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.

Byron Johnstad

I didn’t meet Byron Johnstad as soon as I should have.  Diane Carr was to work with me on my Vietnam Resister study.  She kept telling me:  “Phone Byron”.  It wasn’t Byron, it was the phone.  Some people are e-mail persons and others like phones.  Somehow I had managed to live life pretty good without having to spend time holding a receiver.  The Friday before she died, she phoned me.  Diane had a new cell phone.  She broke the news that she had pancreatic cancer, “I don’t know how to tell you this….” while at the same time insisting that I now get in touch with Byron.  He would help me.  Diane was right.  Byron Johnstad is one of the nicest and most helpful individuals with a great memory of what was going on in British Columbia in the late 1960s and 1970s (later, too).

Byron Johnstad studied ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  He received his BFA in 1965.  Upon graduation, he headed across the country to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  He graduated with his MFA in 1967.  He had applied for and been contracted to teach ceramics at the Vancouver School of Art.  He had a letter of employment in hand and eventually, Johnstad crossed the border as a documented landed immigrant.  He was one of the first with a graduate degree in ceramics to arrive in Canada, if not the first.  He says, “For several years I was the only person on the Canadian West Coast in Ceramics – a true advantage at that time and place”.  It arrived in August 1967.  Having turned 26 while his application for landed status was being processed, he was no longer eligible for the draft.  In fact, Johnstad could have remained in the US but the social unrest and the Vietnam War caused him to immigrate regardless.  It was Canada’s good fortune.  But unfortunate for Johnstad, the position he came for had been given to someone else during the time it had taken for the immigration papers to be completed.  Johnstad, instead, took up teaching positions in Burnaby and West Vancouver.  He would later teach at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Malaspina College, and Capilano College.  He led workshops across British Columbia and Alberta.

Johnstad’s work was unique.  Diane Carr often held a little plate with a simple decoration in rutile and cobalt.  She would rub her finger on it saying that Johnstad’s pieces were some of the most beautiful she had ever seen.  What spoke to her was a different style, one originating in Scandinavia but with a blend of Bauhaus.  Johnstad told me that he was interested in the surface, one to be decorated and not that much interested in clay.  His design choices were vastly different than the Leach tradition that was being taught both at the Vancouver School of Art and elsewhere in British Columbia and Canada, at the time.  Johnstad’s surface decoration, using only three or four oxides – rutile, cobalt, iron, and copper –  was energetic and fresh.  Every piece was well designed.  Over time his work began to change.  By the 1980s he was exploring new forms, throwing large platters and producing sculptural forms pushing the medium as much as he could.  But by 1983, the sheer physical nature of creating such large work took its toll and Johnstad began to slow down and eventually quit working with clay.

Byron’s influence as a teacher is still remembered and his talents as a ceramist were recognized when he was selected to one of a small group to a new organization, Ceramic Masters.

I am grateful for his guidance and his knowledge.  Diane Carr was so right, “Call Byron”.

Main Photo:  Byron Johnstad with his friend, Pete Scott, at his studio in Burnaby. Large pots are Pete Scott’s.


Keith ‘Skip’ Miller

I am going to switch it up a bit today.  For the last couple of days I have written about amazing Canadian women who work with clay, a little sideways path off the road of the Vietnam resisters who came to Canada.  Today, I am turning my focus back on that group of individuals, 117 of them so far, that came to Canada because they did not want to be complicit in the Vietnam War.  One of those young men was Keith ‘Skip’ Miller.  Miller arrived in Vancouver in 1967 to avoid the draft.

Miller has been making pots since spring of 1967 (50 years), although he tells me that he has had to earn his living by a variety of jobs from running a bookstore to being a research associate and archæologist, museum director and curator and adjunct faculty for a few institutions and author of books and numerous articles. He has been a self-proclaimed intellectual hunter-gather for most of my working life.

Miller first studied pottery at the University of New Hampshire where he was majoring in Chemistry.  He wanted a break from all of the technical studies and he was concerned that chemistry could play a role in the war in Vietnam that was just beginning ‘to heat up’.  He did not want to be a part of it.  Miller’s first instructor was Charles “Chuck” Chamberlain who was on a one year contract to fill a position of a faculty member on a year’s sabbatical. Chamberlain had just received his MFA from SUNY Alfred College of Ceramics. After just one semester under Chamberlin’s mentorship, Miller fell under the trance of potter as so many of us have.  Chamberlain felt that the young chemistry student had great potential and told him that he should transfer to Alfred.  Chamberlain even offered to take him there so he could see the school for himself.  Miller wound up staying with Val Cushing and his family.  He was accepted almost immediately and started in the Fall of 1967. There he was mentored and ‘befriended’ by Daniel Rhodes, Ted Randall, as well as Cushing and  Robert “Bob” Turner, whose friendship, personal aesthetic, and sense of craft remained a lifelong guide for Miller.

