How celebrated artist John Parker crafted a life of pottery and theatre design

by Clare de Lore / 11 August, 2018
John Parker at home. Photo/Stephen Robinson

John Parker at home. Photo/Stephen Robinson

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Kiwi ceramic artist and Sinophile John Parker is looking for a new life away from his beloved home and studio in the bush.

If you take a leap of faith and put your foot down, it’s possible, just, to drive up John Parker’s steep West Auckland driveway without coming to harm. If, as often happens, a visitor loses his or her nerve, the famed ceramic artist and theatre designer obliges with a pick-up at the gate and guns it up to the sprawling residence and studio set among Waiatarua’s lush green bush. The access may be challenging, but it’s worth the effort for the views, the hospitality and the visual feast of seeing his life’s work on display.

The house has been home, studio and party central for the 70-year-old and his friends for 40 years. Hundreds of ceramic pieces, most by Parker, but some collected during visits to China, have survived the numerous soirées. Some time this year, Parker will tackle the emotional and physically demanding job of packing up. Conscious of the demands of maintaining an older house and large garden, he is looking for a new home and planning the next phase in his creative and personal life.

He set out as a potter at his family home in Panmure, taking night-school classes run by NZ pottery pioneer Margaret Milne in 1966. His parents, Arthur, a migrant from the UK, and Vero Viti, known as Tommy, had eloped and left Taranaki for Auckland. The couple had modest means, but were determined that John, their only child, would have their support to follow his dreams.

What did your parents do?

My parents were working class. My father drove a petrol tanker for Mobil Oil and my mother worked in a factory making electric fences and toy guns. Everyone was poor, but my mother could always manage to find money for a book – they valued education. They had a radio, but no record player, so there was no music, but I was an only child and they indulged my passions. I was really keen on puppets, so my father built me a puppet theatre, then when I started working in clay, he cleaned out the woodshed so I had a studio. They fostered my interests.

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You’ve been in this house most of your life. What’s the background story to it?

I bought the land in 1969 when I was at teachers’ training college. It is an acre and a fifth and cost $1600. I was going to be a hippy, have a blonde girlfriend, make coffee mugs and live in a tree trunk. But when I went to London in 1973, I changed a bit. I thought I was a city person and that the land was a millstone around my neck. But architect friends convinced me I could eventually build and live happily here. I was designing the Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award exhibitions at the time and Trevor Hunt, who was the head of Fletchers and a great mentor to me, gave me a staff account.

What was the tipping point?

I went to Greece with my friend Rodney Fumpston. We stayed there for six weeks with Mary and David Kissler, on the island of Paros, in a kind of shepherd’s hut with 360-degree views of the Aegean. I realised how important the landscape was. When this house was designed, I wanted to be able to look through the house in all directions, and I can. Leaving it will mean a radical change, but as long as I can see the sky I will be all right.

John Parker with his mother, in 1947. Photo/Parker family collection

John Parker with his mother, in 1947. Photo/Parker family collection

Going to London was the making of your career, wasn’t it?

I don’t know, probably, but everyone was doing their OE. I have been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, although I love that Louis Pasteur expression, “Chance favours only the prepared mind”. In 1973, I got into the Royal College of Art and graduated with an MA. When I came back to New Zealand, a few people were curious about my experiences. I felt not so much that I could become their “enfant terrible” but that I could take risks and be provocative. If I hadn’t had that distance, and seen what other people were doing in London, I don’t think I would have done that. I didn’t come back arrogant and thinking I was fantastic – I don’t think that, although others might – but I had been exposed to more things than others.

Were you able to make that different approach to your work financially viable?

Remember, the 70s were the heyday of the craft-revival movement, but also, I haven’t had a wife to support or four kids to put through university. I had only to look after myself. It’s been possible to be selfish and that is why I live and work in the same place. If I want to do something at 4am, I can. With ceramics, you have to do things when they’re ready or you lose them because they get too dry or too wet. To be a potter, you just need to know about the evaporation of water. That is what you’re controlling all the time.

With potter Rosemarie McClay on the Great Wall of China in 1986. Photo/Parker family collection

With potter Rosemarie McClay on the Great Wall of China in 1986. Photo/Parker family collection

What was your London life like?

