With the recent death of Len Castle, New Zealand has lost one of its greatest potters who developed a long and innovative approach to clay that can be bound up in the search for national identity.
Castle began working with clay from 1947 experimenting with commercial clays and Westmere beach sand. He was a natural, understanding both its composition and plasticity. Recognition from Auckland Society of Arts and Auckland Art Gallery came during this time. His forms reflected broad influences – a leaning towards modernism through Crown Lynn and Scandinavian design, otherwise Bernard Leach’s Anglo-Oriental vision where oriental glazes and English slip ware were both experimented.
From the late 1960’s, Castle began to reach beyond the Anglo-Oriental and create new unglazed forms that reflected his fascination for the inner qualities of clay. He talked about the process of rolling, folding, stretching and compressing clay that brought strong textural qualities which, at the time, Castle maintained were interpreted wrongly by others to suggest an association with natural forms. Hanging Vases and Bottles for Grasses characterised these new pieces. They sat well in the contemporary domestic setting of the 1960’s and 70’s.
It was in Treasures of the Underworld, Expo 92 that Castle’s interest in New Zealand’s geomorphic forms actually took off. Castle was one of fourteen artists invited by James Mack through Museum of New Zealand, to create a body of work that reflected the earthly experiences in New Zealand. Castle responded with the twenty-one part series: the magma flows, the magma cools on its way to the ocean.
I was involved in researching the registration details of the Treasures works in 2008 and I was interested in the way he translated the volcanic crustiness and vibrant colours of lava in each individual work.
After 1992, Castle continued to investigate the natural world, including the foreshore that resulted in ceramics like Sea Secrets and Sea Fossils. More recently, his Sulphurous Bowl series continued his geothermal interests, one recent example of which was acquired through Castle by Te Papa last year. My visit to Castle on that occasion was based around the acquisition of eight pieces from the mid- 1960’s through to 2010 (see them on Collections Online shortly). Despite his health problems, Castle’s gentleness and keen commitment to capturing natural forms in his ceramics came through during conversation. We were privileged to have this opportunity.
Justine Olsen, Curator of Decorative Art and Design (Contemporary)