Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau: Enriches the lives of those around him

Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau (born 1933)  is one of Canada’s most renown ceramic artists.  When I asked him when he first fell in love with wood firing, he chuckled and said it was ” probably around the age of five when he made a fire that almost burnt the family garage down.” Bob graduated with an MFA degree in ceramics from Alfred SUNY in 1964.  For the next four years, he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before accepting a teaching position at the University of Manitoba where he teamed up with Charlie Scott solidifying a wood firing tradition (of vessels) that continues today.  Long before he was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for Excellence, those around him knew that his work was special as was his teaching.  Exceptional might be a better word.

Bob Archambeau has a deep respect for the art of Asia and the limited forms that he chooses to make are a reflection of this.  Note the word ‘chooses’.  There is nothing limiting about the vessels he creates despite the fact that he focuses on four or five vessel forms.  He says that he works on the same few shapes over and over again to improve his integrity as a maker while, at the same time, having deep respect for the traditions that inform those forms.

Anyone who has passed through the wheel throwing or hand building area of the Sculpture/Ceramics Building at the School of Art will be familiar with Bob.  He remains one of the best mentors that any of our students (and faculty) can have.  He is there working late through the night, on the weekends, and sometimes during the day.  When there are no classes being taught in the summer, he is one of a few that take over the clay area till the leaves begin to fall and students return in September.

Two or three years ago he had pieces drying – hundreds of them it seemed – spread across the tables in the hand building room.  At that moment, he was using leaves he had found on his walks as stencils for his plates.  He told me that he was making his granddaughter an entire set.  I was taken aback by this because, at the time, I believed his granddaughter to be 8 or 10.  What a remarkable gift to leave a child.

Twice a year, Bob heads to fire his work with Dan Anderson and his students in Illinois.  He has travelled around the world firing wood kilns with some of the leaders in the field.  On his retirement, his intent was to work in his studio in Bissett, Manitoba (about three hours northeast of Winnipeg).  He built a wood kiln in anticipation of the freedom he would have to work 24/7 if he chose.  Then there was a series of events that happened one of them being an entire ban on burning wood – despite the fact that one could argue that a kiln is an enclosed space.  Still, his dreams halted, Bob was quick to take a different path and it is the reason that he is at the School throwing with many students watching and learning.  In fact, Bob believes that students learn by “watching”.

Bob is also a collector.  Not only of leaves to use as stencils but anything handmade that catches his eye or objects of nature.  One day he had covered the two shelves of a trolley with shells.  He called me over saying, “Always look to nature for inspiration.”

One of Bob’s dearest friends was the late Takamori Akio. In 2015 Takamori was asked to provide a story (Bob loves stories) for a catalogue I was writing for an exhibition of vessels at the School of Art Gallery.  He wrote to me about Bob’s first visit to Japan.  Takamori said:  “Naturally, Bob was very visible in the small Japanese village when he visited me in Nagura, Japan.  He was a giant from Canada.  He would say that Japanese people might think that he was 100 years old because his hair and beard were turning white prematurely.  Bob wished he was invisible perhaps and he tried his best to become as small as he could like a ball of mercury.  He was so careful and acted like a gentle giant who tried not to irritate people around him.  So, Bob walked around very carefully with a shy smile on his face and if he had to talk, he whispered.  His effort worked very well.  Everybody liked him and nobody was intimidated by the stranger.  He did not bump his head or break things when he visited the small houses in the villages.  Bob could satisfy his insatiable curiosity by going to all the niches of the villages and finding small treasures for his eyes to see”.

Bob continues to be a gentle giant at the age of 84.  And those who are fortunate to see his passion for clay continue are truly blessed.

IMG_8358Bob Sandblasting a pot 1IMG_8268

Pamela Nagley-Stevenson

Pamela Nagley-Stevenson moved to Canada to study ceramics at the University of Victoria after living in Hawaii.  While she was a high school student at the Punahou Academy in Honolulu, she had the opportunity to study painting, art history and fine crafts.  When she was a grade 11 student, the Honolulu Academy of Arts hosted an exhibition of vessels by renowned Japanese artist, Toshiko Takaezu [She was born to Japanese parents living in Hawaii].  Nagley-Stevenson went to her artist talks and repeatedly visited the exhibition.  It seemed to draw the young student in like a magnet.  She said, “Her work opened my heart in ways that defy words, and set me on the life path to become a studio potter.”   Nagley-Stevenson thrived in Honolulu where students could take intensive summer courses in clay and in 1970, she enrolled full time as a ceramics student at the University of Hawaii.  There she studied with Claude Horan and Patrick Myers-while also taking a minor in Asian art history.

