Spinning the wheel
Raglan potter Tony Sly has one of his handcrafted butter-coloured bowls out on his kitchen bench. Crammed with sharp green Granny Smith apples, rich red capsicums and ripe black avocados, it looks like a still life study for a beginners' art class.
The bowl's organic shape and translucent glaze make you want to reach out and stroke it. Tony's robust, generously proportioned pottery tends to have that effect. There are no small, fragile, arty statements in Tony's studio - just the practical, functional domestic ware he has become renowned for. The space is jammed full of bowls, platters, cups, jugs and tagines, all in his trademark colours of deep green, butter, navy, lime, turquoise and, more recently, a good-enough-to-lick creamy white.
Each piece conjures fresh thoughts about food, antipasto or whole baked fish, roasted vegetables, spring asparagus and tropical fruits. Of course Tony encourages such notions. "When I stand behind the counter wrapping something up, people tell me what they're going to cook in it. I like hearing people talk about what they'll do with the pots. It's nice to make things that people really enjoy using."
Tony is inspired by traditional French and English Provincial slipware pottery. Each terracotta dish - made by Tony on the wheel or in pressed moulds - has liquid clay poured (or slipped, to use the correct term) over it. Each piece is then fired, cooled, glazed and fired again, in a process that takes four weeks from potter's wheel to finished product.
"We use natural oxides to colour the glaze, so we get beautiful light translucency with each piece," Tony says. "There are variables when using natural materials so it can get tricky when customers turn up saying, "We want two more plates like the ones we bought last year.'"
Tony started potting about twenty years ago, after he dropped out of university. "This is what I know. I have to stick to it," he says with a laugh.
He began working in soft pastel colours and then started developing his chunkier ware about seven years ago. Back then he couldn't interest stores in his new range. It was only when Mary Fordham of MCF Antiques in Taupo took some of his green platters and bowls and placed them on a dark wooden table in a Christmas window display that customers noticed them. "And suddenly we were away," says Tony.
His work was later picked up by the Cranfields speciality stores and he now has clients in Sydney and Melbourne as well as throughout New Zealand. Then there are the admirers who come to his studio in Raglan to amble among the stockroom shelves and watch him and his glazer, Peter Schon, at work.
Tony moved to Raglan from Hamilton about four years ago and bought a tiny section with a board-and-batten shed that he converted into a studio and shop. When that was finished he added a small apartment, squeezing in a bedroom, en suite, kichen and living room. The two buildings form an L-shape, opening out on to a serene, sunny courtyard and ornamental pond.
The courtyard doubles as a drying room for works in progress and an informal lunch room for the staff. "And sometimes," he says, "we hose it down and have parties out here."
Tony has thrived on the move to Raglan. "I'm very fortunate to be part of this community − you get so much support here. I feel like the village potter."
Tony Sly Pottery, 53 Wainui Road, Raglan, (07) 825 0370. Tony's pottery is available from Cranfields in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, 0800 484 448.
Story: Denise Irvine
Photographs: Matthew Williams