Thinking about tea and teapots while eating fresh dates

There are so many memories and quotes about tea and teapots.  While living in Britain, I learned that everything is much better with a “warm cuppa.” Even today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tea can be soothing to the body and soul.

In her book, When Calls the Heart, Janette Oke pondered the idea that a fine china tea set would make life in a log cabin much more civilized when she said, “There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials – with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama’s mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!”

In Pomegranate Soup, a lovely book that marries Persian cooking with Irish living, the author, Marsha Mehran writes: “There were ceramic teapots in aubergine, mustard, and midnight blue (good for one, sweeter still when shared between two drinkers); and forty small, thin glasses with curved handles, set in gold- and silver-plated holders etched with arabesque swirls. Bahar gingerly lined the tea glasses up on the counter where the cappuccino machine had been stationed. She tucked the teapots into the counter’s glass-panelled belly, where they sat prettily next to twenty glass containers of loose-leaf teas, ranging from bergamot and hibiscus to oolong.”

In The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore plays with a trunk full of treasures and memories when she describes the moment when the lid was opened. “Ephraim lifted the top of the trunk. Neatly stacked were mementoes from what seemed like hundreds of journeys. Right on top was an etching of the Eiffel tower next to an African mask that looked at him with surprised eyes. He reached in a little deeper and unearthed a small teapot decorated with blue drawings just like the kind his grandmother collected and kept in a locked china cabinet.”

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in the southern United States. Oklahoma to be exact.  I have no memory of hot tea or teapots even though the china cabinet contained an array of thin, highly decorated teacups.  I recall, as a child, being taken to the window in the dining room and being shown the translucency of the eggshell cups. They were not used for tea but were brought out on exceptional occasions with the coffee service.  Everyone drank iced tea.  If anyone had ordered hot tea at a restaurant, I am not sure the wait staff would have known precisely what to do.  Tea was not hot except for its brewing for iced tea.  There was no flavoured powdered tea.  People in the South are purists.  Teabags were brewed and then water and ice were added, never sugar.  The tea was served in stemmed goblets.  The sugar, if it was used at all, was combined with the help of an extra-long silver spoon and stirred till every last crystal was dissolved.  Some added the juice from a fresh lemon.

It was only as a new immigrant to Canada that the comfort and the Britishness of hot tea and an old Brown Betty pot were appreciated.  The tea that was made was Black and robust, most often requiring milk and sugar to chase away the bitterness.  Hot tea was comforting to hold the cup or mug during the cold of the Manitoba winters, the steam warming your face.  The favourite brand in southern Manitoba was Red Rose.  I was never sure if it was the price, the quality, or the fact that there were often small Wade ceramic figurines tucked inside the boxes for collecting beginning in 1967.

Fast-forward and my life and the world of tea expanded in ways that I could not have dreamed of during those first winters in Canada.  First was the chai simmered in some pretty forlorn tin or aluminium pots on the railway platforms in India.  Delicious and creamy and often made even better with the infusion of cardamon.  In Pakistan, tea was made on the side of the road in brightly painted metal pots while in Beijing, one could sit for hours in the Kempinski Hotel’s tea room sipping jasmine tea made in glass pots.

I am not the only person whose knowledge of tea has changed.  Around the world, there are masters purchasing teas – green, white, Pu’er, Oolong and Black – for our more refined palettes.  Teas are blended in the same way that whiskeys are with the masters identifying the notes in each.  You can take classes on tea.  You can order tea from the tea plantations along with suitable teacups and pots.

Today, I have an extensive collection of handmade teapots.  They range from the most recent, a gift from Grace Han when she was leaving for Vancouver to a lovely lacquer one made by the lacquer master in Bagan, Malaysia brought back by my son.  There are others, tucked away in China cabinets or sitting in my office for students to hold and critique.

 

Top row from left:  Grace Han teapot (2019) made using Korean mould technique (Grace’s rock series); John Reeve temmoku teapot made at Sheridan College, 1976; lacquer tea set made in Bagan, Myanmar. Bottom row from left:  Valerie Metcalfe, Barbara Tipton, and Gunda Stewart.

Each of my teapots holds a special place in my heart because of the memories and the beautiful people who made them.  They are, in fact, more than just vessels for brewing and serving tea.  It is a way of enjoying a quiet or shared moment with an old friend.