As a student in Hawaii, Nagley-Steven was active in protests against the Vietnam War.  She was part of the Hawaii High Schools Students for Peace and participated in the Peace March Campaigns and demonstrated to support Hawaiian Sovereignty, Native Land Rights, and the beginnings of the local environmental movement.  “Classmates were fleeing the States for Canada to avoid the draft, the Trudeau Government was seen as being enlightened for that time, and coming to Canada suited my values and life goal to live close to the land as an artist working with clay.”  In 1971, Nagley-Stevenson began her studies at the University of Victoria.  “I was eager for the opportunity to go to Canada in those end times of the Vietnam War.”  Unfortunately, on her arrival, the young student realized that the ceramic studios at the University of Victoria had closed.  She worked instead in the printmaking studios and spent two years in painting and sculpture while immersing herself in Islamic art.

She says, “I left school abruptly for love in 1974, to join my future husband at an artist’s coop in Vernon and begin life as a working potter.”  She put 500 lbs of clay, some glaze materials and a cone 8 electric kiln in the van and headed East.  The couple first lived in the rural Coldstream Valley.  Nagley-Stevenson says her early work was influenced by her knowledge of Asian art.  She “married” it with a crunchy granola aesthetic resulting in some functional ware with “whimsical details.”  The couple bought land in the Slocan Valley in 1976.  “Land in the Kootenays was pristine and affordable, with a lovely counter-culture community of mountain-loving back-to-the-land self-employed artists.  She was also able to teach at the Kootenay School of the Arts bringing in much-needed cash when sales were slow.  The couple planted gardens and orchards moving as quickly as they could to a more self-sustaining life, one in harmony with nature.  After the move, the young potter studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts taking workshops with Les Manning, Pete Voulkos, Mick Casson and Wayne Ngan amongst others.  For fifteen years she produced highly decorated landscape pots that helped pay the couple’s mortgage and feed their two children.  Nagley-Stevenson, like so many others, felt limited by what an electric kiln with its oxidation atmosphere could do and over the course of time, she moved to cone 10 porcelain fired in a wood kiln.  Her first kiln was 16 cubic feet (2000) and today she fires a two-chamber 73 cubic foot wood-soda kiln which was built in 2008.  Firing with wood was able to give Nagley-Stevenson a more natural look to the surface of the clay.  Today she sells her work at her own studio in Winlaw, BC (by appointment),  and at the gift shops and public galleries in Nelson and Castlegar as well as at special summer and holiday markets and tours.

Her work has been exhibited in Canada and the United States.

Betty Woodman dies at age 87

For those of you in my Advanced Throwing Class at the U of M, if you do not know Betty Woodman and her work, look her up!  I did not see this today so I am terribly grateful to Sally Michener for letting me know.

Betty Woodman really pushed ceramics into importance.  She was a clay sculptor who combined many styles, most with a feminist slant.  She has worked for the past six decades and her influence and inspiration resonates through generations of artists.  She will be missed.

Objects and Memory: Ruth Gowdy-McKinley and Byron Johnstad

Canada was very fortunate when, in 1967, Don McKinley, for personal and political reasons (the Vietnam Conflict), took a position at the Sheridan College of Art and Design in Mississauga.  That year Canadian ceramics became all the richer.  Ruth Gowdy-McKinley was made Resident Potter and the couple built her catenary arch wood kiln on a pad just across the drive from the little house the School provided the couple and their daughter.  Few women were firing wood kilns in Canada at the time.  Gowdy-McKinley was quickly recognized for her meticulous vessel forms – teapots, colanders, small storage containers, and even ashtrays!  She was made a member of the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1976, the first potter to do so.  As a student at Sheridan during the summer of 1976, I was fortunate enough to have met her a number of times and to have had tea with her.  I recall how frightened all of us were when we could not get her kiln to reach temperature.  We sat in a semi-circle trying to conjure up anything but nothing worked.  The pots were embarrassingly dismal when unloaded.

