Chris Green – The lost potter

“I treasure and respect old pots or any handmade craft objects.
I see them as friends and without getting all cosmic and woo-woo about stuff,
there’s a great deal more integrity in an honestly made pot, clay brick and forged gate hinge
than there is in many mass produced, plastic, fake throw away items one can buy today.”
(Extract from correspondence, 11 September 2010)

At first in the footsteps of the pioneer generation of South African potters working in the style of the Anglo-Oriental school and later, standing in equal stature in the ranks of those who mastered and excelled in high-temperature reduction-fired stoneware and porcelain, such was the good fortune of some of the studio potters who emerged in the 1970’s. They would pursue their personal derivative of Anglo-Oriental form and function yet always staying true to its ethics and aesthetics. Speeding past them was the train of modernism with conceptual ceramic art as its destination wherein, warned the British potter Mike Dodd “lies the gates of hell and the prison of the heart.”1

Any young potter wishing to compete for recognition alongside the master potters Esias Bosch (1923 – 2010), Tim Morris (1941 – 1990), Hyme Rabinowitz (1920 – 2009), Bryan Haden and Andrew Walford, would have to excel in technical skills, be fully familiar with the available materials and technology, have artistic talent yet know that in the submission to the intrinsic forces of clay and fire, something greater than what was intended, must be born.

The young potters of the 1970s had numerous advantages on their side: tertiary-level schools of art where pottery was included in the syllabus, a profusion of private pottery schools, new study and reference material, apprenticeships, the living examples of the master potters, galleries intent on promoting pottery as a collectable craft/art and a consumer market infatuated with the appeal of hand-made functional ware. Chris Green was one of them.

Born in Johannesburg in 1953, Green had the extra benefit of the guidance of a potter mother who was also a respected pottery teacher, the friendship of Morris, exposure to production pottery environments and most of all, “… loved the process and was deeply emotionally involved with the miracle of it.” Over a quarter of a century he refined his craft, produced pieces of exemplary quality and of high artistic value for which he gained recognition but then, in 1997, abandoned it all.

The story of Green’s life and work is also in part the story of South African studio potteries and production studios in general. The former being that of the individual craft-potter-artist and the latter being an industrialised venture where large numbers of specific forms are created but not sacrificing originality nor quality.

Chris Green - A Good Start

It all started at an early age. While on holiday on the Natal south coast, the very young Green and his two sisters Carol and Anne would be kept occupied and entertained with yellow terracotta clay which their mother Ruth (1916 - 1981) would source from small local potteries. Ruth had more than a passing interest in pottery. In the early 1960’s she studied pottery under John Edwards (19?? - 1989) initially at the Johannesburg Art School in Bok Street and then at his pottery school in Fellside, Johannesburg. In 1969 she established her own studio in Bryanston, Johannesburg and enrolled pupils from the nearby Redhill High School for pottery classes along with her evening classes for adults. Chris’ first love was the outdoors and wildlife but in his final year of high school he did dabble with clay in Ruth’s studio, doing some slab work. In 1971 he was conscripted for military service in the South African Air Force and on completion of that, enrolled for his BA degree (majoring in English) at the University of the Witwatersrand. He graduated in 1977.

It was at this time that Green read the book The Complete Book of Pottery Making by the American master potter John B. Kenny. One of his other reference sources was Harry Memmott’s The Australian Pottery Book: A comprehensive Guide to Pottery with full-colour photo sequences of throwing pots on the wheel. For Green, it was these step-by-step photo guides that opened the window onto the universe of pottery. In between his studies at university, he had continued working in Ruth’s studio, concentrating on figurative work, coiling and slabbing. Kenny’s book prompted him to pay more attention to throwing on the wheel and soon he knew how to throw relatively proficiently. He was fortunate to secure a place in Edwards’ very last month of teaching before that studio was sold to Digby Hoets and afterwards he kept on throwing during his free time at Ruth’s studio.