As my knowledge of tea has grown, so has my questions about teapots. Indeed, my taste in tea has changed dramatically.  Instead of buying big boxes of 120 teabags of Black tea, I purchase small sealed packets of hand-rolled black teas from Malawi or small-batch silver tip jasmine white tea from Wuyi, China.  Then there are the greens from Uji, Japan and the roasted nuttiness of genmaicha.  Indeed, the only black tea that I drink is Huntington’s hand-rolled from Malawi.  Its sweetness requires no sugar, and while you could steep it so that milk would be required, there is no need unless you walk off and forget it!

All of this brings me to the question of the teapot.  The way that we enjoy tea today has changed from what it was during the war years in Britain or even on the Canadian prairies in the 1970s.  We are more sophisticated in our knowledge of tea while, at the same time, there have been a growing number of companies and shops to cater to us.  Today, I want to see the colour of the tea develop and to watch the leaves unfurl and to do this, I must use a glass pot.  The same is true for any of the flowering silver tip white teas.  I want to see the colour develop along with the unfurling of the leaves.

New revelations on the best temperatures to use to infuse different varieties of tea have resulted in small appliance manufacturers making electric kettles with temperature controls.  Today, it is generally known that one simply does not boil the pot until the whistle is blowing the roof off unless they want their lovely green jasmine tea to be anything bitter.  There is a French tea company, Palais des Thes, that has a marvellous green tea that is mixed with rose and raspberry leaves.  A friend placed the leaves of the Paris for Her tea in a pot and poured boiling water over it and allowed the tea to steep as she would any black tea.  After she was shocked at how bitter the brew was – so upset that she called the North American head office to complain.  In the end, it turned out that instead of 100 degrees C, the tea required 70 degrees C and a very short steep.  To handle this, some tea companies sell only 150 ml and 300 ml teapots so that you are merely making 1 or 2 cups.  No leaves will turn bitter if you check the water temperature required and the length of the steep – generally supplied with the tea.

So what am I going on about????????  Well, like the right temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, there has to be an equally appropriate teapot for specific teas.  The Chinese make their Yixing teapots out of a beautiful local clay that is sometimes a purple-brown colour when fired.  There is no glaze.  The pot absorbs the flavour of the tea that has been infused after years (assuming the same type of tea is used) until, eventually, less tea is needed.  Glazed clay teapots can be used for any kind of tea but should they?  And should we make such large pots that the tea continues to steep under the cosy becoming more bitter?  So my argument is this:  If you are infusing a standard black or herbal tea, go for the ceramic pot.  But if you are brewing a rare tea whose colour and unfurling is paramount to its appreciation, then you simply must use a small glass pot.

Carol Graham, continued

It is quite amazing what can happen in the span of a month.  Canada is now in the grips of COVID-19, anxious students of all ages are trying to finish their classes online, and, unless we are essential, we are to stay home.  That staying home has really helped in the search for information on Carol Graham (see March 6 blog entry).  News has come from the talented pit firing ceramist, Susan Delatour in Princeton, BC.  Perhaps some of Susan’s information will help jog the memories of others so that a full entry for Carol can be made in my book.

Susan lived with her ex-husband, Steve LePoidevin.  They had a home and studio at Shawinigan Lake in 1980.  That is where she met Carol Graham who lived in Cobble Hill, the next village.  Because of their mutual interest in ceramics, they became friends.  Susan remembers the five-day workshop that Carol organized with Blue Corn that summer:

BLUE CORN (with her daughter, HESHI FLOWER) in a beautiful rural setting Mill Bay, ‘Vancouver Island, July 28th to Aug. 1, 1980, 8 am-4 pm each day. This is a workshop organized privately. Blue Corn, a world-famous Indian Pueblo potter from San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, will guild students in every step to recreating her famous polychrome pottery as well as San Ildephonso’s black pottery–from mixing clay Blue Corn brings from New Mexico–to painting natural earthy pigments with Yucca brushes–to firing (in two separate firings) in an authentic manner with cow and horse dung. Limited enrollment. we have 14 students and can accommodate 4 more. $200 for five full days with lunches provided. Because of limited enrollment and slowness of mail please phone the following for more information, Carol Graham (Mill Bay 743-5182 anytime) or Verona Bridges (Nanai- mo).
Susan remembers Carol’s high fired reduction functional ware because of its beauty.  She also recalls that Carol’s first husband passed away after a battle with cancer sometime in the 1980s.  After that, Carol had her own health issues including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that sadly caused her to stop making ceramics.
Carol, it seems, had to be busy and she turned towards her interest in gardens writing a book with Dorothy Field called Between Gardens when she could no longer work with clay.  Susan Delatour says it began with a series of letters written between Dorothy Field and Carol Graham Chudley (Ron Chudley, fourth husband, devoted caregiver over a period of three years starting in 1995).  They were musings on gardening as well as practical tips.  Susan notes that the volume also became about living with a debilitating disability.  Carol died in May 1998 before the book could be published in 1999 in honour of their friendship.
If you or someone you know might be able to continue filling in the gaps for Carol Graham, I would be ever so grateful.  And if you happen to have photographs of the workshop with Blue Corn and don’t mind if I use them, please take a good crisp photo with your phone or camera.