Gowdy-McKinley was the driving spirit behind many of the major happenings in ceramics in Canada between her arrival and her untimely death in 1980, at the age of 51.  She never strayed from her devotion to beautiful well functioning domestic ceramics.  In 1993, in honour of Gowdy-McKinley, the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery opened in Waterloo, Ontario largely due to the efforts of Gowdy-McKinley’s friends and colleagues and especially Waterloo ceramist and professor,  Ann Roberts.

The piece above is a porcelain lethal bullet vase made by Gowdy-McKinley.  It was one of a group of objects left to be fired when she died in December 1981.  Her husband, Don, and friends arranged for a small group to gather together and fire the kiln one last time.  I was not at that firing but I had heard about it over lunch with Robin Hopper and Judi Dyelle in 2015.  Robin showed me his vase and told me the story of one of the individuals wrapping the last log with gold leaf and putting it in the kiln before it was sealed.

In May 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting Byron Johnstad in Kelowna.  I was there to interview him, Bert Borch, and Roger Painter for my project on the impact of Vietnam resisters on Canadian ceramics.  It was a hot day Byron had fixed green tea iced tea on his patio.  I do not recall what it was that I must have said that sent him into his house but when he returned he had Ruth’s vase in his hand.  I gave a shriek – and began babbling on for a minute or so about Ruth and the gold leaf around the log.  Anyone knowing Byron, more than I did at that moment, would have quickly recognized that it was him – what a gesture to a wonderful woman from another great ceramist.  Byron handed me the vase.  He had never met Ruth.  It was mine.

This is what I mean about objects and memory.  This vase now holds several stories of two of the finest Canadian artists I ever had the opportunity to meet.  Thank you Byron.

Silenced: Women ceramists who immigrated to Canada, 1963-77

Tonight I am celebrating. The University of Manitoba Office of Research has approved my grant to interview and videotape 20 women ceramists.  I am elated.  My questions have to be approved by Ethics in January but I would like to hear from those in my current study who would like their stories to be told.  Did they move to Canada with a partner/boyfriend/husband only to give up an established career and have to start all over?   Think about how the impact to migrate to Canada impacted your career and your life in both positive and negative ways.

The wording of my grant is as follows:  The objective of this study is to record the oral histories of women immigrants who came to Canada between in the 1960s and 1970s in order not to be complicit in the Vietnam War and who were ceramists. To date, there has been little investigation into the lives of the women who accompanied the young men to Canada. Their sacrifices and their contributions to Canadian ceramics are as invisible as the study of ceramics; both are marginalized fields. Statistics tell us that for every four men who crossed the border, there were five women. They were wives, mothers, and daughters. There are numerous publications and significant research on the men who arrived either as draft dodgers, Conscientious Objectors, or resistors. Indeed, the research into their lives, their politics, and their contributions continues in television mini-series such as Ken Burns, ‘Vietnam’ and recent publications such as War is Here. The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature by Robert McGill. Of the approximately 50,000 women migrants, only Laura Jones, a photographer and co-owner of the Baldwin Street Gallery in Toronto along with John Phillips, a dodger, and Diane Francis, a reporter for Canada’s Financial Post and its editor in 1991, have received some attention. Francis was named Chatelaine Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1992. She considers herself a draft dodger in the same sense as the men who came to Canada to evade the draft adding that she wears the badge with honour even though her sacrifices are rarely acknowledged.

If you are reading this and are part of my current study, please get in touch.  I will also be contacting you in the new year.

Ann Cummings

Ann Cummings arrived in Canada in 1974.  She first lived in Edmonton and then moved to Toronto the following year.  She says that she “wanted to get as far away from Detroit as she possibly could”.  For those that do not know the history of race riots in the United States, Detroit was at the heart of many of them.  They began in 1967 when Detroit erupted and caused further riots across Michigan.  Imagine the US government trying to end the riots y sending in the Army National Guard.  43 dead, 1189 injured, 7200 arrests with 2000 buildings destroyed.  The scale of the riot that year in Detroit was only eclipsed by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.  Like so many of those who came to Canada in resistance to the Vietnam War and the social ills of America in the 1960s and 70s, Cummings has been working with clay for more than fifty years.  Her work has continued to evolve.

