Just the Facts
stoneware, white stoneware, Japanese style stoneware
Primary forming method
molding, cut clay slabs, throwing
Primary firing temperature
gas reduction to cone 10
Favorite surface treatment
wax-resist sgraffito and clay roller stamps
Japanese wiggle wire
The gentle sound of the water rippling across the lagoon.
Dramatically located on a tiny motu just off the lush island of Huahine, Peter Owen’s studio is built in three distinct parts. His clay-working area perches out over the island’s lagoon and includes an inside glaze and storage space were work is kept safe from the tropical weather. Behind his studio to one side is the kiln shed, with a glaze-making area and an area for slip casting with over 100 molds. These are usually cast by an assistant and Owen often sculpts or reshapes them to create original forms when possible. The third part is Owen’s gallery at Huahine Pearl Farm, another stand-alone business he owns, which he constructed on stilts on a coral head 200 yards (180 m) out in the lagoon. Customers are ferried out from the main island in a motorized pirogue (canoe), getting picked up first from a Japanese-pottery-village-inspired building on the edge of the island’s marina. The setting is unique, just as the gallery where people get dropped off is—all handcrafted from local woods and featuring lights made from floaters (buoys) from the pearl farm. Handmade pearl jewelry is made and sold here, but most of the display gallery is devoted to Owen’s pottery; just a select few areas are used to showcase the pearls and jewelry.
Owen says, “The way I have laid out my studio gives me uninterrupted working time to be creative, while bringing myself and my customers as close to nature as possible. Working over the deck, I sometimes look up and see fish jumping or even turtles surfacing. From the Pearl Farm gallery in the middle of the lagoon, humpback whales swim within 15 feet (5 m) off the deck now and then.”
Owen’s favorite aspect of his studio is working with his son, Manutea, who has been decorating pottery for 30 years, and now does most of the wax-resist and sgraffito decoration. This allows Owen to do more of the slab work with Japanese wiggle-wire and relief-stamp-roller designs, along with all of the wheel work. “As I get older, I’m starting to pass on to him all of the other aspects of pottery making. He never learned how to make pottery, just how to decorate, so as a result he has become truly a master decorator of Polynesian motifs, and the stories of his life [are] being told through his decorations.”
Getting hefty materials to the studio can be challenging as everything has to come in by boat; luckily the studio is only a five-minute ride from the mainland. One regular duty is carrying up the big butane bottles for the kiln. Fortunately, Owen has a wonderful group of islanders he can call on. When he brought over his new kiln, he engaged a group of 20 va’a paddlers to get the kiln off the truck and into the boat. “Altogether, it took 20 people, and we ended up rolling it on big butane bottles to get it into place. I hope it will last the rest of my life, it’s a great little fiber kiln.”
Early on in his career, Owen learned how studios were set up with shelves and storage areas, etc., helping him to define the functional studio where he works today. Being on an isolated island means all the studio and gallery electricity comes from solar panels and rainwater is collected off the roof.
One thing Owen would still like to do is build more transit area between the studio and the gallery for finished work and possibly have more visits to his pottery-making studio. Currently, people are welcome to visit the gallery, but only those truly interested in ceramics are invited to visit the studio.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
Owen started his ceramic career at the age of 13, sweeping the floor and dusting off the pots in a pottery shop in exchange for using the potter’s wheel. “My parents [a Native-American father and American mother] did not agree with my career choice, so I left home and slept in the loft of the pottery shop without the owner knowing, one of the other potters slipping me a key. I went on to finish high school at 15 when I apprenticed as a potter. Two years later, I returned to my parents’ house in Los Gatos, California, which is where I grew up. I set up my first studio in their garage. I didn’t have a kiln at that stage, so I would drive my pots one mile across town where I rented a kiln to fire them, then I’d bring them back to glaze for the second firing.”
At 19, Owen moved to Tahiti, where he had dreamed to go and live since age 11, when he made his first trip to the island with his parents. A big break for Owen came in 1991, when he was invited to show at the prestigious Mitsukoshi Exhibition in Japan. Here he felt lucky to hit it off with Japanese grand-prize ceramic artist Tsukamoto Haruhiko. The pair exchanged pottery, and the Japanese master ended up accepting Owen’s invitation to visit. But on his arrival, both were surprised to discover that Owen’s potter’s wheel turned in the opposite direction from those in Japan, effectively rendering Tsukamoto unable to work. So he taught Owen how to use his cut-clay technique with a wiggle wire, greatly influencing Owen’s subsequent work.
“I found it such a magical, free, and fast way to work. I love working very fluidly; I am not someone who has a lot of patience to sit down and spend hours on the same piece. I just like to have it flow out of me and enjoy the process.”
Owen’s routine is to go to his studio in the mornings Monday through Friday and get home for a late lunch. “I have several different jobs: the main one is my pottery, second is the gallery at the pearl farm, then the third is my hotel, which we built based on culture, art, and the environment. The hotel is a living museum, built on an old Bali Hai hotel site that’s situated on the most important archaeological site in the country. Through the architecture and in-house museum, I am trying to tell the story of the Polynesian migration. Strangely enough, these ancient Polynesians were potters, the Lapita people, who originally came from Bismarck Archipelago near Papua New Guinea. They traded their pots along the way, but that onward tradition stopped in Tahiti where they couldn’t find clay.” The hotel takes its name, Lapita Village, from these ancient people.
Owen jokingly looks back on setting up his hotel as a 50-year old’s midlife crisis. “It took a lot out of me, but I was so glad to have done it.”
Incidentally, Peter translates to Pita in Tahitian, a word that also means pottery. When Owen arrived in Tahiti 45 years ago, he had to solve the age-old dearth of no available local clay by importing it from California. Eventually, he would discover while scuba diving around his pearl farm that the island did in fact have clay, at the bottom of the 100-foot (30 m)-deep lagoon. He now routinely uses this resource to make his trademark Huahine blue glaze, the fired effect giving the impression of running water.
“I know this may be hard to believe for some, but I feel it was destiny that brought me here and to be the only working potter in this small country of 250,000 people,” Owen says. “A lot of people now have my work and often asked me if I can remember the blue cup that they bought.”
Most of Owen’s work is sold through the Pearl Farm gallery, but a small amount is sold in his hotel and at two other local galleries; there is often not enough stock to go around. Facebook sales have picked up, too.
Owen says, “The big advantage in our marketing is that we don’t have to give a huge percentage to other people, but we do sell through other galleries at the same price as in our own so as not to undercut other people. We are on an outer island, and when people come here, they are often looking to buy some of our pottery. The Pearl Farm gallery has developed into one of the main attractions of the island.”
Mind and Inspiration
“Ceramics Monthly has always been an inspiration,” Owen says. “But my greatest inspiration has been living on these beautiful islands with these kind, fun, and generous people. They are some of the first people to ever use tattoos and have an amazing vocabulary of motifs that we use on our pottery.”
“I’m a very active person, so I recharge via sports like yoga, biking, and surfing, as well as through travel. On a typical day off, I’ll go surfing if there are waves or ride my E-bike around the island. If I get stuck in the studio, I usually just take a break or have the weekend off [and] use the time to build up to a vacation, after which I come back to it full of new ideas and ready to go.”
“The biggest thing I have learned is that being a working artist is really a gift; to become a small creator here on this big earth and to make things that other people enjoy is truly rewarding.”