By then Green was familiar with the work of Morris and Bosch which he had seen at Fernand Haenggi’s Studio 101 and at Helen de Leeuw’s gallery, both in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. Via a friend’s mother who was acquainted with Morris, Green was introduced to the master potter at his studio in Muldersdrift in August 1973. Morris was at work throwing oil and vinegar bottles with impressive ease, fluidity and flair on a self-made wheel:

“He was halfway through throwing a board of 20 bottles… it was a revelation… as though I was used to seeing it in grainy black-and-white but now saw it all in high-definition colour… a conjuring trick. At last I understood this pottery thing.”

He became a frequent visitor to the Morris studio and through observation of his management of his materials and his throwing, Green’ own skills at throwing grew by quantum levels sufficiently so that he became the throwing teacher at Ruth’s studio. Confident of his own skills, he made tentative enquiries in 1974 to work at the Morris studio but Morris who by then had some discouraging experiences with other journeymen and was intent on establishing himself as a studio potter rather than as a production potter, dismissed Green’ aspirations. In December 1974 he travelled to Canada on family matters but was able to visit several studio potters who had set up workshops along the lines of the Morris and Walford studios. At the time it would have been feasible to set up a studio on his own or begin work in another studio. He also seriously entertained the idea of dropping his final year courses at the University of the Witwatersrand and enrolling at either the Sheridan College of Art or the Georgian College in Ontario to do a studio art and design course. These courses were very well formulated and were run by faculty and guest artists, much like the famous Harrow Art School in England. However, the appeal of the South African climate and a large network of friends were far greater and he returned to South Africa in January 1975.

Kolonyama - Learning the Business

Buoyed by his success in Pretoria at the first member exhibition of the recently founded Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA) where one of three submitted pieces was accepted and then purchased for the Corobrik Collection, Green made a firm decision to pursue a career as a potter. His one option was to join the team at Liebermann Pottery (established in 1952) in Wynberg, Johannesburg but working in a mass production “factory” facility held little appeal as compared to the small studios of Morris and others. By chance Green heard of a pottery workshop that would be hosted at the Kolonyama studio in Lesotho over the Easter period in 1975 and he decided to attend.

Kolonyama was established in May 1969 by the philanthropist-sponsor Ian Dare (1935 – 1998) and Joe Finch of Winchcombe Pottery in England with the objective of teaching pottery skills to local people and creating an income-generating community project. The son of the acclaimed Raymond Finch who was schooled in the Anglo-Oriental tradition under Michael Cardew (1901 - 1983), Joe was well-versed in the production of functional ware. In essence, says Green, Kolonyama was intrinsically a very conservative model founded on the old English earthenware style of pottery that Cardew revived and transposed in stoneware. Winchcombe was one of many “old country potteries” in one form or another that managed to last throughout the industrial revolution by producing large volumes of skilfully-made, cheap utilitarian ware. There were others like it in the U.S.A. and Europe and certainly in abundance in Asia. Raymond Finch who bought the pottery from Cardew, continued and further developed that legacy and was aided by Sid Tustin (1913 – 2000) who had worked there as a young boy and with Cardew. Finch succeeded in his efforts to make Winchcombe a modern success by turning it into a production studio making tableware for the new middle classes of the 1950’s and 60’s who were after more personal products. Winchcombe made attractive, well-thrown and finished tableware in a smooth stoneware body that was fired with diesel and later wood, but still using many of the older, hand craft techniques. That is what Joe Finch brought to Kolonyama. Within a period of 18 months at Kolonyama, a down-draught oil kiln of 2.8m3 was built and the studio equipped with a blunger, filter-press and throwing wheels. On Joe’s return to England, Raymond briefly took over the reins followed by Malcolm Bandtock who taught at the Harrow School of Art, London and then by Bill van Gilder. By the time of Van Gilder’s residency, Kolonyama was producing 3 000 to 5 000 pots per month in earthenware, stoneware and porcelain with “house glazes” ranging from satin-white feldspathic to celadon green and earthy-brown. The slip-trailed designs and decorative brushwork in iron, cobalt and wood-ash were distinguishing features of Kolonyama pieces.2,3 Another English potter, Toff Milway, joined Kolonyama in the latter part of 1974.

