We recently visited Duncan Shearer at his home and studio, near the beautiful Karangahake Gorge, as he was busy making work for an upcoming firing in his wood kiln. He makes his work on a Leach kick wheel, the slow rhythmic motion draws you in, as does the peaceful surroundings, with the light filled studio facing out onto native bush.
Can you give us a short synopsis of your journey with pottery, its role in your life, and how it has lead to what you are doing today?
I first had a go on the potter’s wheel when I was about 15 and loved it. By 16 I was taking night school lessons with my Dad at the Auckland Studio Potters. My first proper job and a couple of trips overseas interrupted my pottery learning, so in 1994 I enrolled at UNITEC under their craft diploma programme and ended up with a design degree. Since then I’ve been a full time potter, although I’ve also worked for organisations like the Auckland Studio Potters and the Waikato Society of Potters. Today my partner, Charade Honey, and I have a pottery called Rahu Road Pottery that we set up in 2015.
Can you talk about your process, especially your firing process?
I’ve been drawn to firing with wood since studying at UNITEC, where I was lucky to be able to build a wood kiln and start my experimentations and learn how to control this type of kiln. Over the years I’ve built a number of wood fired kilns and fired kilns in France and Poland as well as New Zealand. Each kiln has its own character and produces different effects on the pots. Each firing is different with the wood, kiln pack, duration and the atmosphere all influencing how successful the firing will be. I’ve tried long firings ranging from 3 to 16 days, aimed at building up large amounts of wood ash glaze effects on the work. Currently I use a small fast-fire wood kiln, it usually takes 12 to 13 hours to reach 1300 degrees and I spray a sodium carbonate (soda ash) solution in during the last hour to enhance the natural soda flashing process that occurs during wood firing.
Could you describe what draws you to atmospheric firing?
I practice a glazing technique called vapour glazing, that includes salt and soda glazing. I have used salt glazing in the past and it can produce beautiful pieces, but it is more corrosive on the kiln bricks and shelves, it also can obscure some of the more subtle effects from the wood firing process. Soda glazing can be a softer approach, leaving more variation on the pots and enhancing the existing flame patterns on the work. For me, soda glazing leaves more of a story on the pots about how they were placed in the kiln, where the flame touched them and reveals the gentle dusting of ash that accumulates on the edges and shoulders of the work.
What are you seeking to portray in your work? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice, your philosophy and your process?
I have strands of thought during my making practice. I’m fascinated by form, how the subtle change in a silhouette can transform a piece, giving it a monumentality or a quiet humbleness. How a piece functions is important, whether for pouring or the mantlepiece it positions the work in a long ceramic tradition that provides a grounding. I love materials and how they are transformed by the kiln or the feel of raw clay spinning on the wheel, the mixing of a new slip or glaze, the sheer fun of it all is always a drawcard.
You have built an amazing studio in the stunning environment of the Karangahake Gorge. How does your environment influence your creative process?
Since moving to Rahu Road I have been using clay dug from the land during the construction of the studio. This is a wild clay that originally formed as a volcanic rock in the Coromandel Ranges, decaying slowly, it is now super plastic and full of character. I add it to the commercial stoneware clay mix I use, to my glazes and flashing slips. I also add Raupo to the clay for added strength, gathered from the ditches on the Hauraki Plains. Locating my practice by using local materials is important, respecting the land and waters is a way of resting lightly on the land. I think the peace of living in a quiet, bush-lined valley allows me a chance to breathe a little deeper, spin my wheel a little slower and enjoy the moment.
You have just started running workshops from the space. How do you balance teaching with creating your own work?
Being a professional potter is a balancing act, the more skills I can acquire the better I can juggle my life so that I still enjoy everything I do and also pay the bills. I love teaching and have taught many different classes over the years. Now with the new studio I can teach more of the masterclass type workshops that I’ve been looking forward to. I also build kilns and help others with their firings. I have a rhythm to my work, with a sequence of making, firing, teaching, maintenance and back to making.