Profound Sadness at the passing of Dr Sandra Alfoldy

It is with a very heavy heart that I acknowledge the untimely passing of Dr Sandra Alfoldy on February 24, 2019.  Sandra championed Canadian crafts and their history in every class she taught at NSCAD, in every public paper she delivered, and in her books.  She was immensely helpful to me in my research on Vietnam resisters that had moved into the Kootenays.  Sandra grew up there, and her Master’s thesis, Theory and Craft: A Case Study of the Kootenay Christmas Faire for Concordia University in 1997 came from her intimate knowledge of the event.  Her parents, fine crafters, were inspirational to her.  In that document, she states:  “Through years of active involvement in British Columbia’s Kootenay Christmas Faire, held annually since 1974 in Nelson, I became aware of a concern in the craft world that the introduction of theory into studies of craft would disregard practice. This fear was combined with resentment as artisans perceived
a hierarchically-based disdain toward the crafts and their producers. For years this
has led to a self-referential “art-versus-craft” debate which is not only counterproductive, but also leaves the area of craft under-explored in the institutional and academic art world.”  This was early Alfoldy and her research and her belief that craft could be part of a contemporary art world with all of its theories guided her creative research.  She was, at the time of her passing, looking to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and a response from the colonies (Canada).  Her thoughts on this will be missed, and the craft community in Canada will struggle to find such a remarkable advocate as Alfoldy.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

If you have come to find out about ceramics today, I am sorry to disappoint.  Today’s chatter is about some of the visitors to our garden.  One of the reasons that we have remained living in the urban centre of a growing Canadian city is our garden.  Twenty years ago a dozen lilac bushes were planted along the east side of the property at the back.  There is also a peony bush that thrives despite the fact I am told it is over fifty years old.  The wild roses climb about along with a flaming willow inspired by a friend’s in Kelowna, a super tall Brandon cedar, a myriad of thickets and Virginia creeper.  There are literally hundreds of birds every day, a pair of Chickadees and Nuthatches, a lone Downy Woodpecker this time of year, two grey squirrels, a red squirrel, and three rabbits.  And then, there are ‘them’.

‘Them’ refers to the Sharp-Shinned Hawks. These hawks are small ‘accipiters’.  That is they have short round wings and a long tail.  When their tail is folded, it appears to be square or notched, with a narrow pale tip.  When fanned it is slightly rounded in appearance.  Their head is small and rounded (not flat like the Cooper Hawks).  Their neck is short and they can rotate their head almost 360 degrees.  Their breast is rusty-barred and they have an orange eye.  They fly, according to Peterson, in several rapid beats with a short glide.  Petersons also says they are better adapted at hunting in the woodlands than most of the other hawks.  While several other books on Manitoba birds does not indicate it, Peterson says this:  “Habitat:  Breeds in extensive forests; in migration and winter, open woodlands, wood edges, and residential areas.”  Their food is chiefly birds and occasionally small mammals.

My first encounter was on March 29, 2018, when I came face to face with a female at 10 am – in my nightgown no less.  She was perched on one of the sheds that hold the firewood for our wood stove.  She was rapidly plucking something and thinking it was ‘the’ rabbit, I ran out in the snow to confirm and discovered- seriously, much to my relief- that the lunch was one of the songbirds.  [I need to add here that we do not feed the other animals so they will be a hawk buffet].  She was stunningly gorgeous and quite large.  We stared at one another for about sixty seconds.  I would like to think that day that our chat might keep her away from the rabbits and realising that hawks are endangered, I recognised that she also had to eat and feed offspring.  She and her mate came again in April.  The male is much smaller (about 22 cm tall) than the female (at least  35-45 cm tall) and his hunting skills weren’t very sophisticated last year.  If this is the same one, he has much improved.

