A New Plymouth artist puts her stamp in clay

From cakes to pottery, Juliet Larkin’s studio in Moturoa is a place to taste clay.

The large space below Tiger Town Café used to be the production kitchen for Anderson’s Pies, but is now filled with clay sculptures with an organic, almost sci-fi flavor, some functional pieces, including bowls, mugs and cups, and bold ceramic earrings.

There are four pottery wheels she uses to teach, two kilns, one her grandfather used for enamel work, a printing press that belonged to her grandmother, a selection of handmade inks and drawing books.

“There’s definitely a pattern of clay that appears in my life and reappears, as if I’m not done with it yet.”

For the first time, Larkin will open her studio to the Taranaki Arts Trail from October 28 to November 6.

She is one of 79 artists in the trail, which runs alongside the 10-day Taranaki Garden Festival with 43 entries and the Taranaki Sustainable Backyards Trail, with 30 properties.

The New Plymouth ceramist was introduced to clay by a neighbor in Dunedin when she was four or five years old.

“Artist Zuna Wright invited me and some other kids in the neighborhood to make clay animals on her kitchen table,” Larkin says.

Larkin's second experience with clay was as a teenager in night school.

VANESSA LAURIE/Things

Larkin’s second experience with clay was as a teenager in night school.

When she was 15, Larkin and a friend took part in a clay hand-building evening class — previously the pair had attended evening polytech silver jewelry classes.

At the end of the clay course, they freed themselves from unwanted works.

“We took all our ugly pieces and smashed them to pieces outside in an old parking garage. A lot comes loose when you break pottery.”

In the early 1990s, she studied for a Diploma in Fine Arts at Otago Polytech, majoring in sculpture.

She also did some modules in ceramics and enjoyed firing raku and working with heat and fire, including soldering and welding.

In her mid-20s, Larkin spent two years in Japan teaching English and joined a small pottery group nearby.

“The teacher was a little old man in his eighties who had been a prisoner of war,” she says.

“In Japan I learned how to throw at the wheel and fell in love with pottery, met great people and was welcomed into a community.

“There were all kinds of people in that class, from a truck driver to college students to moms.”

Before pottery, Larkin worked in journalism and communications.

VANESSA LAURIE/Things

Before pottery, Larkin worked in journalism and communications.

Back in New Zealand, she made pottery sporadically at the Invercargill Pottery Club and then moved to Taranaki in 2012 (after living in the region in 2000-2002).

Beginning in the early 2000s, Larkin followed a path to writing and journalism and then to communications and public affairs.

But clay continued to bother her.

In 2021, she was fired from her communications role at Methanex in northern Taranaki and had time to pause and ask herself, “What do I want to do?”

She had been teaching wheeling at the New Plymouth pottery club for a few years and loved it.

The answer became clear: “Stuff it, I’m going to do more of this – do what makes me feel good.”

“This” is her art-filled studio full of light and promise. “This place feels like it’s perfect for me.”

In addition to the art of making, she also works two days a week as a communications consultant for Wild For Taranaki, Tō Tātou Taiao – Maranga Papatūānuku, an organization dedicated to restoring, enhancing and protecting the unique biodiversity of Taranaki.

Although she makes tableware, Larkin says she's not a production potter.

VANESSA LAURIE/Things

Although she makes tableware, Larkin says she’s not a production potter.

Fit and energetic, she enjoys the outdoors, especially surfing, climbing, skiing/ski touring and running.

In her studio, Larkin is also committed to the environment by recycling clay and water and never putting clay or glaze water in the plug hole.

Making with clay, especially working on the wheel, is a soothing process for the artist.

“When you’re completely in the flow, you don’t think much,” she says.

“You get so absorbed in the work that nothing else exists. I think it’s just a sense of time to stand still, you’re not overthinking, not filled with thoughts, (it’s) some kind of well-being and joy.”

Laughing, Larkin explains that it’s not always bliss.

“I can have a damn awful day behind the wheel and you don’t get it (the flow).

“I am by no means a production potter,” she says.

But she does enjoy making tableware and appreciates using and connecting with handcrafted pieces rather than mass production.

“I think in general we don’t value objects,” she says.

“We are disconnected from how things are made and that is part of our throw-away society and the environmental problems facing the planet.

“When you make things — whether it’s sewing, knitting, or cooking from scratch, we start to appreciate things more.”

Larkin's focus is now on hand-built sculptural pieces.

VANESSA LAURIE/Things

Larkin’s focus is now on hand-built sculptural pieces.

The mother-of-two points to a table made for her by husband Greg Larkin and son Harrison, which she fully appreciates because it was built from scratch.

“I am currently focused on my hand-built sculptural pieces. I like to push it as far as I can, but that does mean I have total failures,” she says, picking up a major work that flopped in the kiln.

“For now, clay is my main medium, although I am interested in other materials. I am interested in the materiality of objects that determine my work. Not interested in making beautiful objects.”

Daughter Sylvia would agree.

In December 2021, Larkin was named the top winner of the New Plymouth Potters 48th Annual Exhibition, with a large, hand-rolled bowl, which it took her two weeks to make during the lockdown.

“My daughter said it was the ugliest thing she’d seen in her life.”

But for the potter, the bowl represents growth and change.

“Making it, building things by hand, throwing it on the wheel or just a variation. It’s about making your ideas come true.”

Sometimes those creative thoughts come at odd times, especially at night when she’s in bed.

“I have to get up and write things down, otherwise it’s playing too much in my head.

“The ideas stuff have been happening for quite a long time and now I just have to go ahead and do a body of work and then have an exhibition.”

Local treasures

For brunch, lunch or dinner by the sea, head to Gusto Restaurant Café and Bar in Port Taranaki. When the tide is out, you may be able to watch stingrays glide by as you feast on seafood, top-notch burgers, or eggs benedict, or enjoy a platter while sipping on coffee, cocktails, wine, or craft beer. Open seven days at 31 Ocean View Parade, New Plymouth.

Sentiments Flowers is a place for flowers, gifts and cards, with an emphasis on New Zealand flowers and Kiwi-made products. Found in the Moturoa Shopping Centre, the old florist is the perfect place to find those extra goodies, including candles, soaps, bath salts, jewelry, wall art, books and candies. Open Monday to Saturday at 502 St Aubyn St, Moturoa, New Plymouth.

For high-end second-hand clothing, the Moturoa Shopping Center is the place to visit. It is home to three such stores: August Pre-loved Boutique, specializing in New Zealand and Australian labels, The Style Counsel, which describes itself as “the most stylish and funniest pre-adored store in New Plymouth” and Petals Pre -loved, a place to find treasures.

• This story is published as a collaboration between the Taranaki Daily News and the arts festival’s TAFT charity.

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