The dildo that broke the camel’s back

Many of you will have read the recent article about my resignation from the Wellington Potters’ Association. The article’s author does a good job of presenting a balanced overview of the specific situation, including a response from the current committee, though of course, it’s only a small part of the a whole story.

It’s also pretty crazy to me that this article has even been picked up by international news outlets and was the #5 most popular news item on Stuff on 2 December 2020! I have been getting approached by a lot of people about it and I shared a few details on my Instagram stories but I thought I would take the time to write in more detail about my whole experience as a committee members of WPA.

I joined WPA in January 2015, a complete beginner in pottery, having only done an 8-week course in 2011 before embarking on my PhD data collection in Laos. When I graduated from my PhD in 2014, my New Year’s resolution was to re-join the club as a member. At the time, there was no one in the workshop coordinator role, and there were very few opportunities for learning. In 2016 I was asked to join the committee and take on the workshop coordinator role, which I was glad to do, because I was so eager to create learning opportunities for myself and others.

Because I had experience as a lecturer and in education more widely, am pretty organised and know my way around a spreadsheet, I was well-suited to the role and enjoyed facilitating learning experiences. However, even in those early days I noticed some issues with the committee and became aware of how this community was unlike others in which I was involved.

We met monthly, and often our committee meetings would run over 3 hours. I would go straight from my full-time job to the committee meeting at 5:30pm, which might not until until close to 9pm, and by the time I got home it would be 9:30, I wouldn’t have eaten dinner until 10pm, when I had to work at 9am the next day. A lot of the other committee members were retired, or didn’t have 9-5 jobs, so it wasn’t as big an issue to them, but this was really exhausting and challenging for me. I tried raising this as an issue — perhaps the club could pay for food for committee members when meetings ran over 2.5 hours?

This didn’t seem too radical from my perspective. For example, the community bike workshop at which I volunteer regularly buys food for volunteers when we have meetings. I had seen the finances of the club — there certainty was enough money to provide food, especially considering committee members are volunteers. However, I was told that the club would not provide food for committee members.

This was an additional hurdle to people wanting to volunteer — not only did it require your time and energy, but also you had to pay to make sure you could feed yourself so you wouldn’t have a really awful evening and next day. I know it may seem like a small thing, but this expectation that committee members pay to volunteer always seemed like an unfair expectation that restricted committee membership to people from affluent backgrounds.

In 2018 I won the ‘best first time exhibitor’ award at the annual exhibition Ceramicus with my piece ‘Vagina Teapot‘. Sam Duckor-Jones was the selector, who is well known for his work with prominent phalluses.

Work by Sam Duckor-Jones’s at the 2018 Ceramicus Exhibition. Photo by Chris Parkin.

When the vice-president, who was announcing the awards, said my name, I was so excited and surprised. As I approached the podium to accept the award she said ‘Why don’t you say the name of the piece?’.

All the other winners that evening had the name of piece read out by her.

It was only later, after the buzz wore off, I realised it was that she hadn’t wanted to say the name of my winning piece out loud. At the time, it seemed kind of like a funny cute quirk. Looking back now, I have more perspective on the dynamics really at play.


Me with my award-winning teapot in 2018.

When that president stepped down that year, and then another was elected who also stepped down after his term ended, no one wanted to take on the role in 2019. I offered to take on the role.

It was a job none of the other 400 club members wanted to do.

I at least had experience working with the committee, and a set of clear values that including supporting and enabling access to the arts, as I know how important creative practice is to wellbeing. It was a good opportunity for me too, to develop leadership skills and contribute more to my vision of what the community could be.

That expectation of paying-to-volunteer came up again, more explicitly, at the Ceramicus 2019 awards ceremony. Presenting the awards was one of my first official duties as president and I was nervous about public speaking. In addition, I had been up since very early that morning, helping run the Go By Bike day’s stall for the community bike workshop I volunteer with followed by a full day at the office. As we were setting up for the awards ceremony, I was approached by a long-time member of the club who handles membership and renewals.

The first thing she said to me was ‘Why did you change your membership to associate member?’.

I was pretty shocked. Why not? The full membership fee is $150, and associate member is $75. As I have my own studio, I didn’t feel like I needed to pay the additional $75 for studio privileges I didn’t use or need.

I replied saying as much, that I had my own studio so didn’t use the club studio so I didn’t need the full membership anymore.

She replied ‘I have my own studio too, so do all of us long-time members. We still pay the full membership fee.’ and walked away.