Today, he was successful and then just sat, quite content on the edge of the firewood holder.  This appears to be his ‘plucking post’.  The hawks catch their prey with their long legs and sharp talons.  Normally, he would have left after he finished eating but, today, he was there – frozen still – for about forty-five minutes.  The songbirds in the lilacs and the grey squirrel on the suet did not move.  At the end of almost an hour, they even got a little squirmy.  Some were hiding in the Brandon Cedar.  Then the hawk flew away only to return to the thicket some five minutes later.  The photo was taken with my iPhone.  My presence, less than two metres from him, was not a bother nor were people walking up and down the back lane and cars.  Then he left again.  We were looking out the window to see if he had returned, talking about how well he was camouflaged, only to be surprised when we looked ‘to our right’ and there, on a 2 x 4 holding a solar panel to the outdoor lights, he was cheekily perched.  Several minutes later he swopped past the lilacs and away.  It was 4;40pm.

Has climate impacted these hawks?  Most of the bird books talk about their migration and the fact that they live in forested areas in the north, not in the City of Winnipeg!

Meeting fabulous women artists and thinking of Graysville

Several weeks ago, the Director of the Manitoba Crafts Council, Tammy Sutherland, asked me if I would be interested in being a facilitator for The Love of Craft members exhibition.  Even though there are regular critiques that I lead in my university classes, I wondered if I was up to the job.  There was such diversity in the participants – well, it was a bit worrisome.  All of that disappeared when, to my surprise, a former student was standing in the gallery, Erika Hanneson.  I had seen her name on the list of those that wanted to be part of the afternoon discussion but, there could have been many Erika’s as Manitoba has a sizeable Icelandic community.  But, it was her.  There is something beautiful about teaching, and it is seeing the students thrive and prosper when they leave that is the most rewarding.  I am afraid that my photograph of Erika’s work does not do it justice.  At first glance, most of the visitors to the gallery thought that the large plate had been entirely wheel thrown.  But, it isn’t.  The body of the vessel is a manipulated slab over a slump mould.  On the reverse, there is a wheel thrown foot ring.  The base is heavily gouged with the lines filled in with a dark slip.  There are subtle transitions in the glaze towards the rim giving the impression of a fall prairie landscape.  She has recently moved her studio to Gimli, Manitoba and no doubt the colours of the Lake Winnipeg and the summer sky will provide more inspiration.

Like many of those that come to the School of Art, Erika was a nurse, but her passion was art.  She was enrolled in the Diploma programme, but shortly after beginning her classes, Erika discovered that she liked the academic courses and did well in them.  She went on to get her BFA degree while raising children and working.  An excellent role model.  Now she devotes most of her time to her craft.  I wish her every success in her new studio and am anxiously awaiting the end of winter to go and visit.

IMG_1606

I intend to write about all of the women who I met on Saturday.  Each and everyone is doing something they are passionate about, and there were so many similarities in their stories.  Each tries to give voice to their experiences, they appreciate different materials and processes while acknowledging that one must practice a craft, ‘the verb’, and do things well.  One other thing we discussed is the need for meeting new people, the sharing of ideas, and the importance of positive support.

The other talented woman I would like to introduce you to is Judith Rempel Smucker.  Judith is also a graduate of the School of Art here in Winnipeg where she studied graphic design and the Basel School of Design in Switzerland.  She lived for some years in Pennsylvania where she taught graphic design.  The featured image is a photograph of a mixed media collage, one of 28 originals, that form the pages of her book, RE-encounters.  Views from the Field.  Here she has used vintage material, repurposed letters from the newspapers, and bouncing images of sheep.  Judith took 28 words that begin with ‘RE’ and gave them to 28 individuals who are part of her daily life.  She asked them to provide her with a text.  Re-count, re-direct, re-fresh, re-new are amongst the words chosen.  It is a delightful book and is available at the Manitoba Craft Council Shop on Cumberland.

