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Half a century of pottering around

If you venture to the outskirts of Carterton, you’ll find Paul Melser’s well-known and loved ceramic shop nestled by trickling streams and sprawling natives. Bella Cleary reports.

Stacks of plates, bowls, and cups bearing simple, understated designs line the shelves in a haze of bronze and blue, Melser’s signature colour palette.

Melser has been perfecting the craft of ceramics since he was a boy – his parents were teachers at Ardmore Teacher’s College and he began learning from the well-known ceramicist who ran the studio at the school.

“What drove me to pottery? God knows,” Melser said.

“I’ve always been interested in domestic items because I use them myself all the time. Often people have quite strong attachments to these objects, and it’s quite nice to be able to make the object that people get attached to.”

Melser moved to Wairarapa in 1966 – initially to Featherston, and then putting roots down in Carterton, where he has been ever since.

“I feel great loyalty to Wairarapa. That’s why in my potter’s stamp, which goes on everything I make, the place name is in there.”

Before Melser moved there, the 26 acres of land he lives and works on in Carterton was a “gorse desert”, and he estimates he has planted some 30 to 40 thousand trees on the property.

“Before I was here, the area had been a pig and sheep farm surrounded by gorse,” he said.

“The gorse looked like mushroom clouds because the animals would eat it from the bottom.”

The trees Melser has planted in place of the gorse are a mix of native and exotic – the latter including 30-metre-high pines planted in 1980 that are used to fuel his wood-fired kiln.

“I realised 40 years ago that carbon was going to be a problem, the science was there,” he said.

“One of the reasons I moved to Wairarapa was so I could plant a lot of trees.

“My favourite is the native clematis – it climbs to the top of another tree and flowers at the top, where it lets you know spring has arrived.”

Like the peaceful, earthy landscape he has surrounded himself with, Melser’s ceramic style is understated, often
letting the natural material
of the object shine through.

He says the creative process is different every time.

“Each object changes as it goes along. You’re trying to make a particular thing but achieving that is often elusive.

“Their shape isn’t complete until you’ve finished the entire process, and that’s engaging in a continuous way.

“You’re interacting quite intensely with what you’re making; each one is a lovely challenge.”

The process begins each time with mixing the clay and throwing the initial form of the object, where it is left to set for a few days before an initial firing in a kiln.

The magic happens in the glaze, which is a mix of glass and rock materials including silica, limestone, and china clay.

Melser said this part of the creative process is never dull.

“There’s a different relationship between the clay and the glaze, there are always technical things that come up.

“After 50 years, I’m still getting surprises.”

Surprises can also materialise during the firing process, which can be done through one of the three kilns Melser uses, each with a different heat source – electric, gas, and wood.

Melser says the placement of the object inside the wood-fired kiln often delivers the copper tones of his collection.

“One of the reasons I like it, you could call it accidental but it’s also deliberately placed.”

The staples of Melser’s creations have always been cups, bowls, and plates but variations on these forms have arrived in the shapes of laksa bowls and olive oil bottles.

“Eating habits change over time and as menus shift, I change with them,” he said.

“I would never have made laksa bowls ten years ago – I started after people began requesting them. On the other hand, I haven’t made casserole dishes in about five years.”

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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