From the beginning, Miller employed both throwing and hand building in his work,. He mostly made functional work although he admits that often took on a more abstract and sculptural quality than just that of a simple domestic vessel.  Miller loved wood and salt firing – readily admitting that even though he knows all about glaze chemistry, he doesn’t like the glazing process.

Miller to Vancouver, BC, in the spring of 1970 and started work almost immediately at Northwest Handcraft House in North Vancouver.  He was helped by the Friends Service Committee and his friends at SUNY Alfred College of Ceramics who were Quakers.

His early work in Vancouver was thrown with wood ash glazes or glazes high in rutile mixed into ball clay to create ash-style surfaces. At NW Handcraft House he built a large gas-fired kiln and started making large hand-built sculptural vases inspired by living in the temperate rainforest of the coastal Northwest.  To achieve the type of surfaces that he wanted, he often placed his pieces where there would normally have been a bag wall in the kiln to deflect the flames from the gas burners. The direct flame overheated the vessels making the surfaces begin to bloat and actually vitrify, almost like the effects from a salt or woodfired kiln. On occasion, he would use small areas of glaze to bring highlights or texture to his work.

Miller returned to America in 1977 once President Carter’s full Amnesty was announced.  His great interest in nature and his feeling of being intimately connected with Mother Earth and Mother Clay has kept him balanced and focused throughout his life.  Miller has worked extensively in New Mexico where he was the Lead on Forest Archaeology and Tribal Relations (USDA Forest Service) at the Carson National Forest in Taos.  He continues to work with clay.  One of his latest projects has been a series of Mother and Father bowls.  Miller took the ashes of his parents and mixed it with local clay and mica and made pinch pots which he fired in a pit.  The bowls of his parents were shared with his siblings.


Susan Delatour: Crossing Bridges

3-2.1In 1978, Susan Delatour came to Canada from the United States, as a post-graduate student, to study ceramics at the Banff Centre’s School of Fine Arts in Banff, Alberta.  It was there, in the beauty of the mountains and lakes, that Delatour suspended her wheel throwing practice and embraced the expressiveness of hand building.  Encouraged by Les Manning, she began to experiment with various forms of firing including pit or sawdust firing and raku.

On completion of her studies at Banff, Delatour relocated to Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia where she set up a production studio in the centre of the village.  With the financial downturn, Delatour and her then-husband, Steven LePoidevin, sought out alternative means of earning a living.  He returned to teaching while Delatour set up a studio at their new home in Princeton, British Columbia, where she also raised the couples, two sons.  At the time, she relied on two kilns, one electric and one sawdust.

Delatour’s early exposure to alternative firing methods helped her to develop a deep passion for creating primitive fired ceramic sculptures which she notes are full of ‘mystery and allegory.’  She smokes her pieces in a brick box, a practice she has been using for many years because the method incorporates shadows into her work that evoke ‘ancestors and generations of people who came before us’.  Her work honours the animals that live in the surrounding environment, as well as people and places that have touched her ‘in significant ways’.

She is currently working on a new series entitled Crossing Bridges, a reference to the universal life-changing events that we experience such as ageing and changing relationships.  In 2014, Delatour turned sixty years old, a pivotal moment that had a profound influence on her new body of work.  Her parents died, her two sons got married, and she became a grandmother.  One of her sons lives in China while the other is on the eastern coast of Canada; Delatour is in the middle, a place from where it is not easy to physically visit with her children on a regular basis.  The theme of the ‘bridge’, an object that connects something to another, that allows us to cross over, also represents aspects of transnationalism.  Delatour struggles with her identity;  she is an American living in Canada.  She tries to understand migration, immigration, and the crossing of borders, all aspects of her new series and her life.

Her work is exhibited internationally including some of the most prestigious juried exhibitions in Asia including the 6th Taiwan Golden Ceramics Exhibition in Taipei and the 3rd World Ceramics Biennale in 2005 in Seoul, South Korea.  Delatour is another unrecognized Canadian talent.  She also teaches workshops.   That is a hint to anyone looking for someone who really knows their way around sawdust and pit firing!