My love of ceramics was sparked during 1986 on a cultural trip to the Nkwalini Valley in deep rural Zululand, South Africa (now KwaZulu-Natal). On a mountain-top el fresco studio I was introduced to traditional tribal Zulu pottery by an old Zulu lady named Masonto.
She dug her clay from the banks of the Goedetrouw Dam, handbuilt traditional Zulu ware by coiling then burnishing. Finally open-air wood firing with Aloe leaves as the first firing. A final firing in the wood of the umTomboti (Tambootie) tree. A toxic wood while burning, it’s oils stain the pot a lustrous black.
The foremost Zulu potter who brought Zulu pottery onto the world stage was the late Nesta Nala from the Tugela Ferry area of Zululand. ‘She passed on her skills to her daughters, Bongi, Jabu, Thembi, Zanele, and Nonhlanhla. At her death in 2005 at the age of 65, many considered her a national treasure.
Nesta Nala represented South Africa at the Cairo International Biennale for ceramics in 1994; received South Africa’s prestigious Vita award for craft in 1995, and in 1999 participated in the Smithsonian Institute’s Folk Life Project in Washington, DC. Her work is represented in major collections in South Africa and worldwide.’ (Gary van Wyk 2007).
I was entirely besotted with all things Zulu – the culture, language, war craft, weapons, antiquities, history and particularly their pottery. Naturally my first attempts at making pots followed in the Zulu tradition. Coiled earthenware, blackened and left unglazed. I experimented with open fire burning in dried aloe leaves which happen to grow in our garden but the pots exploded. Then pit firing. Without having access to Tambootie wood I resorted to a black underglaze and bisque fired the pots.
I was afforded all the support by my High School art teachers Paul Litchkus and Martin Burnett at Westville Boys’ High School in Durban, South Africa. They
let me take a school wheel home and let me loose on the school kilns. I had a blank cheque at Edgeware Ceramics, the local pottery supplier. Those were my formative pottery years and ones which I enjoyed very much. My parents Chester and Win Smith and indeed whole family played a huge role in my years of pottery obsession. They have always been 100% supportive and extremely encouraging. It is also my wife Deborah’s wish that I continue in my pottery.
I spent some time working with Suzanne Passmore in Durban and Peter from the Pinetown Tech College. Another great influence was the work of world-renowned Shongweni ceramicist, Andrew Walford. His work is a synthesis of African and Japanese ceramics – a hybrid ‘afro zen’.
Andrew has exhibitions throughout the each year after his huge oil-fired kiln has made its magic. I first met him at an Association of Potters of South Africa workshop in the late 80′s. It was quite spellbinding. I was fortunate enough to arrange a work ‘team building’ pottery day with Andrew in 2007. Needless to say my motives were a tad self-indulgent.
Two other potters I must make mention of who’s work I admire. Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. These two men were arguably the most influential potters on the twentieth century. They are to their pottery genres what Ravi Shankar is to Indian classical music.