Thumbing through the pages of RE-encounters made me recall part of my life tas a rural potter.  I lived in Graysville, Manitoba.  It is roughly eleven miles west of Carman Manitoba.  There was grain storage, a church, a school, and the general store run by Ada and Howard Stephenson.  The railway line that went all the way to Snow Valley had been removed.  The young people were leaving.  Most of the farms were getting larger and larger.  Some, like my neighbours to the east, used an old tractor and didn’t spray.  None of the ‘new fangled’ technology there.  I loved Graysville and the people who lived there.  And there are times when I miss them all.  I had a marvellous friend, Walter Toews.  He lived with his family near Graysville.  Walter was a teacher, and in his spare time, he raised sheep.  It has been so long ago now that I have forgotten some of the details but..in a nutshell.  Sometimes Walter’s ewes had twins.  And sometimes the mothers didn’t want to have to contend with two sheep so they would push one aside.  At other times, ewes whose lambs had died decided to literally butt in and try and take those of another mother.  Looking at their faces and their soft woolly bodies one would never imagine such things.  They are so cute.  Walter had heard about me from someone, perhaps his daughter who used to come and babysit my children, Cris and Jaine.  At any rate, it came to pass that Walter would give me the orphan lambs.  He didn’t have the time to deal with them.   So, they went in my basement at the beginning because the barn was too cold.  Yes, you read it right – lambs in the basement.  They were fed with bottles of milk from Elsie, the cow.  We were all gleeful when they were around.  The idea was that they would become outdoor pets used for their wool,  and die of old age.  Then one summer, the vegetables in the garden were getting eaten by some kind of worm.  It was taking its toll but, looking up and down, produced no sight of caterpillars or any other insect crunch a munching on the broccoli.  Ah, but one day Jaine and Cris came to tell me that they had seen something so ‘cute’ – it was the word they used.  Little Cindy was in the garden eating up all of the green beans!  Cute I asked myself.  Cute?!  This garden had been years in the making – getting rid of all the weeds and then having it killed by the farmer’s spray the second year.  This year there would be vegetables…an electric fence had been put around the area to keep the calves out.  But apparently, that lovely wool insulated the sheep.  They could go in and out.   We did get to eat those green beans one way or another…but I must thank Judith for bringing back those memories.  Someone asked her why she chose sheep and Judith replied it was because they were innocuous.  I smiled and didn’t say anything.  Shrewd might be the word I would use!

I want to thank the Manitoba Craft Council for inviting me to be the facilitator of the discussion.  I gained more having met three talented women previously unknown to me and become re-acquainted with a former student.  It was my pleasure.

Han Dynasty Tomb figures at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE. During this time China was a country at peace with its neighbours. With secure borders and trade along the two Silk Roads, one overland and the other maritime, the economy prospered. Silk was traded along with spices, teas, and ceramics. While contemporary literature talks about the growth of cities and domestic architecture, there are no extant examples. Archaeologists study the ceramics that have been discovered in tombs to understand what the local buildings and lives of the Han were like. The Chinese believed in an afterlife, and they provided for this by placing burial goods in with the deceased. By the time of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was well in place, and the former practice of burying living family members and entire armies with the dead is replaced by ceramic objects. Most of you are probably familiar with the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin. Here life-size (a few larger than life) clay statues wear their armour in all its detail ready to defend their emperor. More than 8000 have been unearthed including charioteers and horses. They were masterfully created.

The burial figures of the Han are smaller, contain more variety, and are more animated. To date, no life-size figures made during the Han dynasty have been found. The range that has been found include palace or courtyard style dwellings along with farm animals such as pigs and oxen. There are dancers and musicians, small armies along with a myriad of non-military statues. There are tall towers with high walls. It is believed that the animals lived on the ground floor while the family lived in the upper stories. Roofs made of bamboo covered with clay tiles are supported by brackets, wooden beams that project from the wall. The tombs unearthed in Sichuan province have even more variety in terms of small figurines representing the daily life of the deceased. These included farming scenes, people working with farm animals, doghouses, dancers, acrobats, women spinning, and people dancing. The figures were painted and arranged to form a narrative.

