How Blessed I Am

In her Ph.D. thesis, June Raby (University of Brighton, 2015) titled “Material, memory, metaphor:  convergences of significance in the ceramic vessel” states, “… that the most important task of a useful pot is to generate caring”.  Raby continues discussing that some of the things in our life that we consider so important, such as cell phones and automobiles, do not generate real caring at all.  But, more to the point, she discusses the practice of purchasing pots and whether or not we need them and ultimately two questions arise for the author.  The first is, “How is it [the pot] to live with?” and “How would it be to live without it?”   We all know that beautiful pots to put our food on feed our eyes and our soul.  The Japanese have known this for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Western society is just picking up on this with the recent turn to purchasing lovely bespoke dishes.  Raby says, “Dishes can sidle up to you the way a dog sits at your feet while you’re eating; you start petting his head without really thinking about it, but something good comes through.  You find you feel a little warmer, a little softer or kinder, a little more in sympathy with the world.”  This brings me to the goblet that is the featured image.  It was made by Pamela Nagley-Stevenson, fired in her two-chamber wood kiln, and mailed to me, arriving a few days ago.  It is not just a pot that meets the basic criteria of being good to live with, it humbled me, and made me feel close to a group of women that I so admire – those who fire with wood in Canada.  And it arrived at a special time for me.

For the past three years, I have been researching the Vietnam resisters that came to Canada.  The intention was to write a book on the topic but something happened.  One of the men said to me one day that the women “didn’t give up anything when they came to Canada”.  A year of research negates that notion.  The women gave up a lot – the ability to drive or walk across town and meet their friends, family, and colleagues in a casual way, lost their studios, their careers, their identity and place in the world.  It is incorrect to believe that they could return any time they wanted.  It took money and means and both were often in short supply.  True, the women did not face criminal charges or would go to jail but it has to be remembered that more women came to Canada in the time of the Vietnam era than the men.  They often came to bring comfort to the men.  In the end, a large majority of the marriages and partnerships broke up.  Which is where Pamela Nagley-Stevenson’s beautiful goblet comes in.  We had a short e-mail exchange and I confided to her that I have lost the passion to deal with the men who came to Canada and impacted ceramics.  I have written about this in various journals such as The Studio Potter and I have given talks on the subject.  The University of Toronto is interested in the manuscript but the reality is this:  women still face obstacles.  If this were the last five years of my life, what do I want to leave as my legacy?

This morning an article that appeared in the New Yorker, October 8, 2018, arrived in the mail.  The title is “Annals of Art.  The Canvas Ceiling.  New York’s postwar female painters and the obstacles they faced” by Claudia Roth Pierpont (beginning on page 20).  A note inside the envelope reads:  Lighten my understanding, Kindle my will, begin my doing, Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold muy desire.  It continues:  Mary Ann, so timely – really enjoyed this article and thought you would as well.  Pamela.         Every woman needs a reminder that their life and quest are important.  Thank you, Pamela.

Pamela’s goblet has, like so many pieces made by my friends, added to my daily life in a positive way.  I am grateful for her friendship and for that of so many of the women wood firers in British Columbia I have come to know and those that I need to get to know.

Ceramics has the ability to add love to your life.  I have coffee with Gunda every morning.  She is there with me in the beautiful temmoku mug I have of hers.  It brings me joy and links us even though we are thousands of miles apart.

So, if you are reading this and get to this point, I ask you to consider two things.  If you know of a woman who fires a wood kiln, let me know.  The history of Canadian wood firing needs to include them.  If you are buying holiday gifts, stop and understand that a bespoke piece of ceramics can enrich an individual’s life more than anything that is purchased that has been mass manufactured.  But, make sure that it is beautiful and useful, that it reflects the care of a well trained artist.

Namaste.

The Learning Kiln, Round 1

I haven’t added anything to this blog since the beginning of the term but, it is now time to once again praise a great crew of people.  The students from the first Wood Fire Class at the School of Art:  Jaiwei Dai, Julia Beasley, Kendra Wile, Kewen Qiang, Monique Chartier-Kroeker, Sara Berg, Yijia Zhang, Zach Dueck, Anastasia Waly, Alexandra Ross, and Hyoungjung Lee – in no particular order.  I would also like to thank a former student and Ceramics Club co-president (with Selena Panchoo), Donna Garafolo, and a current student in another class who came to help and really did, Keith Barber.  Of the eleven students in the class, only two had ever fired a wood kiln. The learning kiln did everything that ‘it’ was supposed to do.  If a university is about learning and problem-solving and if woodfire is about building community, teamwork and collegiality then this firing was one of the most successful I have ever been a part of.  I would be proud to fire with any of these respectful, hardworking, and tenacious individuals and I am looking forward to another firing before the end of the term with this teamIMG_0365IMG_0374IMG_0380IMG_0385IMG_0391IMG_0394IMG_0399IMG_0407IMG_0409IMG_0413 if we can procure dry logs of the right length and diameter.

