Head Potter Ian Foote: The ever-changing shapes of clay (and life)

Head Potter Ian Foote: The ever-changing shapes of clay (and life)

Although he’s talking about throwing pots, this description is also fitting for Ian Foote’s own journey as head potter for iconic Matakana pottery Morris & James. He’s been behind the throwing wheel for over 20 years now, living through a time of constant evolution and reinvention since he turned up at their front door looking for work in 1989.

Born in Thames, Ian’s parents farmed out on the rich alluvial flats of the Hauraki Plains, near the tiny dot on the map that is Waitakaruru. Far from the ordered dairy farms you see on the Plains today, back then Ian’s father bought his land when it was covered in scrub. “Dad cleared it, and dug all the drains, and built the house,” Ian remembers. “Back then you did it yourself or you didn’t do it at all, I guess.”

Ian was the youngest of five by a long way: he reckons he was a ‘surprise’ and was born 9 years after his last sibling. The family eventually moved into suburban Thames, where he went to Thames South Primary and then the local High School. He didn’t have any aspirations toward pottery back then, and found school a bit of a drag, although he did like art class. “I enjoyed it, I don’t know if I was any good at it! I just about failed it actually. But that’s more to do with mucking around than not being good at it, I think.”

After finishing school, Ian completed a horticultural apprenticeship but didn’t particularly enjoy this line of work. “I did a lot of weeding. In summer you’re head down, bum up, getting sunburnt and weeding 30,000 poplar trees.” So at the age of 21 he packed up and headed north on State Highway One to Warkworth, taking a groundsman’s job at Mahurangi College. He’s still not sure exactly how he then ended up knocking on the door of Morris & James -  just 10 minutes from Warkworth in neighbouring Matakana - partly because he never knew it existed until that day. “I think someone just suggested I call in here and see if there was anything available. I’m pretty sure the factory manager at the time said no, we don’t have anything going, but then a couple of days later he changed his mind and said we might have something for you.”

Initially Ian worked as a storeman, wrapping, unwrapping, and sending out orders. Back then the pottery was a large scale operation and the ceramics were packed into big collapsible containers for shipping off to the Morris & James showrooms in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. He was occasionally seconded into the pot team when they were short staffed, and he found he really enjoyed working with clay. He did more and more pot work until he eventually ended up on the team full-time.

Just 12 months after Ian started, Morris & James went into receivership. The showrooms in the main cities closed, and production was downscaled. It was a stressful time but the pottery did get back on its feet, and over the following years Ian became the senior thrower and go-to person on the making of pots. In 2009, in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, Morris & James was again struggling. The business left the hands of founder Ant Morris, and was bought by a small group of staff - including Ian - who were determined to turn it around. Making ceramics by hand is a labour-intensive process but this was a local business with values that reached past the bottom line, and the new group of owners stuck to their knitting.

“We’d probably make more money if we made everything from moulds,” says Ian. “A huge amount of our turnover becomes wages but this place has employed so many people in the area for so long. It’s looked after a whole bunch of families, for decades. Which is something that Ant was quite pleased about - he had a soft spot for ratbags and ruffians! It’s a settled and relaxed place now but it was fairly turbulent when I started.”

Morris & James continues to successfully walk the line between being a large studio and a small factory, Ian says, but because of this he doesn’t really feel like the potter he’s usually described as. “What we do here is more verging on manufacturing. We have our toes on both sides where we’re still hand-throwing and hand-making everything, but on a large scale.” Machinery does play a part (much of it delightfully old and quirky) such as the jiggers and jollies used for making plates and bowls. “These were used by Crown Lynn in Auckland in the 50s and 60s,” adds Ian, patting one of the old machines affectionately.

The manufacturing element also comes into play when creating new products. “You might come up with a really cool idea that you're excited about and then someone will say ‘ok, I’ll have 100 of those’,” grins Ian. “But that’s part of the job as well, working out how you’re going to make stuff efficiently. For example these feather panels, you can carve them out one at a time using a paper template but really, you’ve got to figure out how you can make multiple batches.”

What does Ian enjoy most about working with clay? “I quite like seeing things that you’ve imagined, become a thing. When you start with a plain cylinder of clay, in your mind’s eye you imagine what it’s going to be and you start filling that shape out, and then it becomes that thing. A bit like these houses here,” he says, pointing at a couple of his signature Tiny Houses on the workbench that he’s part way through making.

“They start out as a cylinder, then you beat them into shape and fold bits up - and if you want a tool, you go and grab a piece of wood and make it.” He holds up what looks like a well-worn mini cricket bat, dusty orange and covered in flakes and lumps of dried clay. This is what he uses to beat the houses square, and fashioned it himself from an old plank found on the scrap heap. “I don’t clean it because this is what gives the walls of the houses their texture.”

Ian says his life has been simple, but good. He has eight children; all six sons worked at the pottery part-time during their school years, in particular son Jesse who worked alongside him on the pot team for six years. Every day he rides his trusty Ducati motorbike to and from work, and even after three decades he can’t see a time when he won’t be working with clay. “I’d just quite like to keep throwing. Clay is such cool stuff, and you can make whatever you can imagine… if you have enough of it,” he chuckles.