Helen Mason (1915-2014)

Helen Mason (1915-2014)

It is with sadness that we farewell Helen Mason, potter, first editor of the New Zealand Potter and great friend and mentor of the craft/arts community.

Helen Mason’s involvement in the arts, from the early days of the studio pottery movement to her more recent endeavours, has become legendary.

Her early training typified education for potters in the 1950s: she attended pottery classes through a local technical school and bought a kiln from Elizabeth Matheson, which was later rebuilt by Barry Brickell.

Her passion for pottery changed, and shaped the direction of her life. From 1958 to 1967 she worked as editor of the magazine New Zealand Potter with a committee that initially included Doreen Blumhardt, Terry Barrow and Lee Thompson. The magazine captured the New Zealand pottery movement in its infancy and promoted information sharing and a sense of community amongst potters.

Helen Mason’s keen interest and support helped also memorialise the movement: her generosity included the funding of the 1962 film recording the visit of British potter Bernard Leach (in conversation with Barry Brickell and Len Castle). The gift of Helen’s archives to Te Papa in 2000 has become a record of a woman’s contribution to the arts from the 1950’s but that also captures her later endeavours – including work on behalf of the QEII Arts Council and the Tauira Toru Trust, Coromandel.

Helen Mason’s big heart, generosity and determination to make a difference can be summed up in her comment in 1968, ‘it is important for a potter to be in a community and to try and supply what the community needs’.

Helen Mason, Dish, stoneware with slip decoration, about 1960. Purchased 1993. Te Papa
Helen Mason, Dish, stoneware with slip decoration, about 1960. Purchased 1993. Te Papa

– Justine Olsen, Curator of Decorative Art and Design


  1. Hilary Pedersen: I lured helen to Porangahau in late 90s (I think) She settled into our small b-cultural community and got straight into teaching and encouraging anyone who was interested. She was also determined that I too should be a potter but alas clay was not for me . I was a wool [person and a writer.Helen became a mentor and as she began more frail i became her chauffeur. I thank her now for a wonderful association. Helen lives on.

  2. Helen Mason impressed me greatly when I met her at Tokomaru Bay. She had established a pottery and weaving studio, which she encouraged the people living at the Bay to use. Through her mentorship, remarkable and original pottery and textile works were created. An amazing exhibition of artwork from Tokomaru Bay was brought to Wellington – I still have some treasured pieces of pottery from that exhibition, made by people who had never aspired to be artists, but who made works from the heart. Helen was such a warm, generous and inspirational person – one of the great pioneers in the arts of New Zealand.

  3. I remember Helen Mason with affection and respect:

    During the 1970s Helen Mason exhibited her brilliant ceramics at The Mill, in the early basalt building just below Albert Street, Auckland. It was only a few years after Hamada Shoji’s visit and she spoke of him at length as well as her long-standing regard for the example of Bernard Leech. She emulated Bernard’s own work with the slab tiles decorated in a manner much like Japanese folk ceramics. Helen was a natural and spontaneous decorator of ceramics; Warren Tippett thought she was the best glazer of ceramics in New Zealand. He may very well have been correct in his opinion.

    I still have Helen’s favorite slab tile at home, which she gave to my brother Drew who was a close friend. To handle it is to touch nature directly.

    Helen harbored Theo Schoon at a particularly difficult moment in his life with her terrific patience and charm. Theo knew that she would always be a friend and this awareness was bolstered by their joint knowledge and familiarity with non-western art and culture.

    Helen was an exceptionally warm and gifted artist. Her ceramics have never really been recognized for either their innovation or integral expression of what we now call wabi-sabi. She has always been one of the great New Zealand ceramicists and potters. Helen demurred when she was described as an artist, but she certainly was an artist with astounding gifts and insight.

    1. Author

      Kia ora Ron,

      Justine says: As a child, I lived in the same street as Helen. In my eyes she was the most interesting of all people – a potter! We hardly saw her but heard many tales of her firing pottery in the back garden. It seemed so mysterious and quite a wonderful accomplishment. If only we had been able to step inside her world…

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