While I would like to be showing you amazing pictures of lovely glazed work this morning, I can’t.  We ran out of wood at cone 3 after using up every available piece of wood and borrowing a table saw from Keith and a chainsaw from Donna.  The Oxyprobe worked brilliantly.  Students learned how to translate numbers into reducing or oxidising and even neutral atmospheres inside the kiln.  They were, however, disappointed at not having bellowing black smoke go everywhere – the kiln is, after all, a smokeless one.  They learned about building a proper ember bed and not blocking the flue, about ‘stoking on the hobs’ – even the word was like one from a totally foreign language – hobs, what are hobs?  Oh, those are the hobs!  It is interesting, as a teacher, to find that actually doing something is more of a learning tool than reading and talking about it (a bit like reading how to put a diaper on a baby and then being presented with a real child)- especially when most of the students do not know the language of wood firing.  The majority did not know what an ember was nevermind an ember bed.  They do now!

These students did everything right according to Steve Harrison’s Laid Back Wood Firing and Markus Boehm’s instructions in the summer.  They pre-heated the kiln with gas (thanks Sara from coming out in the middle of the night) and then started using sticks and branches to start the ember bed before going full fire on the floor.  They built one of the most beautiful ember beds I have seen in a long time.  They went to the hobs following the schedule in Steve Harrison’s Laidback Wood Firing – a book that I will now require for this class in the future.  But it was there with them at every moment.  And the temperature rose slowly not to warp or dunt the pieces inside.  One of the surprises to them was one that caused a moment of problem-solving.  The flames which had been ‘going down’ in the Bourry Box began to look like a ‘campfire’ – they were coming up.  When we ran out of dry suitable wood, they attempted to use some cut off slabs (remember I said they didn’t want to give up) and one of these blocked the flue into the main chamber for a bit.  Back on track they built up their ember bed, went back to the hobs, and then got to full-blown fire resulting in reduction.

Harrison lists the possibilities for a stall and we carefully examined page 14 and his list.  We ruled out not enough ember pile to preheat combustion (see feature photo with logs on hobs), going to the hobs too quickly (we followed the medium length firing schedule in the book), top of the firebox was hot enough, and we had good dry pieces when we went on the hobs (again see above).  The firebox design was made for one-metre poplar logs and worked well at the first firing.  And the students did not forget to clam up the bottom stokehole door.  This left us with two choices and they were the two culprits that defeated us at cone 3:  too big a cross-section of timber because of the large mass it took too long to reach the flashing point and that wood was wet.   We sealed up everything and cleaned up.  The area looked fantastic due to their efforts.  And, in the midst of all of this, we also did a raku firing.

So I want to repeat something because I do not want anyone to consider this firing a failure; it is not the student’s fault that the wood we had available to us at a crucial juncture was too big and too wet.  This is a learning kiln and if University is about learning and problem-solving, then this firing was 100% successful!  I do not want the students, or anyone, to think that a kiln full of beautiful glazed ceramics is ever the only goal.  If this firing had gone perfect, I actually suspect that the learning aspect would have been minimal.  We, me and the students, are humbled along with all other wood firing potters, even Steve Harrison, who have had issues firing their kilns.  I suspect that that is what, over the years, inspired Harrison to write his book so that we could learn from his experience.  Next time we are going to measure the diameter of the logs and their length.  I would give anything for the tool to measure the wetness of wood.  We will have our own chainsaw (and gas – thanks again, Donna and Keith).  We will, once again, check what to do in the ‘Harrison Bible’ and the firing will result in lovely glazed cone 12 ceramics.

Third European Wood Fire Conference in La Borne, France, continued

La Borne has been home to potters since, at least, the beginning of the 17th century.   The oak forests around the village were planted to provide wood to build the navy vessels for King Louis XIV’s fleet.  Today they supply the potters and their kilns and are carefully managed.  For the most part, the potters use the wood found on the floor of the forest and that from the ‘thinning’ management.  One informative talk during the conference was precisely on the history of the forest and its management, something that is not a normal topic in Manitoba because we have so little available wood in comparison.  Indeed, one of the reasons for building the new Bourry Box kiln is to be able to continue wood firing at the School but also, to conserve the amount of wood used in these firings.

