The first five years.
Marlborough Community Potters began its life in 1977 when a group of enthusiasts from David Petries' adult education class at the Marlborough Boys’ College decided they wanted to broaden their knowledge of pottery and do this away from the restrictions of the classroom. Those interested met in Eve Anderson’s lounge and, after debate, decided to try to get a group of 15 people together to set up and incorporate a pottery club.
The key members of that initial group – Sally Gill; Maureen Woollcombe; Caroline Cooper; Peter Walker; Jill Van Angeren; Noeline Jones and Barbara de Castro were the initial committee. They negotiated with the Blenheim Borough Council for the use of a run-down workshop building in the grounds of Dillons Point Community Centre. It was just a shed really but the fledgling club enthusiastically set to work to transform it into a pottery workshop. A debenture system enabled the group to proceed with the purchase of an electric kiln and wheels (aided by grants from what was then the Trust Bank Community Trust).
All the club members were amateurs but they keenly attended as many workshops, weekend schools, and pottery conferences as they could. Also high on the list of learning opportunities were the weekend workshops held at the pottery rooms. Professional potters from Nelson ( Justin Gardner, Royce McGlashen, Rick Rudd and Ross Richards among them) were very helpful and inspiring to everyone. From within the group, various members shared the expertise they had and as the club grew a regular evening class was started. This was a basic course but filled a need and ensured the club could attract new members.
5 – 10 years
Once everyone had gained a certain level of proficiency and members had had successful sales days and exhibitions there was a general feeling that the club should offer opportunities to fire the pots using different techniques.
Raku was tried and a special raku kiln (made from a 44-gallon drum), was made. These fast and dramatic firings were a lot of fun and some exciting results came about when pots were plucked from the flames and plunged into bins of sawdust to have the oxygen reduced, so altering the colours of the glazes that had been applied.
The raku whetted the appetite for colours and effects that could not be achieved in the electric kiln. Maureen Woollcombe, who had been potting for some time, had a wood kiln at her home. Sally Gill had also built a wood kiln at her bach in the sounds. We were also lucky enough to be invited to Jenny Doole’s studio when she was firing her wood kiln. The hours-long firings were so exciting and social that it was eventually determined that the club would try to build their own wood kiln, between the clubhouse and the river. The chosen plan was taken from the NZ Potter magazine and was very close to the design of Sally’s kiln. As luck would have it the gas works were being demolished and we were able to purchase a large number of second-hand fire bricks. These were used for the outer layer of the kiln chamber and firebox. The Trust Bank Community Trust came to the party again with grant money towards the new firebricks and kiln furniture. It took a number of years from the first thought of a club wood kiln through to its completion but with the dedication of Sally Gill and Jill Van Angeren who oversaw the building process and the help of many others, including Ken Gill and Derek Bate who were responsible for the welding work, it was eventually completed.
The first firing was held in June 1985. This was a planter firing up to 1100°C and the results were so pleasing that it was decided to make the second firing a glost one to 1280–1300°C. This was such a learning curve for us all that a log book was kept, with diagrams showing how the shelves were placed & pots stacked, where the cones were placed, an hourly report on the temperature readings and, towards the end of the firing, diagrams of how the cones were bending. This log became our bible for firing the wood kiln and proved its worth many times as we all tried to get the last few degrees out of the firebox. Temperature and time became the mantra and we were frequently afraid we would run out of wood before we had achieved our goal – the magical 1280 degrees throughout the kiln!
The wood kiln was exciting, and challenging, always provided a surprise or two when opened and was a great group activity.
In addition to wood firing, a number of pit firing workshops were held. These required well-shaped and smoothed pots to be fired in a deep pit. Pots were usually laid on a sawdust bed, covered with wood offcuts and sprinkled with oxides and salt. The pit was covered with corrugated iron and flames were closely watched. A constant flame, slowly curling around the pit and bright orange/yellow in colour was what was wanted. Once this was achieved the pit was closed down to produce a reductive atmosphere and everyone relaxed and had a drink (or two). The designs produced on the pots were very random but some folk were clever and placed their pots to create a specific effect, others were beautiful by pure chance. The great thing about pit firing was that if you did not get a design you were happy with you could refire the pot again.
During this development time, the club had a Christmas parade float with a mock-up kiln aboard. We were trying hard to be noticed. Other public appearances were the regular sales days in Centre Point Mall, exhibition space in Art Society exhibitions and later joint exhibitions with the Marlborough Guild of woodworkers. These all raised the club’s profile and encouraged new members to join.