“After the war, in England there was little opportunity for young people, and Africa seemed full of opportunity. So my parents and a friend bought a small plane, and flew out to South Africa in 1947.”
Andrew Wolford, 5 when his family flew themselves as emigrants in their Silver Lady to South Africa, speaks lightly of what must have been at the time a major project. South Africa ultimately benefited from the Wolfords’ flying off to take advantage of opportunity. The little boy grew up to bring credit to his adopted country. He is an international ceramic artist, and known as a leading potter in South Africa.
His mother, he says, was a very fine painter. “Because I am dyslexic, I left school at an early age to go to Durban Art School. There I moved more and more to ceramics,” Wolford said. “At 17 I was apprenticed first to Walsh Marais Pottery, and then to Sammy Liebermann Pottery in the Transvaal.” At 21, convinced that pottery was to be his life’s work, he began his own studio in Durban.
His mother had at home a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book.” “That became my bible,” Wolford said. It gave him a goal, which launched him on an extended trip to Europe.
For part of the time while he was away, he had the experience of working with established potters in Stockholm. In England he visited Leach in his St. Ives Pottery, the haunt of many an earnest young potter.
At that stage of his life Wolford might have stayed in Europe. He set up a studio in Germany at the edge of the Black Forest, and accepted an invitation to teach at the Hamburg Academy of Art. He was away four years before deciding to return to South Africa.
Wolford was then 26, still inquiring and eager to learn. Before long he took up traveling again, eastward that time, to Bombay, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong. In each place he sought out ceramic collections and visited museums and antique shops.
Arrived in Japan, he visited local potters around the country, notably Shoji Hamada, Japan’s master potter. He stayed with Hamada at his Mashiko Pottery, learning to work in the Japanese tradition “with thick ‘chun’ glazes sifted by hand from wood ash, colors of rich resonant ‘tenmoku’ (tea bowls), fatty whites and shades of celadon.” He used Japanese brushes for painting decorations on the pots he made. Thirty years on, he still imports his brushes from Japan.
Whilst he was in Japan then, he exhibited in a Tokyo department store and at the South African Embassy. On his return to South Africa, he built his studio and homestead in Natal. He was beginning his family, and undoubtedly wanted his children to have the kind of childhood he had known, in a region where nature is immense and open and untamed. He wanted them to have the chances he had to grow strong and self-reliant.
He still lives in the home he built, with his wife, Leanda, and four children, “in the rolling peace of the North Shongweni hills halfway between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Indigenous African bush surrounds my mountain studio. Working alongside my Zulu handyman, I draw much inspiration for my decoration from the many trees and birds here.”
He is one of only a few potters who digs his own stoneware clay, meticulously preparing it to his high standard. The kiln, which he designed and built himself, is fired with paraffin oil about eight times a year. It takes 18 hours to fire and three days to cool.
During the 1970s Wolford became well established. He continued frequent traveling and giving exhibitions. Many of them have been in groups at prestigious locations in Europe and America. Many have been solo, including his most recent last year in Tokyo, to which he brought “hand-thrown stoneware and porcelain bowls, vases, shapes for ikebana and tea ceremony, functional ware and wall panels, decorated with bold brush strokes.” His work is held in many private collections even farther afield in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Japan, Europe and America.
Wolford is still seeking, still learning, and is not yet satisfied with his work. He said: “I’m still haunted by that simple piece where form, glaze, decoration seem to be blended into one, where there is an innocence and charm that can’t be calculated. The piece sits with an aura of dignity.”
Until that magical piece appears, he maintains a prodigious output, plus traveling and exhibiting. He also arranges throwing and decorating workshops, and at least three times a year holds open days at his home and studio.