In the days that followed Cyclone Gabrielle, potter Holly Morgan turned to the material that she knew best – and brought the community along with her.
From her at-home pottery studio in Napier, Holly Morgan of Morgan Made presents a small, wobbly-looking bowl with raggedy edges. “I don’t know if you can see here, but it’s been folded and pushed back together,” she says, moving the clay creation closer to her laptop camera. “Each one’s got their own unique characteristics which essentially represent the person who made it.” A sunbeam hits at just the right angle and, even across a poor quality video call, you can make out the distinct fingerprints of the maker, preserved under a rich purple glaze.
This bowl is one of dozens of pinch pots – a simple pottery technique using fingers and thumbs to manipulate and shape clay – made by Hawke’s Bay locals on a trestle table outside Morgan’s store in the days following Cyclone Gabrielle. “I had old ladies stop, I had people with children stop who were looking for something to do, I had gang members stop, I had a people with disabilities stop, people from town walking past getting supplies would stop – everyone,” says Morgan, who has been a professional potter in the area for the last four years.
Like many who had experienced the Napier floods two years prior, Morgan prepared for the Cyclone Gabrielle by battening the hatches and sandbagging her studio. She awoke in the morning after the cyclone made landfall to find “only a little puddle” to deal with. But, with the power out and the cellphone networks down, nobody in central Napier would know the true devastation beyond their immediate area for another two or three days. “It was total blackout, just drips of information. We didn’t know that all our friends were getting rescued, we didn’t know that bridges had come down.”
By Friday (the cyclone arrived in the early hours of Tuesday) a few shops in town had power back, including Morgan’s. “I set up a charging station so people could charge their phones and start communicating to loved ones,” she explains. “But people were still in full panic mode, I just felt so heartbroken for the people that didn’t know what to do with themselves while there was still so much terrible news coming through.” Having grown up with both parents working in mental health, Morgan knew it was important to provide a brief reprieve from the chaos.
She set up a table outside her store and put the word out on her social media that anyone could visit, have a cup of tea, and have a go at making a pinch pot. “I was just trying to create a sense of calm in town, because of all the other bad things that were happening,” she says. “Even just the constant helicopters flying above us meant that nobody was sleeping, it was so stressful.” Morgan remembers people sitting down in those first days, knees shaking, unable to work gently with the clay and completely “blowing out” their bowls into flatter, plate shapes.
“As a maker, I could tell that everyone was so stressed, because I could physically see it coming through into the clay,” she says. If people made mistakes, they could simply rip it up and start again. “It wasn’t like they failed or anything, I’ve got some that are completely unique to that person,” she says. Some become frustrated with their bowls that weren’t even, or smooth, but Morgan says every one of the 70-odd creations is perfect. “I just wanted something for them to hold on to that wasn’t tragic, because there was some really heavy stuff going on.”
“Some days I felt silly that I was doing it, but I just knew that there was a bigger reason and purpose for it.”
As they worked the clay, the level of conversation was varied. “Some people wanted to talk, some people didn’t,” says Morgan. “Some wanted to just sit quietly and listen to the transistor radio together.” She recalls a mother and daughter whose house fared OK, but didn’t have any camping equipment or any contacts in town. “They built a fire in their backyard with pots and pans and cooked a stir fry until 11pm with a head torch in the dark. Even the average person was screwed, let alone people that had their whole life scooped up from under them.”
Of course, many in the area faced bigger problems than late night stir fry. The thick layer of silt that covered much of the region also carpeted the Taradale Pottery Club, which Morgan helped to dig out. “It was just so labour intensive, pushing it out and it fills back up, you push it out and it fills back up for hours and hours and hours.” She found herself “in the zone” of the clean-up when something occurred to her – the silt could have another purpose. “Silt is made up of silica and clay and some really basic raw ingredients that can also make a glaze,” she says.
Morgan did a test firing in the kiln using the silt as a glaze, and was impressed with the “consistent” results. Adding a little bit of iron to dramatise it, she fired the community pinch pots in the kiln and was astounded to find the “most amazing purpley blush colour”. Now, she plans to string them together to make a rain chain, a water feature that can replace spouting on buildings. “The rain runs into it and then it goes to the next one and then the next one, all the way down,” she explains. “It makes the most amazing sound when the rain is tinkling down.”
Water is something Morgan has been thinking a lot about since the cyclone. In the immediate aftermath, before she set up the community art project, she made a sink from clay in her home studio. “I was thinking a lot about how you can never underestimate the power of water,” she explains. “We like to think that we can control water, turn it on and turn it off, but when it’s coming in at 17 metres high, that actually blows your mind.” She lifts up the sink and shows me the base – the underside etched with “made during Cyclone Gabrielle”.
Other works made by Morgan during this period include a set of cups and a water jug – “to celebrate the community coming together and filling each other’s cups” and a large pot inspired by Neolithic water carriers. Both are also glazed in the silt collected after the cyclone, all boasting the same dazzling purple hue. “It’s so strange and bittersweet, because this terrible silt that people have been breaking their backs over has totally turned the most divine, lush, calming blush shade of purple.”
She took the large pot to be fired at the Driving Creek railway in the Coromandel, taking a “heartbreaking” detour on the way home through Esk Valley. “A picturesque day in Esk Valley is glistening trees with dappled sun, grassy fields and a tinkling little stream that you can go and sit in and read your book by, and it is just divine. There might be other little families dotted around the park…” Morgan stops herself. “I’m going to get emotional talking about this, because when I went there, it was gone. It was completely gone.” She wipes a tear away from her cheek.
“When one of your favourite places in the world is not there any more, it’s just really hard to wrap your head around, you know?”
Photos from Morgan’s recent trip through Esk Valley show the water carrier in situ, a pop of purple against a jaw-dropping background of houses destroyed, landscapes forever scarred. She is auctioning off the large pot ‘Old Man River’ to fundraise for the community (silent bids can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org), and hopes to tour the collection (beginning with the installation ‘no control’ in Auckland’s Public Record space in June). “It’s one way of telling the story in a peaceful way. They are quite peaceful to me, so I hope that people can create a connection with them, just like I have.”
Over two months since Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked havoc through the Hawke’s Bay region and beyond, Morgan says there is still so much to be done. “All of the businesses are struggling down here, they are so quiet and the hard thing about it is that the shops are totally fine. They are open, you can get here, but nobody is coming.” With people still digging out their houses and clearing silt-covered graves in the area, she hopes that sharing her work with the public will help bring about those same feelings of healing, connection and community she felt across that trestle table.
“It’s not to try and open the wound up again, but to realise that this was a very real event and we will feel the aftermath for years,” Morgan says. “It was like this massive zap to just say, ‘here we are, this what is important’.” And what did she find to be most important thing of all? “It’s the people that you connect with every day, the people who support you when the going gets tough,” she says. “I went to my safe space when the cyclone happened, and my safe space was clay. That was my familiar material, the thing that I know best, and it taught me community.”
“Honestly,” she adds, “I think it taught me how to be more human.”