His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell

It’s a thick and heavy, substantial tome, good paper, layout design and high production values with ample white space. As soon as it’s in your hands you know it’s something that must be returned to time and again.

It is centred upon Barry the potter with less about his murals or his railway building or ecological projects. Although they are mentioned and the first two have their own books anyway. It is about Barry the artist and one of the Peter Pan figures of New Zealand art and culture – as David Craig says… lost boys who never grow up but remain innocent, oppositional, primitive and iconoclastic all their lives – Potiki figures, symbolising mischief, arrested innocence, and a kind of magic that is at potent odds with authority and orthodoxy.

There is an engagingly narrative foreword by Hamish Keith, a useful chronology and four fine essays – three by David Craig tackling and elaborating on various aspects of BB’s life, work and career, and one by Gregory O’Brien around his contemporaries. The writing is fine indeed, one could say superb and the best I have seen in any book yet about a  potter in New Zealand – it catches the man and his times and embraces the work – not a recipe or a cliche in sight. They are not presented here as lengthy essays but intelligently broken up into short textual pieces that are aptly framed by images.

And what images! A few we have seen before but they are necessary in a book such as this. Grand historic images taken by visiting photographers like Gil Hanly, Robin Morrison, or Steve Rumsey are used as well as those specially made for the book by Haru Sameshima. Some images bear importance from first glance while others, seemingly inconsequential, edge their content forward over repeated viewing. Sometimes there is a grand ceramic overview, sometimes a full-page single work glowing richly with salt and other times clustered and cluttered on some shelf alongside those bits of detritis from daily living – all places where pots are known to gather. Clearly a mountain of work has gone into sourcing and processing them.

There is the odd familiar face here and there throughout the book and a number of unfamiliar ones – part of the passing parade that has journeyed through Driving Creek over the years on their own paths to somewhere and doubtless energised by contact with a singular vision created on his own terms and under his own steam (pardon the pun).

If one were to have a teensy carp it is the occasional cropping of a full image of a work – most notably that on the cover. The good news is that this is a dust jacket which in the end may meet the fate of many dust jackets and fall off because of repeat viewings and beneath that, on front and back hard covers are a dozen delightful images collaged together – historical and contemporary – depicting more of the life and times at Driving Creek.

Those are my immediate thoughts on having an advance copy delivered to my door. I have not done more than scan and read excerpts so far… It is worthy of, and will get, full attention very soon. It is published by Auckland University Press.

Reviewed by Moyra Elliot from  Cone Ten Down and Descending