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Roy Cowan Tribute

Author: Tim Walker, Director 1998-2008
27 July 2006 The Dowse pays tribute to a man who made such an extraordinary contribution, in a myriad of roles - to art, to culture, to the built environment and to education. A man whose contact with a wide range of people, ideas and media flowered in the richness and diversity of his own creative work.
Roy Cowan, Salt Glazed Jar

Roy Cowan, Salt Glazed Jar

After his period studying at Wellington Teachers College, specialising in art, he met and married Juliet Peter in the early 1950s. Two people for whom being creative – constantly, openly creative – underpinned everything. Soon after their marriage he received the New Zealand Art Societies Scholarship, and studied at Slade School, in London. (Juliet was in London too, studying).

It was to Juliet that Roy owed his passion for pottery – a craft to which he contributed so much. In the late 50s, he contributed to the 2nd National Potters Exhibition. As well, in a manner typical of him, he played key roles in building the infrastructure and the sense of a national community - of potters, crafts people and artists. He joined the Editorial Committee of the New Zealand Potter Magazine and later played a key role in the foundation of the New Zealand Society of Potters.

Roy interested himself in the peculiar characteristics of New Zealand’s material, prospecting in Nelson and the West Coast with Ian McPherson, researching and developing clay bodies and minerals for glazes.

The late 1950s and early 60s brought the high-fired ware and oil-fired kilns were built. The frustrations their complexities brought, make setting a new dvd player seem simple. But Roy applied his mathematical and technical talents to work out kiln proportions, fuel and air requirements, stack performance and atmosphere control, and in 1960 he built his own down-draught clean-burning oil-fired kiln capable of firing large-scale items in the garden of the Ngaio home he and Juliet shared.

Somehow Roy found time to act as a commissioner for Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and Department of Foreign Affairs, curating exhibitions of fellow New Zealand craftspeople to tour overseas. He held many prominent positions in the arts, serving on the Council of the Academy of Fine Arts and the Arts Advisory panel of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.

During the 1970s and 80s he undertook a number of ambitious mural commissions. For one -  at the New Zealand pavilion at Expo in Osaka in 1972 – he made requiring 8000 tiles. Other large-scale commissions included works for The Reserve Bank in Auckland, Otago University, Europa House and the Television New Zealand Building in Avalon.

Roy exhibited widely in New Zealand and has works in permanent collections in many galleries and museums in New Zealand and overseas, as well as numerous private collections.

The Dowse is fortunate to hold a good collection of his work , and we are grateful to Roy and to Juliet, for their gift of a group of very fine examples of Roy’s work in 2004, as Juliet moved from Heke Street.

At all times Roy gave generously of his time, both in teaching and in assisting fellow potters in the design and operation of kilns. During the 1960s he assisted with lectures and training at Massey University’s summer schools, in painting and craft.

In the 1970s he taught potters at advanced levels for the summer schools, and through Summer Schools in the South Island in the 1980s he was able to use his teaching to introduce art to meet the social needs of scattered communities.

A potter, a mathematician, an editor, a printmaker, a painter, a muralist, an administrator, a challenge seeker – and a problem solver, a teacher, a mentor, and much more – and in all of these things, and in the way he shared his life with Juliet and everyone, a calmly vital creative soul.