Garry 'The Potter' Smith

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Mangawhai potter Gary Smith loves to tell stories and the one that best sums up his attitude on life involves a large amphora he had made. An ancient jar-like piece of pottery used mainly for storage. “It was beautiful,” Smith recalls. “It was really well balanced and had the classical amphora shape. I was interested in the use of these forms by the Greeks and Romans, so I really wanted to understand how these things were put together.

“I had it in the shop on a tripod and one day I made the mistake of putting it out on a windy morning. I was serving a lady in the shop and the pot fell over and smashed. I went outside and the first thing I did was laugh. The customer looked at me and thought ‘what is it with this guy’. But I had to laugh because what else you could do? So I dug a hole and buried the thing. Then I made myself some coffee, put some cool music on the stereo and I got myself in a good mood and I ended up selling a lot of stuff that day. I didn’t let myself get into that negative space.” 

For as much as Garry loves making his distinctive plates, platters, vases and other items of homeware, he will not let the odd mishap get him down, even when a potential buyer for the smashed amphora emerged a few months later. “I have to do things that make me happy, because my mental health is entirely important to me,” he says. “So I live a happy life – I never come down here with a heavy heart.”

Smith came to Mangawhai more than 30 years ago and has been doing pottery since 1989. Before taking it up full-time, he had worked in a wide variety of jobs. As well as building, he has driven heavy machinery and worked as a well driller and a linesman, for the Electricity Board. 

He says he came to pottery largely by accident, although he had always been interested in clay.

“Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees and you’re not picking up on the messages that you are getting,” Smith muses. “A friend of mine said one day ‘Would you like to throw a pot’ and I thought that’s cool. From the start, it felt right. I felt like I had done it before – sometimes I feel 1,000 potters’ lives flow through mine.”

Smith and his partner Vanessa Hunter have been operating Mangawhai Pottery from their current premises in Insley Street since 2013 and while they won’t be retiring on their business profits anytime soon, they couldn’t be happier. As well as selling his works, Smith has run pottery courses for school kids and says, “In Wellsford, I went into the classroom and I took all the clay I had prepared. I said, ‘We’re going to make whatever you like! But the most important thing you have to do here, is have fun and be kind to each other.”

Most recently there has been his ‘Give It A Go’ social media video series, in which he challenges fellow local business folk to try their hand on the potting wheel and he in return has a stab at doing one of their jobs.

And his philosophy of life applies there, too. “They are very tongue in cheek and a bit of slapstick,” he says. “I stuff it up when it comes to their challenges and I wasn’t sure how people would take it. But they seem to love it. I like to give people something to laugh about - laughter is a good thing and I get a buzz out of creating it.”

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