Sunday, October 25, 2009

The earth in her hands: Doreen Blumhardt, 1914-2009

From 1981 to 2007 we lived in the Wellington suburb of Northland, a few streets away from the distinguished potter and art educator Doreen Blumhardt, who died on 17 October. In 2000, I interviewed Doreen for an article, but it was never published. I'm posting it here in memory of her.

The Earth in Her Hands

Doreen Blumhardt leads me into her sitting room. It’s very hard to believe that this dynamic, vibrant woman is now 86 years old. A wall of windows gives a breath-taking view across Wellington harbour to the Orongorongo hills. The blues, greens, browns and reds outside are echoed in the glazes of the pottery lining the room - great platters, vases, superbly shaped sculptural pieces.

As a first-generation New Zealander, Doreen spoke only German for her first five years. “It’s so strange to me that anyone can ever forget their first language.” Her father, David, was born in Bad Boll, near Goppingen, where his family had a small estate (Hof). The beautiful 18th century Kurhaus that belonged to her great grandfather Johann Christoph, a pastor and healer, is now run by the Moravian Society. In the churchyard, there are Blumhardt headstones dating back to 1500. Doreen has visited several times, and her German relations have become friends.

David was 20 when he came to New Zealand in 1895, with his father, three brothers and a sister. His mother and the other seven children stayed in Germany until she was safely past child-bearing - a drastic early form of birth control! After years of hard work on the stony family farm near Kamo, in the north of the North Island, his father sent David back to Germany to find a wife. He chose a young governess, Minna Hartdegen, and brought her to a small farm near Whangarei. Doreen, the last of her three children, was born there in 1914.

“I always spoke German to my mother. Her great desire in life was to get back to Germany. She tried to save enough to go, but it never happened. It must have been so difficult for her - she was an educated, musical young woman, she played the zither and loved the opera. She had no idea what she was coming to - washing in an open-air copper, cooking on a rusty old wood-burning stove, and a seat over a hole in the ground for a toilet. She had to work morning and evening in the cowshed, helping to milk 40 cows.”

Despite their hard life, both parents passed their love of music and books to their children. Her father taught Doreen to play the violin; her mother sang lieder as she milked, and wearing her heavy workboots, she showed the children how to waltz.

Even as a little girl, Doreen had to do her full share of the farm work - feeding animals, making hay, picking grapes and strawberries for sale, and scraping the bristles from slaughtered pigs. All that hard work, she says, gave her a real advantage. It not only taught her how to use her hands, but also gave her the courage to break new ground as an artist and art educator.

She still gets up early and works nearly every day in her neatly organised studio, with its two potters’ wheels, a slab roller for large press-moulded dishes and wall panels, jars of glazes, brushes, and a big tray of leafy green plants. In the garage below stands her electric kiln and her gas kiln for stoneware. Her friend and handyman, Michael Austin, comes in to help her handle the larger pieces and move the heavy sacks of clay, which come up from Nelson.

“Even though I’ve been potting for so long - nearly 60 years now - I still find it enormously exciting to open the kiln after a firing. What I get such a thrill out of, as I think many potters do, is the unexpected.”

“Although you do have a certain amount of control, and you aim at getting particular effects, fire has a mind of its own. Stoneware is fired at up to 1300 degrees Celsius. In the gas kiln, you adjust the balance of gas and air throughout the 12 hours of firing. That changes what happens to the glazes on the clay. Lots of gas makes the atmosphere smoky, and turns a copper oxide glaze to pinks and reds. With more air, the glaze turns green.”

“But it also depends on what you use for the underglaze. The range of possible effects is endless. So you’re never quite sure how your work will turn out. Of course, things can go wrong, and sometimes you’re absolutely devastated by the results. But sometimes they’re amazing.”

Although Doreen continues to sell smaller domestic and decorative ware from the showroom in her home, today she spends much of her time on work commissioned by people who are eager to have a large Blumhardt piece for their home or garden.

“I always have to make some smaller pieces to put in the kiln around the big ones, so as not to waste the space. The small pieces sell more quickly, but there’s a presence to a big piece.”

At her own front door stands a golden wall of tiles modelled from coastal rock formations. Doreen’s method of moulding slabs of clay directly onto the rock preserves the original folds and cracks. She first used this technique for a large tiled wall in the Christian Science Church in Wellington, where water runs continuously down over the wall into a tranquil pool, creating a constant play of reflected light and colour.

In 1992, Doreen was asked to work with 24 students to create a wall for the entrance to the Wellington teachers’ college, where she had previously been head of the art department for 21 years. She wanted all the ideas to come from the students themselves.

“They had never touched clay before, but it worked very well. One girl put together a multi-ethnic face representing the different groups of students at the college. The Maori students came up with the idea of showing the traditional concept of the baskets of knowledge. They made long sausages of clay and wove them together, just like real flax baskets.”

That same year she was asked to create a memorial to the American Antarctic explorer, Admiral Byrd. For this landmark, Doreen glazed commercially made tiles in a myriad of colours, then fitted them together to make a triangular canopy showing the spectacular Aurora Australis of the southern skies. It stands in one of Wellington’s most popular visitor sites - the summit of Mount Victoria, with the intricate patchwork of the city spread out below.

The commissions have grown since Doreen retired from full-time work in art education, her first love. Right now, she’s working on a smaller private commission.

“I just have to be careful that I don’t get overloaded. But I’ve got lots of ideas for things I want to carry out in ceramics. I hope I’ll be given the strength. There are so many different directions you can take - domestic ware, individual pieces, sculptural pieces. That brown pot there, for example - it’s halfway between a pot and a sculpture.”

“I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had to earn my living by my pottery. The work has to be valued, and that means charging the right price. If you undervalue your own work, it affects what other people receive for theirs. In Japan, the prices for fine pottery and ceramics far outstrip the prices for paintings.”

“The Japanese don’t even have a word for craft. Why do we draw a line between art and craft in Western culture? The professors and the art critics try to come up with reasons. They say it’s the materials, or the techniques, or the fact that craft pieces are made to be used. I think that’s crazy. What’s the difference? There isn’t any.”


  1. Thank you for this contribution. I came across it because on a fleemarket in Berlin I found a New Zealand postcardletter dated 1895, addressed to A'Wengen in Germany, written in German in the old handwriting (SUETTERLIN) by N. Blumhardt. I traced the history, found information on A'Wengen, on Eleonore Blumhardt. I wonder if this N. Blumhardt was her husband. AND I found your contribution. Now I wonder if you could give me some information on David Blumhardt and Minna Hartdegen. Perhaps you know if Devid's father was either this N. Blumhardt or Christoph Blumhardt. I would be very grateful if you would help me with this research.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Tiaki - Please send another comment giving your email address. I won't publish the address, but I will then email you with additional information about the Blumhardt family.

  3. Hi Anne, My husband and I purchased the Blumhardt built house on the side of Mt Kamo/Hurapaki in Kamo Whangarei. I would to know more history and get some photos of this property. thank you.

    1. I would be very happy to help if I can and would love to see the house again! Call me, I'm in the Wellington phone book.