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Jim Greig - Potter Extraordinaire

by Roger Pearce - 12/Jan/2008
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A brief review of his life and work

Jim Greig was an internationally recognized New Zealand artist who expressed himself through the medium of clay. He had the distinction of being the first ever foreigner to be included in that most prestigious of Japanese ceramics exhibitions: “Tachibana-Ten: One Hundred Best Potters” in 1977. [1] After he died at the early age of 50 two special memorial exhibitions of his work were held in Japan, something unprecedented at that time and probably never repeated.  What was it that captured the hearts and minds of the Japanese and what heritage has he left the arts scene in New Zealand? 

James Greig was born in New Plymouth on 20 March 1936.  After attending Wellington Technical College he studied architecture at Auckland University where he met Rhondda, a fellow architecture student who he married in 1962.  One day, on his way home to the North Shore he saw in a shop window a Len Castle bowl the glazing of which reminded him of the creamy wash from the propellers of the Devonport ferry he had just travelled on. It so took his breath away that he decided to become a potter. [2] He tracked down Len Castle and for three years went to Len’s evening pottery classes.  Feeling confident in his ability as a potter he ended his architectural studies and in 1962 moved to North Auckland to set up his own pottery, one of the very first potters in New Zealand to attempt to live entirely from sales of his work. It proved to be a harsh experience and in 1965 he accepted a job as Resident Potter in charge of the Art and Design department of Massey University in Palmerston North. This enabled the family to get on their feet financially but after three years they moved to Greytown in the Wairarapa to set up a studio, later buying an old farmhouse on some acres at nearby Matarawa. [3] Jim had a quiet personality and was not one to seek the limelight but he and Rhondda, herself a highly accomplished artist, worked as a team, promoting his work, organizing sales and exhibitions.

During his time with Len Castle, who became his life long friend and mentor, he not only learnt the fundamentals of pottery but also became imbued with Len’s philosophy concerning the intimate relationship between the play of fire on clay in the kiln and the larger forces at work in the natural world.  Greig’s work was highly individual and his approach is best expressed in his artist’s statement for his solo exhibition at the Wairarapa Arts Centre in 1980:

‘I have always approached my work as an imaginative adventure of exploration - trying to develop living forms which point to the “life in life” in flowing movement.  All the manifold forms in living nature arise from movement - there are no fixed forms there - all is in living metamorphosis.  I try to evolve pottery forms from this realm of experience.  Not so much concerned with the substance of the form itself, or with “finished forms” - but forms which take on this life of movement - forms in the process of growth - concerned with the essence of growth - the underlying formative forces or tendencies which give direction and through which forms evolve from movement or rather evolve in movement’. [3]

Jim’s interest in evolution in the natural world was underpinned by his study of philosophy (he read Goethe and Rudolph Steiner) [4] and was increasingly reflected in his work at Matarawa, even domestic items reflecting the theme of growth in nature. He commented:

“If I put nuts in the Growth Form bowl both they and the bowl complement each other and add to our understanding of the universal formative element which makes both the nuts and the bowl possible”. [5]

Len Castle had been influenced by his contacts with Japanese potters, in particular Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro, and no doubt this washed off onto Jim Greig but in 1978 he was given the opportunity through a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (QEII) travel grant to experience Japan for himself.  This led to his discovery of a Japanese art form that extended beyond the naturalism and vitality of the Western concept. Kawai Kanjiro was an especially strong influence and provided a tangible link between Eastern humanism and the romantic thinkers and poets of the West - a middle ground between Buddhist ideology of non-self and the ego-conscious individuality of the West. [6] At this time he also visited Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Mexico and the USA but he was most influenced by his experiences and friends in Japan.

In 1982 he completed ‘Transformations’, probably his major work, comprising one hundred and twelve pieces. It was exhibited at Wellington’s City Gallery and at the Waikato Art Museum and later some pieces were taken to Japan. Elva Bett reviewed the Wellington exhibition thus in the NZ Listener:

‘Transformations has taken 21 years to evolve , for it was as an architectural student that Greig discovered the affinity between form and substance, the curvilinear opposed to the rectangular, which are immediately obvious in the forms of this exhibition’. [6]

