a little antipathy towards what could have been interpreted as direction from ‘outsiders’. Not unreasonably, ACC was keen to ensure that the objects that were eventually chosen were of suitable artistic merit, but also seemed quite keen to draw on ‘name’ creative practitioners. Matakana district is home to many artists and creatives and there was no shortage of interest from amongst them, along with a strongly expressed desire for the local community to make the decisions about who and what would be chosen.

Initially we were not aware of these discussions, but put in our proposal and got on with the business of running the pottery. However, when we were contacted and asked to enter into discussions with ACC and an artist based in Auckland City, we became rather more aware of the situation, and the potential to be caught between slightly conflicting interests. The strong suggestion from ACC was that we collaborate on the project, and although this was not necessarily of concern, after initial meetings our perception became that we were being seen as a technical rather than a creative resource, and that we were a convenient way to meet the demand for local input.

After some slightly testy conversations, it was agreed that we and another group would develop parallel but complementary proposals that would hopefully draw together and result in a collaboration. However this proved to be impractical and in the end the Morris and James proposal was chosen by representatives of the local community Boards. The whole process was interesting and clearly illustrated the challenges of community arts based projects, not least because of the conflicting interests amongst the various stakeholders. It also raised quite significant issues around artistic autonomy, ownership and the nature of collaboration. Product design by its nature has to be consultative and research driven; commercial success depends on positive acceptance by the intended users. Whilst this approach is not exclusive to design it is more typical of the process followed by product designers and there is arguably less emphasis on the expressive imperative of an art work. With the goal being a series of related, informative objects rather than individual art works placed along the way, a product design starting point seemed quite appropriate.

The project proposal was developed in some detail, and built on work that had been done over the years, firstly by Ant Morris the founder of the pottery, and more recently by Spanish artist Isabel Barber who worked on site for three months in 2013. Also, and in particular, it used a production element that is fundamental to our production, large extruded cylinders. Introduced in the early 1980s this giant piece of near-Victorian machinery allows us to extrude cylinders in various diameters that can then be more easily thrown by the potters. The lengths of the extrusions, and therefore the depth of the pots, is rather governed by the length of the potter’s arms, so the machinery is set up to produce cylinders of up to a practical throwing maximum of about one metre.

There were a number of ideas that inspired and supported the design, the first being that it would be appropriate to have way-markers made from the ‘land beneath the walkers’ feet’. Our clay has been used locally for brick - and tile-making since the late 1800s and more recently for pottery, all of which have a tangible link to the community … being used in the construction of buildings in the region and then to make decorative and utilitarian objects used within and around those buildings. For example, we make bakeware and tableware, plant containers and sculptural ceramics as well as ‘industrial’ pieces such as chimney caps and wine vats. The second but slightly more conceptual link was with ‘core sampling’, the cylinders of rock that are typically drilled as part of assessing foundations or taking soil samples. The idea that the way markers could be suggestive of core samples rising out of the ground was attractive, and linked naturally with the way in which the cylinders are made. Core samples reveal what is beneath your feet, but hidden, and I decided to extrapolate that idea and use the surface of the cylinders to reveal the immediate topography in the form of a stylised map.

In essence we had a design that used durable local materials that provided an attractive canvas for a visually engaging, stylised depiction of the route walkers would take.

The walkway was surveyed and points noted where there was a need for guidance, a particularly engaging outlook, or other noteworthy natural feature. The passage between each of these points became a segment, with the journey to be mapped onto the terracotta. A coloured spacer would be added between the appropriate segments to indicate progress along the pathway. To enhance the informative aspect of the columns, a glazed tile with a QR code would provide users with access to a variety of information. Although a longer term objective, it was decided to engage with various community groups, such as local Iwi, families with long ties to the land and special interest groups such as historical societies to produce material that could be accessed at each point along the way. Bearing in mind that the walkway would be used by all kinds of people, the aim would be to provide layers of information from the relatively superficial (look that way and on a clear day you will see the Great Barrier Island) through edutainment (check in at the next marker to see how many different types of native trees there were between here and the last marker) and social history (interviews with elderly residents who grew up and helped shape the character of the district). Drawing local groups and businesses into the preparation of the website and links will take time to ensure that it is done well and is an enhancement to the overall walkway experience. Whilst acknowledging that financial support from local businesses will be required, care will need to be taken to avoid overt commercialisation. The design of the links is in itself an important exercise, as it will need to be in a cell-phone friendly format and, importantly, easily updated, so the content doesn’t become a stagnant resource. There are many disparate websites, blogs and other online repositories of local information, and the walkway project may well be the catalyst for the drawing together of all this information, and hopefully a positive way of strengthening the community.

The lengths of the extrusions, and therefore the depth of the pots, is rather governed by the length of the potter’s arms.

Terracotta lasts, but it has its limits, and for structural and pragmatic reasons it was decided to reinforce each of the columns with an internal sleeve of concrete, which led to some interesting discussions about coefficients of expansion, which in short describes how much an object changes in size as its temperature varies. The exact expansion/contraction characteristics of terracotta are as noted by H. Spurrier1, determined largely by the composite materials, natural and added. With production work here at the pottery we know from bitter experience that the working characteristics of our clay can vary from batch to batch, usually not by much, but occasionally noticeably. Overall we expect a shrinkage from green to fired of between 9% and 11%, and whilst this is not quite the same issue, it is indicative of the fact that there may be variations in material characteristics even if the clay is taken from the same clay pit. This is the reason we take care in conditioning the clay, modifying and stabilising it as far as possible with additives such as iron sand. In similar ways, the characteristics of concrete will differ according to aggregate used and other variables.

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1 Journal of the American Ceramic Society Volume 10, Issue 9, Article first published online: 2 June 2006 Some observations on Terracotta physics by H. Spurrier.

Image Captions

Terracotta Segments.
Preliminary drawing.
View over walkway.
Extruded Tube.

by Nick Charlton

Nick Charlton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art and Design at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Auckland, New Zealand.