Focus on Rod Graham and the Ōtaki Pottery Club

MR16_F_Rod-byCharlotteBorn in Wellington’s Island Bay, the eldest of four boys. Rod’s dad was an upholsterer who wanted one of his sons to follow him. ‘It wasn’t my cup of tea’ remembers Rod.

Graduating from Rongotai College with University Entrance, Rod had dreams of becoming a chef, but quickly discovered it wasn’t the profession for him. After a stint working with his father, he took up a position as an invoicing clerk with ICI in Wellington. After a few months, he was bored and looked around for something more interesting. Someone suggested teaching, so off went young Rod to Wellington Teachers’ College.

Wellington had a progressive approach to teacher training: as well as the usual two-year indoctrination, each student had to develop a skills outside teaching, by joining one of the ‘clubs’ at the College. Rod liked the look of Pottery, and had the good fortune to fall under the influence of Doreen Blumhardt head of the art department (see box) Rod became Doreen’s helper, where he remembers ‘learning more about glazes and firing than making pots on the wheeel ‘

Doreen Blumhardt — potter, ceramicist, arts educator

MR16_Rod-Doreen BlumhardtBorn 1914, the daughter of German migrants, Doreen grew up on a farm near Whangarei where they only spoke German. She was educated in Christchurch at Teachers College, University and Arts School.

In 1942 she was appointed by Dr Beeby,Director of Education to pioneer Art and Craft Education in Primary Schools throughout N.Z.

In 1951 Doreen was appointed head of Art Department of Wellington Teachers College. In 198, elected Fellow of Royal Society of Arts (London).

She established the Blumhardt Foundation to celebrate the extraordinary richness of New Zealand decorative art and design. The Blumhardt Collection, at the Dowse gallery in Lower Hutt contains her collection of nationally significant applied art and design objects, which she donated in 2003.

Doreen’s work can be found in many overseas museums, including the Victoria and Albert, London.

She was made a member of the exclusive Order of New Zealand, restricted to 20 living ‘greats’, alongside David Lange and Ralph Hotere.

In two years of teacher training, Rod absorbed the usual teaching stuff, but best of all, as Doreen’s helper, he acquired broad knowledge of working with clay, glazing and firing. As Blumhardt was developing Arts and Crafts in NZ’s primary schools, Rod Graham was inspired by her passion, absorbing her skills and ways of motivating volunteers.

His first posting, in 1969 was to Takapau Primary School in the Hawkes Bay. One of his first tasks, other than teaching his standard two class, was to establish the Takapau Arts Centre.. How did that go, I asked. ‘We found all the experts who would become voluntary teachers, and enrolled 120 adults to learn. It’s still going today.’ says Rod. Hmmm a pattern is beginning to emerge.

Rod in Ōtaki

Rod’s next school was Ōtaki Primary. He was one of 11 young teachers posted here. Wasn’t that a lot of new teachers? I asked. Ever the diplomat, Rod agreed, and wouldn’t elaborate, but said 1970 was the year when creating with clay became a feature of the art and craft programme. Rod was assisted by the refined potter Margaret Laurie and her bushman friend Eric Johns. John Saunders, just up Mill Road at Ōtaki College spotted the talent, and offered him a teaching job for year 7and8 (Forms 1and2) ‘If you will set up an art department.’

In those days, before Ōtaki had any Maori immersion schools, Ōtaki College had a big roll of 680 students. Rod worked under five Principals: Saunders, Rex Kerr, Mel Cooper, John Kane and finally the incumbent Andy Fraser. He remembers how Saunders and Kerr encouraged his development of the art department.

After seven years at Ōtaki College, Rod was lured away to Waiopehu College to be Head of the art department and to develop an Adult Education programme. He doesn’t remember this time with fondness: ‘none of the promises were honoured but the senior students were great’. Meanwhile, Rod had married and started a family. They moved to North Road in Manakau, where he was able to develop a pottery workshop on his father-in-law’s farm. While Rod had made his reputation as a teacher and developer of art education, he’d never really had time to develop his own work, all of his knowledge had been acquired ‘on the job’. Now was the time for Rod to hone his potting skills. It was at North Road, says Rod ‘that I became a competent potter’.

