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.

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