Mud Coats & Cheese: Marie Strauss

Article excerpt


MARIE STRAUSS'S POTTERY IS LOCATED DOWN A long stream-bounded and wooded track in the tiny farming community of North Taieri in New Zealand's South Island. Though hot and bright during the brief summer months, the farm where she works and finds her clay is mostly wet and lush, and often sodden and bitingly cold. It is a demanding environment. Appropriately her hand-built pots, with their weathered surfaces coaxed from successive firings and found materials embedded in the matt ash glazes, speak of endurance as well as hope. It does not seem over-determined to think about

Strauss's pots in this way, for there is an evocative power of the objects she makes, and Strauss has said she wishes people to be able to identify with her pots. Strauss's forms seem to address the dilemma of knowing how to develop resilience for the forward momentum of living, when all around the fragility of life is evident. I am reminded of Yoko Ono's question when announcing her plan to re-stage her 1964 performance 'Cut Piece' in Paris in 2003: "I always thought I wanted to live forever, that I was one person who was not scared of doing so. But would I want to live surrounded by this world as we know now?"

Artists and their audiences are well aware that the way artists select materials and configure those materials in certain ways has the capacity to open and release the imagination. This is the foundation of the transformative power of art. In Strauss's case one could say that the particularities of her condition and her location have been filtered and abstracted through the process of making her pots. With the result that these objects, in and of themselves, speak of similar conditions and locations in a way that is accessible to many others. They are pots that are evocative of place, ways of living and states of being.

Shortly after immigrating to New Zealand from South Africa in 1993, Marie Strauss completed an Honours Diploma in Ceramics in Dunedin. Since then she has searched for and found her own voice in the craft. Her early work quite naturally revealed a strong attachment to Africa, "recalling," as Elizabeth Rankin and Martene Mentis have observed, "Venda clay pots and with surface decoration reminiscent of Shona textile design". Gradually pots emerged with a different but equally strong design aesthetic composed of elemental shapes with black and white designs. Their matt exteriors and glossy interiors revealed an affinity with the textures and moistness of her new location, and gave evidence of the influences of Danish and English potters--Hans Caper, Lucie Rie and Elizabeth Fritch. Many of these pots pre-figured approaches that were to mature in the pots featured here, with their weeping punctured walls, evoking the bright wetness of her new home. But something else emerged too, first as an under current and then as a stronger vein in her work, which has become the dominant timbre in her voice. Namely an affinity with Strauss's own abiding passions: for building, clothes and food.

New Zealand is wet. Contrary to the unrelentingly sunny skies that radiate from every tourism publicity image of the country's landscapes New Zealanders live with constantly changing and often dramatic weather patterns that include a significant diet of wetness. Marie Strauss's pots reflect that the New Zealand outdoors is green, dark, damp and often muddy. The pots ooze: leaking surfaces and insides suggest the percolating of sodden ground and the weeping of the mud banks of deep-cut streams. They also have a heaviness in their squat and bulging forms that evokes the wetness of saturated earth clods; and the glutinous, muddy, hoof-pocked cattle races that braid the Strauss's North Taieri pedigree cattle farm. Strauss has intentionally deployed surface glazes that will fuse and drip to suggest the particularities of a land of mist and rain; and she created dark interiors to make them look like dank crevices, reminiscent of ponds and potholes. …