Tuesday, March 24, 2009
  Earth, heat and fire are putty in his hands

From NZ herald March 21, 2009.

Pic: Kenny Rodger

When Len Castle was 10 a cousin took him to Wiri Mountain in Manukau when it was still largely intact. "I was taken down and into - it was a tight squeeze - a lava tube, a wonderful experience that stayed with me and I think it may have triggered off my interest in volcanic phenomena," says the 84-year-old potter.

The extreme combinations of heat and earth are in evidence at Lopdell House, where the travelling show Mountain to the Sea brings together stone and earthenware works from the 1980s to 2008 along with Castle's photos of geothermal activity and poems commissioned for the show by curator Tanya Wilkinson of the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Castle discovered clay growing up at Westmere. He remembers sitting on the sand under the pohutukawa trees "modelling things with my hands while looking out at the black reef."

Castle discovered clay growing up at Westmere. He remembers sitting on the sand under the pohutukawa trees "modelling things with my hands while looking out at the black reef."

That memory came back when the late James Mack invited him to be among the select group of craftspeople showing work at the New Zealand Pavilion at the Seville Expo in 1991.

"He gave each of us a motivational statement. Mine was, 'The magma cools on its way to the ocean,"' Castle says.

What's striking about many of the works in the Titirangi gallery is their sculptural nature. Many New Zealand potters have made the transition from pottery to sculpture, but for Castle it just meant getting better.

"Back in the 1960s when I started potting professionally, I needed to make tablewares and I quite enjoyed that, but if I was making 12 casseroles, they would all be different. I was more interested in getting variations of form.

"As soon as I made my quota I started modelling objects that hinted at the organic world, and I found a few people interested whenever I had an opening of the kiln, and it built up from there."

Even before then, Castle had been working out not just how to make pots but how to be a potter. He remembers seeing his first Shoji Hamada pot in the early 1950s in the Upper Hutt home of fellow schoolteacher Ray Chapman-Taylor, who had sought out the master ceramicist while stationed with J Force in Japan after World War II.

"When I first saw my Hamada piece I kind of shuddered but I was drawn to it. I thought about it that night. What was it that has drawn me to this rugose [wrinkled] piece? It took me a while to sort it out. Here is a man who had probably thought about things carefully, but then he had acted, and that intuition played an important role in what he was doing.

"At that stage I didn't know very much about materials but I could sense he obviously understood his materials, and he allowed the kiln to have its say, and so on. This struck me as something valid, and so a truth to material approach became a key thing in my work.

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