It’s March 6, 2020, and I am searching for more information on Carol Graham who once taught at Malaspina College on Vancouver Island

My old friend, Tony Clennell, once told me that writing a blog was like having a horse:  you had to feed it every day.  Well, those of you who regularly check back for news will know clearly that my horse must have died.  It has been a while since I sat down to write and there is lots of news.  So news first and research/writing/ceramics next!  This summer is set for two significant events.  The first is my artist residence at the Contemporary Arts Centre in La Borne, France.  I am so excited to be working in their studios and firing their Phoenix Fast Fire Kiln.  Also, I will be meeting the women who will be using the anagama kiln, and there will be a symposium dealing with the challenges of being a woman and wood firing.  All ages will be present.  It is going to be quite fun!  I will also be giving two workshops and getting to use that fabulous soft La Borne clay.  Shortly after, on August 31, I will officially retire from teaching for the School of Art at the University of Manitoba.  No tears.  It has been great fun, but it is time to live – and to be able to take advantage of those ticket sales to beautiful places that have been ignored.  So mark your calendars and have a drink of some kind – juice or adult beverage – in celebration with me!

Now, to get to one of those projects that will fast become the top of my to-do-list shortly again.  For those who have been reading this blog or who know me, I continue to try to find all of those men and women who came to Canada during the Vietnam era who were potters.  In 2016, I received a Chalmers Grant for Craft from the Canada Council to begin this project.  To date, I have 119 individuals who have contributed much to the ceramic landscape in Canada.  Some have won the highest awards our country could offer.  Many taught, and all made ceramics.  But today, I am reaching out for help on one single individual.  Her name is Carol Graham, and Doug and Verona Bridges saw my call for information on Carol and wrote to me.  Doug taught at Malaspina College with Carol and Verona, and Carol travelled to Taos and Santa Fe where they visited Blue Corn and convinced her to come to Nanaimo.  Doug and Verona also have an extensive collection of Carol’s high fire functional domestic ware.  The minute I saw the images, I was drawn back to the 1970s when everyone was using iron-rich clay and muted glazes in their high fire kilns.  Many were also, like Carol, using stamps on their work.  Gosh, that was a great time to be a potter!  One of my favourites in their collection is a dillweed plate meant to hang on the wall.  I can almost feel Carol slowly and steadily pushing the dill into the clay.

The only other information that I have on Carol Graham is that she received her MFA from Puget Sound and in 1983 she lived in Cobble Hill, BC before she died.  If you have any recollection of Carol Graham or own her work, please contact me.  My plan is to finish the book on the women who came to Canada during the Vietnam era and who were potters.

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CarolGraham garlic and spice containers

New Work at C2 Gallery in Winnipeg

I am really happy to announce to all those people who collect my work or who have supported me throughout the years that pieces are now available at the Manitoba Craft Council C2 Gallery Shop on Cumberland Street in Winnipeg.

The current work is the result of several years of research. I was never interested in colour despite the fact that I created rutile blue vessels for my clients years ago.  But, on my second trip to Copenhagen in 2018, all of that changed.  There I saw the oranges, greens, and blues so prevalent in flower vases made by many Danish potters. Still, “There was a lot about the work that was not me, and I needed to find my voice.” That same year I received funding to research and test the use of colour on clay vessels fired in wood kilns. At about the same time, I was commissioned to write a chapter for a book on Environmental Humanism. At the intersection of the two, there was a desire to lessen my carbon footprint.  I began to experiment with single-fired earthenware ceramics.

In the spring of 2019, the sparks of this new defining aesthetic were lit while I was an Interdisciplinary Artist at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, Scotland. The theme of my project was transience.  Photographs of the sea at Lunan Bay, the gardens, walls, and hardware of Hospitalfield House were taken every day for a month at three specific times. The unfired vessels that were created were intent on capturing the changing colour and the patinas of decay.  The objects were placed at the edge of the sea and in the trees of the gardens so that they could deteriorate naturally over time.  Right now, three similar pieces are in the exhibition, The Constant Happiness is Curiosity at the School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba until 6 September.