IMG_1962

It is during this time that we fully see the emergence of low fired lead-glazed earthenware. The temperature of the firing was between 750-900 degrees C. From the evidence, it appears that the pieces were single fired as opposed to the clay drying, having a bisque firing at a lower temperate, and then a final glaze firing. The potters had, by the Han dynasty, discovered the difference between a reducing atmosphere and an oxidising one. If they wanted bright lead colours, an oxidation firing, where there is sufficient oxygen introduced into the kiln for the fire to burn clean, was used. To obtain the green colour seen on the Han dynasty figures in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the artists used copper. To get brown or a red-brown, they would use iron. Lapis lazuli or cobalt was used to obtain blue. The only colours used by the Han dynasty potters appear to be a range of greens and brown, russet to an almost espresso. The glazed earthenware pieces use red clay although a number appear to use a grey clay body. These pieces are fired so low that they are relatively soft and as a consequence the rubbing of their surface causes the glaze and the clay to disintegrate.

The collection of tomb figurines in the ROM show a funeral parade, large courtyard style compounds, chairs known as Horsehoof style, elaborate family altars, and medicine cabinets.

IMG_1966IMG_1982 2

IMG_1964IMG_2012IMG_2013

Mesoamerican Ceramics at the Gardiner

The collection of Mesoamerican pottery at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto is impressive.  The arrangement of the ceramics with their information panels and maps is clearly meant to educate.  The range of pottery includes vessels and figurines, all made by hand, as well as pieces produced by moulds.  The decorative elements range simple incised lines and applique to elaborate techniques such as polychrome slipware.

Small female figurines were made in Guanajuato or Michoacan Mexico from 300 BCE to 100 CE.  These female statuettes made entirely by modelling the clay by hand (and mostly solid), with their oversized heads and headdresses. While many were made out of flat slabs, a number are three-dimensional like the ones at the Gardiner.  Notice the eyes.  Most are coffee-bean shaped and slanted as in the second image below.  Most figurines were left unpainted, but occasionally some were decorated with bright colours. Ceramics serve as historical records and here we can see the hairstyles and clothing that were prominent during this period of time.  Many of you may be aware of other female figurines created out of clay in the Indus Valley civilization or carved out of stone like those in Europe and the Aegean.    Archaeologists believe that these figurines served various purposes.  They may have been used as amulets for crop fertility rites, for healing, or as part of a narrative of an important event.  Others believe they could have been part of grave offerings, companions, as such, for the afterlife.

IMG_1800IMG_1797

Close by are a group of oversized ‘baby-like’ androgynous figures.  Androgynous simply means containing both male and female parts.  These hollow statues with their slip decoration were made by the Olmec, a culture that lived in what is now the Tabasco and Veracruz areas of Mexico.  What do they represent?  The Olmec had eight deities that were androgynous. Are they associated with any of those?  The vast majority of these chubby youth have their legs splayed with their hands on their thighs.  They look up to the viewer as if they are ready to jump off their display.  Many of the oversized heads appear to be covered with some kind of cap.  They are not smiling but, rather, all of the mouths seem to have the same expression.  They are open and downturned.  No one is certain of their function.  Some believe they represent the rain deity while others believe that they could have been a portrait of an extraordinary individual when they were an infant.  Many have been found in or near burial sites.  Were they part of a ceremonial burial perhaps?  Scholars have suggested that they could have been actual stand-ins for infant sacrifices.

IMG_1802

It is impossible to miss the skills of these early clay artists and, as I wandered through the galleries, other visitors commented on the quality of the crafting, unable to believe that people living so long ago could be so accomplished.

