The Serendipity of the African Pots

Decades ago, I registered for a summer evening course in African Art at the School of Art, the University of Manitoba where I now teach.  The course was taught by Susan Moffat who had her MA in African Studies from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.  What captivated me was her first-hand knowledge of the material objects, her love for the people of African, and her immense enthusiasm.  She also was the only art history instructor I ever had that brought in physical objects that we could examine.  That course was a sea-changing moment for me, and it was only then that I decided to continue my studies at the graduate level.

Years later, Susan Moffat was donating some of her African collection to the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg when she decided to gift me two handmade woodfired vessels and a beautiful piece of local textiles (purple, white, and black) that was wrapped around the bottom of one to keep it steady.  I was so honoured by this present.  The two hand-formed vessels with their African motifs lived on top of a Chinese cabinet in my office when I was not showing them to students in my History of Ceramics class.

Traditional African ceramic vessels were made to be used and to add beauty to the homes.  In Barbara E Frank’s research on these domestic pots, used for both cooking and storing food, she stated that they also “carry symbolic import central to social identity, economic and political status, ritual practice, and belief”.  Frank further emphasised that if wanted to understand those roles that it is absolutely necessary to know more about the individuals who made them, most often women, and the social, economic, and the spiritual contexts that they . were created.  For all of us that have not studied the iconography (symbols) of African ceramics, Hunt stresses that our understanding of the vessels will be compromised because we cannot read the ‘script’.  Indeed, many of these vessels carry a religious significance beyond our grasp.  I am certainly one of those people.  My pleasure was imaging the women gathering the clay, taking out the stones, and coiling or pounding it on a mould.  I could close my eyes and imagine them firing the works with a bonfire,  sometimes I could even smell the smoke.  In all of this, I hope that the use of plastics is curtailed and that the local ceramic and textile traditions survive just as the culture of these countries needs to be maintained.

Last summer, a young African man came to visit me in my office.  By chance, a graphic design programme he was using for his class project could not be read by my computer, and he had come in to show me his work.  After looking over his assignment, his eyes began to scan my office, looking at the ceramics.  At one point, he stopped and pointed to the two African pots and the textile.  To my amazement, he declared, “These were made in my village”!  We took the vessels down so that he could handle them.  “Would you like some clay to make your own pots”?  He nodded yes, enthusiastically.  He even came down to the ceramics class meeting with some of the students and taking a keen interest in what they were doing.  After a few weeks, some handmade pieces appeared, and they were fired.  The students helped with those.  And then I did not see him again until one day there was a bag hanging on my office door.  In it were two pieces of beautiful African textiles.

The young man’s name is Opie, and he had made a trip to his home in Nigeria.  While there he purchased two pieces of fabric made by the women in his community for me.  What treasures!  I told Susan about this today.  That is what propelled me to write this blog today.  She believes that the spirit of the maker has travelled through time and space and that her decision to pass these objects that she had collected so many years ago, had a good home.  Of course, I am the one who is so grateful for Susan and Opi.  They opened my eyes to the beauty of African art.  I hope that the two pots with their fabrics will travel through my family and have many more stories and connections in the decades to come.  If only it were possible to sit down and talk to the women who made them!

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Farewell Hospitalfield

I think that we all knew that saying goodbye after working, creating, laughing, eating, and exploring together for a fortnight was not going to be easy.  Friendships were formed, ideas exchanged and debated.  At the very beginning, it felt like there was a thread that had already woven the nine of us together.  Without exception, everyone is concerned about the environment, and our impact on it and all agreed, at one time or another, that the natural environment of Hospitalfield was having an effect on our work, intended or not.

Three highly intelligent and creative young women worked inside the historic house while the other six of us were in the historic studio.  I only wish there had been more time to get to know these young ladies a little bit more.  Ruby de Vos spent her time working on her dissertation for the University of Groningen inside the main house.  Her research examines the embodied temporalities of toxicity in contemporary art and literature.  Ruby had previously studied Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, and we found ourselves at the dining room table talking about the work of Mieke Bal.  I wish that I had more time to talk to Ruby about her findings, but I am grateful for our discussions about climate change and how the young people in the Netherlands are protesting the impact of climate change.  We both smiles when the news reported about students around the world walking out of school to demonstrate how important it is to this generation to find a way to reverse the impact or at least halt in and the utter dismay in the politicians who are climate change deniers.