At the Easter 1975 workshop which was attended by esteemed potters such as Rabinowitz and Bosch, Green made a sufficiently good impression on Van Gilder and Milway to be invited by them to work at Kolonyama during his mid-term university vacation and that was followed by an offer to be apprenticed for a six month period starting January 1976 to help fill the gap left by Van Gilder, who had accepted the job of starting up and managing the pottery studio at Mantenga Craft Centre in Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland. When he reported for duty, Green was told that it would only be a three month long apprenticeship. This fuelled his desire to learn and do as much as possible within the apprenticeship period. He worked extended hours principally as a member of the throwing team but was also allowed to work in all the other areas of the pottery which gained him broad experience of production business. Central to all was to throw at high speed but with accuracy and economy: “I learned to throw the shapes cleanly and they only needed minimal turning afterwards to neaten the foot and base… it was throwing with all of your skills and all of your concentration”. The guidance and background rationale for the whole process was provided by Milway who had worked at Winchcombe for some time before attending the Harrow Art School’s ceramics course prior to moving to Lesotho to assist Van Gilder. Milway’s broad experience and generous sharing of the historical background and explaining the market–related demands of running a production studio, were the foundation of Green’s future work.


It was during this apprenticeship period that Morris offered Green the opportunity to work as a jobbing-thrower in his studio. Green would be throwing wine goblets for which he would earn 60 cents per piece. In April 1976, Green reported at the Morris studio and would work there until May in the following year when economic considerations forced Morris to lay off Green and two other apprentices. This was a period of honing his skills, says Green, who had to juggle university tutorials and assignments with his potting. It was also a period of being enriched with the knowledge of art, music, culture and life which Morris so generously shared. Morris had an altogether looser, more fluid way of throwing that was freer but just as fast as the tight production style of Kolonyama. He taught Green to have confidence in his work and to challenge himself in developing as a potter. In return, Green brought to the studio “my experience of production throwing at Kolonyama… the technique of making accurate form.” In time his throwing speed increased to “four mugs a minute” whereas Morris easily achieved five a minute whilst keeping up his non-stop banter about cricket, Mozart, the farm school or about the growing of vegetables. For the rest of 1977, Green worked as a shop fitter.

Matenga - Developing a Philosophy

The next significant event that would define him as a potter came when he was invited to a dinner hosted by Hoets with Bosch and Milway in attendance. Green was told that he was their choice of candidate to take over from Van Gilder as crafts manager at Mantenga. Green accepted and after a brief stay at the pottery before a briefer honeymoon in Canada with his wife Julie, he commenced work at Mantenga where he would stay until the end of that year. It was all about running a pottery business with the attendant technical challenges but also shaping his own philosophy about pottery. He re-read Michael Cardew’s Pioneer Pottery and found great value in the ceramic chemistry portions of the book. His first reading had focussed on the philosophical aspects of studio pottery. In Swaziland he was further exposed to several other designers and master craftspeople from Europe and the U.S.A. all of whom had a wealth of experience in the larger universe of the international craft and design markets. In this rich and stimulating environment he began to seriously explore the fundamentals of the modern expression of the Anglo-Oriental approach. He re-read Susan Peterson’s Sh?ji Hamada - A Potter’s Way and Work, Soetsu Yanagi’s (1889-1961) The Unknown Craftsman and A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach (1887-1979) who along with Sh?ji Hamada (1894–1978) and Michael Cardew (1901 – 1983) are considered the founders of the Anglo-Oriental school.

Craftsman-Potter v Artist-Potter.

In reviewing his pottery up to then, Green described himself a craftsman-potter rather than an artist-potter: “I didn’t need to express myself… I just wanted to make good stuff… technically impeccable pieces.” By his standards, a pot if well-thrown did not need to be “dressed-up with fancy glazes.”

