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A potter's paradise in Taupō: inside a quirky new gallery

Potter Didi Chapman can trace a fascination with clay back to her childhood in Czechoslovakia. It took decades and some major international diversions before the award-winning Taupō artist could revisit that schoolgirl obsession. Now, as owner of Quirky Pottery Studio and Gallery, clay is at the centre of her working world.

Didi Chapman at her new space for Quirky Pottery Studio & Gallery

Didi offers pottery classes and produces her own range of hand-built crockery and lampshades on-site, as well as one-off commissions and sculptural pieces that are exhibited around New Zealand.

The gallery side of the business also sells paintings, jewellery, carvings and other works by fellow artists she knows personally.

It all stems from one inspiring mentor in her native Czech Republic.

Stunning teacher 

“I have always wanted to be a potter since I was little,” Didi says.

“I started doing after-school pottery classes when I was quite young, probably 10. I had this absolutely stunning teacher who showed me clay is a little different to other materials and I still remember everything she showed me.”

Didi Chapman passing on her love of clay with pottery classes

At age 12, the budding artist won a ceramic sculpture contest.

“But my parents didn’t want me to be a potter because it didn’t pay well, and it’s very hard. They said there’s no future in it.”

So she applied her talents to the commercial world and worked long hours to help develop a successful graphic design business with 20 employees. However, she struggled to communicate with one of her largest clients, who did not speak Czech.

“Growing up in communism, English was frowned on, and I couldn’t learn the language properly with my busy business. I had an English teacher but I was not a good student. After two years, she said you’re not getting anywhere. You need to go somewhere far away to learn, where people can’t reach you on your cell phone.”

A little bit of Europe

On a whim, Didi signed up for a language course in Australia which eventually led her to an art school in Sydney and to Shaun Chapman, the Kiwi bodyguard and chef who would become her husband. The pair had two young boys when they decided to leave the city and live a quieter life in his home country.

The stunning backdrop of Lake Taupō Didi now calls home

“We had been to Taupō a couple of times on holiday, so when Shaun said he wanted to move, I said can we please go to Taupō. The lake, the mountains, the possibility of going skiing. It reminds me a little bit of Europe.

“It is beautiful here because of the nature. We bought a house and a big garden and suddenly there were no snakes and the kids were running in the garden with no supervision. And going to work is not two hours’ driving. For me, it’s two minutes.”

In her adopted hometown, Didi found time to dabble in art again, initially producing ink drawings for a sell-out exhibition.

Didi's own style of sgraffito sculpture

Then she began pursuing her own style of sgraffito sculpture, where intricate designs are scratched into a clay surface. In 2020, one of her pieces took the runner-up prize in a national art competition.

Working with chefs

She also joined Taupō’s pottery club, where she began offering lessons to local schoolchildren and developing a range of kitchenware to sell at the weekly Market Central Taupō. 

Once she found her first small studio, right before Covid struck in 2020, there was more opportunity to develop her colourful stoneware range, with its earthy, organic forms often decorated with imprints or decals. Creations include butter dishes and berry bowls, hand-built candleholders, garlic graters and lemon squeezers; all finished in food-safe glazes.

Quirky Pottery with Embra's beautiful degustation menu

Didi was thrilled when local restaurateurs Phill and Nora Blackburne asked if she would make a full set of crockery for their smart new bistro, Embra.

“We just clicked right away, and we designed everything together, something like 500 different types of plates and bowls and cups.

“I always wanted to do that, to work with chefs. With Phill, we talk about the shapes that suit him – his food is art and it looks so gorgeous on this hand built plate - and he said the pottery holds exactly the temperature he wants for exactly the time he needs.”

Another respected restaurateur, The Bistro’s owner-chef Jude Messenger has been similarly supportive and now serves his food on Quirky Pottery dishes.

Everything is possible

Now that she has a larger studio, Didi is able to offer more classes; night classes and short courses for adults, classes for children and one-off private lessons to visiting tourists or interested groups.

The beautiful sculptures, pottery, jewelry at Quirky Pottery

She is enjoying filling the gallery with beautiful things.

“I have a lot of friends who are artists and there are so many clever makers and designers in New Zealand. These are people I have a connection to."

“The family from Opotiki who do the pounamu, we met at the market and became very good friends. We go fishing together. The woman who does the dried flowers, she had asked me to make vases for her and I have a Czech friend from the Hawkes Bay who is making beautiful jewellery from plastic bottles and recycled plastic things found on the beach. Her dad is a potter in the Czech Republic.”

Didi's and other artists' work available at Quirky Pottery Gallery

One special gallery contributor stems from Didi’s pottery club days.

“Hazel Georgandi is 90 years old and still potting, and she’s so inspirational. She is still making cups for my gallery. When you see people like that, you just think everything is possible, I can see my future.”

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