Emily Furneaux studied Critical Fine Art Practice at Brighton University.  She now lives and works in Glasgow where she uses video, sculpture, installation, and drawing to create narratives that weave together truth and fiction.  Emily’s work currently deals with her healing and the impact of mental health on a person.  She was busy working on a project that will be shown in Glasgow.  Emily is one of the bravest young women I have met, meeting her demons head-on, accepting the trauma that has occurred, and using it in a positive way for her art and for her reaching out to others who have been in similar situations.  “Place and environment” work to inspire this young artist and no doubt Hospitalfield will take its rightful place at one time or another.  I will always be grateful for our very candid conversations.  Emily’s work has screened across the UK and as far away as Lithuania.  Holly Argent is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She uses various materials, often looking for strategies to utilize the fragmentary nature of archives to tell and re-tell narratives of artistic legacies.  Emily has taken the lead on a project focused on ‘Women Artists of the North East Library’.  In doing so, she is creating a resource that will contribute much to the untold stories of the history working in that area of the UK.  I wish that I had more time to talk to Holly but was so glad that she ‘ran’ to get into the group photo before I had to leave.  Holly was the recipient of the Luby’s Legs Artist Bursary (2017-18) and the Forshaw Rome Residency from Newcastle University at The British School at Rome (2017).

 

The middle section of the main studio was shared by Katy West and Lizzie Watt, both from Glasgow (OK, Katy is originally from Dublin).  At the very beginning of our residency, Katy was supervising the delivery of her electric kiln which she promptly plugged in.  That is one of the great things about the UK – the voltage of the plugs easily accommodates a kiln!  Katy studied ceramics at The Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London.  Since her graduation, she has worked as a designer, and a curator propelled by her interest in the history and meaning of objects.  Katy is currently a Lecturer at Glasgow School of Art.  Her list of commissions and curatorial projects is impressive.  From the beginning, it felt like Katy was in a marathon race.  Little did I know (til later) that this was an exceptional time for this mom with children aged 5 and 7.  It was an opportunity for her to get back to her roots in ceramics, to have a period without the responsibilities of her family and away from her work.  She is currently working with the students and faculty of Glasgow School of Art to revitalise their first-year programme.  That is a big task!  Katy could have selfishly protected her time, but that doesn’t seem to be her way at all.  She has a beautiful sense of humour and is generous in sharing her knowledge.  A good example was her teaching Lizzie how to make moulds!  Here she is discovering that my new coat fit her perfectly!  Fantastic woman with great charm.

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Lizzie Watt has one of the most infectious laughs and like Katy, has boundless energy and curiosity.  She is a collector of ‘stuff’ and ideas all the while experimenting with the process.  At times her area of the studio looked like a debris field but, then again, so did Katy’s so busy were they with mixing plaster and dying materials.  Lizzie was particularly interested in making natural dyes.  She had borrowed a book from the library, The Wild Dyer, that led her to collect the pits and shells of our avocado salad one day.  Did you know that the combination of skins and seeds makes a stunning pink dye?  I didn’t either.

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Watt is known for her kitschy works in miniature.  Her bio in the Hospitalfield Residency list says that she:  “borrows imagery and ideas from archaeological and scientific discoveries to explore the messy intermingling of human and non-human timescales. Ideas about these relationships are manifested in Watts’ work, not through linear narratives, but instead in sculptural debris, fascinating objects, and in films and animations which focus upon isolated and enchanting behaviours”.  Like all of us, she drew inspiration from Hospitalfield and the stories and events that came up during our two weeks together.  This morning, she presented me with a “Dressed Herring” because of the story I had relayed to her after she had taken Lucy and me to the museums in Dundee.  It is an object that I will always treasure and encapsulates Watt’s playful attitude entirely.

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Kikki Ghezzi had the last studio in our building.  From Milan but now living in Brooklyn, she not only introduced me to various ways of working with a needle and thread to create imagery that was anything but simple but she also cooked a wicked Italian dinner for us one weekend.  In her studio at Hospitalfield, she sewed and dyed a body of work that will ultimately go to the National Museum of Women’s Art in Washington, DC.  Other pieces are destined for the Italian Consulate in DC where Kikki will also be blessing a tree as part of her artistic exchange.  Using only thread, silk, linen, and natural dyes, Ghezzi creates artist’s books with meticulous embroidery using beet dyes for the colour.  She was working on a larger piece, hanging in the wind to dry that is anchored in her experiences as a woman.

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It goes without saying that the two people who shared the end studio with me were the ones that I came to know the most.  Like all the others, Allan Whyte and Lucy Barlow are immensely talented.  Allan is heading off to Berlin for a three-month residency, and Lucy is shortlisted for the Olympic Park Public Art Competition.   Allan and I spent hours talking about everything, but the one thing he gleaned was how proud I am of my granddaughter, Elysha, and her principals about animal cruelty, Veganism, and the environment.  Allan works with deprived inner-city youth in Glasgow, and he sees first hand what poverty and a lack of love can do to children.  They are so lucky to have someone so empathetic to help them, those young men.