 

I purchased books on colour theory and began to look at how colours existed side by side in nature. Instead of using glaze, I began to experiment with ceramic stains. The colours and their application did not have the life that I wanted.  This period was followed by the addition of multiple colours to the surface, often using tape to create a hard edge like the paintings of the 1950s.

I had gotten to a point where I was trying so hard, and nothing was coming out the way I wanted. It was very frustrating. And then, one morning, I began to remove the colour and, I was like, hey! Sometimes, I begin work on a series of vases and everything just clicks. At other times it is not so easy.  The surface has to be loose. If I overthink it, it is dead. The latest is called Miami Dreamsicle, a medley of pinks, oranges, and a touch of turquoise or Wedgwood Blue. This series is highly reminiscent of suminagashi or floating ink, a Japanese marbling technique.

detail, Dreamsicle series

 

I have recently moved my studio to my home.  This relocation eases the way for me to manipulate the eight or more layers of colour on the work spontaneously. The current objects differ greatly from my previous work because I am now rejecting function and instead, embracing the clay’s surface as a canvas.

I am very grateful to Tammy Sutherland and her staff at the C2 Gallery for this opportunity and invite all of you to stop in and see the new pieces.

 

 

Columbia Basin Culture Tour

If you live near the Columbia Basin or you are travelling to British Columbia, and you will be there for August 10 and 11, you really need to check out the 70 artists that are in the 11th annual culture tour.  Studios are open daily from 10-5, and there are maps, brochures, and postcards at the galleries, craft shops, information bureaus, and studios of the artists.  I have written about many of these creative people before, but it is time to wake everyone up again to get out and see what is new.  For specific information, you can find maps, information on each of the artists, event activities at http://www.cbculturetour.com. It is all free to charge.  Take a road trip and support the local artists in the Columbia Basin of British Columbia.

Standing in Gunda Stewart’s studio in Canyon, I looked down and saw a postcard and started laughing.  Good thing Gunda was out grinding a lid or she would have thought I had lost my mind.  The problem was I couldn’t stop.  Gunda gave me a smile, and I showed her what was causing all of the chaos:  a photo of a sheep under a hairdryer with those bristle rollers, red high heels with her utters spilling over the edge of the chair.  Gunda was quick to point out that that particular artist had managed to get an image of three different works on the three different types of publicity.  Within an hour, we were standing in Andrea Rovey’s studio in Creston, and that is where I came face to face with GlamChops!

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Andrea has this seditious sense of humour.  She made a sculpture in celebration of the Pink pussyhats, women marching against Trump in 2017.  It was her way of dealing with this outrageous situation.  Scattered about are award-winning sculptures, chicks dancing on cars, rabbits, beavers with the brightest red lipstick.  I should have paid more attention because this was a fantastic studio with one heck of an incredible artist.  Andrea studied at Red Deer College with Trudy Golley and also went to Penland- but the humour is all her.  Notice:  Glam Chops is reading a book on ‘Teets’.  Underneath each of these is something that relates to women.  Stop in and check out her work….there is much more on offer.

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The Kootenays are so green this year and hopefully with the rain maybe it will be a wildfire free year. Gunda fired her wood kiln, and her shelves are ready for the tour.  She loads everything up and takes it to Cameron Stewart’s studio up in Passmore.  You can catch her at the market in Creston on the weekends or in her studio when the ‘open’ sign is up.  The wood-fired functional ware of her, Cameron, Pamela Nagley-Stevenson, and Robin Dupont is exceptional and unique to each maker.  Check out their studios on the tour.  I hear the last wood firing for Nagley-Stevenson had quite surprising results.

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If you are not going to be in British Columbia, then check out what is happening with your local artisans and artists.  In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Folk Festival will have its annual handmade village and around all of the provinces are weekend markets where you can buy local.  And if you want to become more ecological, then consider something well made that will make a person happy for a long time that was created by someone local.

4 June – a special bittersweet day

4 June is a special day for me.  It was the day my youngest son, Will, was born.  It was also the day that I landed in Canada with my oldest son, Cris, who was just six weeks old as a political immigrant from the Vietnam War.  As the plane began its descent into Winnipeg, the thought going through my head was It looks just like Oklahoma but with black soil!  You have no idea how disappointed I was.

