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Deirdre Airey Artist in Clay

1 January 2009

A Project by the Friends of Deirdre Airey:
Dr Rachel Garden
Wailin Elliott  
Jenny Dow
In collaboration with Waikato Museum 

18 October 2008 - 25 January 2008

Deirdre Airey: Artist in Clay
Deirdre Airey, The Annunciation

Deirdre Airey Q.S.M., MB.,ChB.(1926 - 2002) was the local doctor in Coromandel for 25 years. Inspired by her friend Barry Brickell she started working in clay to express her interest in religious art. Her relief tiles are formed from terracotta (earthenware) clay, prepared and wood-fired at Driving Creek Potteries. Her work is now in private collections, in churches, and purchased by the Museum of New Zealand-Te Papa Tongarewa. After her death in 2002, the Friends of Deirdre Airey mounted an exhibition in Coromandel with the help of Creative New Zealand. The Waikato Art Museum will now help to share her legacy with other regional centres.

The Friends of Deirdre Airey
Wailin Elliott 
Jenny Dow
Dr Rachel Garden

Not Italian, but Coromandel Local

An abridged account by Jenny Dow, fellow artist and friend
Easter 2003

Deirdre had grown up with access to an academic community, her father a Professor of History at Auckland University. Artists, critics and religious (i.e.of the religious orders), past and present to whom she’d entertainingly refer. It was a community of like-minded people, to which she still belonged and communicated with. She had a very active mind and had definite likes and dislikes that seemed to manifest from some aesthetic canon of criticism.

The relief format was a standard way of presenting the Stations of the Cross in churches; pictorial reflections for churchgoers on the various incidents of Christ’s journey to his crucifixion on Calvary. Deirdre’s tiles are similar in size and reflective function. (Some of her first tiles were the Stations on St Colman’s Church walls, Coromandel.) Because she preferred a firing that gave her tiles more a bronze patina (a “topping” she called it) than a terracotta colour, the bronze reliefs of Italian Renaissance artists (e.g.Ghiberti) are also a natural association.

Like the early Italian artists, Deirdre told Testament stories through stance and gesture, and the relationship between the figures, based on observation of everyday life.  While the characters in Deirdre’s tiles are anonymous, without faces or personal features, their biblical locations, like those of Giotto and Duccio are often local. Not Italian, but Coromandel local.
Colin McCahon may have been her model and in his kinship with the early Italians. She believed him to have genius. His Testament references to, and interpretations of rural New Zealand landscape and people would have spoken loudly to Deirdre.  She shared that time and outlook on New Zealand. The early pre- renaissance masters enjoyed a similar modesty and scale of life that he expressed in his semi- rural scenes.

There were areas in current art practice that Deirdre strongly disapproved of.
Deirdre didn’t care for a lot of contemporary art in the 1990’s.  She once said that in the present art scene “there was an enormous challenge to keep faith with oneself.”, that sophistication and fashion could drown an inner voice.

Artist to Artisan abridged account by Barry Brickell – Driving Creek Potteries, Coromandel, a potter and long time friend of Deirdre’s
Feb 2004

Before Deirdre started making clay relief tiles, she had been doing many pencil sketches and drawings, mostly landscapes and natural features. Terracotta became the medium in which Deirdre worked for the rest of her life.

Deirdre was a regular visitor to my pottery studio.  It was often done as a means of relief from the human and physical demands of a country GP.  My own part in her artistic world was in preparing the clay to her requirements, and then firing the tiles, also to her requirements. 

She already had a knowledge of, and feeling for, medieval “renaissance” and later religious art, enhanced by her earlier travels through Europe and through an extensive collection of her own books.  I was immediately impressed by her early compositions, for the “Stations” tiles.  By this stage she had learned to hand-form the slabs of clay into the shape desired and to finger-pinch the relief figures and objects of the highly considered compositions. She could organise images without the need for finer detail, yet retaining their essence, into balanced compositions. Flat, undetailed surfaces could be made to contrast with more highly worked areas, to give a variety of dramatic messages.  Then she found how raised edges contrasted with flat edges could enhance the composition of a tile.  It was indeed a very exciting experience for her, attempting to translate what she knew and felt about painted art works into two-and-one half dimensional works in clay. Towards the end of life, the arthritis in her fingers became so bad that I had to supply her clay in a soft butter-like condition in order for her to work it. As it dried slowly under her strict control, she could then complete the finer textures in each composition. In supplying this clay, she hinted that I was now the doctor providing the medicine that she needed.