Cummings attended Wayne State University where she graduated with a BFA degree in ceramics and drawing.  She has also attended the Archie Bray Foundation (1973), Sheridan College (1976) and was a resident artist at the Banff Center for the Arts in 1992.  Cummings early work centred on wheel thrown vessel forms.  Later, she created work that was both personally expressive and decorative.  She also started using raku firing methods, a technique that she has taught to hundreds of students.  She now works in cast and moulded porcelain sculpture.  The subject of her new work is memory.

Her first studio in Toronto was with a few other Sheridan graduates in a large warehouse.  Later she was at Harbourfront and later at The Spiral Potter in the Beaches area of Toronto.  Eventually, like so many of us, she set up her studio in part of her home in Toronto – the basement.  I wonder how many of us have done this?  Today, Cummings lives outside of Toronto in Port Perry where she has a 900 sq foot studio, a LPG soda kiln and a raku kiln for workshops.  She also does extensive firings in her electric kiln.  Nothing has slowed her down from the day she crossed into Canada.  She is still working, is still part of the studio tours in her region, she teaches workshops after years of successful teaching at George Brown College, Sheridan College, and Ontario College of Art to name only a few.

Cummings has been represented by the Prime Gallery, the premier Canadian gallery for ceramics in Toronto and has had many solo exhibitions in Alberta and Ontario.  Most recently, her work was shown at the David Kaye Gallery in Toronto (2016) and at the Art Gallery of Burlington (2017).  Cummings was in included in numerous group exhibitions.  They include the Propeller Centre for the Arts in Toronto Invitational (2013-15), the Jingdezhen International Invitational Ceramic Fair in China (2009), the Work from Heart, Mind, and Hand Exhibition at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto (2009) to name only a few.  Images and discussions of her work are included in the late Robin Hopper’s The Ceramic Spectrum, Paul Scott’s Painted Clay, Graphic Arts and the Ceramic Surface, Peter Dormer’s The New Ceramics:  Trends and Traditions, as well as John Gibson’s The Decorated Vessel:  Contemporary Approaches to name only a few.  In addition, her work has appeared in numerous ceramics magazines including Ceramics Monthly, Fusion, and Contact Magazine. 

 

Elise Siegel

Elise Siegel came to Canada in 1972.  She is remembered fondly by her former instructors including Sally Michener and Tam Irving at the Vancouver School of Art and her friends.  Siegel had transferred from the University of Chicago where she had studied ceramics with Ruth Duckworth.  While Siegel was openly opposed to the Vietnam War, she says that it was not the defining reason she came to Canada.  She became a Canadian citizen during her ten-year stay.

After graduating Siegel set up studios along with a group of friends at the corner of Maple Avenue and 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  The group built a communal two-chamber gas kiln in the parking lot.  The front chamber was a four-burner downdraft LPG kiln while the second chamber, which operated as a chimney behind the first chamber was also the bisque kiln (used the run-off heat from the front chamber).  It is amazing what you could do in the 1970s!  And how wonderful for this group of young people that they pushed the limits of their understanding of kiln building right in the heart of Vancouver.  Along with Suzu Matsuda and Larry Cohen, Siegel formed a collective and an open store/exhibition space at the site which they called Kitsilano Pottery.  The cooperative adventure lasted for several years with each sharing responsibilities.  During this same time, Siegel was also busy making functional tableware for a number of Greek restaurants within Vancouver.  Siegel was also part of the Outreach Faculty of the Vancouver School of Art.  She travelled to outlying northern communities to present ceramics workshops to adults.

Siegel slowly moved from vessels to sculpture.  For a while, she continued to use clay as the main medium for her work but she branched out experimenting with other materials that were not specifically tied to ceramic traditions.  She returned to clay in the late 1990s.  She says, “If there is a thread that still connects my current work to the pots I was making after art school, it would be an intense awareness of the tactile responsiveness and immediacy of clay as a material”.

Today, Siegel has her studio in New York City.  She taught both undergraduate and graduate ceramics at the Pratt Institute between 2008-11 and has taught at Greenwich House Pottery since 1985.