It was many decades ago that I met Harlan House. Within the decade, I was fortunate enough to have spent some time with him and Maureen at their home in Lonsdale. Harlan has always been there when a question needed to be answered. So this weekend is kind of bittersweet. It would have been the weekend that Harlan would have had his annual open house exhibition and sale. It is the day that I have received my copy of his book, My Work, My Way. Fifty Years in the Studio.
Harlan once told me that one of the things he admired about Bert Borch, one of his instructors at ACAD, was that he wrote his glaze recipes on the board. Anyone could use them; they would never be the same. Nothing was a secret! Harlan has already posted his book online for anyone to download. If you haven’t found it, check it out. Just Google Harlan House. It is full of all of the recipes that he used over the years with images of his work from the very beginning in Calgary. My fondness is for Harlan’s sense of humour. It comes out in his work as do a myriad of influences that he discusses throughout the text.
In a world of excess, some have a desire for sustainability. Harlan was way ahead of the game. If you were to tour his studio, you would be able to see the old Electrolux vacuum cleaner that he used to spray glaze on his ware. He maximised the use of stainless steel milk containers (being disposed of by a local dairy farmer) to mix up his slip, and his kiln was, the last time I was there, the original from forty years ago. Harlan believed in treating everything around him with gentleness and love. That gas kiln was fired for five days, slowly. It lasted. There is something to learn there! I am pretty confident that one of the two Shimpo wheels in his studio was at least forty years old. Harlan and Maureen lived in the slow lane, enjoying their family, their garden, and the life that Harlan’s creations gave them.
Harlan is famous for his beautiful celadon porcelain and his ‘Iris’ pots. He once gave a workshop at Pinecroft Studios (arranged by his good friend, Tony Clennell). There he demonstrated how he applied the slip which, itself, resembled marshmallow cream. Tools were, I suspect, rarely purchased. Instead, ordinary objects found a home by his wheel. This included a stainless steel bicycle spoke (note that stainless steel should not rust and hurt the beautiful white clay) that was used for a lot of things including levelling the edges of the wide rim platters when they decided to curl upwards.
Always ready to move on to something new once he has mastered a form, Harlan not only used the smoothy shiny Chinese glazes but worked on a series that resembled barnacles, the Morgan.
The one below is the GW Bush aircraft carrier single flower boat with one dim candle on board! I told you he had a seriously funny sense of humour especially when it comes to ignorant politicians.
For anyone considering ceramics, you should take a page out of Harlan House’s playbook – be patient. Porcelain taught him to be patient. He once advised me to tell my students that if they wanted to work with porcelain, they needed to learn how to trim, and they needed to like trimming. He would also add that recycling the clay that was left from the trimming is a must. I cannot think of any better advice to give to everyone working with clay, regardless of the type.
Many people – collectors, friends, curators, gallery owners, and locals – will miss Maureen’s cookies this weekend. Harlan hasn’t quit working. He just isn’t keeping a regular schedule. Check out his website, read his book, look at his work – it is delightful.