Deirdre became a convert to Catholicism. As an avid student of the Bible and the Catholic catechism she was able to draw upon stories, parables and images (and also Shakespearean scenes), which enriched her imagination and therefore her art. Apart from a few tiles “depicting” local identities, her work was based almost entirely on religious themes.


My Friend Deirdre

By Michael O'Donnell 2004 – Michael is a well-known Coromandel Potter

Sometimes she was
A bit of an enigma
To me…
Gnarly and seeming
Grumpy exterior
Until that is
You saw her hands bent
And curled pushing
These mountains of wet clay
Relief to her feeling
Life and death and intelligence to her scripture
The space between the light
And the shadow
She was always fussy about the light
And the shadow…
Especially when we hung her work
Without her
And she relished coming in later
Guffawing  croaking
Muttering  profundity
Rarely to submit
We may have got it right
I miss her
She hauled me out years of ago
To share my work
I don’t know how she knew
Must have been watching
Watching. Between her smokes
A coughing   wheezed …squeezed
Through a diagnosing discerning eye
Prescribing   critical…
Always prescribing…

Of Faith and Clay

By Wailin Elliott – Local potter at Driving Creek Potteries

It was in the early 1960s when Barry Brickell introduced me to his friend Deirdre Airey.  When Deirdre retired and began making relief tiles from clay, she was able to meld her love of clay with her deep religious feelings for the bible. I was quite in tune with that as scriptures meant a great deal to me as well. With our combined love of Scripture, Deirdre, Tom and I had joint exhibitions of our scriptural works. Tom’s carving in wood; Deirdre’s and mine in clay. When her friend, Father Eugene O’Sullivan, suggested that our works would show best in a church setting, Deirdre jumped at the idea when he said he would organise a suitable venue. An exhibition called Ikon was held in the Methodist Church in Queen Street, opposite the Auckland Town Hall, for a week before Easter, 1983.

Deirdre was a leading light in helping build the new Coromandel Library building and made a set of tiles depicting former librarians, now displayed on the walls of the library. Coromandel town has great cause to be thankful to Deirdre Airey, for what she achieved for the town and for all the help and advice she wholeheartedly gave to anybody who asked. She had a commanding presence and though she is no longer with us, her presence can still be felt.

Parting Gifts

An abridged account by Dr Rachel Garden

Deirdre was a very dear friend, and I miss her greatly.

I met Deirdre through Janet Paul. I think it was around 1990 that Janet phoned to say she was going to stay with her friend Dr Deirdre Airey in Coromandel town, she suggest I come and visit them both. She wanted me to meet Deirdre, felt sure that we would like each other. She laughed about the pitfalls of assuming such things about other people, but was sure we would get on. Janet also asked me to bring some paintings to show her, she was excited I had started painting.

Typically, I would paint for a few hours on the hills en route to her place. I would take every new painting since my last visit, including unfinished works. We would lunch and talk over my works, her works, our latest reading, thinking, and families.

The last time I saw Deirdre was late June 2002. We arrived a little later than intended, although I had not as usual, stopped to paint on the hills. Deirdre had forgotten when we phoned that she was going to Mass that evening, and she greeted us by noting this had lead her to an interesting meditation on “Faith and Friendship”. When the time came near for Mass, Deirdre gave me a tile that was intensely important to her – The Motorway Cutting Across a Hillside, made years earlier in response to the sudden death of Veronica Black, in an horrendous motorway accident. She grappled with the theme of “progress” of roads and hills, finally and beautifully resolved in this tile. I was surprised at her giving it to me asking, could she really part with it? “Only to you”, she said, and it was as if she was saying goodbye.