I was really shocked that here I was being criticised for making a financial decision based on my situation, despite the hours upon hours of volunteering work I did for the club. It was so upsetting to me I actually went into the toilet and cried, right before having to go present the awards for the whole club.

However, before the end of the evening, I decided I needed to explain to her that what she had said had upset me, and why. So I approached her and explained that I was in a really difficult financial position, that my mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which was quite stressful and upsetting more generally and I didn’t think her comments were appropriate. I also told her I needed to take 2 months unpaid leave and travel back to the US to look after her, which was quite expensive, and I just didn’t have the extra financial resources at the time to pay for full membership for an expense I couldn’t justify when I already spent so much of time doing unpaid work for the club.

She cut me off before I could finish, hugging me, and saying ‘It’s ok, no one else knows’, and again, walked away.

It took me a few moments after she left to realise what she meant was that no one else knew that I had reduced my membership to the associate level.

She assumed that I was ashamed of the fact that I was in financial hardship. This actually upset me even more. I am in no way ashamed of my financial circumstances. Not everyone is born wealthy or has had a life of privilege, allowing them to own a home, and that is no personal fault of my own.

I was so angry about this for so long, but I wrongly assumed she felt remorse about criticising me, and so I decided not to bring up the situation again and just keep the peace.

…Until 1 year later, when it was time for me to renew my membership. Again she criticised me for not paying the full membership fee. Along with snide comments about how even she paid the full fee despite having her own studio.

Which was actual bullshit. She has lifetime membership, so does not have to pay fees at all. And, before she was made a lifetime member, when she did have to pay, circa 2010, the fees were more like $40 a year, rather than the $200 current fee.

And at that point I was seething. So I finally told her she had no business judging me, and that she had no idea what it was like to be a person my age in New Zealand today, in the current housing situation, and that people like her with homes and wealth should quit criticising people like myself who spend countless hours volunteering for the club, and expecting that on top of the time I donate to the club, I should be donating money as well. Of course she didn’t listen or care, and I just refused to speak to her or work with her from that point on.

So obviously there were underlying systemic issues of classism which I experienced personally. I knew these experiences were symptoms of a wider lack of diversity and inclusion. Can you believe in the 60+ years of the annual exhibition Ceramicus, the club has never had a Māori selector and guest exhibitor?

Ceramics in New Zealand has always had a reputation for being an exclusive and fairly conservative community. Consider how Kaihunga Uku set up their own association for Māori clay artists rather than joining New Zealand Potters Association, what was meant to be the national body for clay workers. For a group of creative people, potters can have very little imagination.

These were issues I am really passionate about and really wanted to address — I wanted to make the club more accessible, more diverse. I made it clear that I was against raising fees unnecessarily, and keeping costs as low as possible for members, and offering subsidies for anyone experiencing financial hardship or other barriers to membership.

When people mentioned to me other issues around sexism, ableism, homophobia, racism, and bullying, I reflected on what could be done and how. I suggested bringing in a code of conduct for committee members. When I brought up issues around cultural appropriation happening or tikanga not being observed at the rooms, the response was ‘We can’t enforce that’ or ‘We can’t do anything about that’. I don’t think that’s good enough. It was a constant struggle with constant excuses being made which were just covering up racism and classist core values that people had no appetite to dismantle.

People complained to me about these issues and I felt like I couldn’t help them. The existing processes around complaints required a formal written complaint to be made. This process did not account for cultural or language issues that might prevent people from making formal written complaints against committee members, nor did it account for the power dynamics at the club. If you complained about a committee member, your work could easily get left out of club firings.

This was something I tried to address, but again, there was no appetite to do any kind of deep reflection on our own behaviours and actions. I admit I could have tried harder, and done more, but hey, this was just a volunteer role for me! Don’t forget I have 3 other volunteer jobs, a full time job, and my part-time self-employed pottery side-hustle.

So, when this workshop proposal came up, I was so disappointed yet again to be up against these attitudes that I truly believe have no place within a creative community.

In particular, 3 committee members raised objections, stating they were concerned about keeping the rooms ‘a safe space’. These 3 committee members are the very same ones which I have received multiple complaints about their behaviours from club members. The irony and short-sightedness that they felt they could raise concerns over a workshop that aimed to be body & sex positive, without examining their own actions and behaviour and how it made other people uncomfortable, was extremely distressing to me.