My parents made sure that I had the best education they could afford but, still, this meant that I learned Civics, American history, Oklahoma history and because I was at Mt St. Mary’s (The Mount as it was called affectionately), I had lots of classes in Latin.  What I did not study, like almost all Americans then, was global history or global geography.  There was one course in International Relations.  Indeed, I was not the exception, this was the norm.  And, I am told that this is much the same in middle and high schools throughout the United States. It is a very insular view, one that traps people into not appreciating the differences and beauty between cultures – the food, the literature, the music, and, even religious beliefs.  The Internet might have closed that gap somewhat, I do not know because, today, I have been so fortunate to have lived and travelled around the world for the past thirty-five years.

At the time of my immigration, however, my knowledge of Canada came from four very different things, three from news coverage (both the telly and print) and the other from my family collection of knick-knacks.

The first was that handsome, globe-trotting, sandal wearing Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.  Like the Kennedys were to so many of . my mother’s generation that Camelot, fairytale political family, Trudeau was the same to me.  He was a kind of demi-god, good looking, intelligent, charismatic, and alive.  What a contrast between Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in on 20 January 1969.  Like night and day to my eyes.  Trudeau was on all the newsreels at the theatre, on the telly, and in stories in the popular magazines that my mother bought such as Time and Life.  For many young female Americans, Trudeau was a heartthrob – me, too.

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The second was Expo ’67.  I wonder how many people realize that it was Moscow that had won the first bid to hold this international showcase but, having dropped out in 1962, Jean Drapeau insisted that it come to Montreal who had been in second place.  The site was to be the man-made islands in St Lawrence which were made more substantial due to all of the rubble left from the construction of Montreal’s underground.  Images of the eighty-metre diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller to be the US Embassy were in all of the newspapers and magazines.  Today, it still stands without its original plastic covering that burned away in a fire in 1976.  Other structures that survived are Habitat 67, the Casino de Montreal and the Place des Nations.

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The third was a television show, Sargeant Preston and Yukon King.  Growing up in Oklahoma meant that snow was, at least at the time, exhilarating.  It was such a rare occurrence that everyone on our street would run out and take photographs.  Cars would skid on them, and they would have to put chains on if it lasted more than a day – which seemed even rarer than it falling in the first place.  The snow was magical then!  The RCMP officer, dressed in his scarlet uniform with high black boots, rode a horse called Rex.  The dog team was led by Yukon King.  Together they helped solve crimes, a typical good versus evil scenario filled the television screens for half an hour with the show lasting from 1955-58.  Like all of the others, it was rebroadcast over and over again and was shot entirely in colour.  It was 1957 and having moved into a new house, my father came home with brand-new colour television.  We were the first on the block!  Then those gorgeous tall pine trees really came to life with the blue running rivers.  Little did I know that the whole thing was shot in the state just northwest of us, Colorado.  To me then, and in 1969, that was my visions of Canada:  snow, babbling brooks and fast running rivers, and lots and lots of pine trees and deer.

This understanding of what the Canadian landscape was reinforced further by several ceramics figurine groups that stood in our windows.  My mother’s mother was a collector of clay ornaments.  They were mostly roosters in some kind of salt and pepper configuration.  When she died, my father inherited them.  In our living room, there was a picture window about 12 feet long and 6 feet tall.  Not being an architect or interior designer, I can only describe that window as being made of individual glass panes set in wood forming boxes with 3-4 inches of a ledge.  This was where the ceramic figurines lived.  Several included images of RCMP, a dog or dog and sledge, and a pine tree.

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These four things cemented in my mind a vision of Canada, my new home.  I had left the United States because of the Vietnam War.  Oklahoma is a very conservative state, but the city of Norman is much more liberal-minded, helped along by the presence of the University of Oklahoma.  I started classes when I was 16, first in Pharmacy, with a quick switch to the art school.  I had a very dear friend, Chris Wilson, who later met a young man from Berkley, Bill, who became her husband.  They immigrated to Canada as well.  I have lost touch with Chris, but we did manage to spend time with one another- the pair of them living in Winnipeg and I was living in Carman, an hour away, for a few years.  They married at the lovely little stone church on St. Mary’s in Winnipeg and hung out with Mitch Podolak, one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Carman, Manitoba was my first home in Canada.  The population was about 3000 at the time.  There were two Chinese restaurants.  The Rex that was always busy and The York who wasn’t.  On the window of The York Café was a sign:  Banana splits 65 cents.  But every time I stopped there, the Chinese man had no bananas.  One day, I bought bananas and took them to the York so that the Chinese owner would have to make that banana split.  I was intrigued.  There was an old-fashioned soda counter if my memory is working correctly, but no one was ever in there.  It turns out that the man was a member of Mao’s red army and had escaped to Hong Kong and eventually immigrated to Canada and was sent to Carman.  There was a theatre run by Bob Diemert’s mother, a bakery, and a few other shops.  Mr Klos, a Dutchman, came in a small pickup selling fruits and vegetables (incredibly fresh) to your door while milk products were delivered daily.  Blue Boy ice cream was delicious!  You just put a sign in your window, and the delivery man would stop.  Both were a tremendous help to a mom with an energetic baby.  Coming from a city caused a bit of culture shock, but the people were terrific.  I remember all of them with great fondness and see a few once in awhile still.

