Potters' Paradise; HOW DOREEN BLUMHARDT HANDCRAFTED NEW ZEALAND
Boston — In New Zealand there are 3 million people, 60 million sheep, and 300 potters. Those who make their living at potting may not be doing as well as the sheep, but this is definitely a healthy ratio.
There are reasons for this modest burgeoning at potters' wheels. There is a lot of good clay in New Zealand, but no one, not even the Maoris, craftsmen from ancient times, thought to mold it until postwar importation quotas made handmade pottery and dishware more attractive.
Then there is the work of Doreen Blumhardt, CBE. Miss Blumhardt, now throwing her own pots, has spent 30 years teaching art to children, art education to teachers, and art appreciation to everyone else. In the foreword of her book, ''Craft: New Zealand'' ($75, Universe Books: New York), C. E. Beeby, former director of education in New Zealand, wrote: ''To anyone who knew the parlous state of the creative crafts in New Zealand 50 years ago, 'Craft New Zealand' is little short of a miracle. Behind it lies the story of a small and isolated country - full of natural beauty, but cut off from the sight and touch of lovely things made by hands over the centuries - coming of age.''
The scene was set during World War II. Dr. Beeby saw the student work of Doreen Blumhardt at the Teachers' College in Wellington and asked her to do experimental work for the education department in elementary schools around the country.
''I did this for seven years,'' she recalled on a visit to Boston, her large, steady, potter's hands folded in her lap, but her energy evident in her brusque but almost pauseless New Zealand speech. ''First of all I experimented in a school for a year with wool, because we have 60 million sheep, so wool was the thing. Clay seemed greatly the thing, so we started the children using clay. It was wartime . . . there was nothing available, so I had a chalk factory make some powder colors so we could use paints. We had wallpaper which we used the backs of to paint pictures. . . . Because we could get some scraps of newspaper, we made puppets out of the daily paper. Dr. Beeby . . . thought that we should be a country who was doing much more for our children than we were in the arts, and he and I worked together on this project for some years.''
Miss Blumhardt traveled over New Zealand and arranged for teachers to be trained in art education. ''I believe that it helped create a climate in which a lot of this work that's happening so wonderfully was able to succeed.'' If the children of the '40s are not potters, painters, or puppetmakers, they understand what it's like to be one. And they buy the crafts.
Aside from the 300 professional potters, there are droves of weavers, woodcarvers, jade sculptors, and bookbinders. They use clay, wood, shells, feathers, jade, metals, glass. They produce lavishly finished and surprisingly original items, from a plainly beautiful collection of graceful wooden spoons to drifts of glass globules that catch the light. In her book, glossily photographed by Brian Brake, the work, along with comments on the making of it, gives a sense of quiet, self-reliant industry with flashy results. Raymond Boyce , a theater designer, says: ''The world does not owe the artist a living. Society does not recognize the necessity for the performing arts. . . . One doesn't blame an audience for not being receptive; the customer is always right. One sticks to humility and integrity, optimistic to believe that something of the intention will rub off at some time.''
Their self-reliance comes from being a small community in a small, isolated country.They are intimately connected with their materials. Potters, until recently, dug their own clay out of hillsides because there was nothing fine enough available in stores. Many weavers spin their own wool, and Judy Wilson goes even further. In one photograph, a wall hanging, ''Grey Fleece IV,'' which is a woven piece with long curls of unspun fleece drifting down it in two thick V's, hangs in front of the green hills of the ranch where she and her husband breed their own sheep for the colors she requires.
Grazing just behind the hanging are two of the sheep, one brown and the other gray, their curls matching the ones in the finished work. And Guy Ngan, a sculptor in wood, metals, plastic, and stone, who is also director of the New Zealand Academy of Arts, speaks of getting to know the tree or rock his material comes from.
Miss Blumhardt's first students at the Glen Road Teachers' College in Wellington helped her build their kiln, which worked fine until the roof of the building it was in burned off. ''There was really very little means of learning other than by trial and error,'' she says.
