The hand is more important than the brain


Most New Zealanders seem ashamed of their history. They don't even know they've got one. Take a small town like Thames. Thames has wiped out its history; and so I have tried in small ways to increase an awareness in people of just what has been done where they now live. One of my interests is steam. . . Thames has a terrific history of steam, of foundry work and engineering. Several months back I showed in Thames an exhibition of paintings and drawings on these subjects.

If you took a count, though, of the people who were concerned with past, present and future, with what is indigenous, there wouldn't be many. I chose Coromandel as a place to live for several reasons. First, it has a bit of wilderness to it - a wild backdrop. There's a back-of-beyond to it. There are mountains, bush and a rugged environment in which there are still plenty of resources. Second, it was a short trip to Auckland direct by sea, and I knew I'd be getting rid of cars one day, basing my life on boats as much as possible. And third, the geology is such that there are plenty of potters' materials. We're finding out that potters do have their problems here, but on the whole we have good clay and glazing bodies.

Barry Brickell at his Driving Creek pottery

Even though there are still wood, clay, plants, rocks, animals, birds, this place has been looted - professionally vandalised - ever since the white man got here, in three or four distinct plundering waves. First there were the kauri millers, who burned the bush to get at the kauri. Then there were the gold miners, who burned the bush to get at the difficult parts to drive their mines. In their wake came the gum diggers, who burned the bush to get access; and the farmers who also have burned the bush.

And now, all sorts of other people are carrying on with this. The Forest Service, if you please, are spraying the place with 2,4,5T, and burning the young bush and planting pinus radiata because they want to make money! The dollar sign is in the air! I understood that the Forest Service had two portfolios: one was conservation and the other was aforestation. They seem to have dropped the conservation ideas in favour of the aforestation, which churns out dollars for overseas exchange. So, when one sees perfectly good native scrub-land being burned wholesale for the planting of radiata, you wonder what their idea of conservation really is.

It suits me to be out in the country. I can make smoke, play trains, and aforestate my way. (I'm planting hundreds of trees and they aren't pinus radiata either!) I've always been a little suspicious of cities. Just see what's happening to good land around the cities - the lack of control, everyone wanting to make quick money! In the city you've got to buy everything - you can't make anything. You're dependent on money-income every inch of the way - for transport, food, shelter - things we do for ourselves here. There are human problems that are accruing as the result of the lack of planning. People are wanting to get out of cities. More and more young people are trying to move to the country: but the education system doesn't teach them how to do it.

Row of pots by Barry Brickell
Photograph by Marti Friedlander

Another thing that worries me is the bureaucracy. They keep trying to make me into a factory. They want all my statistics - how many people there are here and how old they are and what sex they are and how many teeth they've got left, so they can keep track of employment. People need to be employed, so they create jobs. We give people jobs regardless of whether they contribute to primary production.

I've made pots for a long time: but I don't consider myself a potter. I was one of the first two people in the country to make a Iiving out of pottery - hand-made pottery from my own wheel. It was one of my hobbies for many years, right through secondary school when I first had kilns and learned to throw pots. I had some reputation as a potter during varsity and training college, so it wasn't any trouble I to make a living out of it. But it doesn't mean to say I'm much of a potter. There are people working here now who make much better pots than I do. As a craft thing, I consider myself rather rough at it. I'm a potter only in the sense that I make pottery for sale, but I'm really more interested in alternative energy systems, with pottery more as an expression thing. The pottery I most enjoy making is individual stuff, which doesn't necessarily have a market value at all. This is the stuff that I exhibit. I make the pots and jugs and bowls because it affords a way of life. I've got enough money to carry out other projects without being employed by somebody. . . projects such as the railway... setting up a charcoal retort. . . making bricks from local clay - things to do with the land.

I've often thought about why artists and craftsmen usually line up with the conservationists. I suppose it's because these people are more in touch with reality than people in offices - who don't see the world as it really is, but through rose-tinted (or paper-tinted) spectacles. It would be much better if the office person got out into the wild country to tramp and rest and have peace and stillness in that environment, really absorb it. But this alone can't be therapy any more than working with clay. People have got to have a few tough experiences as well - to get their adrenalin going.

Barry Brickell in the garden
Photograph by Marti Friedlander

The hand is more important than the brain. As my lecturer in zoology pointed out, it was the opposable thumb in humans that gave rise to the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, not the other way around. A person who uses his hands is more likely to be a fulfilled person - more so than one who relies solely on his brain for his livelihood. Talking about therapy is all very well: but let's talk about people having real experience with their hands.

I have a personal axiom: it's not the thing, but how. Everyone has his own manner of doing something or seeing something. This is what art is connected with: it's not a thing at all. One should therefore speak of a gallery not as an art gallery but as a painting gallery. One should never use the word art. It's a sacred word I think, which has now become so bastardised in the language that another word should be used. There's no such thing as art. It's a how, not a thing, and it's not confined to activities like painting and poetry. It's not confined to any thing: it's not thing-bound. Whatever is done by human beings and that motivates human beings has potential for art. It's essentially an inter-people phenomenon. .. a language... a form of communication.