Earth and fire
Barry Brickell is getting younger by the minute. At first meeting in the Driving Creek Railway ticket and pottery gift shop, the slight 74-year-old shows his years. Though his arms – bare beneath an Aussie rules shirt and a brown woollen vest – are strong and sinewy, his hands are gnarled, his back slightly stooped and his face weathered by the elements.
But in his tiny work shed, a compact world turned beige by clay dust, heavy rain rumbling on the roof, the stories begin and the years fall away. His mood becomes expansive and his movements fluid. He seems to rework himself with stories of earth and steel, clay and fire.
The Coromandel potter, railway builder and forest planter starts with flames. As a kid growing up in Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore, he was a private pyromaniac, lighting fires in tins beneath the family’s wooden villa. “I wanted to savour the scent of smoke, of things burning, the lick of flames – to me that was beautiful.”
Not far away, Barry discovered another source of fascination in Devonport’s Victorian gasworks and adjoining fire brickworks. The mesmerised youngster used to slip inside unseen and race up and down ladders like a shadow.
“That’s where I really educated myself about furnaces, fire, refractories and plastic clay. There was ancient machinery, huge blazing furnaces, sweating men stoking kilns and managing the gasworks, coal-fired furnaces, steam engines and boilers. The smell of the gasworks was highly aromatic – a magic place.”
It was school art lessons that led him to his love of clay. At primary school, a teacher brought a crude potter’s wheel to class. One boy would crank the machine and the other would try to make a pot. “I got captivated.”
By then, Barry was already an avid artist. “I was drawing from very early on. I was always sketching and drawing.”
He also felt the pull of the earth in other ways – usually drawing him to the wilds of Birkenhead. “I was mad on native plants and conservation. I would ride for miles on my bike up to the nearest place to find native plants in their natural environment. There was nothing in the whole of Devonport except suburbia. [In those days] every native plant, tree and shrub had been banished.”
On one excursion, the engineering beauty of a railway line stopped him in his tracks. “A well-constructed railway is like poetry in the landscape,” he says.
Later, at the University of Auckland, he studied botany and geology – his parents’ idea. “I would never have gone to university had my father and mother not pushed me. I would have been a potter instead, living a simple, rugged life in a bush hut somewhere all alone, making art and pots.”
His father, a civil engineer, wanted his son to get a degree, then a good job, a house, marriage and children. “My father had massive ambitions for me. He didn’t know that his eldest son was left-handed and arty and a happy loner. He tried to normalise me.”
But Barry had other ideas and other influences. While at university, he went to Colin McCahon’s Thursday evening painting classes and never missed any of the artist’s exhibitions. He even owned a couple of his paintings once, but had to sell them to pay taxes.
Barry followed his own pottery dreams and eventually headed to Coromandel, where all his childhood learnings and leanings have been put to work. And how he has worked. In 1973, Barry bought 24 hectares of scrubland, covered with kanuka and pine, near Coromandel town. With an Arts Council grant and a promise to teach others how to create with clay, he began to build his potteries and railway.
“It took 32 years to build the railway. I don’t know why I’ve got any arms and legs left on me; they should’ve all fallen off by now, the amount of shovelling I’ve done. I’ve bent hundreds of rails, done up thousands of bolts, dug umpteen truckloads of dirt…”
It all began as a 200-metre track to transport clay and pinewood for use in the potteries.
“Pinewood is the fastest burning and hottest of all woods for firing stoneware kilns. You can reach 1350°C on dry pine and we do that frequently round here. That’s the steel melting point at which stoneware needs to be fired to get the glazes running properly.”
He got his rails at below scrap price when the Waikato coal mines closed down. “Lucky I did because you can’t get it now unless you import it.”
Then he got building. “I’m an early riser. I loved getting up at crack of dawn and working on the railway before breakfast and then after work in the evenings, especially in summer. I’d go up there with a good bottle of wine and some cheese and carry on working on the railway till dark. In between I’d make pots and sell them – hopefully.”
That modest little railway has now grown into a winding 3km route through replanted native bush – a thriving tourist attraction. An articulated railcar chugs visitors through the potteries, a sepia vision of sculptures and furnaces reminiscent of a Disney ride, except the artefacts here are real. From there it clatters on past silver ferns, towering mamaku, nikau palms, drooping rimu, miro, rewarewa and kauri, the air sweet with the astringent scent of kanuka.
Beside the track and in the bush are pots, sculptures, clay murals and glassware, some created by Barry, but many by the artists who are part of the Driving Creek cooperative.
Up, up, up goes the railcar to the Eyefull Tower, where, legend has it, it’s possible to see the tip of Auckland’s Sky Tower on a clear day.
This former scrubland has been replanted with 20,000 native trees – half of them kauri – in a bid to undo the damage done by gum diggers, gold diggers and farmers. Now under the care of the QEII National Trust, it can never be sold off, ensuring that Barry’s legacy remains for all time.
The Brickell stamp doesn’t stop there. In 1997, he established the Driving Creek Wildlife Sanctuary Trust and a vermin-proof fence has been built around 1.7ha of land beside the potteries. Native species, including frogs, lizards, insects, birds, plants and fish (there is a pond) are slowly being introduced into the protected space. Barry says it’s even likely that two takahe will find sanctuary there.
Though the potteries, his art, the railway, native forest and the wildlife reserve would be more than enough to leave behind, Barry has other projects on the go. He’s writing two books – one on the railway and one on his life – and working on a science-fiction short story. In June and July 2009 he returned to his boyhood stamping ground to work on his memoirs at the Michael King Writer’s Centre in Devonport.
Painting, sketching and writing poetry are also part of his repertoire. He pulls out a drawer in a small desk in his workman’s shed to reveal pages of lyrical writing. Under a bench is a potter’s wheel and in a corner sits a partly finished sculpture made from coiled andesite clay worked into voluptuous curves.
Art historians and theorists could have a field day with Barry’s work, which appears to be plump with breasts and studded with phallic symbols. He has his own ideas, explaining that he chose to spurn relationships in favour of action. “I had twice as much energy as most people seemed to have. I’m not interested in people and sex and stuff. My energy had to go somewhere didn’t it?”
He does acknowledge that perhaps his sensuous self is revealed in the clay instead of through human contact. “I have been accused of having Asperger’s syndrome but, if I’ve got it, everyone else has got it too,” he says with a laugh. “If you can’t see the funny side of yourself, you’ll never make art.”
His final legacy is in the throes of being built. Just beyond his shed is a concrete pad that will one day support a new home and an art gallery to hold his life’s work and his extensive collection of New Zealand artists, including works by Toss Woollaston, Ralph Hotere, Michael Illingworth, May Smith and Nigel Brown.
“To do everything I want to do,” he says, “I’ll have to live to 110.”
Story: Virginia Winder
Photographs: Paul McCredie & Gil Hanly