The shape and type of kilns built in La Borne has evolved with economic and social changes in the country.  The early, extremely colossal kilns, often known as ‘whale kilns’, were used to fire storage jars for transporting and storing food.  In the 20th century, demands by the local farms for pottery slowly declined because of new manufactured products that served the same purpose but were cheaper to purchase.  After World War II, there was a shift in the type of work made in the village.  Up until this time, the pottery production in La Borne was entirely for domestic uses related to the storage, cooking, and serving of food and drink. After, there is the arrival of the first individuals trained in art school, many of whom worked in creating clay sculpture.  Jacqueline and Jean Lerat were two such ceramic artists.  Their son gave a superb talk about their work and the change in the type of production in La Borne at this time.

Today, the kilns in La Borne are much smaller, suitable for the production of one or two persons.  They range from the Sevres style with a  one cubic metre ware chamber that belong to Atelier Dominique Gare-Roz Herrin and the same style of kiln to Jean and Claud Guillaume.  Dominique Gare has  a six cubic metre noborigama while Svein Hjort Jensen fires a three cubic metre anagama.  Included with the Bourry Box styles and the Asian kiln types are also a number of kilns based on the designs of Fred Olsen.  Sylvie Rigal has a one cubic metre train kiln while Dominique Legros fires a 300 litre Four Dragon kiln.  At the end of October, these kilns will be lit, most at the same time, for the firing festival known as ‘La Borne senflamme’.  It has been an annual event since the 17th century.  This event and the Third European Wood Fire Conference has brought many outsiders to this picturesque village, some 40 minutes from Bourges.  It is hoped that the village and its potters continue to prosper in the centuries to come.  If it is, there needs to be a way to bring more youth to the village to establish their own studios. Indeed, there were many young people who attended the conference so there is hope!

I am grateful to all the members of the Association Ceramique La Borne for all of the events they organized.  It was difficult to decide which talk or workshop to take from the descriptions on line.  This was so unfortunate.  But, like everywhere else, choices had to be made.  The conference took advantage of local resources and the beauty of the Loire Valley.  There was an excursion to the Decorative Arts Museum and St Etienne in Bourges on Thursday and tomorrow there is a trip to Sancrette.  Of course, having time to catch up with acquaintances that you haven’t seen for four years or meeting new friends and having discussions in between the formal events really is what these events are about.

And a correction.  There are three countries interested in hosting the Fourth European Wood Fire Conference.  They are Latvia, Belgium, and Spain (Barcelona).  It had been anticipated that the next host would be announced today but, each of the venues has asked for more time to consider their resources in relation to the hundred attendees (the average of the paying guests during the first three conferences).

 

 

Third European Wood Fire Conference, continued

Today was officially day 4 of the Third European Wood Fire Conference in LeBorne, France.  It is just such a magical place.  To reach LeBorne from Bourges, about a 40 minute drive using winding country roads, you pass through corn and sunflower fields.  As you get closer, you enter the forests that have supplied the potters in the area with wood for centuries.  Indeed, several Roman-Gallo kilns have been unearthed and the conference has recreated two of these for the participants to see how they were constructed.  My very good friend, Dr Julia Nema from Budapest, spoke to the influences of Malevich and Moholgy-Nagy on her light sculptures while Fred Olsen provided everyone with a reason to use cartable for building a wood kiln instead of bricks.  Other events included a round table discussion on the future of wood firing, tours to two local museums, and, of course, the numerous open studios of the potters living and working in LeBorne. You do not have to look far to find pottery sitting in gardens, on shelves of buildings or gracing gardens.  The anagama kiln will be finished firing tomorrow and if the rain would stop we might actually see the bottle kiln finished!

The first conference was held in Brollin and my friend, Markus Boehm, who came to build the Bourry Box kiln for the School in June, headed up that committee.  Priscilla Mouritzen was part of the team that hosted the second conference at the International Ceramic Research Centre in Skaelskor, Germany.  At that time only Denmark was wanting to host the second one.  It appears that was the case with the third being in LeBorne but, the events are so successful that this time there are four centres vying for the fourth conference in 2022.  It reminds me now of the Olympics.  But, I keep asking:  who decides who will be the host?  Since this has not been a problem previously, no one seems to be able to answer.  The short list contenders are:  Russia, Latvia, Barcelona, and Belgium.  Everyone will find out Friday morning!

Meanwhile, I am staring at a stack of catalogues and books that I would never be able to readily find in Canada or on Amazon – as well as some pottery – and trying to figure out how I am going to get this back to Canada next week.  The local potters would have sold much more to ‘the foreigners’ if someone had the foresight to have a ‘for charge’ packing and mailing business locally for this event.