Over the next six years he was awarded a further QEII grant but in 1982 received a Japan Foundation Fellowship to study in Japan that enabled him to spend a year living and studying in Japan, the family joining him for part of the time. He was keen to study the work of Kawai Kanjiro in particular with the intention of writing a book about him and his work.  At the end of this year in Kyoto he was invited to exhibit in the ‘Tachibana-Ten’ exhibition and also invited by Shigenori Itoh, the owner of the prestigious Akasaka Green Gallery in Tokyo, to exhibit there, which he did in 1983 and 1985, the first foreign potter to do so. [7]  In 1986 Jim Greig was created a Cultural Ambassador by the New Zealand government in recognition of the services he had already performed to foster relations with Japan. It was hoped he would build on this relationship over the next few years. [8]

In 1986 he was again invited to exhibit in Japan, this time in the prestigious Tachikichi Department store in Kyoto where a whole floor was set aside for his work numbering over 200 pieces.  Tragically Jim died of a heart attack in his hotel as the day the exhibition opened.  The opening went ahead and the exhibition was dedicated to Jim as a memorial to him and his work.  He had already prepared a further 60 pieces for an exhibition at Shisedo Itoh’s Green Gallery in the Ginza, Tokyo.  This, too was held as a special memorial to him and Masa Omi Unagami, an art dealer and prominent critic, invited Rhondda Greig to Japan to represent Jim at this opening. [9] The New Zealand Arts Council managed to raise funds to send Edith Ryan, a member of the council to Japan to attend the auction (Rhondda paid her own way), but Ryan was told there was no public money to buy any of his work for New Zealand.  Knowing the significance of the work Edith Ryan felt the opportunity must not be lost and took it upon herself to buy one of the large beautifully glazed forms paying the $15,000 with her Diners Club card. On return to Wellington she managed to convince the government of the importance of the piece and after a year was duly reimbursed, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr Michael Bassett, later presenting it to the National Museum for permanent display. [10] This purchase must have struck a cord with the minister for in 1988 it resulted in the purchase of six pieces from his ‘Transformations’ series for $60,000. [11]

During his time at Matarawa Jim received a number of commissions including a mural for the Prudential Assurance Company’s head office and two ceramic panels which now adorn the doorway of the Masterton library.

How does one measure the significance of an artist and his influence on society? I see three possible yardsticks: the comments of critics, curators and historians, the public appetite for the work, best expressed in sales at the time, and by the degree to which an artist’s work (in its broadest sense) is used as a ‘model’ by other artists.

New Zealand art critics of the ‘70s and ‘80s were universal in their praise of Jim’s work, in particular Ian Wedde (NZ Listener and NZ Potter magazine) [12 & 13], Mike Regan of Manawatu Art Gallery [14] and Dianne and Peter Beatson, authors of ‘The Crane and the Kotuku’. Japanese critics, too, were fulsome in the praise. Takeshi Umihara, director of international research at the Centre for Japanese Studies wrote:

‘Two thousand years ago, ancient Japanese art had something similar to what we see in Mr Greig’s work today. It seems to remind us very strongly of the lost space that was part of our existence a very long time ago.  I think this is the reason his work appeals not only to me but to many Japanese people’. [15]

The fact that his Japanese art critic and collector friends organized two memorial exhibitions in his honour speaks for itself and confirms his standing within the art community at an international level. Curators, writers and collectors are reasonably unified in placing Jim’s work at the highest level of achievement in the New Zealand ceramic tradition. [19]

From the time of his stay in Japan in 1982 his work increasingly focused on his sculptural ‘evolutionary’ forms. These found a ready market in Japan and following successful exhibitions his work became highly sought after there and elsewhere overseas. At the exhibition in Akasaka Green Gallery in 1985 the chief curator at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, Mitsuhiko Haseke, said he wished Greig’s entire collection could be purchased for his museum collection [16].

Pieces are held in the collections of many influential private collectors as well as the Japanese Imperial Household, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the United Nations Headquarters in New York. His ‘evolutionary’ works were snapped up in Japan and following their popularity there became too expensive for most New Zealand collectors although smaller domestic pieces were always popular. Following the final exhibition in Japan Rhonda Greig said the lack of interest in her husband’s art in New Zealand was because ceramic arts lacked status. “I think it is gratifying that his works have been recognized by a nation for whom pottery is so important”. [17] However, the State’s 1988 purchase of six pieces from the ‘Transformations’ series was presented to the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt for permanent public display.

