Mirek Smisek 1925 -2013
What a life it was, and how well it was lived!
Born in Bohemia in what was then Czechoslovakia, Mirek was 15 when the German Army invaded in 1939. He and his friend Milos Stefanek declared their own war and joined protest groups cutting telegraph wires, throwing rocks and distributing pamphlets for which they were sent to a forced labour camp in Austria. Labouring in the steel works they sabotaged what they could and some months later escaped, with the intent of getting to England to help the Allies but were caught at the Swiss border and interrogated, beaten and interned in a number of prisons in Germany where they survived by watching one another’s backs. Eventually they were returned to the Austrian steel works for more hard labour where they renewed their sabotage activities. They again escaped but were caught once more, this time just before the Czech border and returned to prison camp. Eventually in 1945 the camp collapsed with the retreat of the German Army and Mirek and Milos walked out and all the way back to Czechoslovakia and home. There they found the Communists taking over and once more felt obliged to rebel against totalitarianism. They saw they must leave, so in September,1946, they escaped USSR dominated Czechoslovakia leaving behind homes and families, perhaps forever. In post-war West Germany Mirek worked for British Intelligence searching out Nazis but realised that this vengeance was not what he wanted from life and instead, saw the future framed with creativity and the positive rather than anything Europe might offer at the time.
Mirek and Milos emigrated to Australia where, as assisted contracted immigrants, they were sent to Canberra to work and Mirek attended pottery classes in the evenings. After a year he went to Sydney where he worked for the Diana Pottery as designer and one famous product was the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ jugs and beer steins which featured, in low relief, kangaroos and swaggies and played the tune when lifted. The irony was not lost on him – that a refugee recent arrival should be responsible for about 6000 iconic works of Australiana.
New Zealand, Auckland then Nelson.
He moved again in 1951, this time to Auckland, with his new wife Nona Whitbread and almost immediately was employed at Crown Lynn as clay preparator and helper to Ernie Shufflebotham. His first son was born. In spare time he practiced on the wheel and his Bohemia ware, in collaboration with Shufflebotham, was produced at this point. But, the following year he moved to Nelson as manager for Nelson Brick and Pipe Company. He set about researching in geological reports and exploring the area for better fireclays and china clays to perfect the bricks. He noted the plasticity and saw potential for his own domestic ware that he was designing and making for firing alongside the factory production. He began teaching and soon had five classes a week with about 80 students. His second son was born. He left the brickworks to concentrate on his own production and the teaching and was cited as New Zealand’s first full-time potter.
However during the 1930s there were several women who made their livings with earthenware for the domestic interior, and even earlier, the nascent pottery industry imported and employed skilled craftsmen from Stoke-on-Trent to make a variety of wares that were fired in the pipe salt kilns. But it is Mirek who is granted the appellation of being our first studio potter. He was well supported by many of the Nelson community plus the Nelson Suter Art Society and given an old fruit shed - at one pound a week – as studio where he built kilns and experimented with salt glaze.
While he was fully engaged with teaching and making his own wares, the styles of which were mainly influenced by his background in Europe, there arrived in Nelson Terry Barrow, Len Castle and Barry Brickell on a geological expedition. They met with Mirek and, between expeditions for clays by day and philosophical discussions late into the nights, introduced him to the Leach Book with its transformative chapter, Toward a Standard that Mirek cited for the remainder of his career. “It was a creative philosophy directed to inspire people for a richer, more expressive life”.
He made his first trip to Japan in 1961. There he was given space to work at Kyoto University and more space to build kilns. Many fine potters came through during that six months and among them, Bernard Leach, who invited him to work at St Ives. This he did in 1963/4 where he was part of the team making production ware for St Ives while developing his own work after hours. On his return he built two new kilns. Many believe that the pieces made at this juncture, with their finely salted surfaces and well designed, neatly thrown functionality to be among his strongest work. Often they featured additions of intricately woven cane handles and stoppers made by Doug Price.
In 1965 came the most anticipated, discussed and attended visit which attracted potters from all over the country – the arrival of Shoji Hamada to Christchurch for the Pan Pacific Arts Festival. Mirek was his chief helper, mixer of glazes, wedger of clays and kicker of wheel. The famous photograph by George Kohlap, Sunday at Arthur’s Pass showing, carefully arranged on the rocks around a mountain stream, was the then ‘inner circle’ of NZ pottery, except two were missing. Hamada was taking some rest while Mirek was firing the kiln back at Yvonne Rust’s studio. There is a lovely image on p.81 of Cone Ten Down, showing Hamada and Mirek quietly taking coffee beside the kiln shed.
Clearly Hamada saw promise in Mirek for he invited him to Japan which was made possible in 1967 by a Japanese Government Travel Award to visit and to study the folk potteries in Southern Japan.
The following year Mirek moved to the Kapiti area with Jane Beverley and his daughter Hana was born. He moved to TeHoro in 1969 and he made a studio, and later accommodation for students and guests, in the old railway station buildings he had moved there. These were most productive years. He participated in the Japan Expo in 1970 and exhibited with other leading NZ potters at the V&A in London in 1972. His work was part of a NZ Government gift to Queen Elizabeth in 1974 and he was granted QEII Arts Council Travel Award to view Jomon pottery in Japan and English medieval pots in the Guildhall Museum, London. He received the World Crafts Council Diploma for Distinguished Work and exhibited in Toronto, Canada.