Another book which he read in 1980 that was to influence his studio practice was Dennis Parks’ A Potter’s Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil firing. Parks’ starts his book with a quote from The Horses Mouth by Joyce Carey that Green liked so well that he copied it out and stuck it up on his studio wall:

“B-but, Mr Jimson, I w-want to be an artist”
“Of course you do,” I said, “everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the chicken-pox. Go home and go to bed and take some hot lemonade and put on three blankets and sweat it out.”
“But Mr J-Jimson, there must be artists.”
“Yes, and lunatics, and lepers, but why go and live in an asylum before you’re sent for? If you find life a bit dull at home,” I said,” and want to amuse yourself, put a stick of dynamite in the kitchen fire, or shoot a policeman. Volunteer for a test pilot. Or dive off Tower Bridge with five bob’s worth of roman candles in each pocket. You’d get twice the fun at about one-tenth of the risk”

The quest was to achieve perfect form for the purpose:

“This so-called perfection was not some abstract ‘artistic’ vision of self expression but a blend of the Bauhaus economy of manufacture and purpose combined with the ethereal happenchance of allowing the qualities of the materials to ‘breathe’ through the process. By then I was conscious of the various ‘philosophies’ of pottery gained during five years’ worth of work, reading, travel and debate. But I was more bewitched by the process of making pottery. Reading Cardew and Leach, I learned about humility and the need to suppress one’s ego and to honour the material and process… to recognise the mark of the craftsman within the environment of a production studio. I found this a great attraction and at an emotional level I bought into the Anglo-Oriental concept. What I had to find and define for myself, was the marriage of my studio technique with the ethos of the Anglo-Orientals and then express myself in my choice of materials and reduction firing. The challenge of that style was to convince the South African market that my pots were ‘good pots’.”

Post Matenga - Running his Own Show

At the end of 1978, Green left Mantenga. He was ready to step into the world of studio pottery and specifically concentrate on reduction stoneware. Having only worked for other potters and production potteries, the challenge would be to find his niche within the craft and attract buyer interest that would sustain him as studio potter. His work would embody the totality of the pot and not only the pot or as the British potter Mike Dodd wrote, that the craftsman bowed his “I” in the making of the pot and not at its final acclamation.4 The “I” of Dodd was more articulately phrased by the British emeritus professor, patron of the arts and author Dr. Richard Jacobs:

“You are embedded and enshrined in the artifact – including the unconscious orientation of your time and place, the world view grafted on you at birth, the parochial elements of the neighbourhood of your youth. You cannot ever erase all evidence in the pot of the world that made you. You can only add self-conscious elements that form the truly creative aspects. This dual struggle requires great energy – to create yourself and those self advertising artifacts that celebrate that self – all at the same time. You must surely learn to love yourself – forgive yourself – and go on. In fact perhaps the greatest triumph will occur when you find yourself in the pot, when the pot represents a personal identity that you could never understand any other way.”5

In the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, the highly competitive market in which studio potters competed for attention and sales, did not afford everyone the luxury of indulging in the concept of the “silent potter” of the “silent pot”. In the age of consumerism, the younger generation of potters were on the one hand challenged by the appeal of the work of the established master potters and on the other hand, preferences influenced by fashion, availability and price.

Jeffrey Jones wrote: “So much of what is rich and meaningful about pottery depends on what the individual pot is perceived to stand for, and what it stands for has to be communicated and learnt through some means external to the work itself. Studio pottery relies on the spectator to be in the know.”6 Jones too permits the viewer/buyer/collector an own “aesthetic version of the pot by the perceiver… “ (which allows as much for version as for aversion) and Graham McLaren reminds us that “(the artefacts of clay) have the capacity to hold multiple, even myriad meanings beyond that of the creator as they are consumed and re-consumed down the years.”7

Whatever Green set out to do, he would have to guard that his technical mastery would be a means to an end and not the end in itself for, as the British potter Geoffrey Whiting warned, the evolution of pottery ran the risk of being little more than: “…an extrovert show of technical ingenuity, such that the materials, in their innate humility, were lost to perception and feeling.”8

At first he tried to find a suitable property in Durban but then secured a location in the former Crown Mines’ miner housing estate of Model Village in Johannesburg. The garage was converted into a studio using recycled materials at minimal cost and with a self-built oil-kiln. By May 1979 the studio was fully operational. The output would be a limited range of dinnerware with a few larger feature pieces created from a clay-blend that would retain its essence of “rough and wild”. He had a definite preference for unaltered and unadulterated natural materials that would “suit my headspace”. Amongst the preferred glazes was a green ash glaze made with ash from the bark of Bluegum trees growing in the vicinity and mixed with veld grass ash.