I understand that for many people, pottery is a hobby and they want to engage with their hobby without having to deal with the stress of social or political issues. However, as very eloquently articulated recently:

“Pottery is political and social justice is life.”

Kristen Keiffer of Keiffer Ceramics

So, I suggested a compromise where the workshop wouldn’t be advertised or limit the use of the rooms during busy periods to appease the people concerned.

I also received several letters of support from members who wanted the workshop to go forward. Some even asked if they could come speak to the committee directly. I proposed this to the committee, and they rejected the idea. They insisted that if anyone had any comments to make, they could submit them in writing.

I shared the support letters with the committee, though I am not certain that any of them were read or responded to. It got to the point where it felt like anything I suggested or proposed to them would just be rejected outright and my energy for continued advocacy was wearing thin.

In addition to dealing with this, I then became the target of accusations from the vice-president over my behaviour, in which she attacked me for promoting subsidies to members experiencing financial hardship during this year of a pandemic as ‘advertising our benevolence’.

She also questioned me around things I had done like criticising the Association in my social media or asking members for feedback about the workshop proposal. And she got mad at me for referring to the committee as ‘small-minded’ and ‘pearl-clutching’ in private messages from the club social media, which, I won’t lie, I did. I could have thought of way worse language and insults to use, I think ‘pearl-clutching’ is pretty gentle in terms of insults, and totally accurate in this case.

I will spare you all the supporting policy clauses, but I know the Association’s rules and operations manual forwards and backwards, and indeed precedent had been set for everything I suggested or did. I have a PhD in Information Studies, I know my way around dense documentation, and none of their arguments were legitimate, it just became a witch-hunt. I responded to all of her and the rest of the committee’s concerns, making a measured & robust argument in favour of creative expression and access to the arts supported by numerous examples.

Example of letter sent to WPA committee on 28 October
Example of letter sent to WPA committee on 28 October

I also tried seeking support from the NZ Charities Services. I expected issues with internal conflicts in charities and non-profit organisations would be something there was support to deal with and Charities NZ could provide expertise and support in the governance of organisations under their authority. Unfortunately, my request has gone unanswered, and it seems like in situation like these, there is very little support for resolving internal issues or building governance capability that includes dealing with conflict.

I also personally approached the vice-president, letting her know that this had all been very upsetting to me, especially how I felt attacked by her, and that perhaps my values didn’t align with the Association, and I was considering resignation. I hoped this would be seen as a sign that all I wanted from the her and committee was an apology. But she only dug her heels in deeper, responded with further criticism.

It all culminated in an ambiguously threatening letter from the committee asking me to respond to the their concerns by a certain date or ‘further action would be considered’.

At this point I decided that when my volunteering was negatively impacting my wellbeing, it was a sign I needed to give up and look after myself and resign.

I don’t think I could ever feel safe around the vice-president again after how she personally attacked me. I have no trust in that Association’s governance anymore. I ran the club website, Instragram, and banking. I coordinated monthly workshops and ran inductions for new members on top of the presidential responsibilities like dealing with complaints and strategic planning. As far as I was concerned, they could replace me and all the countless hours of volunteering I did if they didn’t value my contributions and my leadership values.

I feel shitty about the whole situation. Despite all of this drama, I have so many fond memories of the club and the community there. It is where I learned pretty much everything I know about pottery (and YouTube oc). I have made so many friends at the club who are amazing artists and people. I feel a lot of guilt that I am letting those people down by quitting, but ultimately it just became too much for me.

Receiving that threatening letter was the last straw for me. I tried for so many years, I put so many hours and so much energy into trying to create a community that was diverse, inclusive, equitable and supportive, but I didn’t have the strength to continue fighting. Many thanks to all the members who did support me, I am sorry I had to call it quits, but it just wasn’t a safe space for me anymore.

I am looking forward to having more free time to focus on my own creative practice now, and my other volunteering roles. I am certainly looking forward to not having to deal with those ridiculously long meetings and 10pm dinners, fighting with classist assholes anymore, being shamed for not having excess income, and all that drama. So farewell WPA, sorry it had to end like this!

Author: niceassets

Kia ora, I'm Nicole, the lady behind Nice Assets pots et cetera. I put the ‘fun’ in functional ceramics with sustainable and socially conscious ideology underpinning my practice. My work is stocked at Veronica Design Life and on my website niceassets.co.nz. I also occasionally run workshops and am happy to take commissions — get in touch! You may also see me around Newtown on my bike or at Mechanical Tempest as a volunteer bike mechanic.

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