It was the end of the swinging 60s; it was very alive. I was 26 and went to the National Film Theatre virtually every night and also to the opera. I’d buy Time Out and there’d be hundreds of movies you could go to. If I had stayed on I would have been living in a bedsit, with a studio under a railway arch somewhere else.

You have a reputation as one of New Zealand’s finest ceramic artists but you’re also a theatre designer. Which do you enjoy most?

I love both; they’re the same really. With exhibitions you are dealing with a theme and 3D objects in space. You set them up, you have an opening and there is an audience. It is exactly the same in theatre, except that with the ceramics it is a solitary undertaking and the other is collaborative. If I was just here by myself making things, I could become very antisocial and hermit-like. When you work with young people in theatre your ideas are challenged all the time and there is always new technology, which I love. I am very fond of projections, soundscapes and things.

With Richard O’Brien at the Auckland Theatre Company production of The Rocky Horror Show in 2002 for which he designed the set.

A few years ago, you said you would do only white ceramics but then you set about a blue period. What happened?

It was at a drunken party and I think I said, “I’m only doing white”, then I woke up next morning and thought, “How many people did I say that to?” So I tried it for a week, then a month, then a year and longer, and it was great. I am very influenced by industrial ceramics, by Keith Murray, a New Zealand architect who designed for Wedgwood, and Ernie Shufflebotham, who did the white ware for Crown Lynn. I stuck with white for a long time but I have done a lot of colours, mostly primary colours.

You have many Chinese ceramics and other pieces from China. Where did that interest come from?

In Panmure, I grew up surrounded by Chinese market gardeners. My neighbours were all Chinese; I first heard Chinese opera when my friend’s mother played 78s. We would walk around the house screaming like cats. I still love Chinese music. A friend and I went with the Camellia Society to China in 1986. You had to go with a group and, no, I wasn’t genuinely into camellias. I have been about five times now. It is wonderful. When you meet people one to one, there is no politics.

In his home studio. Photo/Stephen Robinson

In his home studio. Photo/Stephen Robinson

What was the reason for your 2007 visit to Fuping in Xi’an?

I was one of the New Zealanders invited to take part in the Fule International Ceramic Art Museums project. The guy behind it was setting up ceramics museums for participating countries on a kind of “if you build it, people will come” approach. When we got there, there was already a French ceramics museum and a Scandinavian one, and they were building the Australasian one. We were working in an old factory making pieces to exhibit – on one side there was us, and on the other side people were making roof tiles and souvenirs such as Tang horse reproductions. On Sunday nights, the people from the factory did amateur versions of Chinese opera, so I dragged the potters off to see it. The people could not believe we had gone along. The next day, the response to us from the people in the factory was incredible. We had connected. I have had some of the happiest times of my life in China.

What do you like to read?

This is the embarrassing thing – I don’t read. My idea of heaven is not curling up with a book. I like to watch movies and TV. But I read for my work, and one of the things I love most about working on plays is the research. I have thousands of books related to design. But I concede that when people talk over dinner about the books they are reading, it sometimes prompts me to buy whatever the book is; I get 15 pages in and lose interest.

Steve Rumsey’s cover of NZ Potter magazine in 1981.

There are exceptions. Ten years ago, I worked on Big River, the musical based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I loved it so much that I would read a chapter a night until there were only three chapters to go. Then, because I didn’t want to leave the river, I read only half a chapter, then my ration went down to just two pages. I thought I should know more, so I read Catcher in the Rye, 1984 and Brave New World. I have a few more that I’ll tackle.

What do you think your parents would make of your career and success?

When my parents came to visit me in London, we went to meet the great 20th-century potter Lucie Rie, who was very good to me. My father, who was the salt of the earth, said, “Is there money in this sort of stuff? Can the boy make a living?” She said, “Yes”. We had afternoon tea and she later said to me, in her thick Viennese accent, “It was wonderful to see your parents but the most wonderful thing was watching you attempt to disappear.” My mother was 93 when she died in 2002. I had had the retrospective in Wellington, the first book, my house was in House & Garden magazine and she showed that to everyone in the rest home. I think she felt “he’s going to be all right”.

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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