Women, Words, Objects, Stories – The Art of Marie E. Potter
by Madeleine Slavick

Maybe every word and every object has at least one story, if one listens. Marie E. Potter listens: the Auckland-based multi-media artist has visited archives and museums around the country, has had long conversations with many women and men about culture and history, and has read many texts about the New Zealand colonial experience – Sarah Ell, Hamish Keith, Michael King, Margaret MacGregor, Rosemary McLeod, Ian Sinclair and others.  Potter was once a nurse, trained to listen to the experience at hand, yet has more recently trained in textile arts and fine arts, working with clay, stone, bronze, leather, fibre, as well as installation, assemblage, photography, sculpture, sound and writing.

Potter sees her art as agent, as commitment: honouring yet interrogating the everyday culture of the early settlers, particularly the colonial women. She respects those women’s ingenuity, courage, community spirit, and tenacity and recognises that she herself, generations later, has inherited these attributes and innately relies on them in creating her art, and in living her life.

Her recent three-week arts residency as the 2015 New Zealand Pacific Studio - Friends of Aratoi Fellow demonstrates these attributes. Just two days after arriving in the Wairarapa, Potter conducted the first of four community workshops. On the third and fourth day, she installed her six-part VISION / MEMORY exhibition at the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History complex.  On the fifth day, the exhibition opened as part of the region’s Kokomai Creative Festival. Over the next two weeks, she helped install about 3,000 letters around the museum building.

She titled the work VISION / MEMORY for the way words and objects reflect both past and future.  VISION consisted of ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Mr.’, two installations of artefacts from the Normandell House, the Burton family residence from 1911 to 1972, and now the New Zealand Pacific Studio, the arts residency centre where Potter was a Fellow. Many of the items had been retrieved in a community dig in 2008, having been buried, unwanted, for 60 years, and Potter says that she created “a language within a language” in the re-contextualisation. Her ‘Mrs.’ assemblage juxtaposed Sarah Ann Burton’s black beads and buttons from a formal flock, glass candle stick holder, burnt wick, wax; a child’s sewing machine and a rusty iron; while ‘Mr.’ gathered Christopher Burton’s spectacles, fob-watch, mantel clock key, clock parts, a whiskey bottle part, stacked tobacco tins, all with a house hinge on top.  

MEMORY consisted of four installations within the Aratoi Museum building, all speaking of the settlers’ experiences, but this time using words, in a Scrabble-like format, which immediately engaged viewers. In the first two installations, we heard the experiences of the adult (fear, loneliness, seasickness, scurvy, food rations, survival, death) as well as the child (the sense of adventure, fun, timelessness). The double-sided text consisted of approximately1,000 vinyl squares with the alphabetical letters in a deep red. The squares represented the land or lots that settlers acquired, the layout alluded to the towns and roads established, and the letters referred to each family.

Listen. Alone. Hegemonic. Hybridity. Relocation. Promises. Choose. Remember. Letter. Sugar. Reality. Religion. Free. New. Possessions. Passage. Guild. Empowerment. Track. Grab. Fell. Bush.

Potter’s powerful words greeted visitors at one side of the main Aratoi Museum entrance, while her succinct poem ‘They’ filled the other.

They came but did they look?

They did look but did they see!’ 

The fourth installation drew on the experience of Jensine Thomas, a settler woman who lived in a remote area of the Wairarapa, yet made do, for herself and her family. She created trousers, tea towels, oilskin coats, aprons, pillow cases, and bed sheets (single and double) from flour bags and linseed oil. Potter face-mounted the equations for the items – such as ONE X 100LB FLOUR BAG = ONE X PILLOW CASE – on another street-facing window of the museum building which serves as Masterton’s i–SITE. Potter’s equation for art might read: CULTURE + HISTORY = ART.

The community component of the Fellowship project, supported by Masterton District Council Creative Communities Scheme, saw Potter lead workshops with about 100 students, artists, museum-goers, and people who use or have used mental health services.  She asked what the Wairarapa meant to them, what they value here, how they might best express its essence, and she listened to the stories behind their responses, which together formed a comprehensive cross section of people’s opinions about their town and home. Not one word was repeated.

Listen. Totara. Carterton. Kereru. Limestone. Agriculture. Ancestor. Peaks. Earthquakes. Horses. Kiwi. Goats. Tūna. Wineries. Scenery. Bibble. Birdsong. Lowing. Microcosm. Marae. Awesome. Boring. Cosy. Family. Belong. Mountain. Ruamahanga. Ekehatuna. Falkner. Fire. Fear. Hope. Heart. Glistening. Aroha. Amiria. Whakaoriori. Whanau.

Potter then created structures for 299 such words on 20 individual windows of the Entice Cafe, also located within the museum building.  She adhered each of the approximately 3,000 letters to the glass with a small ball of white-tack. The result: a thought-provoking record of Wairarapa identity, gathered with a sense of community, inspiration, innovation, and hard work, which to Potter, exemplifies the pioneering women’s experience.


Madeleine Slavick is Community Programme Manager at New Zealand Pacific Studio in Mount Bruce, Wairarapa, where Marie E. Potter has held two residencies, her most recent as the 2015 NZPS-Friends of Aratoi Fellow.