Clearly, he became recognized and respected around the world as a most significant artist of his time.  His deeply held philosophical view of life and respect for the natural environment found expression in his work but he never attempted to imitate nature. Whilst his approach was in many ways unique it did not establish a genre that others might emulate although a number of copies of his forms have been made.  Within New Zealand his work has become largely invisible, the most significant public collection being the six-piece ‘Transformations’ series donated to The Dowse in 1989 but now boxed up in a storeroom, although the piece Edith Ryan brought back from Japan is currently on display in a glass case at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

What is the heritage Jim has left the arts scene in New Zealand and why was he a ‘Potter Extraordinaire’?  Well, it is not easy to find his work today and, as there are no published works covering his life and work, his impact is hard to assess.  Ask potters and art critics who were his contemporaries and there is universal recognition that his talent was an exceptional. For those who have the perseverance to seek out those pieces that remain here it is a hugely rewarding experience. For a public perspective the comment by Rhondda Greig already mentioned probably sums it up: “….the lack of interest in her husband’s art in New Zealand was because ceramic arts lacked status”, but as is clear from this brief study of his short life and work this view was not held elsewhere in the world. Indeed, Mrs Greig told me that obituaries remarking on his exceptional talents appeared in two British newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent). [18] It was not only his skill and vision as an artist in clay but also his philosophical approach to life and work that justifies the ‘Extraordinaire’ label and he deserves to be listed alongside Len Castle, Roy Cowan and Barry Brickell as one of New Zealand’s iconic potters. [19] The depth of thinking and belief that under-pinned his work is evidenced by the artist’s statement he wrote for the 1986 Wellington exhibition; it has great relevance for us all today:

‘To a considerable extent in New Zealand now the arts are looked to for social commitment - statements of protest issues such as race, environment, nuclear, and so on.  This pottery may seem irrelevant in this context. However it may be felt that art arising from a view of life which sees mankind as part of a living unity with all the kingdoms of nature, sees all life as emanating from universal spiritual reality - such art may be a necessary affirmation alongside protest. For example, Maori consciousness of land and sacredness of water can only be comprehended by changing a mechanistic view of the earth for a living one. Likewise only can the earth be redeemed from exploitation’. [20]

Beatson, Dianne and Peter, The Crane and the Kotuku: artistic bridges between New Zealand and Japan, Palmerston North, Manawatu Art Gallery 1994.
Blumhardt, Doreen and Blake, Brian, Craft New Zealand: the Art of the Crafstman, Wellington. Reed 1981
Cape, Peter, Please Touch. A Survey of the Three Dimensional Arts in New Zealand. Auckland, 1980, William Collins Publishers Ltd
Castle, Len, Len Castle, Potter Auckland 2002, Sang Architects & Co, Ltd
NZ Potter, No 1, 1988
1 Beatson, Dianne and Peter, The Crane and the Kotuku: artistic bridges between New Zealand and Japan, Palmerston North, Manawatu Art Gallery 1994, pp47, 48
2 Beatson, pp46, 47
3 Rowe, Neal. (1980) ‘James Greig ‘Developments & Directions’ 5 Oct - 2 Nov 1980. Wairarapa Arts Centre exhibition catalogue.
4 Beatson, p47
5 Cape, Peter, (1980), ‘Please Touch. A survey of the Three Dimensional Arts in New Zealand’, Auckland, William Collins Publishers Ltd, p14.
6 Bett, Elva. (1982). 24 April. ‘A Spirit of Devotion’ review of ‘Transformations’ exhibition. The Listener.
7 Japan honours Kiwi potter, The Dominion, Wellington, 2 April 1985
8 Potter made ambassador, The Evening Post, Wellington, 10 March 1986
9. Ambassadorship carries on, The Dominion, Wellington, 8 September 1987,
10 Interview with Edith Ryan, 12 September 2007
11 Greig series presented, The Dominion, Wellington, 20 September 1989
12 Wedde,Ian. (1988). James Greig: ‘Going through’ the work, NZ Potter No1
13 Wedde,Ian, Transformations and Transactions, The Evening Post, Wellington, 7 July 1988
14 Regan, Mike, Greig’s work sends single down spine, Evening Standard, Palmerston North, 16 September 1994
15 Beatson, p46
16 Japanese like NZ potter, The Evening Post, Wellington, 22 February 1985
17 Potter’s work brought home, The Dominion, Wellington, 12 October 1987
18 Interview with Rhondda Greig, Matarawa, 26 September 2007
19 Interview with Simon Manchester, ceramic art adviser to Dunbar Sloane, Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers.
20 James Greig exhibition, Wellington City Gallery Catalogue, March 1986

Rhondda Greig’s most generous assistance in checking the text is gratefully acknowledged

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