My father played with clay. He’d make a liquid of it and pour it into a mold to make items such as beer mugs for the Falcon Aero Club, a flying club to which he belonged.
Whenever a new member of the club flew his first solo flight, Dad would pour clay into the mold and make the new pilot a mug. My job was to paint the guy’s name and the date of his solo flight on the side of the mug. Dad then would set the mug in a kiln to bake and at the next club meeting, he’d give the guy his mug. All members present would tap the beer keg and celebrate—raising their mugs in honor of the club’s newest pilot.
That wasn’t the only venture Dad made into the world of pottery.
One day he eyeballed the cliffs north of town and thought he’d give them a try. These cliffs that overlooked Lake Michigan were full of clay and so he set out with us kids in tow to collect some of that clay.
After washing the clay and picking out as much debris as we could, Dad then hand formed the clay into a bowl for Mom and fired it.
The bowl was heavy and Mom was less than enthusiastic about adding it to her collection and so it accidentally got dropped on the kitchen floor. It didn’t break but it put a nasty dent in the linoleum and that inspired Dad to take it outside where he dropped it on the cement sidewalk that he had poured several years prior as a path from the driveway to our front door.
The bowl once more didn’t break but chipped the sidewalk and so Dad marveled at just how hard this local clay was. Must be all that silica (sand) in the clay.
The bowl went on to another life—as a pot after Dad drilled a hole in the bottom of it. Dad never did repair the linoleum or the sidewalk—and he never again used our local clay.
The only other person in my family who took an interest in pottery was my sister but she didn’t do much with it either but her daughter took the family interest in pottery to a whole new level when she got her B.A. in Ceramics and Pottery from Rochester Institute of Technology. As for me, I went off in other directions but today, as I took a walk through the Nelson Provincial Museum here on the South Island of New Zealand, I came face to face with clay once more.
This time, it’s how the Māoris, one of New Zealand’s native people, used clay that grabbed my attention. Before Europeans arrived, the Māori never made bowls and other items of pottery from clay but used clay in other unique ways and what they did with it sparked my interest.
The Māori who lived in the Nelson area found a red ochre clay and they used this clay that they called Kōkōwai as a dye and as a means of preserving both their rope and their garments. They also mixed this clay with shark oil to make the red paint that I’ve seen throughout New Zealand on Māori buildings and wood carvings.
From this red pigment, they made not only red paint but they added ground charcoal to this red pigment to make a black paint. Red with just a touch of black or white were the main paint colors that they used in their rock art, their burial chests, ridge poles, rafters and the battens of their wharenui—the big community centers they built for their meetings. The red dye also was used to color their canoes (waka) and even the bones of their dead.
Men who were chiefs smeared the red ochre on their faces and bodies as a sign of their status.
Māori also made this clay into an insect repellent when mixed with oil from tītoki seeds. They added other ingredients, too, and ended up with a repellent that not only repelled insects but overpowered people, too—especially when the guy wearing it walked into a room.
To keep their claim on this valuable deposit of red ochre clay, the local Māori spread the Legend of Kaiwhakaruaki, a man-eating monster, to deter folks from going anywhere near their deposits of Kōkōwai. The man-eating monster also was useful for protecting their other valued minerals such as argillite, an ore prized for weapons and tools. The monster also guarded important routes to the south where a valuable form of jade called greenstone was to be found.
The one thing the Māori never did figure out was how to use clay to make pottery but then the thought of using our local cliff-side clay as a dye or as an insect repellant never occurred to my Dad either.
Still, we all share a creation story in common.
In Māori legend, Tāne made the first woman, Hineahuone, from soil and then he breathed life into her but even among the Māori there is some argument over the gender of the first human being. Some claim it was a man, Tiki-āhua, and not a woman, that Tāne made but that’s like arguing who came first—the chicken or the egg.
I do like the Māori tradition of taking a newborn child’s placenta and burying it in the earth. There’s a certain symmetry to the fact that when that child comes to the end of its life, its body also is buried and so death completes the cycle of life.
In European culture we say “ashes to ashes; dust to dust” but it’s truly “earth to earth” to which we go to in the end—hopefully to color life once more.