A little later, Emily and I watched as she drove her chair down the curve of the garden path and on to St Colman’s Church next door. She looked full of joy and waved back to us as she entered, her face lit up. It was our last goodbye.

Deirdre Airey on the Wood-firing method

 Wood firing produces the lustre and variations in colour on terr cotta.  Dry pine is the timber mainly used. In the small kiln we use, firing takes 8 – 12 hours, with continuous stoking for slow and steady build up of heat. This is assessed by the whiteness of the flame, and the use of cones, which bend over at various temperatures, as, viewed by a peephole in the kiln chamber. The play of flame rising inside the firebox deposits ash, which then burns off, giving a slight glaze and the chances of colour. Variations depend on place in the kiln and the firing itself, and are rather unpredictable.

A Chronology
 Deirdre Airey was born to Bill and Isabel Airey, Christchurch.
 She was later educated at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School
1951 Graduated from Otago University School of Medicine with a MB.ChB, practicing  medicine in Auckland and later to Britain for medical experience overseas.
 During this time overseas, some was spent as a ship’s surgeon.
1960 Returned to New Zealand and was appointed as a part time superintendent of  Coromandel Hospital with the right of private practice. Her dedication to wider
 Thames – Coromandel district eventually gained her the Queen’s Service Medal.
1980s Active member of the Coromandel arts community, exhibiting and assisting in organising exhibitions. Deirdre worked with potter Barry Brickell. Barry hand wedged and delivered clay from the Coromandel hillsides to Deirdre for
 her work.
1983 Deirdre is invited to exhibit in a group show of Christian art at the Methodist   Church, Queen Street, Auckland. Other contributors to the show were her   friends Tom and Wailin Elliott and Barry Brickell and local Serbian Monks who  painted ikons.
1987 Deirdre develops severe rheumatoid arthritis and becomes wheelchair bound,  continuing though with her work with clay relief works. Deirdre retires as the local  G.P.
1990s Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington acquire three works of Deirdre’s
2002 Deirdre passes away in Coromandel aged 76 years of age
2004 Friends of Deirdre Airey mount a tribute exhibition of many of her works at   Hauraki House in Coromandel which is opened by the Honourable Cath Tizard.

See for an on-line catalogue of Deirdre Airey works

MICHAEL KING (1945-2004)

Deirdre herself was an immensely charismatic person who had a profound influence on those around her other artists and workers in clay, but also fellow art admirers; and any published catalogue documenting her work would explore her reverberative influence on a wide spectrum of other practitioners, including writers such as myself.
Deirdre was of course an influential part of a Coromandel arts and crafts subculture, which includes the likes of Barry Brickell and his protégés, and this group too needs to be better known and understood nationally.

Tim Walker

Director of The Dowse,
Upper Hutt,
Deirdre’s work has particular importance not only for its own fine qualities, but also for its influences on and from local artists such as Coromandel potter Barry Brickell.

Dr Francis Pound

Art History Lecturer, Art Writer
Airey, like McCahon and like Angus, and like many New Zealand artists and writers of their time, is clearly a lover of Quattrocento Italian art, both for its style and its Christian subject matter. This love is everywhere visible in her work. Like McCahon, she takes the traditional biblical stories and places them in a local, New Zealand context – a device borrowed from 15th Century Italian and Flemish artists. At the same time, the style of her reliefs, in its disposal of narrative figures in a box–like or stage-like space, and with the action performed parallel to the relief plane (the actual flat, background plane), has its origin in Quattrocento reliefs. Airey is an interesting manifestation of the evocative Christianity of so much of New Zealand art of the period.

Natasha Conland

Curator Art and Visual Culture
Museum of New Zealand
Te Papa Tongarewa
Deirdre was an innovative thinker who used clay to express her strongly held beliefs and convictions, rather than the use of paint which had been the more accepted conventional medium. The terracotta material she chose, has a strong lineage and relationship to many New Zealand ceramic artists such as Barry Brickell, Len Castle, Tony Fomison, Helen Mason and Warren Tippet, all who elected to work with the raw ‘gritty’ qualities of Coromandel clay.

All Object Photography – Erana Ngakuru, Waikato Museum