He had clients still from Nelson while being in easy travelling distance from Wellington where, via a major solo exhibition he was given at The Dowse, his profile was greatly enhanced. He built two beautiful beehive kilns housed beneath old railway structures and the work sold briskly from the retail set-up he was able to add to the property. His ‘Open Kiln Day’ was so popular that people would sometimes arrive as much as three days prior so as to be first in line for purchases and the festivities which included dance companies performing and folk musicians singing, a chamber music group playing or poetry readings and story-telling sessions. They were mini-arts festivals with the added bonus of great sales. Pamela Ansouth joined Mirek at this exciting stage after meeting him at one of the highly regarded Palmerston North Training College Summer Schools in ceramics organised by Stan Jenkins in the late 70’s.
Mirek erected a 10 metre high crow’s nest so he might see the sea and the surrounding Tararua Ranges and he was part of the ‘naturalised pot’ movement where aspects of New Zealand’s landscape was evident in the work. For Mirek, as for Len Castle, it was a material, often linear interpretation combined with evocative glaze finishes and rich, germane coloration. The Te Horo kilns produced a more generous, fulsomely fluid, salt glaze that Mirek frequently applied over sgraffito through coloured slips, parallel linear lines or cross-hatching that caught the flow of salt at high temperatures. Such lush finishes aptly suited the more expressive style he had steadily developed since moving to Kapiti and cut rims particularly, mirrored the undulations of the surrounding hills while the salt highlights reflected light off the nearby water.
In 1997 he and Pamela moved to Weggery Drive in Waikanae with direct access to the water and beach and for which a semi-retirement was planned but – unable to continue firing salt there on the suburban coast he installed gas kilns and again the work changed. This later work was softer, without the crispness of profile of the Nelson or TeHoro works and surfaces, naturally, were much altered in character. But his much admired ‘Snowglaze’, with its icing-sugary surface and sometimes soft undulations of delicate colour cloaking a bowl that could still amply demonstrate his years of expert handling and love of the clay, offered much to respect and appreciate. It was a third stage in a well-spent lifetime of creative endeavor. At this point also he gained much delight in teaching local children various ways of making in clay and he effectively communicated his pleasure in creating with a next generation.
In 1980 the Suter Gallery exhibited his work celebrating 25 years since his arrival there and again in 1994 to mark his 40 years of making and creating. He was always one of Nelson’s favourite sons. He continued travels and studies and visited the USA, Europe and japan in ’82 and exhibited at Saltzbrand, Germany in ’86 while the following year he exhibited in the USA with others of Leach/St Ives lineage. In 1989, with the fall of the ‘Wall’ he returned to Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia to visit family and again in 1991 to study Bohemian and Moravian ceramics. In 1990 he was awarded the OBE for services to NZ arts and in 2000 made the pots for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. In 2003 he received the Governor General’s Art Award and was made Fellow of the NZ Academy of Fine Arts. He was presented with the Medal of the Senate of the Czech Republic in 2008 and the following year exhibited at the Wallenstein Palace in Prague at the invitation of the Senate of the Czech Republic.
My own favourite personal memory of Mirek was from Prague, Czech Republic in 1994. I had suggested he come as the International Academy of Ceramics was meeting there that year. The Czechs were most hospitable and we were privileged in visiting the old storage rooms of museums, fantastical castles in remote, carefully preserved medieval townships and personal collections of early industrial wares from Europe’s discovering porcelain days held in grand apartments. Mirek was, as was his wont, fully engaged and delighted with all that was on offer. I best recall, late one moonlit night after return from a coach-trip somewhere, a group of us crossing the Vlata River via the Charles Bridge which was a wide, cobble-stoned, pedestrian-only structure lined every ten metres by bronze statuary of historical figures in Czech history (including good King Wenceslas who last looked out quite a while ago). Ahead was a cliff and on that cliff was Prague castle, by then brilliantly illuminated by lighting (we were five years after the overthrow of Communism) We were, all 12-15 of us, arm-in-arm walking along, ceramists from all over the world – France, Germany, USA, Argentina, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Italy and Hungary, Norway and Turkey plus we two from Down-under. Many of them were very well-known ceramists and we were having a ball! Mirek was floating.... He was so proud that Prague had put on a wonderful assembly enjoyed by every participant, and exhibited some of the finest old and new ceramics from every corner of the world it seemed. And Prague was looking so very beautiful! Its historical centre, with the world’s greatest mix of architectural styles, from medieval to Art Deco once again come to vibrant life. This was his city! And he was beaming with pleasure and pride! I shall not forget it.
His was a life spent in creativity – the course he determined following all those war-time hardships and privations. Creativity was his antidote and the only way to spend a life in his estimation. His acquaintance with the Leach philosophy, which he honoured and spoke warmly about all his life, was icing on the gingerbread. We were lucky to have him, with his generosity of spirit and celebratory nature, among us for so long. It was a well-spent time on earth and while some years were harder than others, and health issues prevailed at times, he remained an optimist throughout.
I, for one, will miss him and his beaming smile every time I pass near Kapiti.
A service of memorial will be held at the Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington, on the finale of the tour of his exhibition, Sixty Years and Sixty Pots , assembled by Mahara Gallery
Sunday, June 9th at 3pm. All will be most welcome.
written by RFW