The Third European Wood Fire Conference is opening in La Borne, France

The anticipation was in the air as wood firing potters began arriving in the village of La Borne for the Third European Wood Fire Conference.  The first was held in Brollin Germany in 2010 and the second at Guldagergaard in Denmark in 2014.  From the looks of things, the French have studied both of those conferences and have things well in hand.

La Borne is home to the Contemporary Ceramic Institute, which helps.  The main building holds a sales area for all of the members of the institute plus one of the finest book shops focused entirely on ceramics I have ever seen.  There are both French and English sections.  Oh, if books weren’t so heavy!  There is, in addition, approximately 1000 sq feet of exhibition space.  Behind this is the kiln shed with three different types of wood burning kilns.  Tents have been set up, t-shirts have been printed, and only the French would think of building a kiln out of wine bottles.  Down the road is the museum linking today’s potters with those who were working here in medieval times.  There are maps showing the directions to the individual potter’s studios that are open for tours. To combat what might be a lack of restaurants – after all – hundreds are planning to descend on this sleepy pottery village –

many have set up cafes in their garden.  Some are even selling homemade jam.  And as I write to you I am enjoying the end of season strawberries so sweet and tiny along with a chocolate croissant and strong cup of coffee.  Life could not be any better!

Stay posted.  I will try and fit in the week’s events on a bi-daily basis!

The Japanese influence on Danish Design. The Design Museum, Kobenhaven

It isn’t often that one gets to shut out the world and deal with a single passion, but for the next month I will be in Denmark (with a skip over to France for the Third European Woodfire Conference at LeBorn) doing just that.  While there are many influences on 20th century and contemporary ceramics, two are the Japanese and the Scandinavians.  In fact, during a conversation with Bob Archambeau, several years ago, he reminded me that he, too, was influenced by the work coming from Scandinavia and that people often forget about their superb ceramics.   He is right.  Most books and exhibitions, in Canada, if not North America,  focus almost entirely on the impact of the British Studio Pottery Movement or the Japanese.  It is difficult to find books on Scandinavian or Danish ceramics.  One of the things I am trying to unearthing this summer is the difference in the aesthetics in Japanese and Danish wood firing.    I am searching for images and ideas to encapsulate these two traditions in a comparison that can more easily be understood by my students who will, no doubt, become bored by thousands of images!

You can imagine what a treat it was to look at the current exhibitions in Copenhagen and find a show at the Design Museum focused entirely on the Japanese influence on Danish design.  Several rooms contained ceramics, textiles, Danish furniture and lamps inspired by origami, wood, and metal.  One has to consider the minimalistic character of 20th century Danish modern and its relationship to that of Japan.  The featured image is of tableware inspired by Japan.  Notice the clean lines and then look at the use of colour.  Everywhere I look in Denmark there is some colour.  In other instances, it was difficult to see the relationship.  Large tsubo (storage containers) might also be kin to those found on the Greek islands, the ones with lugs used to hold olive and walnut oils.  Still, how lucky to be able to spend an entire day wrestling with one’s mind to understand and follow the logic of the curator who, after all, had to deal with works that were in the museum’s collection.

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Summer Students Finish Up (almost)

Five students at the University of Manitoba worked on various aspects of ceramics over the summer months.  They are winding up their studies and it is time for you to see some of the work that they completed.  They were Iris Smith, Jade Shynkaruk, Rebecca Sutherland, Sara Berg, and Selena Dyck.

These five students discovered in the spring that they required anywhere from 3-9 credit hours at the 3000 level in order to enter their Honours or 4th year of study.  Of the five, three work almost full time.  One student, Jade, had more experience with clay and is the President of the Ceramics Club for 2018-19.  One student, Rebecca, had no experience with clay.  The other three:  Iris, Sara, and Selena, had taken the three credit hour beginning wheel throwing class in the fall of 2017 and another course in wheel throwing in the winter.  At the School of Art, students take five three-credit hour classes per term.  In other words, these students did not have the luxury of working full time in the ceramics space until this summer.  Each was working on a different project.

