Written by Jason Roxburgh — QEII regional representative for Coromandel
Barry Brickell was one of the Coromandel’s best known and respected residents, as well-known for his disdain for convention and committees as he was for his inventiveness, compassion, and his many life passions. Barry was a devotee of ceramics, pottery, kiln building, conservation, engineering, geology, early industrial sites, and steam and railways. He was well versed in New Zealand history, with a sharp interest in Maori culture and native flora and fauna. He was a QEII covenantor, owning two covenants on the outskirts of Coromandel town, best known as the site of the Driving Creek Railway and Pottery.
Barry was a visionary in the widest sense, conceiving and developing ideas decades before they became accepted by the wider community. One of his biggest gripes was people trying to define him, once saying to me ‘the only things that should be put in pigeonholes are pigeons, and I’m no pigeon’. Interviewed on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon in 2013 Barry said ‘I've always been an outsider in everything I've done. And that's on purpose, so that I can concentrate on what I want to do without external interference.’ That highlighted one of the threads than ran through Barry’s life, doing it because it was true to himself.
Barry passed away in Coromandel on 23 January 2016 aged 80, and a celebration of his life was held in Coromandel on 27 January. Around 400 people squashed themselves into the swelteringly hot and humid Coromandel Area School Hall for 2 hours, a testament to the esteem Barry is held in. If I dared to define Barry (and I wouldn’t tell him I had tried) I’d say he continues to be one of New Zealand's most celebrated ceramic artists, that he restored many hectares of native bush, created a wildlife sanctuary and one of the Coromandel’s most iconic destinations, was a strong supporter of the QEII National Trust and its objectives, and most recently proposed and championed a pier for Coromandel Harbour, as a solution to a long running debate about (among other things) how to get the Auckland ferries to do more sustainable timetabled trips to Coromandel.
He bought the 24 hectare property at Driving Creek in 1973 for its terracotta clay, and spent 33 years developing the Driving Creek Railway, starting as a means of getting clay from the hills of the property, to his ‘asylum’ studio. The Railway opened to the public in 1990, and is now one of the Coromandel’s most popular tourist attractions, having carried 1.25 million passengers. QEII registered Barry’s first covenant over the Driving Creek Railway property in 1994, and added a second over a predator-proof fenced area in 2005.
Barry’s self-deprecating description of himself was as a ‘railway crank’. In an interview with Radio New Zealand’s Spectrum programme in 2015 he said what excited him about railways is the beauty in their construction, saying ‘roads are crude engineering compared with railways. The engineering in the landscape, the curvature and the gradients have to be very carefully considered.’ That was the other thread that ran through Barry’s life, beauty and curvature. Respected potter Mike O’Donnell, MC at Barry’s memorial, spoke of Barry’s love of ‘curvature’, nowhere more evident than in his sculptures and railway. Barry sold thousands of pottery and ceramic objects, including many sculptures and murals, wrote several books, and painted numerous works of art, some of which he exhibited in his own art gallery in Coromandel.
Barry, with his trademark plastic sandals and bowl haircut, was buried in the hills of his beloved Driving Creek property, on one last trip of his earliest train. Mike O’Donnell said ‘Barry wanted to be buried not so deep that the worms can’t find him, and not to shallow that the pigs can dig him up’.
Barry’s legacy was large, and his vision even larger. The Driving Creek Arts and Conservation Trust, and Driving Creek Railway Ltd continue to deliver on that legacy and vision, and he will continue to be part of the conversations had by the community for decades to come.