As it turns out, there were actually more women that immigrated to Canada because of the Vietnam War than the men.  Wives, mothers, and daughters all came.  Some aunts.  If you are interested, there are several books by Joseph Jones, a resister from North Carolina who came to Canada, first to Quebec and then Toronto where he worked on the publishing of  AMEX-Canada.  Retired from his position at UBC, Jones continues to maintain the War Resisters Web site.  It is a treasure trove of information, facts, statistics, information on books and individuals.  Joseph has been a tremendous help to me in my research.  Hopefully, I will finish my book on the contributions of these amazing individuals to Canadian ceramics, and all the time he spent with me will have been worthwhile!

There is a misconception amongst the men that the women who came did not give up anything.  Many said to me, “Well, you could just go back across the border without fear of arrest anytime you wanted”.  While that was true (save for the female in the military), it was equally valid that, most often, there were not the finances for a trip home very often.  Women gave up their friends, the ability to spontaneously visit their family easily and often, many gave up lucrative careers, professional practices.  Those who were artists gave up their studios and their supportive clients.  University course credit was lost as well.  This meant that many of us on the verge of graduating lost years of study and had to repeat many courses all over.  My loss was not being able to see my maternal grandmother who had raised me very often and not to have been there to help with her care when she was dying.

Many have asked me if I would do it all over again?  Leave everything that I knew and move to a small town on the Canadian Prairies.  The answer is a resounding ‘YES’.  Most Canadians recognize that helping one another makes a healthy, stable society.  While the Indigenous people were here long before the settlers, besides them, the rest of us are all immigrants.  Today, and in the years to come, natural disasters and war will cause many more people to leave their homes.  I hope that we can remain a country friendly to these people.  I am certain if, given the choice, they would want to return to their homes and lives pre-conflict if it were possible.

Winnipeg has had many waves from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, India, Philippines, Vietnam, and now the Middle East.  The Chinese helped build Canada’s railway system to the West.  And, when I first moved here, almost every little town along the railway line had a Chinese café.  If I keep mentioning it, it is because I love Chinese food and the closest Chinese restaurant to where I lived growing up in Norman, Oklahoma was in Dallas, Texas!  One of my favourites was The Blue Bird Café in either Holland or Treherne, Manitoba.  All of the booths were painted turquoise blue.  But, what captured my heart was the ancient Chinatown in Winnipeg.  In the winter, the windows of the tiny cafes would steam up.  You could sit in the kitchen of the Hong Hing and watch them cook your meal while the barbecued pork and duck hung by hooks near the front.  There was one shop with worn wooden floors that had ceramics piled halfway to the ceiling.  It was magical.  Today, everything is new and sanitized.   My Polish and Ukrainian friends introduced me to cabbage rolls and perogies while the earliest Mexican restaurants (and some current ones) make me exasperated.  The Mexican food in Oklahoma was nothing short of mouth-watering.  Once every couple of weeks, my dad would bring home a large bag of homemade tamales that one of his co-worker’s wives had made.  I miss the Sonic, chicken fried steak, and being able to enjoy watermelon ripened (for real) on the vine.  And I miss my friends but, I remain a proud Canadian and thankful for that day, so many decades ago, that I landed on Canadian soil – even if it were black!

I have left Manitoba many times, always to return.  The weather is terrible in the winter and the mosquitoes in the summer have made t-shirts showing a big red mosquito with the text, ‘I gave blood in Manitoba’ all too common.  Still, love this place.

One aspect of this Canadian caring is in our medical system.  When I go to the doctor or to the hospital, I do not pay for anything.  Not a cent.  Do I mind if I don’t have an emergency and I might have to wait a bit – NO.  This is because I know people who have had real medical emergencies and needed immediate care.  They go first.  And I don’t get upset about it because there will come a time when I have that emergency and need that prompt attention and someone else will wait.  Do I mind paying high taxes to support our health care system?  NO.  Absolutely not.  I rest easy knowing that I will not be bankrupted by getting sick and having to go to the hospital.  I rest easy knowing that if it comes to it, I will have the proper care in an assisted living centre that is regulated by the government with excellent standards.  And if I can afford to pay, the highest rate in Manitoba is around $2500 per month.   While we are certainly not taken care of from the cradle to the grave in the same way that people are in Denmark, infant mortality is low, life expectancy is reasonable, and happiness is high in Canada.

