Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau: Enriches the lives of those around him

Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau (born 1933)  is one of Canada’s most renown ceramic artists.  When I asked him when he first fell in love with wood firing, he chuckled and said it was ” probably around the age of five when he made a fire that almost burnt the family garage down.” Bob graduated with an MFA degree in ceramics from Alfred SUNY in 1964.  For the next four years, he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before accepting a teaching position at the University of Manitoba where he teamed up with Charlie Scott solidifying a wood firing tradition (of vessels) that continues today.  Long before he was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for Excellence, those around him knew that his work was special as was his teaching.  Exceptional might be a better word.

Bob Archambeau has a deep respect for the art of Asia and the limited forms that he chooses to make are a reflection of this.  Note the word ‘chooses’.  There is nothing limiting about the vessels he creates despite the fact that he focuses on four or five vessel forms.  He says that he works on the same few shapes over and over again to improve his integrity as a maker while, at the same time, having deep respect for the traditions that inform those forms.

Anyone who has passed through the wheel throwing or hand building area of the Sculpture/Ceramics Building at the School of Art will be familiar with Bob.  He remains one of the best mentors that any of our students (and faculty) can have.  He is there working late through the night, on the weekends, and sometimes during the day.  When there are no classes being taught in the summer, he is one of a few that take over the clay area till the leaves begin to fall and students return in September.

Two or three years ago he had pieces drying – hundreds of them it seemed – spread across the tables in the hand building room.  At that moment, he was using leaves he had found on his walks as stencils for his plates.  He told me that he was making his granddaughter an entire set.  I was taken aback by this because, at the time, I believed his granddaughter to be 8 or 10.  What a remarkable gift to leave a child.

Twice a year, Bob heads to fire his work with Dan Anderson and his students in Illinois.  He has travelled around the world firing wood kilns with some of the leaders in the field.  On his retirement, his intent was to work in his studio in Bissett, Manitoba (about three hours northeast of Winnipeg).  He built a wood kiln in anticipation of the freedom he would have to work 24/7 if he chose.  Then there was a series of events that happened one of them being an entire ban on burning wood – despite the fact that one could argue that a kiln is an enclosed space.  Still, his dreams halted, Bob was quick to take a different path and it is the reason that he is at the School throwing with many students watching and learning.  In fact, Bob believes that students learn by “watching”.

Bob is also a collector.  Not only of leaves to use as stencils but anything handmade that catches his eye or objects of nature.  One day he had covered the two shelves of a trolley with shells.  He called me over saying, “Always look to nature for inspiration.”

One of Bob’s dearest friends was the late Takamori Akio. In 2015 Takamori was asked to provide a story (Bob loves stories) for a catalogue I was writing for an exhibition of vessels at the School of Art Gallery.  He wrote to me about Bob’s first visit to Japan.  Takamori said:  “Naturally, Bob was very visible in the small Japanese village when he visited me in Nagura, Japan.  He was a giant from Canada.  He would say that Japanese people might think that he was 100 years old because his hair and beard were turning white prematurely.  Bob wished he was invisible perhaps and he tried his best to become as small as he could like a ball of mercury.  He was so careful and acted like a gentle giant who tried not to irritate people around him.  So, Bob walked around very carefully with a shy smile on his face and if he had to talk, he whispered.  His effort worked very well.  Everybody liked him and nobody was intimidated by the stranger.  He did not bump his head or break things when he visited the small houses in the villages.  Bob could satisfy his insatiable curiosity by going to all the niches of the villages and finding small treasures for his eyes to see”.

Bob continues to be a gentle giant at the age of 84.  And those who are fortunate to see his passion for clay continue are truly blessed.

IMG_8358Bob Sandblasting a pot 1IMG_8268

Pamela Nagley-Stevenson

Pamela Nagley-Stevenson moved to Canada to study ceramics at the University of Victoria after living in Hawaii.  While she was a high school student at the Punahou Academy in Honolulu, she had the opportunity to study painting, art history and fine crafts.  When she was a grade 11 student, the Honolulu Academy of Arts hosted an exhibition of vessels by renowned Japanese artist, Toshiko Takaezu [She was born to Japanese parents living in Hawaii].  Nagley-Stevenson went to her artist talks and repeatedly visited the exhibition.  It seemed to draw the young student in like a magnet.  She said, “Her work opened my heart in ways that defy words, and set me on the life path to become a studio potter.”   Nagley-Stevenson thrived in Honolulu where students could take intensive summer courses in clay and in 1970, she enrolled full time as a ceramics student at the University of Hawaii.  There she studied with Claude Horan and Patrick Myers-while also taking a minor in Asian art history.

