Earth Day 2019

As Earth Day 2019 comes to an end, there are young people around the world dropping out of their classrooms to go on ‘Extinction Walks’.  A sixteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, is calling out politicians around the world for their irresponsible behaviour towards caring for our planet, what I have come to call the ‘Mothership’.  In Greta’s speech to the Swedish Parliament last year, she said:  “This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.”  I am hopeful that my grandchildren who can vote will vote and that they will have a loud voice in shaping policy in Canada towards the environment and its protection not the profits of large corporations and their stockholders.

I wear many hats, so to speak, and one of those is as a ceramics instructor at the University of Manitoba, and the other is as a maker.  Recently, I have seen other ceramists on various Facebook pottery groups ask if there is anything they can do to help the environment.  Some have shown photos of poorly made pots that broke wondering how to repair them while others wonder what to do with all of the work that they cannot sell.

Ceramics has a large footprint, and it is not ‘green’.  All the clay and Earth’s minerals (in whatever form we use them – stains, oxides, ready-made underglazes, etc. – are mined.  They are packaged and shipped around the world.  Responsible management so that none of those materials is either wasted or harm the local water table needs to be considered.  Firing.  Some regions use fossil fuels to create electricity.  We should all be aware of issues related to natural gas and oil.  How then to fire our work so that we do not waste those resources?  One way, so simple, is to make sure those kilns are full.

I am reminding myself to make sure that the first year students understand fully that greenware (before the clay is fired the first time and then it is bisque ware) can touch other pieces.  Just be mindful of weight distribution, etc.  But then there is the real question:  what is worthy of firing?  This is something that only you can answer.  But if you make more mugs than you can sell then just fire the ones that are magnificent and worthy of the resources.  The plan this year is to cut back further on what my students are firing.  They need to learn to be self-critical.  We all do!  And then there is the question of firing and to what temperature.  Wood is a renewable resource.  But what about gas kilns, LPG, or oil?  How much is saved in terms of cubic use by lowering the temperature of firing from cone 10 to cone 1?  I do not know the answer, but I am confident that if we all Googled it, we would find many answers.

As potters and knowing that our planet is in peril, perhaps we need to contemplate what we can do and how we can help others to be productive, create beautiful work while at the same time being more conscious and lowering our impact on the environment.  Maybe this year is the time for each of us to stand up and challenge ourselves over the coming year.  When I look at my grandchildren, I know that their future, the future of the animals, and our Mothership deserve it.

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.

Susan Delatour: Crossing Bridges

3-2.1In 1978, Susan Delatour came to Canada from the United States, as a post-graduate student, to study ceramics at the Banff Centre’s School of Fine Arts in Banff, Alberta.  It was there, in the beauty of the mountains and lakes, that Delatour suspended her wheel throwing practice and embraced the expressiveness of hand building.  Encouraged by Les Manning, she began to experiment with various forms of firing including pit or sawdust firing and raku.

On completion of her studies at Banff, Delatour relocated to Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia where she set up a production studio in the centre of the village.  With the financial downturn, Delatour and her then-husband, Steven LePoidevin, sought out alternative means of earning a living.  He returned to teaching while Delatour set up a studio at their new home in Princeton, British Columbia, where she also raised the couples, two sons.  At the time, she relied on two kilns, one electric and one sawdust.

Delatour’s early exposure to alternative firing methods helped her to develop a deep passion for creating primitive fired ceramic sculptures which she notes are full of ‘mystery and allegory.’  She smokes her pieces in a brick box, a practice she has been using for many years because the method incorporates shadows into her work that evoke ‘ancestors and generations of people who came before us’.  Her work honours the animals that live in the surrounding environment, as well as people and places that have touched her ‘in significant ways’.

She is currently working on a new series entitled Crossing Bridges, a reference to the universal life-changing events that we experience such as ageing and changing relationships.  In 2014, Delatour turned sixty years old, a pivotal moment that had a profound influence on her new body of work.  Her parents died, her two sons got married, and she became a grandmother.  One of her sons lives in China while the other is on the eastern coast of Canada; Delatour is in the middle, a place from where it is not easy to physically visit with her children on a regular basis.  The theme of the ‘bridge’, an object that connects something to another, that allows us to cross over, also represents aspects of transnationalism.  Delatour struggles with her identity;  she is an American living in Canada.  She tries to understand migration, immigration, and the crossing of borders, all aspects of her new series and her life.

Her work is exhibited internationally including some of the most prestigious juried exhibitions in Asia including the 6th Taiwan Golden Ceramics Exhibition in Taipei and the 3rd World Ceramics Biennale in 2005 in Seoul, South Korea.  Delatour is another unrecognized Canadian talent.  She also teaches workshops.   That is a hint to anyone looking for someone who really knows their way around sawdust and pit firing!

Article I wrote on three Vietnam Era Ceramists appears in Toplerflatt in English!

My good friend Gunter Haltmeyer is charged with the digital layout of the German Potter’s Association journal, Toplerflatt.  He does one fantastic job, and I am always so grateful that the members welcome news of what is happening in Canada.  

The fall/winter edition includes an article I wrote on the work of three Vietnam era ceramic artists who migrated to Canaday.  They are Sally Michener who taught at the Vancouver School of Art (later Emily Carr), Debby Black who taught at George Brown College in Toronto, and Richard Gill who taught at various colleges but he is known mainly for his large and very complicated architectural installations.  

Gunter sent me the PDF and hard copies to share with the ceramists.  Those who read my blog and my Facebook page do not (with the exception of one) belong to this potters association.  I do not want to take away any issues regarding copyright or sales. 

The link is below.  Click on steggles:

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