Monday, December 03, 2007
  Richard Stratton Teapots
News Zealand Herald November 29.

WHAT AND WHO: Nurturing Dialectics – A Legation of Teapots by Richard Stratton
WHEN AND WHERE: Anna Miles Gallery, until December 22.

Richard assures me all his teapots can hold tea. “But if you’ve paid $1800 for one, why would you?” he asks.
That makes it clear at the outset his aim is high art, not high tea.
And what teapots they are. Bizarrely shaped, brightly glazed, decorated with drawings and slogans and treated photos, they each promise hours of conversation or reflection.
“It started out as a homage to the humble New Zealand teapot, but that’s long since forgotten,” Stratton says.
“I got a grant from Creative New Zealand to do the research, and the show grew from that.”
The research started in second hand where Stratton bought teapots to pull apart.
That gave him a sense of some of the finer points of spouts and handles, and provided a spring board for his imagination.
As someone who trained in ceramics at the Dunedin Polytechnic art school, and has worked for a spell as a production potter, Stratton has a lot of respect for the challenge of getting teapots to work.
“Even at art school I had a drive to learn technique. I wanted to feel that if all else failed I could get a job making a product if the art didn’t sell,” he says.
So these aren’t those potters’ follies which will never see a leaf, nor the $2 shop atrocities which follow the form but fail the function.
According to the time chart which accompanies the show, Stratton produced his first teapot (“green, thrown and altered, woodfired”) in 1993, his last year at Otago.
The time chart also tracks some of the concerns that go into the work: the history of pottery; the evolution of the teapot; war and peace; obesity, anorexia and famine.
So a pot like Fad or Fact Teapot will include a skinny supermodel next to a starved Biafran (the Nigerian civil war ended in 1970, the year of Stratton’s birth – the next entry on the timeline is the birth of Kate Moss in 1974).
The idea of evolution is a natural for ceramics. Charles Darwin, born 1808, was a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood.
Nurturing Dialectics falls into distinct groups. Some relate to family history and relationships, others offer commentary on different ideals of beauty. There are Feast teapots and Famine teapots.
Historic elements inform the pots. The Feast pots are based on early English designs, incorporating the scroll handles of Wedgwood creamware, or the reeded double intertwined handles and fluted spout of Leeds pottery.
Other pots use the handle and spout developed in 1960 for the Tower Brite anodised teapot, the sort of pot the Stratton family would have used growing up in Dunedin when they might had broken up a shopping trip in town by nipping in to Woolworths to “have a pot of tea”.
Stratton says for the Feast set he also tried to go back to the colour range of the early ceramics.
“I wanted this specific yellow, so I found I had to change the clay body. When I did the oxide tests of the underglaze, I found I had to go back to older china paints as well.”
There are weeks of modelling, decorating and multiple glazing in each pot.
Some of the designs are worked up on computer and then transferred using a modified photocopying technique – “poor man’s litho,” Stratton calls it.
In others he has used gone for the a sgraffito technique of German expressionist woodcuts or Edward Gorey fables, as revived by some of the RAW artists who pushed the limits of comic art during the 1980s.
“What I put on them is just images. It’s up to individuals to work it out,” Stratton says.
While he doesn’t expect to make such a lot of teapots again, “they’re not out of my system yet.
“I enjoy making them, but do people still use them? Maybe I should be making soy latte cups.”
But it’s not about craft or function. Ceramics has transcended such humble origins, as Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry showed.
Tea and the teapot has become such a rich brew in the English language, describing social niceties and plain hospitality. “I didn’t even get offered a cup of tea,” is one of the worst things one can say of a host.
Stratton’s timeline misses one of the most important dates in the history of tea – 1865, the first publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which featured a tea part where his pots would have been right at home.
An online possie for Adam Gifford, a New Zealand journalist specialising in information technology, Maori news and the arts.

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