And though Miss Blumhardt bemoans the fact that craft prices are much lower than art prices but not quite as healthy as other forms of menial labor (the $3 to $5 she earns in an hour is about one-sixth of what her plumber makes, and much less than a watercolorist), there is a sense that craftsmen in New Zealand can, and should, make it on their own. Even though the people in the book are involved in a large variety of crafts, and some live in remote areas, there is a unified refrain in their remarks.Most say there shouldn't be a differentiation between art and craft. Many do both. ''Art is a language, and craft is its grammar,'' Guy Ngan says. And Doreen Blumhardt points out that ''the Japanese have only one word to describe all the activities so arbitrarily divided by others into fine and applied arts.'' The New Zealand Academy of Arts, for one, doesn't distinguish. Some of its artist members are painters, others do embroidery.
The distinction between ''utility'' and ''nonutility'' objects also gets blurred, as teapots take fantastic forms and people eat breakfast out of hand-thrown treasures. Which is just as well, as far as Miss Blumhardt is concerned. ''Being an educationist, I find that I made many things for people to use, like teapots and coffeepots and mugs. . . . People come to love handling pottery and enjoy the feel of it and this is the beginning of appreciation.''
A natural teacher, she sees everything as potentially educational. Appreciation, she says, is the best support for the arts, and she is confident that this can be brought about in nearly anyone by education. The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, of which she is vice-president, lends works by contemporary artists to ''corporate members,'' business people who have paid $ 160 to be members of the academy. They either buy or trade the works for others. ''This is an immensely growing thing,'' she says. All the banks in Wellington are corporate members, and Guy Ngan addresses business groups. They are also invited to openings and ''made comfortable,'' Miss Blumhardt says.
That doesn't mean they are pandered to, or convinced that supporting the arts is good for their image or will pay them back, a tack American arts groups are being counseled to take in the face of public funding's demise. ''The quality of (art) is not determined by whether people like it or not, I'll say that,'' she says, in a tone that brooks no argument. ''People have to come to understand it. (It's) not that the artist has to do something that these people can follow.'' And so New Zealand's businessmen get an education, like anyone else who comes in contact with this gentle but formidable woman.
''The whole process is helping them. . . . Many people can appreciate photographic representational works, for example. There's nothing wrong with that, but that is the limit of many people. They think if you can draw a likeness of something you're a good artist. . . . Well, if you could even raise them a little out of that kind of concept you've done something. And if you expose them to a lot of different exhibitions in the crafts, weaving exhibitions , pottery exhibitions, and printing exhibitions . . . this is a really important activity in the community. . . . They've got to look with their eyes and they've got to learn to look more and more. The more they look, the more they'll come to see there's something beyond what they've had before.''
And, she says, the more likely they'll be to buy that ''something beyond. There's masses of money in the community, and people are prepared to pay if they see they're getting something for their money.'' The academy has apparently convinced them they are. New Zealand businesses have been presuaded to give grants to young artists. She feels they are a secure source of revenue, because ''government funding changes with each government and it can be chopped at any moment. But this is something that could never be chopped, because they're educated to enjoy it and they'll never lose that. And, you know, they're pretty hardheaded people, a lot of these,'' she says sternly, as if she had been dealing with a gang of recalcitrant kindergartners.
She fosters enjoyment of art in slide shows that owe more to natural history than to history of art. She photographs ''the light that's on rocks, just very close-up things.'' She shows slides of natural light patterns alongside artistic patterns in weaving, pottery, and paintings to help people see the beauty around them - the beauty that an artist turns into a work of art. ''I have a series of lectures that I do around this idea to get people to look at their environment. . . . They can just lie under a tree and look at the shadows. I mean, look up there now,'' she said. On the ceiling, light that was reflecting off a car through a hanging plant and made a lacy pattern of bright light and leaf shadows sliding in the wind, as if someone had been quietly preparing an abstract movie while we were talking.
Miss Blumhardt, who had apparently been admiring it for some time, said with a curatorial pride: ''You know, 90 people out of 100 could look at that and it wouldn't occur to them that it was something very special. But if you point it out to them and show them on the slide, and juxtapose it with a painting where an artist has used an idea and done something with it, then you've begun to educate them. I can think of hundreds of people who have come and said: 'When you showed us those slides, we've never been the same since. I look at everything around me now. I get such a thrill,' '' she says, talking faster as she quotes them, until she is almost breathless. Then she apologizes for boasting, but says that perhaps she has helped them see something they wouldn't have otherwise. But the excitement is still in the air, and you understand how a talk by this woman could turn someone to a life of looking up into tree boughs and gazing along sidewalks.
Some artists look at leaf shadows on a ceiling and paint a picture. Doreen Blumhardt points them out; people get a thrill from both.