Art and life were gloriously the same

Hamish Keith on Barry Brickell, 1935–2016.

I met Barry Brickell in 1958, almost certainly in a North Shore I backyard, and Barry would have been coaxing beauty out of a piece of inert clay. I last saw him two weeks before his death—the ghost of that clay and the restless energy shaping it were there still.

When we met we were both students—he at Auckland Teachers College and I was a student assistant at Auckland Art Gallery. I knew I would spend my life somewhere in the arts, but not exactly where. There was no doubt as to the path Barry had chosen, or, since it seemed more of a vocation than a career, the path that had chosen him. We had no idea then that those hands and that passion would shape and save a mountain.

In the restrained and elegant atmosphere of New Zealand pottery in the 1960s, Barry seemed a force of nature. His instinctive grasp of form was in contrast to the polite formal ware made by his contemporaries; it was almost feral. He understood that the power and energy of a pot came from the power and energy of the void it contained.

Most of us read Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book and followed the Asian and medieval influences that shaped Leach’s work, and through that, almost all the pottery of the Western world. Barry wanted more. The dark and magic forms of the Sepik River and Melanesia, which he saw in the Auckland Museum, were a greater inspiration.

Of course Barry was more a sculptor than a potter, and though that’s a commonplace idea now, it was a radical, and, for some, a scary one then. From the beginning Barry was captured by the transformational nature of his art. The kiln was a crucible. Fire and clay and silica were the magical materials of alchemy. There were long, thoughtful conversations about that beside the kilns at West Street in Newton Gully where we shared a crumbling cottage, or by a drain layer’s ditch in the street while we gazed at an uncovered seam of clay.

The materials for Barry’s art were always at hand—his clay mines were dotted all over the isthmus—a hidden corner of a Takapuna golf course, a CBD building site. Kilns were built from firebricks salvaged from demolished domestic fireplaces in Newton Gully, kiln furniture ‘borrowed’ from abandoned brickworks. In those heady days, art and life were gloriously the same.

When Barry moved to Coromandel that connection became seamless. Driving Creek supplied the raw materials, the wilding pines the fuel. The railway provided the connections, and a lifetime of extracting, transforming and recovering the land began.

Much has been written about Barry Brickell the railway enthusiast, the conservationist and the potter—as if they were different parts of his life. They were not. They were an unbroken creative continuum in the work of this remarkable artist who revived a small town economy, restored a ravaged landscape and left a legacy of brilliant forms which enrich the lives of us all.

/ Hamish Keith

More from Issue °171, Autumn 2016

More from this issue

Tim Bollinger pays tribute to pioneer artist, illustrator and filmmaker Joe Wylie who helped define the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1990s.
Remembering former National Art Gallery director Luit Bieringa.
Hamish Coney on Wero Tāroi’s Houmaitawhiti Tekoteko.
Dane Mitchell frames absence in his current exhibition Unknown Affinities at Two Rooms in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Judy Millar on the furore at Documenta.
Chelsea Nichols gushes with enthusiasm.

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After two years' effort, sculptor Paul Dibble and his team see the dedication of their New Zealand War Memorial project in London.
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During its short but dynamic existence, Snake Pit became one of Auckland’s most talked-about exhibition spaces. Sam Thomas looks back on running the space and what followed in his career as an artist.
For almost 50 years the late Pat Hanly captured the light and colour of the Pacific in a vast body of work—paintings, prints, murals and glass works. Art News talks to his wife, photographer Gil Hanly, about the early days.


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