Green later added a catenery arched kiln of about 0.23 m3 packing space for salt firing. He had made some salt glazed ware in Lesotho and had learned that it was an unpredictable process at best and one that took an enormous amount of patience, money and time to “salt” the kiln and then be able to produce the rich and dramatic surface effects. This kiln was fired with a blend of diesel and waste engine oil. The first firing took about 28 hours and produced rather poor pots. Subsequent kiln loads were better. One of the later firings was done with Jeremy Zinn who came to work briefly at the studio. Zinn put some of the earlier failed salted pots into the regular kiln and produced spectacular lustre effects. The second firing of the salt on the pots achieved the gloss and “action” missing from the plain salt firing. These pots were ultra-simple in decoration, with a light ochre slip and an ash glaze. They relied on the fire and their shapes. This process was exciting but expensive to do and held little appeal for the public which prompted Green to stop salt firing.

Recognition - But is Bigger Better?

Recognition came quickly and Green’ distinctive style of user-friendly pottery attracted attention. He sold via galleries in Nelspruit, Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Port Elizabeth. Further endorsement of his skills was the popular monthly workshops which he hosted for the Association of Potters of Southern Africa. It was soon evident to Green that he needed additional studio space and bigger kiln facilities. He also took note that stoneware was losing its public appeal and that he had to adapt or innovate to stay on top if not in front. He had to keep his edge in “the age of hurry on” as Whiting described it.

The lease of the Crown Mines property was cancelled at the end of 1981 and Green set up home in another of the mining villages managed by Rand Mines Properties, Langlaagte Deep. The Crown Mines studio was put in storage but he had access to Hoets’ studio and kiln in Midrand where he busied himself with producing flower pots in terracotta. It was at this time that he was commissioned to produce eight large (70 X 66 cm) terracotta planter pots for orange trees by the prestigious Brenthurst Library which grew out of the personal collections of its mining magnate founders, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and his son Harry Oppenheimer. He also produced twenty large 60 X 40 cm shallow planters for the same project. During that year he remained a “terracotta flowerpot man” and made several kiln loads of planters at Hoets’ studio

Starting in February 1984 and finishing work by mid-1985, Green built his second studio in Muldersdrift with a 1.8 m3 oil kiln and an electric kiln where he reverted to domestic stoneware with some terracotta production. He also established a teaching studio there. In hindsight, Green admits that the studio was far too big and too much of a challenge to sustain and maintain. The economy was in a downswing and sales dropped. Green moved his family to rented accommodation in the suburb of Melville in March 1987 but continued working at the Muldersdrift studio. He also taught in his landlord’s studio. In January 1989 he bought a house and set up the Melville studio where he would produce stoneware and earthenware. A good part of his work was creating corporate pottery items but he did not waiver from producing “very tightly thrown, neat, precise stuff.”

Through the 1980s and the 1990s he continued his connection with the APSA and was a local committee member and selector or judge for regional exhibitions. He travelled to other centres to judge and conduct workshops and also went to Thamaga Pottery in Botswana to rebuild their kiln and assist with clay materials as their original supplier no longer could deliver the same clay body that Thamaga had used. His involvement with APSA prompted the idea of a large workshop event where potters could meet each other and interact with suppliers and also attend demonstrations. The event was dubbed the “Clay Day” and grew rapidly over the years to become a regular three day trade show. He also participated along with the potters Schlapobersky and Potter, Wendy Goldblatt, Peter Jaff, Charlotte Kotze, Charmaine Penzon and Carol Smollen and other crafters and artists, in the Johannesburg Studio Route.