In comparison, the Maya who lived in Guatemala and parts of Mexico created some extraordinary earthenware vessels with polychrome slip.

img_1828.jpeg

In the cylinder above, a noblewoman carries a jug of cocoa to two men seated with a plate of tamales (out of the scene, sorry), participants in what appears to be a feast with lavish food and drink.  Cocoa is bitter chocolate made by pressing roasted cocoa kernels.  It is still a popular drink, often with cinnamon, in Guatemala and Mexico.  The lines are animated and the colours remain bright.  Below are two dishes with bird effigy lids.  Made during the Early Classical period of the Maya, these deep earthenware burnished dishes were used to serve tamales (wah).  The middle images contain the plates that foods would be served on during feasts.  The large bowls held a type of corn gruel, ul.  Cylinders, such as the one above, used for drinking, always held a chocolate-based beverage, kakaw.

img_1821.jpegIMG_1819

The Maya believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of their life.  In their creation myth, the Mayas believe that the gods separated the heavens from the earth.  The Maize god, Hun Hun Ajaw, erected an enormous ceiba tree in the centre of the universe.  That tree was a conduit between the gods and humans.  The gods formed the first humans out of a dough made of both yellow and white maize when their clay figurines failed.  As such, the foodstuff was not just important for the survival of the community but was a part of their creation stories as well as being associated with the seasons and growth of crops.  One of Maya’s sacred books, the Popol Vuh, tells about the creation myth as well as discussing how images of the maize gods were decapitated once the harvesting of the maize had begun.  New effigies were made at the beginning of the new growing season.

During times of drought – and the Maya experienced many of these – the people turned to the gods of food, rain, and fertility to ward off starvation.  Blood sacrifices made by the nobles were performed at shrines.  Elaborate temple complexes were sites of more public ceremonies with music, dancing, ball games as well as ritual prayers and sacrifices.

IMG_1814
The Maya culture grew from small villages into great city-states.  It became one of the most dominant cultures in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.  The Maya excelled not only in their pottery making but also in mathematics, agriculture, calendar-making, astronomy, and architecture and, in particular, the pyramid building of the early classical era.  The height of their culture, the ‘Golden Age’ occurred around 250 CE.  At that time there are believed to have been fifty major cities each with a population of between 5000 and 50,000 people.  No one knows for certain what started the decline of this magnificent culture.  By the late 9th century CE, their culture had collapsed completely.  Some scholars believe that they had exhausted their once fertile environment while others contend that it was warring factions between the various city-states that caused the demise.  developed several competing theories. Some feel that a catastrophic climate change with a long and intense period of drought caused the abandonment of the cities.

We are left with great works of architecture and pottery.  The Gardiner Museum has a reasonable collection and it is a must see if you are visiting Toronto.  Free guided tours normally take place at 2pm.

 

 

Edouard Jasmin, Quebec folk ceramist

Every time I travel to Toronto, it means at least one trip to the Gardiner Museum.  They have an enormous permanent collection and a small area of contemporary ceramics.  To the curators and staff who change these exhibitions regularly, I am most grateful.  You keep us coming back discovering new artists that we did not know.  And that is the case today with Edouard Jasmin (1905-87).  I had never seen the work of Jasmin and it is fascinating.  Jasmin lived in Montreal.  It was only in his later years, long after his retirement, that he began to work with clay creating what some have called ‘sentimental memories’ of his childhood (Matthieu, ‘Speaking Volumes:  Pottery and the Word’, Studio Potter).

Jasmin’s work was included in an exhibition curated by Sandra Alfoldy, ‘Folk/Funk,‘ at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2018.  Here Alfoldy juxtaposed the work of trained ceramic artists against those untrained.  The show was hailed as a whimsical look at the connections both in subject and methodology by these two very distinct groups of individuals.