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Lucy has her interview this coming Thursday, and I cannot imagine a better artist to take that project on.  Lucy and I became fast friends, sharing many conversations on our evening walk about the garden about the challenges of being an artist, stopping to raise a family, and returning to one’s practice.  That is precisely what Lucy is doing, and she has many, many years to make even a more significant impact on the world of public art and installations.

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And last but never least, four individuals who worked very hard to make certain that our residencies were such a success:  Lucy Byatt, Director of Hospitalfield and her adorable Whippet; Scott Byrne, General Manager who wore so many hats I lost track; Cicely Farrer, Programme and Communications Officer who made sure on a daily basis both before and after our arrival that all was well; and Simon Brown who juggled Vegans, Vegetarians, and Carnivores, always smiling.  We thrived on the most amazing local food, still healthy and delicious.  All of their background work, devotion to the visual arts, and to Hospitalfield made this two weeks in Arbroath meaningful.  All of us were grateful for their care and attention.  As we depart, we join the illustrious artists who have come before us as Hospitalfield Alumni.

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Hospitalfield, Day 8

Inside my kiln at home is approximately three dozen perfectly formed, balanced, light in weight porcelain bottles with chattering.  There are boxes of less than optimum bottles broken up.  I couldn’t decide whether to really go for the colour which at the moment seems to be a range of greens and blues or blue-greens using stains.  For the past six months or so I have personally been put off by glaze.  Nothing seemed to capture what was in my head and that is where Hospitalfield comes in.  When I applied to be a Resident Interdisciplinary artist here, I had no idea if I would be accepted.  The ration of applicants to those accepted I have found is very low.  One in twenty individuals.  I am in great company.  My studio mates are amazing.  Lucy Barlow is shortlisted for the First Plinth public art award for Olympic Park in London.  I am really sending off the best wishes for her.  She has to finish her final presentation to the jury in a few days, so she is working on her project here and tackling that as well.  You can check out her art at lucybarlow.art      Lucy is re-entering the art world after raising her boys, and she is doing some fantastic work.  Allan Whyte also shares my studio.  He’s all over social media.  One of the things that Allan and I have learned together is that the sound recording from the iPhone is just pretty darn good.  He is working on finishing up a commission for Glasgow and is recording sounds and working with some interesting recycled materials.  Check him out, too…and of course there are five other amazing people who I will write about later including Kiki who happens to be a fantastic cook as well.

But the point I am getting at is this.  By choosing a residency that had nothing to do with ceramics I have grown immensely in these eight days.  It isn’t just stepping back in time, sitting here in this fantastic historical room with the paint and wallpaper peeling away in places that have inspired me but it is the sea.  I have never lived by the sea.  The east coast of Scotland is flat.  In fact, it is a bit of a cosmic joke because it reminds me of Manitoba!  Flat.  I did say flat, right?  Just in case you don’t believe me, those really high hills that are the only thing Scottish Tourism sends out – well, they are on the west coast of Scotland.  The work that I am producing is my first reaction to this house and to the sea and the light.  The featured bottle still has a lip that is smoothed out, and the joins of where the moulds met have been smoothed but that is now all gone.

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We had rain and blowing rain and snow when these were made and these huge clouds trying to push the sky backwards.  Today the sky was white, and the sea was blue.  It is ever-present.  When the chill is down to your bones even though you can see the daffodils blooming in the garden, it is because of the sea.  When the slip in your mould doesn’t dry like it does in Manitoba in the winter, it is the sea.  Damp.  Moss.  Cold.  And yet, I would not give up these eight days for anything.  I highly recommend anyone considering a residency to step outside their comfort zone and challenge what they have been doing.  For me, anyway, it has allowed me a time to be free, to be playful, to react to something and someplace.  Magical.

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The sea is just beyond the kitchen garden beyond the walls of the house.

For years it was the life of this village.  And today, if you meander around the harbour, you can find ‘Smokie’ stalls.  If in Manitoba you are expecting smoked sausage, you might be right, but here in Arbroath it is smoked fish.  There are five or six places.

Just a funny historical fact.  The people in Dundee used to have a tradition.  They would not eat herring, but on New Years, they would wrap red herring in little paper clothes and hang them outside to bring good luck.  It is called ‘Dressed Herring’, and it didn’t matter if the fish was smoked, salted, or dried.  You could also purchase them ready clothed at some of the market stalls in town.  They even made acceptable gifts I am told!

And with that little tidbit, I will close this blog today.  I am looking forward to the weather being balmy on Wednesday, and I am going to sneak out of the studio and take you on a trip to two of Scotland’s beautiful castles.  Keep your fingers crossed for the excellent weather arriving!

How great was this? Grace Han is my teacher and it is so much fun being a student.