Sara Berg is very interested in Classical Chinese cobalt painting on porcelain.  She wanted to master, as best she could, this technique before moving on to her own subject matter that would still be expressed in this ancient technique.  She also worked on classical forms and took part in the wood kiln workshop where she not only learned to properly mortar bricks and the laying of bricks but also was able to use her welding skills to create the frame for the kiln.  We were really grateful for these hidden talents!  Little did we know that she was also a diesel mechanic and had a license to drive an 18 wheeler.  Sara moved to painting her own story on the largest of the porcelain stools she constructed – a young warrior woman and she is truly a warrior!  She has not had the time to study the history of ceramics and the inspiring women of the 20th century but she came up with one bowl that is so reminiscent of Lucie Rie that I am including it.  Can’t wait to see what she does this fall.  DSC02959

Selena Dyck wanted to study cone 6 glazes.  She loves blue and green.  Selena’s work exhibits a dedication to detail, mastery of form, and consistent testing and questioning.  Her first project was to make a 12 piece place setting of dishes.  Her second was to create 40 test pots and learn how to take a transparent glaze, make it opaque, and then colour both the transparent and the opaque base.  She discovered that she prefers the cone 6 Campana clear with copper carbonate added.  Selena challenged herself to create a set of 5 perfect nesting bowls – which she certainly accomplished!  Her dedication to keeping her glaze journal, the details about each of the glazes and their reaction and where they were in the kiln will be a good tool for her in the future.  Selena was the first one to discover that Reitz Water Blue pinholes.  We now think that the overfilling of our kilns is the cause.  Didn’t impact the smaller bowls but was readily apparent on the larger ones.  Selena asked all of the right questions – has an enquiring and observational mind.  She would make a great ceramist.  The handles on the cups at the front fooled our MFA student.  Mary thought they were press-moulded.  Nope.  Selena got very good at pulling handles!  Sadly, the ceramics area is losing her to print media in year 4.

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Jade Shynkaruk came to Winnipeg from Brandon where she had studied ceramics.  She has a keen eye for a colour palette, understands the importance of colours and how they relate to interiors, and was one of the first students to know what the company Pantone does!  Jade works full time as a consultant at one of the Benjamin-Moore stores in Winnipeg and she translates that work into her ceramics which sell off the tables whenever there is a Club sale.  I am super impressed with the weight of her work, the size of the coffee cups, and the care that she takes figuring out the glazing and how the colours relate to one another.  Jade is not ready to set out and become a full time production potter but she worked on all the things that a professional potter had to master:  form, repetition of form, the right weight for the vessel, and the glazing.  She will do very well.  She also has an Etsy site:  Etsy.com/shop/jadecoraldesignDSC02923

 

Rebecca Sutherland came and wanted to try and see if she could take her love for Japanese ceramics and translate that into a short course in clay.  Rebecca had never worked with clay at the beginning of June.  And I have to admit that there was a part of me that worried an awful lot about her.  So, never touched clay before June and works full time at a Canadian bank.  This is an independent study class.  We met over the summer but, until today, I had never seen any of her work glazed.  Rebecca was marked on her progress during the course.  From nothing to a beautiful bento box out of clay with a pressed bamboo motif.  It displayed an attention to detail and the colour that she choose worked well, pooling darker in the blades of the Asian grass.  I am hoping that she keeps working.

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Iris likes colour (and marbles melted onto her plates).  When I first met her, I said something about orange, possibly that it was not so popular a colour in ceramics, unlike blue which I was told once, ‘everybody loves’.  Iris chirped up and said, ‘I like orange’.  She also likes green, pink, and takes a lot of risks in terms of putting colour together.  Iris took other academic courses while working almost full time and also finding time to train new staff at Starbuck’s.  I want to add here that she gave me a new respect for the coffee chain because they provide benefits for their part time staff.  Tomorrow she goes back to being full time before classes resume in September.  Iris approaches her work as something she wants to use.  Because she has arthritis in her fingers, she presses in the sides of her tumblers so that she can grasp them easily and on her rice bowls she faceted the sides.  Look at the combination of the Reitz water blue on the interior of the pink tumblers.  Quite unique.

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It was my privilege to work with these five young women over the summer.  To see what a concentrated time on a single project can benefit their learning.  I wish each of the five of them the very best.  Please keep your eyes out for their work…they are the young rising ceramic stars.  This includes Selena who I hope we can lure back into clay!

Apologies for the photos.  The lack of any quality is all mine and I should add that because of the light this morning, some of the work really is much more beautiful in person.

Top row, left to right:  Selena’s five set mixing bowls, Jade’s teapot and bowls, Jade’s trinket bowl.  Second row:  Iris’s tea bowls, Sarah’s dragon stool, Sarah’s vases.Third row:  a close up of Iris’s fluted tea bowls, Iris’s pink plate with marble, Selena’s mugs.  Last row:  Jade’s mugs, Rebecca’s bamboo box, Sara’s second porcelain stool with female mythology.

Top image:  Rebecca’s bamboo bento box and 2 pinched tea cups