Uplifting spirits through clay art

Maori artists from New Zealand visit Astoria to strengthen ties with other Pacific Rim cultures and plant seeds -- both literal and figurative -- for the future

Art instructor Richard Rowland and I had plans to talk Saturday, but the time for our call came and went unanswered. Thirty minutes later, Rowland was on the line, apologetic, but with a good excuse. Rowland, a native Hawaiian and ceramics instructor at Clatsop Community College, had an important task at hand — preparing a pig for a community luau at which the guests of honor were nine visiting Maori clay artists from New Zealand, or in the native tongue, Aotearoa.

Baye Riddell, one of the Maori artists visiting Clatsop Community College, created these “Kaitiaki” or guardians of the environment.

“It is my responsibility to cook in the imu, a traditional way of Hawaiian cooking,” Rowland said. “It is my responsibility that everyone has been fed.”

Rowland expected to see 100 to 130 guests for the meal, after which his Maori friends planned to take the stage to speak, play music, or perhaps tell a story.

The public will have the chance to learn more about the artists on Wednesday, Oct. 17, during a lecture/slide presentation about the work and their home.

The artists are part of an ongoing cultural exchange that began a decade ago with a visit from two Maori clay artists, Manos Nathan and Colleen Waata Urlich — both whom have since died. The connection between the foreign clay artists and Rowland was instant. Artist Manos Nathan talks about his work.

Nathan and Urlich were two of the five founding members of the Nga Kaihanga Uku/Maori Clay Artists Collective, “which began in 1987 and was the birth of a new movement in world ceramics,” according to a press release. “Baye Riddell had begun his career as a potter 13 years earlier, ostensibly the first full-time Maori potter.”

Riddell was later joined by Nathan and Urlich, along with Paerau Corneal and Wi Taepa. “Dubbed The Tight Five or Nga Tokorima, they have since nurtured and been added to by an accomplished new generation of Maori ‘Muddies,’” the release continues. The artists visiting Astoria include Riddell, Taepa, and Corneal, as well as Dorothy Waetford, Carla Ruka, Rhonda Halliday, Stevei Houkamau, Karuna Douglas, and Todd Douglas.

Since that first visit, members of the Uku have visited Astoria three times, each time further strengthening the cultural bond. Earlier this month, Rowland and the artists lead workshops in working with clay. About 40 students – ranging in age from 15 to 85 – created individual tiles representing themselves and the local environment. The artists also worked with cancer caregivers at the Columbia Memorial Hospital-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative.

Maori clay artists gather outside the Columbia Memorial Hospital-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative, where they taught caregivers the benefits of working with clay. Photo courtesy: Richard Rowland

“It all had to do with working with clay, showing them the channels of what you can achieve by working with clay and how it helps the mind and spirit,” said Todd Douglas, one of the visiting artists. “I think it went really well. The interaction with the local people has uplifted the spirits. The students we worked with were new to the medium and enthusiastic.”

The artists were welcomed by Chinookan tribal members, a gesture meant to re-establish and strengthen their ties to Pacific Rim cultures, Rowland said.

“We’ve developed a community in Astoria that is very, very aware of indigenous people,” Rowland said. “Because the Pacific Rim was a route of migration where all peoples, including Hawaii, were moving. The migration route includes New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji, Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and back into the west.

“This is a transformation of community. We began by planting a seed and 300 years from now they will check and see what we started. This is a very, very native, indigenous idea. These things are alive. They are organisms and we’ll let them grow as we can.”

Besides sharing seeds of friendship, the artists planted seeds of four trees. The seeds of two western red cedars were named for Nathan and Urlich and represent the indigenous communities, both symbolically and culturally, Rowland said.

“The other two trees are for the future generations of worker artists and those two were apple trees.”

The northern Oregon Coast is not so different from his homeland, Douglas said. “There are a lot of commonalities. Fishing. The ring of fire. Culturally, we share similar beliefs in the spirit of water and the idea of life. When we met with the local natives, it was wonderful, beautiful, from the heart.”

“In two years’ time, we will have a cultural exchange with Richard and his friends coming back to our place. It will be a similar exchange. Storytelling, exposing what we believe and teaching as well.”

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Members of the Nga Kaihanga Uku/Maori Clay Artists Collective from New Zealand will give a lecture and slide presentation from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, in the Clatsop Community College Art Center. Admission is free to students, donations are encouraged from others.

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