When offered to join St Peter Chanel in Convent Road, Ōtaki. Rod jumped at the opportunity. Despite not being of the Catholic persuasion, he found it a great environment to work with others to establish bi-lingual education, and get the school and the church community working, under the dynamic and charismatic leadership of Sister Marie Roche. He loved his eight years at St Peter Chanel. Having the opportunity to become involved with the hapu and develop positive relationships with the people of Ngati Kapumanawawhiti was an aspect of his career that he treasures. When his time was over, he became a ‘visiting teacher’, establishing liaison between schools and families in Kapiti and Horowhenua, ‘a bit like a social worker’ he recalls. His job required him to work alongside psychologists, speech therapists, negotiating issues between children and their families and their schools.

Rod’s Graham’s pots

In 1999 he rejoined Ōtaki College, as a Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour, where, in a team of 3, he developed school-based services covering Manakau, Ōtaki and Te Horo, working with children with learning and behavioural issues. He enjoyed being part of a team, liked working with challenging students and enjoyed the variety.

All good things come to an end, and restructuring, the curse of changing governments descended upon Rod. He retired in 2012.

Rod has been actively involved in the Christian community for 44 years and it’s this faith that motivates his passion for people. ‘ I believe the best investment anyone can make is to invest in people; especially young people’ he said

Ōtaki Pottery Club

MR16_Rod-byCharlotteInevitably, our conversation returned to pottery, and the Ōtaki Pottery Club in particular.

When Rod Graham came to Ōtaki College in the 1970s, there was no art department. But there was the irascible Ian (IJ) Peter on the Board of Govenors. IJ advocated for an electric pottery kiln. These were the days before OSH, and there was no difficulty in installing a big kiln in the classroom. Fumes, what fumes? With IJ’s determination and Rod’s knowledge the idea took off. Together they established ‘Clay in the Community’. Night classes were offered, and they were quickly filled, mostly with women keen to acquire a creative skill.

With Rex Kerr’s support the Pottery club moved to a separate building, with a subsidy from the Wellington Education Board and the enthusiasm of Grant McNabb, the then art teacher.. The tutors were, recalls Rod ‘people helping people.’ Ros Agar helped get things going, with Beryl Rowe providing assistance. Rod and Stella Picken were the first tutors. The initial membership was 25. Today the OPC has 78 active members with 10 associate members. The annual subscription was $30. When Government educational funding was removed and User Pays ruled, the OPC continued despite the financial withdrawal. Today it costs $10 a session for adult classes at the club, which is still affordable. The club is currently blessed with Margaret Hunt and Jennifer Turnbull, highly skilled potters who provide expert tuition.

The uniqueness of the OPC is that it’s a ‘one stop shop’. Clay is available, kilns of varying shapes and sizes, and all the support you could ask for. The standard of members’ work is demonstrated by the quality of the recent 9 day Festival of Pots and Garden Art at Anam Cara, whose success exceeded even the most optimistic member’s expectations. There were over 6,000 items on display, with 60 exhibitors, including 20 from outside the club. Allowing outside exhibitors is a good idea, says Rod, as it encourages potters to explore new techniques, and helps keep standards high. So much work was sold in the first weekend that the club had to phone around the artists to encourage them to bring more work. Every exhibitor sold more than one piece of work. Exhibitors price their own work, with the club taking a 25% commission, which is below that charged by galleries. The highest price achieved was in the thousands of dollars, for a carved pole from a Norsewood exhibitor. Pottery and ceramics were the most common, with sculptors, carvers and printmakers also represented.

The relationship between the OPC and Ōtaki College dates back to Rex Kerr’s time. The current board of trustees of the College are very supportive, embracing the OPC as a community facility within the college.

Rod with wall plaque adorned with melted glass

The OPC is in good heart. The oldest member Irene Walker is a sprightly 99. Beryl Rowe is the longest-serving tutor. They are both foundation life members, in recognition of their service to the club. The strength of the club, in Rod’s opinion is, its enthusiastic membership with a high participation rate. Most members are actively involved. Ōtaki is becoming known as ‘a good place to be a potter’. Just like Wanganui attracts glass artists, Ōtaki is attracting potters. Watch this space…!

In his retirement, President Rod Graham can be found at the Ōtaki Pottery Club two hours a day, seven days a week, mixing glazes, loading kilns, firing up a kiln every day, keeping the place going. The club runs 5 adult classes a week, 5 workshops every year. And then there’s the fantastic Raku day, when everyone gets a chance to decorate a pot and have it Raku-fired. I reckon just about every person in Ōtaki has received a Raku-fired treasure at Christmas from their grandchildren. Who said retirement is boring?