Folk art is not new to the Maritimes.  In the time that I lived there, six wonderful years, I came to appreciate the work of those around me more and more.  My neighbour, Margaret Chubb, used to bring over the boxes of Christmas cards and painted scallop shells that Maud Lewis had given her.  By the time I had moved to Nova Scotia, the work of Lewis was in high demand as was that of the folk artists that lived in the hills around Wolfville.  Buses would come in the summer and fall loaded with enthusiastic collectors.  Of course, the early years for Lewis were difficult.  She would paint the scallop shells for Margaret’s father who would sell them in exchange for giving her food to eat.  She lived in a tiny house covered with her work that is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Jasmin worked with red earthenware clay and made images complete with ever-growing text that amused him.  Some captured significant events in the history of Quebec while others recall scenes of his childhood.  The featured image is General Store of 1982.  For many in Canada, it is nostalgia.  Every small village had a general store where they could get their mail, buy a few groceries, get gas, and order chicks in the spring that would be killed for food in the fall.  Ada and Howard Stephenson owned the general store in Graysville, Manitoba.  It was the heart of the village outside of the local school and the church.  Usually stacked high or under some counter, almost anything you could ever want could be found.  If not, there was always an alternative.  This was the centre of community gossip.  For me, they would know when I had gone into the ditch during the first winter store almost before I did.  It was also the site of helpful advice and ice creams during the long hot days of summer.  Most of these general stores have disappeared along with many of the local schools.   The railway line from Winnipeg that ran through Graysville on its way to Snow Valley Ski Resort is now grown over and the general store at Roseisle, another treasure, is now ‘fancy and bright’.

Patenteaux a la Recherche du Mouvement Perpetuel or The Inventor in Search of Petual Motion (1983) shows a man in his workshop full of bits and bobs, wheels, cabinets full of curiosities. The man reaches out as if he is trying to speak to us, a sign at the back providing the title of the piece.

IMG_1870

IMG_1871

Spinner in the Attic was completed in 1982.  A child holding a toy looks on as their mother (?) spins yarn at the wheel.  The scene is framed by the contours of many Canadian attics, small windows fixed at the gable ends.  An old trunk with leather straps is the only treasure to be seen.  Indeed, Jasmin’s attic is quite different than most which were chock full the history of the families that lived in them.  Jasmin abandons in this work the crowded scenes such as those of the inventor and focuses on the central activity of the wheel.

IMG_1873

The last work of Jasmin’s included in the contemporary section of the Gardiner is Ecole St. Conveyon (St. Conveyon School) of 1982.

IMG_1875 2

IMG_1876

Like the general stores, the spinners of yarn, and the inventors, the one-room schoolhouse is a part of Canadian history.  Many had closed by the time that Jasmin created this work in the early 1980s.  The teacher wearing a striped dress has written on the board a question in her attempts to find out who in the class had been messing with the cuckoo clock and overturned it on its shelf.  An old pot belly stove separates the teacher behind her desk and the children laughing in their seats as she attempts to quiet them.

While many of the facial features are the same in Jasmin’s work – often a limitation of someone not trained – there remains a sense of naiveness in capturing a moment in these tableaus.  They are joyful and freer.  Jasmin has no hesitation in trying to smooth the clay out or make the lines precise.  It is this that gives them their charm.  Each tells a story, and in the instance of the works held by the Gardiner, they are reminders of things in the past, gone forever in a world everchanging by technology.

Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken is coming to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum

The Gardiner Museum in Toronto will be hosting Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken this spring.  The exhibition opens on 28 February and continues until 9 June. Today, all that was visible was a sign saying ‘Installation in Progress’.

