by Janet Mansfield


Born Rotorua, New Zealand 1942; Studied Science & Mathematics, 1959-63; Began potting in 1964; Moved to Australia 1991; Lives in Gulgong NSW


The length of time needed to research the medium of clay and fire as mentioned by Peter Rushforth is also noted by potter, Chester Nealie, who says that one lifetime is not enough in the endless search among the variable and accidental elements of anagama potting. Anagama is a Japanese world meaning cave or single chamber kiln fired by wood usually over several days. Deliberately inefficient and taking considerable amounts of wood, an anagama kiln will reveal the effects of flame, ash and vitrification that make the wares unique. Chester Nealie, from New Zealand, has been a potter since 1964 and has been working with anagama firing since 1978. He has exhibited internationally and lectured in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. He has curated exhibitions, notably the New Zealand Expo Pavilion '88 in Brisbane and has twice been a winner of the Fletcher Challenge International Ceramic Award. As a participant in New Zealand's 'Artists of the Sub-Antarctic' expedition, his work was shown in the subsequent exhibition. Leo King, writing in Ceramic: Art & Perception, Issue 4, described Nealie's contribution to the exhibition: 'Although individual works in Chester Nealie's installation are symbolic memorials to human activitiy in this remote region, Nealie's intention, synthesised from the earth's most abundant raw materials, clay and wood, is more potent. His sensitivity to form, axial to his work as a maker of vessels, has been overlaid by a wider concern for the irreversible despoliation of the earth's sruface and ordered by the conceptions of an instinctive collector.'

Nealie agrees that his love of collecting evidence of both man-made and natural history is important to him. 'Digging up old bottles, collecting scraps of weathered driftwood from the mangrove swamps or absorbing visual delights in fossils and artefacts in mucky museums are often stimuli behind my work. My shapes are a synthesis of an emotional link I feel with past objects and the accidental play with clay in its making. I like to use a slow turning wheel with a minimum of water so that all the honest marks of the making remain to be seen.' Nealie says he is never in a hurry to finish a vessel. His overriding delight is in handling the work after it comes off the wheel: rolling, squeezing, stretching, fondling the life force into this sensuous medium. Larger vessels are coiled and thrown over many days, giving the form the freedom to dictate its own growth. 'I make pots to interrelate with each other and the shape of the anagama kiln. It is in the stacking that further phases in the pots' narrative are dictated. The seemingly chaotic bundle-stacking and wadding of an anagama kiln is calculated and strategic, yet must be loose and carefree in execution. The size and placement of the wads leave marks in memory of their placement as the flame's palette paints its complex patterns on the pots.'

Long wood firing, with its variable atmosphere, puts down layers of colour and texture, simulating a natural patina of antiquity. The scars from the interaction of fire on pots and pots on pots are significant parts of the anagama aesthetic. Another aspect concerns the treatment of the pots when they come from the kiln. 'Perceiving the elements of arranged chance as found on the ash-buried pots, and deciding whether to peel back layers of surface to expose other levels, or leave well enough alone, is a decision to be made for each individual pot. This visual learning is infinite, because all preconceptions are exposed to chance in every new firing. I have found making, firing and discussing with my peers to be invaluable. Working collaboratively with Owen Rye has taught me how to play with fire in different ways and to look outside myself to other perceptions of colours and textures. Refiring dry slip over glaze or glaze over dry ash increases the layering on pots. Mixing these and other options, such as new clay and slip combinations and firing down with different atmospheres, creates more wanderings through nature's timeless artefacts: feelings of nature's antiquity, a dash of ritual usage with a hint of the mystery and timelessness of freedom are all melded into the aesthetic of clay and fire.'

The working relationship of Chester Nealie and Owen Rye has produced a significant force and impetus for anagama and wood firing in Australia. Writing in Arts Gippsland, January 1992, Jan Irvine reported on an anagama firing by Nealie and Rye at Monash University, Gippsland School of Visual Arts. 'Rye and Nealie share a sense of aesthetics and an equally strong body of knowledge in anagama firing that has enabled a powerful interchange of ideas. Both gained their skills through experience and their curiosity and observation has resulted in a flexibitility and a willingness to experiment.' Contmporary Ceramic Art in Australia and New Zealand, by Janet Mansfield-Craftsman House, NSW 1995