Harlan House

It was many decades ago that I met Harlan House.  Within the decade, I was fortunate enough to have spent some time with him and Maureen at their home in Lonsdale.  Harlan has always been there when a question needed to be answered.  So this weekend is kind of bittersweet.  It would have been the weekend that Harlan would have had his annual open house exhibition and sale.  It is the day that I have received my copy of his book, My Work, My Way.  Fifty Years in the Studio.  

Harlan once told me that one of the things he admired about Bert Borch, one of his instructors at ACAD, was that he wrote his glaze recipes on the board.  Anyone could use them; they would never be the same.  Nothing was a secret!  Harlan has already posted his book online for anyone to download.  If you haven’t found it, check it out.  Just Google Harlan House.  It is full of all of the recipes that he used over the years with images of his work from the very beginning in Calgary.  My fondness is for Harlan’s sense of humour.  It comes out in his work as do a myriad of influences that he discusses throughout the text.

In a world of excess, some have a desire for sustainability.  Harlan was way ahead of the game.  If you were to tour his studio, you would be able to see the old Electrolux vacuum cleaner that he used to spray glaze on his ware.  He maximised the use of stainless steel milk containers (being disposed of by a local dairy farmer) to mix up his slip, and his kiln was, the last time I was there, the original from forty years ago.  Harlan believed in treating everything around him with gentleness and love.  That gas kiln was fired for five days, slowly.  It lasted.  There is something to learn there!  I am pretty confident that one of the two Shimpo wheels in his studio was at least forty years old.  Harlan and Maureen lived in the slow lane, enjoying their family, their garden, and the life that Harlan’s creations gave them.

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Harlan is famous for his beautiful celadon porcelain and his ‘Iris’ pots.  He once gave a workshop at Pinecroft Studios (arranged by his good friend, Tony Clennell).  There he demonstrated how he applied the slip which, itself, resembled marshmallow cream.  Tools were, I suspect, rarely purchased.  Instead, ordinary objects found a home by his wheel.  This included a stainless steel bicycle spoke (note that stainless steel should not rust and hurt the beautiful white clay) that was used for a lot of things including levelling the edges of the wide rim platters when they decided to curl upwards.

Always ready to move on to something new once he has mastered a form, Harlan not only used the smoothy shiny Chinese glazes but worked on a series that resembled barnacles, the Morgan.

The one below is the GW Bush aircraft carrier single flower boat with one dim candle on board!  I told you he had a seriously funny sense of humour especially when it comes to ignorant politicians.

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For anyone considering ceramics, you should take a page out of Harlan House’s playbook – be patient.  Porcelain taught him to be patient.  He once advised me to tell my students that if they wanted to work with porcelain, they needed to learn how to trim, and they needed to like trimming.  He would also add that recycling the clay that was left from the trimming is a must.  I cannot think of any better advice to give to everyone working with clay, regardless of the type.

Many people – collectors, friends, curators, gallery owners, and locals – will miss Maureen’s cookies this weekend.  Harlan hasn’t quit working.  He just isn’t keeping a regular schedule.  Check out his website, read his book, look at his work – it is delightful.

Sara loves porcelain

Sara Berg has been working with clay for a little over a year.  One day after our class, Sara came to talk about the clay that the School was buying for the students:  Danish White.  She didn’t like it and insisted that her work would improve enormously if she were allowed to use porcelain.  I don’t know how many ceramic instructors have had a student come and declare an affinity with porcelain so early in their education but, I never had.  Indeed, for those of you unfamiliar with porcelain it is, as famed Canadian ceramist Harlan House proclaims, ‘a difficult mistress’.  Porcelain was made famous by the Chinese early in their history.  China has, along with Germany, the right drying conditions for this pure white material – lots of humidity and the right temperatures.  It needs to be dried slowly.  Our throwing area sometimes obliges but on more occasions than not, it doesn’t.  Everything dries too quickly!  House also says that one has to love trimming because, with porcelain, you will be doing a lot of it.  None of this, of course, daunted Sara.  With my permission she went off to purchase a box of porcelain returning to the ceramics area where she worked most of the night.  Sara was right.  She has a wonderful relationship with this fine bodied clay.  In a former life, it is quite conceivable that she was a porcelain master.

Over the course of three months in the summer of 2018, Sara worked on her cobalt blue painting.  She devoured any book that crossed her path on ancient Chinese  ceramics and, in particular, the beautiful blue and white of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.  Just like the painting students at the School who learn by copying and then changing the work of the old masters, Sara studied the shapes and the painted decorations.  In the process she began to learn the symbols that the Chinese used and what they meant to their culture.  On some work she added a contemporary twist.   During the fall of 2018 she abandoned the standard studio glazes used by most of the ceramic students and began a study of Chinese Chun and celadon glazes.  Mixing and testing, firing, taking photos, making notes – all of this became second nature to her.  And it has paid off with some remarkable work.  She also pushed herself more and more with her trimming to the point that her work was almost too thin!

In 2019, Sara Berg will begin her Honours year.  For Sara, who lives and dreams porcelain, it will give her a chance to focus entirely on her exhibition pieces.  In the meanwhile, it is sheer joy to stand back and watch such a talented young woman continually honing her skills.  Porcelain is, indeed, her ikigai – that thing that she wakes up in the morning so happy to do, wanting to learn more and more and never getting bored.