As a student in Hawaii, Nagley-Steven was active in protests against the Vietnam War.  She was part of the Hawaii High Schools Students for Peace and participated in the Peace March Campaigns and demonstrated to support Hawaiian Sovereignty, Native Land Rights, and the beginnings of the local environmental movement.  “Classmates were fleeing the States for Canada to avoid the draft, the Trudeau Government was seen as being enlightened for that time, and coming to Canada suited my values and life goal to live close to the land as an artist working with clay.”  In 1971, Nagley-Stevenson began her studies at the University of Victoria.  “I was eager for the opportunity to go to Canada in those end times of the Vietnam War.”  Unfortunately, on her arrival, the young student realized that the ceramic studios at the University of Victoria had closed.  She worked instead in the printmaking studios and spent two years in painting and sculpture while immersing herself in Islamic art.

She says, “I left school abruptly for love in 1974, to join my future husband at an artist’s coop in Vernon and begin life as a working potter.”  She put 500 lbs of clay, some glaze materials and a cone 8 electric kiln in the van and headed East.  The couple first lived in the rural Coldstream Valley.  Nagley-Stevenson says her early work was influenced by her knowledge of Asian art.  She “married” it with a crunchy granola aesthetic resulting in some functional ware with “whimsical details.”  The couple bought land in the Slocan Valley in 1976.  “Land in the Kootenays was pristine and affordable, with a lovely counter-culture community of mountain-loving back-to-the-land self-employed artists.  She was also able to teach at the Kootenay School of the Arts bringing in much-needed cash when sales were slow.  The couple planted gardens and orchards moving as quickly as they could to a more self-sustaining life, one in harmony with nature.  After the move, the young potter studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts taking workshops with Les Manning, Pete Voulkos, Mick Casson and Wayne Ngan amongst others.  For fifteen years she produced highly decorated landscape pots that helped pay the couple’s mortgage and feed their two children.  Nagley-Stevenson, like so many others, felt limited by what an electric kiln with its oxidation atmosphere could do and over the course of time, she moved to cone 10 porcelain fired in a wood kiln.  Her first kiln was 16 cubic feet (2000) and today she fires a two-chamber 73 cubic foot wood-soda kiln which was built in 2008.  Firing with wood was able to give Nagley-Stevenson a more natural look to the surface of the clay.  Today she sells her work at her own studio in Winlaw, BC (by appointment),  and at the gift shops and public galleries in Nelson and Castlegar as well as at special summer and holiday markets and tours.

Her work has been exhibited in Canada and the United States.

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.

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!

 

Jeanne McRight: A Ceramist who migrated to Canada because of the escalation of the Vietnam War

Jeanne McRight was born in Delaware and was awarded her MFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia before moving to Canada.  In 1970, after Nixon invaded Cambodia, McRight and her husband, Wayne Cardinalli, along with a group of like-minded artist friends decided to emigrate to Canada, “our welcoming multicultural neighbor, where country property was affordable and a renaissance in the arts had begun”.

McRight and Cardinalli built studios on our 50-acre farm, set up a small storefront gallery in nearby Hastings, Ontario, and began connecting with artists and craftspeople coming out of the new programs at Sheridan as well as other American and Brit ex-pats. They arrived at a good time.  Besides becoming involved locally, Jeanne began to explore her identity through a series of installations.  Cardinalli became Chairman of the Ontario Clay and Glass Association, later Fusion.  Their work was exhibited with the Ontario Potters Association, the biennial ‘Fireworks’ exhibition as well as in galleries across Canada and in the United States.

McRight’s work is often influenced by ‘happenings’ around her.  A multimedia performance collaboration book place at Trent University in 1987.  It was influenced by the Badlands of Canada and the late John Chalke.  You can see it on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xICXWJNpEro&sns=em

McRight is the woman in the khaki shorts throwing bisque ware artefacts into the cracked clay surface.

McRight taught full time after 1990 for the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto.  She is now retired and has a studio in Mississauga, Ontario.

Her work in ceramics, photography, and painting is informed by a search for identity and memory set within the context of history.  She investigates our interaction with natural and manufactured objects removed from their original context and how those changes and our interactions create new meanings.  McRight’s work has been recognized by the Ontario Arts Council through more than thirty grants and two Canada Council grants.

McRight’s lifelong artistic practice in ceramics, painting and photography explores how identity is shaped by sensory experience and memory within the context of history. I often use local geologic features and archaeological excavations as places of departure, working in sequential series. Also, I like to investigate our interactions with natural and man-made artefacts removed from original contexts and how those interactions charge the objects with new meaning. I am the recipient of over 30 Ontario Arts Council grants and awards, and two Canada Council B grants.