Wayne Ngan 1937-2020

I first met Wayne Ngan in 1987 when I was the Director of the then ‘being built’ University College-UMSU Gallery at the University of Manitoba. Ngan was to be the first artist exhibited at the new student gallery designed for University College. Sadly, funding became tight and the new gallery was abruptly brought to an end. It was twenty-eight years later, during the summer of 2015, that I met him again at his home and studio on Hornby Island. I had come to see the drawings and talk to Wayne about the Sung Dynasty wood kiln he had built and also to take some photographs for another ceramics exhibition at the School of Art Gallery for that fall. Wayne’s passion and creativity filled him with joy. His eyes sparkled with energy as he talked about each one of his special pieces. He was, at the time, preparing for his first big exhibition in New York City at the Natalie Karg Gallery opening in a couple of months on 15 September. We were grateful for his humour and for the generous sharing of his time. His peaceful passing on June 12 at his home on Hornby Island from lymphoma was, thus, received with sadness.

Some of the prize pieces that Ngan set aside for his own collection from his firings over the decades.

Wayne Ngan was born in 1937 in Kwantung, PRC. He is one of Canada’s most celebrated ceramic artists working in what many have identified as the West Coast-Asian fusion tradition. In 1983 Wayne was awarded the prestigious Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts and in 2013 he received British Columbia’s Creative Achievement Award of Distinction. He is also the recipient of the Governor Generals Commemorative Medal.

Many potters state that one of their first memories of working with clay was as a youngster. Wayne Ngan is no exception. The celebrated artist remembers that as a child he dug clay with his own hands creating objects to amuse him while his mother worked in the rice paddies. At the age of fourteen, he immigrated to Vancouver with his grandfather. Some years later he briefly studied at the Vancouver College of Art before leaving the city to build a home and studio on Hornby Island in 1967. Over the years he traveled to China and Japan studying ancient ceramics and the secrets of wood firing kilns. Back in his studio he repeatedly threw the shapes he admired until he had perfected them. His goal then, as now, is to create pure shapes with minimal decoration based on those from the Sung Dynasty and the Yi of Korea that are alive.

The materials and the kiln that Wayne uses are of utmost importance to his work. The artist states that together they give life and purity to his vessels. Wayne is able to source all of his materials from Hornby Island except for the clay; it is simply unavailable. As a result, he mixes other ingredients with commercial clay bodies. He makes all of his own tools testing them over and over again until he feels comfortable using them.

I am looking for life…Like ashes are very good materials for glazes. But the glaze on a pot is only a coat; the beauty that’s behind is the clay body, like a soul in a person. Sometimes the person who makes the pot is also a contributing factor. And the fire too. If you have an electric kiln it only radiates fire; it is not live fire. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, what comes out..is artificial. The kiln is like a womb, like a mother. (Quoted in Judy Thompson Ross, Down to Earth.  Canadian Potters at Work, 12-15).

For five decades, this talented artist produced his signature stoneware vases with hakame decoration as well as temmoku glazed vessels, raku, and, for a period, wood fired salt glazed ware. It was on Hornby that Wayne declared that nature informs the ‘alchemy’ of his work.

Working with clay is, I think, part of my nature. It is easy, the most flexible medium I can imagine. Through clay I can touch all four basic elements: earth, water, fire and all, and bring those four elements back to life. (Thompson, 12).

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.


Gunda Stewart

I do not know when I was first introduced to Gunda Stewart.  I wish I could remember who it was that told me to contact her because I would like to thank them.  I consider her a dear friend, a treasure, that came into my life so unexpectedly.  I do remember flying into the tiny airport at Cranbrook from Calgary.  What a view over the Rockies!  And driving a rental car – some sort of Honda that had to have rear wheel drive through the mountains, south to Canyon BC.  On the road to Gunda’s studio and home, nestled in the valley of the Selkirk and Purcell Mountains, there is a single blue artisan sign.  But it doesn’t tell you that if you follow it, you will discover one of Canada’s best wood fire potters!!!!  Gunda lives on a beautiful acreage with gardens, both flower and vegetable, with her partner Wayne and their dog, Sadie.  Her studio is separate from the house and next to it is her Mamabigama 40 cubic foot wood kiln.  It is a beauty!

Gunda studied with Tam Irving at the Vancouver School of Art.  Her work clearly shows the influence of Irving as well as Irving’s friend, John Reeve, who also taught at the VSA for a short time.  Her temmoku bowls, mugs, and baskets are covered by the deep rich iron glaze breaking at the lip into kaki (persimmon).  She says she puts them at the back of her kiln and in the front is the ash glazed ware, runny and luscious.

Her work is sold at the local artisan market during the summer and at several holidays sales in the late fall.  She also has a few sales out of her studio and visitors are welcome to drop by and purchase ware when there is not a public market or sale.

I often wonder if the people who attend the weekend markets in Canyon beginning in May know what a treasure they have in their midst?  Or does the old adage, ‘You are not a prophet in your own land’ still apply?  Google her.  She has her own website where she features images of recent work.  This was a bad year for all the wood firers in British Columbia.  The wildfires kept the fire ban going until the end of September.  Then it was a mad rush to fire the kiln, load after load, tiring and backbreaking at the same time, to get everything ready for the holiday markets.

Now that the season is drawing to a close, Gunda tells me she is ready to curl up, drink nice tea, and read a few good books as the snow covers the landscape in the winter.

If you happen to be in the area, follow the artisan sign.  You will be so happy you did!