IMG_1957

This is not the first time that Ai’s work has been shown in Toronto.  In 2013, the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited Ai WeiWei:  According to What? .  For me, the most moving section of this large exhibition was Remembering.  If you did not know the work of Ai, you might just walk past the stack of children’s backpacks.  For Ai, this was the singular work that landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities.  The story is one of unnecessary tragedy.  In 2008, a earthquake destroyed a school in Sichuan Province.  Parents asked why the relative new building should collapse so easily.  The answer that they came to was that it was due to government negligence, a lack of building codes and regulations.  Ai could not shake the scenes of devastation from his mind and he searched for information on how many had been killed.  Months and months he spent collecting the names of the 5219 children who died that day.  A year later, Remembering opened in Munich.  Ai covered the  facade of Haus der Kunst’s with a quote from one of the children’s mothers spelled out using children’s backpacks.  The design he used and the colours were inspired by the Toys R Us logo. On his return to PRC, Ai was jailed for being a dissident for eighty-one days.  In 2015 he was allowed to leave China.  Ai does not know if he will ever return.  The authorities tell him that he is free but he doesn’t trust them.  He first relocated to Berlin with his family; he has his studio there.  Today, he still works at his studio in Munich but lives in Connecticut.  One of the biggest questions I have is:  Will Ai take on the humanitarian issues related to immigration and the United States now that he is living in that country again?

Unbroken contains elements of several previous shows.  In fact, his performance, caught in photographs, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is probably one of his most iconic.  Others included at the Gardiner will be Sunflower Seeds and Coca Cola.  Sunflowers was first shown at the Tate Modern in 2010.  It was part of the Unilever Series and consisted of  100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seed husks spread over the floor of Turbine Hall.  Viewers were initially invited to walk across the installation but the ensuing amount of dust laden with silica caused the Tate Modern to rope off the exhibition for the health and safety of its staff and those coming to view the work.  Much of the significance of the piece was, thus, lost.

Porcelain is synonymous with China.  Indeed, many of you might have used the term ‘China’ to refer to the porcelain dinnerware belonging to your grandmothers.  The 100 million husks were made by hand and painted individually by individuals working in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.  Many saw the work as a comment on the global politicsl of cultural and economic exchange while others look to the significance of the symbolism of the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Sunflower’ in reference to Mao and his followers. Others see this as a comment on the individual within mass society; each of the individual seeds is part of the greater whole.  For those working within the field of ceramics, it is easy to ponder the working conditions of masses of individuals producing porcelain that boasts the economy of the country while all make very little income.

In 1995, Ai began painting Han Dynasty urns with the recognizable emblem of the American soft drink maker, Coca-Cola.  It should be noted that he has not stopped painting them since he began.  Sotheby’s has the occasional one in a sale.  These pieces are terribly subversive.  They immediately imply the destruction of China’s traditional culture!   At their first showings, visitors wondered if the vases that Ai had so boldly painted with the bright red lettering, Coca Cola, were actually fakes.  Anyone who has visited the Saturday Dirt Market in Beijing knows precisely how well ceramic fakes are constructed in PRC.  Han vases and tiny clay figurines from the same era are offered alongside ‘original’ Song dynasty yellow porcelain cups for a few dollars.  On the one hand, the act of defacing the Han vase is an iconoclasm no different than when the Muslims capturing Constantinople destroyed the mosaics in the Haiga Sophia.  Ai assures everyone that the vases are authentic and so plentiful that their monetary and cultural value is negligible.  Still, for those who do not know this, the act of dropping an ancient piece of art is unthinkable and, as with any other art work, raises both alarm and questions.  It is interesting to note that Coke was being sold in China in 1920.  It is one of the oldest American firms trading in the country and in 2009 accounted for half of the soft drink sales in the country.  Some argue that the shared imagery – that of a traditional ceramic urn made by anyone covered with a bright red American logo, is a fitting allegory for twenty-first century Chinese culture as the country grows into the number one consumer culture in the world (set in 2019 to be the leading purchaser of luxury goods).

It is an exciting time for anyone interested in the work of this contemporary artist.  And a big round of applause goes to the Gardiner.  Their director and curators have worked hard to keep ceramics relevant.  As such, they have brought world-class speakers and exhibitions to Toronto.  Not long ago there was a conversation with Garth Clarke, another was the co-sponsorship with the AGO of Edmund de Waal’s talk on the history of porcelain coinciding with the launch of his book, The White Road.  Last year, Yoko Ono’s Riverbed came to the City.  I only wish I lived closer……