My only complaint is that our resources need stewardship, just like they do around the world.  And that is a conversation for another day.  For now, I am just savouring the fact that I live in Canada, that my children are Canadians, my grandchildren are Canadians and that each of us treasures the social fabric of this vast country.

Canadian F1 Grand Prix Montreal

It is the one thing I cannot reconcile in my life – my worry over the environment and my love of F1 racing.  Cars going around at unthought of speeds burning up litres and litres of petrol for entertainment seems ridiculous when we talk about climate change.  And as much as I worry about the world I am leaving for my grandchildren, that much I also love about F1.  So, for now, I am going to have to live with it.  The SMART for Two that sits on our driveway and has been driven now for 13 years at the cost of only $2400 for tires and regular maintenance and gets 70 mpg – well, maybe that makes up for it.  On the other hand, that car is also a product of the testing done on F1 cars.  First, people look at the SMART and figure you can’t get anything in it.  Untrue.  There are only two seats, but they are full-size Mercedes sedan seats.  And it is safe…although no one believes that either.  Mercedes really needed to do a better PR campaign.  The car bounces if you get hit and it has a Kevlar cage like in F1.  If any vehicle is safe, it is just as reliable as the next.  Unfortunately, our family knows that cars are not safe…..

But back to the race.  Gosh, golly.  I think I have the same seats as I had in 1997.  Great view when they come down, slowing into the hairpin and getting ready to speed up for the straight.  It seems much too long ago that I was there with my son, Cris.  What fun we had that weekend.  James Brown was doing the entertaining and we even – how this happened remains a mystery – also got to sit at his table for a while when he was taking a break.  That year the race had to be stopped on lap 54 when Olivier Panis had an incredible crash breaking both of his legs if I remember correctly and the Canadian, Jacques Villeneuve crashed out early and walked entirely off the track in a bit of a pout.  Michael Schumacher won.  It was great to see him race.  I only wish I had seen Ayrton Senna and Alan Proust in competition.

The 1997 Suzuka Grand Prix at Suzuka, Japan was another win for Schumacher who, on this last race of the season, won the driver’s championship by one point over Jacques Villeneuve who actually was on pole but finished 5th.  It was a different story the following year when Mika Hakkinen won his first world’s championship at Suzuka driving for McLaren Mercedes West.  It’s my favourite track, and both times I was so lucky to sit on the start-finish line.  Suzuka is a bit like a big circus.  OK.  Everyone calls F1 a circus…but really, there is literally a Ferris wheel on the grounds during race weekend, and the most incredible Japanese fast food served in the stalls.  If you love F1, try and get to Suzuka one day.

Speaking of trying to get to a race…head’s up.  If you go to Gootickets.com, you can pay for tickets to any competition on their monthly payment plan.  Their offices are in Monaco.  Best to do your research on the stands and look at the layout of the track.  Sitting in a fast straight will cost you less, but you don’t get to see so much.   Personally, that is why I don’t like the start-finish lines…best to see them slowing down at a hairpin and then heading off to the straight.  And every track has huge monitors so you can see the leaders on all parts of the track.  Take a hat or your head will get scorched unless it is raining-.  Go for the weekend, take in the events, make it part of your holiday.  Enjoy the smell of high octane petrol!

 

The Serendipity of the African Pots

Decades ago, I registered for a summer evening course in African Art at the School of Art, the University of Manitoba where I now teach.  The course was taught by Susan Moffat who had her MA in African Studies from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.  What captivated me was her first-hand knowledge of the material objects, her love for the people of African, and her immense enthusiasm.  She also was the only art history instructor I ever had that brought in physical objects that we could examine.  That course was a sea-changing moment for me, and it was only then that I decided to continue my studies at the graduate level.

Years later, Susan Moffat was donating some of her African collection to the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg when she decided to gift me two handmade woodfired vessels and a beautiful piece of local textiles (purple, white, and black) that was wrapped around the bottom of one to keep it steady.  I was so honoured by this present.  The two hand-formed vessels with their African motifs lived on top of a Chinese cabinet in my office when I was not showing them to students in my History of Ceramics class.