I want to publicly thank Grace Han.  She has helped me immensely as I complete the final preparations for my residency in Scotland.  Gosh, it has been so long since I was a student that it was wonderful learning something entirely new.  Well, I shouldn’t say altogether new.  I did make some very simple moulds so many years ago that I don’t even want to think about it.  It was fun being a student again – energising was a word that Grace used a lot, and I agree.  How fortunate I am.

My interdisciplinary arts project is about transience.  One aspect of it also questions current ceramics education and making and its impact on the environment.  The conceptual basis for the proposal was strong and was a 180-degree turn from my previous practice making functional domestic ware.  I no longer do this.  There are fabulous potters in every province of Canada that make beautiful wheel thrown vessels that enliven my life every day.  I do not need to add to this.  It is time to look at ceramics production differently.

My original intention was to rent a potter’s wheel and make my ovoid bottles, to apply slip capturing the landscape at various times of day, and to place the unfired pieces along the coast of the North Sea, from Arbroath to Aberdeen.  But I could not rent a wheel.  The obvious next step was to make a mould and slip cast the bottles.  It has been some thirty years since I had lessons in mould making and, at the time, the instruction was not that good.  Enter Grace Han.   If you do not know who Grace Han is you can look back through my blogs but in a nutshell:  Grace Han is from Korea where she is one of the only women to make Onngi.  She is so good at mould making also that her professor in Korea always hired her as his assistant because of these talents.   How fortunate I am to have this energetic and highly creative person willingly gave up over six hours of her, time to instruct me in the process and to make sure that the mould I am taking to Scotland is perfect so that my residency is successful.

If anyone reading this thinks mould making is easy, it is not.  Whatever my perceptions were before we started working last night, it was clear after a couple of hours that only individuals with a great deal of patience and attention to detail would be successful.  Like all things with ceramics, you either learn patience or you move on to something else.  It is like the last 150 degrees C in wood firing.  You have to take the time to make sure that you gave it your all and pushed the energy out of those last bits of wood.

A lot of mould making is about precise measurements and bubbles.

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When I was a student at Oklahoma State University, students in the sculpture class were, on the first day, given a 25 lb bag of plaster and a bucket.  No instructions were given, but if the plaster hardened in the pail, you were asked to leave the class.  We all failed that day.  Grace’s taught me the ratio of water to gypsum; how to slowly stir the plaster once it had all settled into the water in order not to create bubbles.  By the time the third batch of plaster was being mixed, I thought I had aced it.  — Believe me when I say that it also helps not to get overconfident!  Grace took the bowl and carefully tapped the sides.  She was smiling.  You would have thought there was a heat vent like those on the floor of the ocean with all the bubbles rising to the surface.  Remember I said:  lots of patience.  The bubbles are scooped out with a big spoon and placed on the top of the glass.  Little by little they disappear.

The other bubbles have to do with the mould soap.  For those of you that do not know, you must apply a substance to keep the plaster from sticking to your original form (unless you are using raw clay).  It was unclear if the mould soap would work on the unglazed part of my bottle.  Three coats worked.  Grace has no special brush for doing this, merely a man’s shaving brush!  Whirling it around until the bubbles form and then they are wiped off.  This time you want those bubbles!

Grace Han looked more than once at the ovoid bottle I wanted to cast.

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In the end, the final mould required as many as five separate pieces with keys to lock them in place.  Grace used some high quality self-supporting flexible plastic sheets that she purchases in Korea to form the sleeve around the form.  IMG_2157

Looking down into the mould, five hours later, there are only two more pieces to cast:  the last one for the main form and the top.  Look carefully, and you can see the keys.

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Once everything is cast, you are left with something that looks like a ridiculous hat or a weird cake with its royal icing sans decorations.  To remove the original form, you have to carefully grate away the plaster until you can find the keys and the sides to each piece of the mould.

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Then with a rubber mallet, you begin tapping.  In the end, we did not need to break the original form.  It came away nicely.  The edges of all of the parts were bevelled so that you can easily take them away or put them together.  Then the whole thing is secured with the largest rubber bands I have seen and allowed to cure.  By the time I leave for Scotland, it will be dry enough for me to make my ovoid bottles.

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I am so very grateful for the kindness and patience that my former student gave to me as her student.  It is the best of all worlds when we can openly learn from one another, sharing ideas and processes without hesitation.  I know that my residency will be much more successful because of Grace Han’s generous giving of her time.  I will miss seeing her on my return.  Grace Han will be doing a six-month residency at Medalta.  She is currently preparing for a group exhibition at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, a show curated by my colleague, Grace Nickel.  If you live near Waterloo, check out the events on the gallery’s website and go over and have a look at the four or five large onngi that Grace Han has created.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

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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’.

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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……