Fame vs. Fortune

Green’ skills were at their apex but fortune did not follow fame: “I could do all these wonderful (pottery) tricks but I was not making money.” More recognition followed in 1996 when the architect Silvio Rech commissioned Green to produce pieces for the prestigious Makalali Private Game Lodge situated to the west of the Kruger National Park. He was given carte blanche to create washbasins for which he used bold glazes such as iron rutile and copper red, jet black and toffee. Other game lodges wanted the same and Green produced basins and prep bowls for Makweti Game Lodge and Bongani Game Lodge to name but two. In 1995-1996 and then later in 1996-1997 followed projects to create all the larger salad and fruit bowls, water jugs, milk jugs, serving dishes and table cruet sets for the Kwa Maritane Game Lodge in the Pilanesberg. The pots were to be decorated in the Big 5 theme with sgraffito drawings through an ochre slip that was applied beneath a pale celadon glaze. The clay body was a fine-grained, grey stoneware, rather reminiscent of the Kolonyama clay. The large commissioned projects satisfied his creative spirit but high production costs did not make the work profitable: “I slipped to the back of the wave.”

Green was at a major crossroad in his artistic career and frustrated with the risks and increasing costs of making gas fired work. Gas is by far the most expensive fuel to use to fire a kiln, and was by then uneconomic. Having trained as a field guide and having guided as a part-time hobby some five years earlier, he took on a full-time appointment in 1997 to manage a remote bush camp and conduct walking safaris in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. The job was demanding of time and energy but was personally rewarding and a new‘ field to explore and as a bonus, paid marginally more than he earned from pottery and so Green closed the pottery studio at the end of 1997. In 1999 he was headhunted by Bush Discoveries South Africa to write and conduct training, marketing and change-management programmes for what turned out to be almost four times as much as he had earned as a potter in the end.

The Green Legacy - Looking Back

He feels wistful and sad about the joy and drama of potting which, he says, gave him a sense of self worth:

“I felt I could conquer the world! After stopping I realised that my passion and delight in the magic of the chemical and physical process was what made it for me. I was naively of the belief that if I made pots carefully and skilfully that people would be happy to pay for them. That, and the very real sense of cultural and spiritual or symbolic connectedness to all those tens of thousands of ancestral potters going back across cultures and time to the earliest people who found out about the effect of heat on clay.”

The pottery legacy of Green is functional pots that fully exploited the potential of his self-made clay bodies of stoneware of various grades of coarseness as well as white stoneware and translucent porcelain and his self-made glazes. His work is characterised by simple glazes and slips in earthy colours that were predominately celadon greens, iron reds, black tenmoku, white and off-white transparents and a chun blue. Pots were decorated with iron oxide, rutile, iron/rutile blends, cobalt, copper and some chrome oxide. He produced some raw-glazed pots and only a few kiln loads of salt-glazed pieces but had a major output of terracotta planters, some of which were lead bi-silicate-glazed and slip-decorated. His raku work was restricted to a teaching process for his students.

His legacy is also that of the studio potter to whom, as Jeffrey Jones wrote, “… we naturally look for an affirmation of the quietness of clay vessels and of their potential to evoke responses that are as much spiritual as aesthetic… It is studio pottery, on behalf of all pottery, that alerts us to the affecting presence of the simple bowl or jug… however simple or quiet that vessel might be.”9

Where Chris Green is quoted in the text, the sources would be the many informal discussions and formal interviews as well as correspondence between him and the author over a period of several months during 2010. Green reviewed the text and added important detail to put his life and work in perspective.
1. In Defence of Tradition… because of the heart, in spite of the head, Mike Dodd, Pottery Quarterly, No. 43 Vol. 11
2. Potters of Southern Africa, Garth Clark & Lynne Wagner, 1974
3. Five Potters, Dina Katz in Lantern, December 1974
4. Dodd
5. Searching For Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter, Richard Jacobs, Kestrel Books, 2007
6. Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005, Jeffrey Jones, A & C Black, 2007
7. In a review of Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005, Graham McLaren, Interpreting Ceramics, Issue 11, 2009
8. Bernard Leach Retrospective Exhibition and Seminar March 1977, Geoffrey Whiting In Pottery Quarterly, No. 48 Vol. 12
9. Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice: Ceramics and the Art of Silence, Jeffrey Jones, Interpreting Ceramics, Issue 5, 2004