Traditional African ceramic vessels were made to be used and to add beauty to the homes.  In Barbara E Frank’s research on these domestic pots, used for both cooking and storing food, she stated that they also “carry symbolic import central to social identity, economic and political status, ritual practice, and belief”.  Frank further emphasised that if wanted to understand those roles that it is absolutely necessary to know more about the individuals who made them, most often women, and the social, economic, and the spiritual contexts that they . were created.  For all of us that have not studied the iconography (symbols) of African ceramics, Hunt stresses that our understanding of the vessels will be compromised because we cannot read the ‘script’.  Indeed, many of these vessels carry a religious significance beyond our grasp.  I am certainly one of those people.  My pleasure was imaging the women gathering the clay, taking out the stones, and coiling or pounding it on a mould.  I could close my eyes and imagine them firing the works with a bonfire,  sometimes I could even smell the smoke.  In all of this, I hope that the use of plastics is curtailed and that the local ceramic and textile traditions survive just as the culture of these countries needs to be maintained.

Last summer, a young African man came to visit me in my office.  By chance, a graphic design programme he was using for his class project could not be read by my computer, and he had come in to show me his work.  After looking over his assignment, his eyes began to scan my office, looking at the ceramics.  At one point, he stopped and pointed to the two African pots and the textile.  To my amazement, he declared, “These were made in my village”!  We took the vessels down so that he could handle them.  “Would you like some clay to make your own pots”?  He nodded yes, enthusiastically.  He even came down to the ceramics class meeting with some of the students and taking a keen interest in what they were doing.  After a few weeks, some handmade pieces appeared, and they were fired.  The students helped with those.  And then I did not see him again until one day there was a bag hanging on my office door.  In it were two pieces of beautiful African textiles.

The young man’s name is Opie, and he had made a trip to his home in Nigeria.  While there he purchased two pieces of fabric made by the women in his community for me.  What treasures!  I told Susan about this today.  That is what propelled me to write this blog today.  She believes that the spirit of the maker has travelled through time and space and that her decision to pass these objects that she had collected so many years ago, had a good home.  Of course, I am the one who is so grateful for Susan and Opi.  They opened my eyes to the beauty of African art.  I hope that the two pots with their fabrics will travel through my family and have many more stories and connections in the decades to come.  If only it were possible to sit down and talk to the women who made them!

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Harlan House

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.

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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.

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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.

Ruth Chambers at the Willock and Sax Gallery, Banff

I am a great admirer of the Willock and Sax Gallery in Banff, Alberta for many reasons, including their consistent support of ceramics.  Each of us knows that exhibitions are planned well in advance but the current April Flower shows seems more than appropriate after the area got hit with snow yesterday.  Each of us needs our mood brightened at the end of April when friends all over the world have been celebrating the arrival of spring for some months now.

One of the ceramic artists whose work is being shown at the Willock and Sax is Ruth Chambers.  Ruth spent a month last year working at the Ceramic Research Center in Skaelskor, Denmark while she was on leave from her position at the University of Regina.  Ruth hand-builds porcelain, often multi-coloured, firing to cone 6.  The gallery’s online catalogue states:

“Ruth Chambers creates bulbs and flowers out of delicately coloured porcelain at various stages of their growth. She carefully considers and skillfully constructs sculptures of extreme detail. Continuing research into the tradition of still life and its requisite considerations of space, form and time permeate her micro-compositions of fragile, improbable porcelain configurations. In this way, the artist addresses ideas of beauty and temporality.” 

I am personally enthralled at the patience, the observation, and dexterity it takes to manipulate a clay that often doesn’t want to be controlled.  There is a softness, a gentleness in the way that Ruth handles the colours but the underlying core has to be related to Vanitas, the transience of life genre of seventeenth-century Dutch painting.  In this way, Ruth pays homage to the women like Rachel Ruysch who popularized that genre in her depiction of grand bouquets full of blooming and dying flowers.

Unlike many ceramic sculptors who have been pushing the size of their objects beyond the colossal, Ruth has kept some of the pieces life size.  One bulb looks like it is just beginning to sprout is 2 x 2 x 1.l75 inches.  Ruth has captured the moments after dormancy when the tunic (skin-like covering that protects the fleshy scales) and the shoots come alive.  The tunic is translucent; you can almost feel it crumble between your fingers if touched.

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There are twelve porcelain sculptures in all ranging from single bulbs to fanciful lidded cups with tulip knobs, footed bowls, and an amazing piece titled, Still Life with Snow Peas, Avocado, and Strawberries (feature image of this blog).  

Ruth studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design, receiving her MFA from the University of Regina in 1994.  She is currently the Associate Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty at the University of Regina.

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It is so great to see support for Canadian women working in clay.

Photo credit:  Willock and Sax Gallery