The Moulding of a Nation: Doreen Blumhardt

Story by Libby Judge

Faculty of Education, 2018

A Notable First Impression

I am not a pottery expert by any means. However, when I first stumbled across Dame Doreen Blumhardt’s pottery whilst perusing the What Remains exhibition in the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, I appreciated the skill of the hands behind the pottery wheel. Her work is undeniably beautiful, and people around the world have acknowledged this for many years. She is after all, one of New Zealand’s most renowned potters.

A Global Influence

Doreen Blumhardt created pottery for over seventy years, finding sanctuary in the tranquillity of her home-studio in Northland, Wellington. Shortly before her death in 2009, she was named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in recognition of her contributions to the art scene in New Zealand and around the world.

Contribution to Arts Education

What many people may not know, is that Blumhardt’s passion for creating came second to her love for arts education. In 1943, Blumhardt’s artistic talent as a young teaching graduate was recognised by Education Director, Clarence Beeby, and she was appointed as one of the first ‘arts specialists’ in New Zealand. At the time, art in New Zealand schools consisted of acquiring technical drawing skills, and craft consisted of creating something out of scrap materials. Blumhardt however, demonstrated that teaching art and craft was not only possible in schools, but also beneficial for children’s learning and development.

Her arts programme at Waterloo School in the Hutt Valley included pottery, weaving, fabric printing, spinning and bookbinding. After a year, Beeby deemed the programme so successful that it was extended to every school in New Zealand. For the next six years, Blumhardt travelled around New Zealand instructing teachers, principals, and inspectors on the value of art, and demonstrating the use of new methods and materials.

A Legacy at Wellington Teachers' College

After spending a year studying art in England and Europe in 1950, and after representing New Zealand at the first UNESCO conference on Art Education in Paris, Blumhardt returned to New Zealand in 1951. She took up a position as head of the art department at Wellington Teachers’ College (now Victoria University of Wellington), where she taught for twenty-one years.

Jeanne Macaskill (1939–2014), artist and former arts advisor, was a student at the College when Blumhardt arrived. In an interview with Margaret MacDonald she noted Blumhardt’s passion saying, “Doreen arrived hot from Paris, I shall never forget it. [To] the first class sitting at a very long table in the art room, she said, ‘People in New Zealand just don’t know what colour is. Look, I’ve brought back all these postcards’ and she sort of threw them down. Brilliant Matisses, Derain, Signac, the fauves, and the expressionists. And she said, ‘Look at that for colour. Who paints pictures like that in New Zealand? Nobody. You've got to think about colour and you've got to get excited’. And she was excited”.

Like Jeanne Macaskill, many Wellington College of Education students were inspired and motivated by Blumhardt’s passion and enthusiasm for the arts and art education. In 1992, she was invited back to collaborate with students on an art piece for the entrance to the college, and Three Baskets of Knowledge, a large clay tile mural, is a significant piece that staff members hope to see relocated to the new Faculty of Education premises.

A Legacy that Lives On

After pondering the significance of her life and works, I decided that a visit to the Dowse Art Museum to see more of Blumhardt’s work seemed inevitable. Through her lively devotion to the arts and art education, Doreen Blumhardt paved the way for New Zealand children to engage with authentic opportunities for creative expression.

In the twenty-first century, art education has once again become deprioritised in New Zealand schools. In the hands-on teaching style of Blumhardt, maybe a turn behind the pottery wheel might be what educators and policy makers need in order to re-establish the importance of a quality art education.

Adam Art Gallery

Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, Kelburn Parade, Wellington 6012, New Zealand