Throwing form: A renowned pottery maker shares his ancient craft

Ultimate artisan Peter Collis shares his craft secrets in a creative master class with Pilsner Urquell.

Over the thrum of a whirling pottery wheel Peter Collis has a captivated crew, talking about his ceramic craft while casually throwing his perfect, signature orb. Unfazed by the buzz about him as fellow artisans gather for a master class in ceramics, Collis spins the potter’s wheel and turns back time.

He tells us he started making pottery in Auckland when he was 14-years-old. He wasn’t taught by anyone; rather, he frequented the pottery room at high school while in detention. While cleaning the room, a group of wayward friends would spin the wheels and they all became skilled at throwing pottery. However, Collis was the only one who stayed on at seventh form and, despite distractions, spent most of the year in the pottery room. “I spent my seventh form year making pottery and chasing her around the prefects room… and playing rugby”, says Collis with a nod to his wife Julie, who shares the Birkenhead studio.

David Holan, Pilsner Urquell’s brand ambassador is also giving guests an education in beer this evening, matching Collis’ 30 years of experience in ceramics with Pilsner Urquell’s one hundred and seventy-plus years in brewing. “We see brewing a beer is a craft, same as the pottery, same as glass blowing,” he says, before he put his foot down on a pottery wheel.

Collis is also joined by the Keepers of the Craft, fellow artisans who  have been brought together by Pilsner Urquell to share their passion for creating authentic, hand-made goods. To capture his audience Collis talks of 12th century China. Wearing soon to be clay-splashed aprons, the craftsmen listen in. Guan ware, the crackle-glazed pottery they will try their hand at, was originally reserved for emperors and wealthy delegates.

Beau Tanner, Southern Anchor

Collis’ crackle pieces, which he makes with his own mid-fire kiln technique, reveals a unique cracked pattern when rubbed with Indian ink – it’s a messy job, so Julie hands out plastic gloves. “Every piece is an individual, like a thumbprint so it fascinates me,” Collis says of the one-off pieces being dyed tonight. Consequentially, it’s the first piece top chefs ask for when they make the pilgrimage to this studio for Collis’ sought after restaurant ware.

Collis says top-end restaurants have spurred a ceramic renaissance. “The young people are more into food and that’s helped this huge revival.” Collis’ kiln is in hot demand by Auckland’s finest restaurants including Cazador, The Sugar Club, Clooney and Sidart. “The reason I started with the chefs was because they are the new artists, the trendsetters,” he says.

With so many elements in each food dish, Collis sees the importance in creating a beautiful canvas for their work. “The only people that have a bigger ego than me at the moment are the chefs,” jokes Collis. Somehow, I don’t see either party having an overly large ego. Sitting on a plastic school chair, hardy enough for the job, Collis wipes the porcelain off his hands on an old towel. Cazador’s Dariush Lolaiy standing nearby is intrigued in Collis’ work and grateful for a chance to try out a new craft.

Peter Collis and Jessica-Belle Greer

Although Collis says he was very lucky to start in the “hey-day” of pottery, when hippies were ‘in’ and Crown Lynn was protected by foreign trade policies, there was still nowhere to learn. Ceramic courses are still limited in New Zealand, with pottery courses having huge waiting lists, he says.

The members of the Keepers of the Craft have skipped the queue tonight. Beau Tanner, who makes bespoke leather products as one half of Southern Anchor, was especially looking forward to giving the wheel a spin, having also made a lot of pottery in high school. He admits working with ceramic is very different to working with leather, but he is a natural with both.

The current demand for pottery skills has led Collis to teach his craft for Otago Polytechnic’s Diploma of Ceramic Arts as well as at his own workshops. “When you teach a class young people come in with their iPhones and say, ‘I want to make this’… and it’s really cool because you have this whole new growth.”

The members of this special class have come with an open mind, ready to give it all a go. Collis is right at home. After an artisan barbeque respite, including sausages from Westmere Butcher and authentic Czech sauerkrat from ZeLi!, Collis jokes about and asks for another beer as the artisans compete for the smoothest spun plate.

When the guild of artisans jump on the potter’s wheel pedal the appreciation for ceramics was deepened. Coaxing the clay, feeling the wheel and smoothing out the objects was a lot harder than it looked.

Passing on his skills to his like-minded peers tonight is a “thrill and an honour” for the unassuming Collis. It’s also an honour for the small handful of craftsmen in the studio who like to get their hands dirty. 

Main Image: Peter Collis and Dariush Lolaiy, Cazador