Afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan

I am not actually having afternoon tea with Destiny, Gunda, Terry, and Harlan but, oh, how nice that would be!  But they are here with me regardless.  Harlan House’s Row House candle holder is always somewhere easily in sight.  Oh, what a nice man Harlan is.  He stopped having his annual open houses a couple of years ago but he still takes calls from collectors and clients and hasn’t stopped working.  He just wants to set his own schedule and after more than 50 years of working with porcelain surely he has earned it.  Harlan has also left another legacy.  He spent the past couple of years working on a digital book.  You can find it on his website – just search Google or ask Siri.  Last week he said that I knew everything that was in it but he hoped it would help my students.  And, indeed, it will just like the videos that he has inserted in his site have helped them to understand the great amount of effort that one has to put into trimming if they want to work with porcelain.  Most are too much of a hurry to allow the porcelain to cure as it dries.  For those of you who read my article on Harlan in Art and Perception you will know this story but, for those of you that don’t, it is a good way to remember to take care with your work.  You can have a giggle, too.  Harlan built a room within his carriage house studio to dry his porcelain.  He put regular household bricks on the floor and there were windows and those baby humidifiers from the 1970s shooting out their warm mist.  His thrown pieces were on shelves where he could see them through the windows.  He said, “These platters are kind of like a love affair.  At first, everything is perfect.  Then about two weeks in you start to notice little things begin to happen” – an upturn of the lip -.  He would remove the pieces, place them back on the wheel and return them to dry.  I never did find out how many trips those large thrown platters made in and out.  By the time they made it to the gallery they were exceptional. but

Gunda is never far away but, this weekend she is firing her wood kiln in Canyon, BC getting ready for the last big market of the year.  Her temmokus are luscious – I do repeat that often.  They break at the rim and over the finger marks into a gorgeous kaki.  Someone told me once that she could “just fire them in a gas kiln”.  Of course, she could but then she would not be part of the complete process.  She often makes her own clays and mixes her own glazes.  She is part of every aspect of the firing and my back breaks when I think of her climbing in and out of her Manibigama kiln with the heavy silicon carbide shelves.  But, if she put everything in the gas kiln it would lose that subtle softness that only comes with wood firing.  Gunda is the only studio potter I know of that makes her teapots so that you can actually fit, with ease, one of those large strainers in the top opening.  I thank her every time I want to make a full pot…and she is with me in spirit every day otherwise I would find myself travelling to BC far too often.

This is what I mean when I talk about the joy that quality handmade items make to your life.  I am not talking about the “crap” out there and the word “craft” still gets a bad name from people who purchase bags of parts of things and assemble them together and call themselves an artist.  It takes a long time of study and the mastery of the material to be someone whose work won’t make it into the garage sale in five years time.  Terry Hildebrand is young.  I wrote about my favourite plates of his yesterday.  Today one of them is holding the offering of lemon and rosemary scones to my guest while Destiny Seymour’s textile ties the whole lot of these lovely people together.

We have a very close friend, Ruby, who is a Cree Medicine Woman.  She deals with the dead.  But she has imparted a lot of wisdom to me over the years (thank you, Ruby).  One thing that I learned is to only surround yourself with the work of “good” people.  Remove the objects made by those who carry negative energy.  The world is full of it, why bring that into your house?  How lucky am I then to be having Saturday afternoon tea with such a remarkable, creative group of good and kind people?  Think about that when you are shopping, too and support these wonderful makers who have chosen to live a creative life.

How Blessed I Am

In her Ph.D. thesis, June Raby (University of Brighton, 2015) titled “Material, memory, metaphor:  convergences of significance in the ceramic vessel” states, “… that the most important task of a useful pot is to generate caring”.  Raby continues discussing that some of the things in our life that we consider so important, such as cell phones and automobiles, do not generate real caring at all.  But, more to the point, she discusses the practice of purchasing pots and whether or not we need them and ultimately two questions arise for the author.  The first is, “How is it [the pot] to live with?” and “How would it be to live without it?”   We all know that beautiful pots to put our food on feed our eyes and our soul.  The Japanese have known this for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Western society is just picking up on this with the recent turn to purchasing lovely bespoke dishes.  Raby says, “Dishes can sidle up to you the way a dog sits at your feet while you’re eating; you start petting his head without really thinking about it, but something good comes through.  You find you feel a little warmer, a little softer or kinder, a little more in sympathy with the world.”  This brings me to the goblet that is the featured image.  It was made by Pamela Nagley-Stevenson, fired in her two-chamber wood kiln, and mailed to me, arriving a few days ago.  It is not just a pot that meets the basic criteria of being good to live with, it humbled me, and made me feel close to a group of women that I so admire – those who fire with wood in Canada.  And it arrived at a special time for me.

For the past three years, I have been researching the Vietnam resisters that came to Canada.  The intention was to write a book on the topic but something happened.  One of the men said to me one day that the women “didn’t give up anything when they came to Canada”.  A year of research negates that notion.  The women gave up a lot – the ability to drive or walk across town and meet their friends, family, and colleagues in a casual way, lost their studios, their careers, their identity and place in the world.  It is incorrect to believe that they could return any time they wanted.  It took money and means and both were often in short supply.  True, the women did not face criminal charges or would go to jail but it has to be remembered that more women came to Canada in the time of the Vietnam era than the men.  They often came to bring comfort to the men.  In the end, a large majority of the marriages and partnerships broke up.  Which is where Pamela Nagley-Stevenson’s beautiful goblet comes in.  We had a short e-mail exchange and I confided to her that I have lost the passion to deal with the men who came to Canada and impacted ceramics.  I have written about this in various journals such as The Studio Potter and I have given talks on the subject.  The University of Toronto is interested in the manuscript but the reality is this:  women still face obstacles.  If this were the last five years of my life, what do I want to leave as my legacy?

This morning an article that appeared in the New Yorker, October 8, 2018, arrived in the mail.  The title is “Annals of Art.  The Canvas Ceiling.  New York’s postwar female painters and the obstacles they faced” by Claudia Roth Pierpont (beginning on page 20).  A note inside the envelope reads:  Lighten my understanding, Kindle my will, begin my doing, Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold muy desire.  It continues:  Mary Ann, so timely – really enjoyed this article and thought you would as well.  Pamela.         Every woman needs a reminder that their life and quest are important.  Thank you, Pamela.

Pamela’s goblet has, like so many pieces made by my friends, added to my daily life in a positive way.  I am grateful for her friendship and for that of so many of the women wood firers in British Columbia I have come to know and those that I need to get to know.

Ceramics has the ability to add love to your life.  I have coffee with Gunda every morning.  She is there with me in the beautiful temmoku mug I have of hers.  It brings me joy and links us even though we are thousands of miles apart.

So, if you are reading this and get to this point, I ask you to consider two things.  If you know of a woman who fires a wood kiln, let me know.  The history of Canadian wood firing needs to include them.  If you are buying holiday gifts, stop and understand that a bespoke piece of ceramics can enrich an individual’s life more than anything that is purchased that has been mass manufactured.  But, make sure that it is beautiful and useful, that it reflects the care of a well trained artist.

Namaste.

It’s no secret, I really like Gunda Stewart’s wood-fired​ vessels

I have written about Gunda Stewart before.  If you missed it, here is a little synopsis.  Stewart studied with Tam Irving and Sally Michener at the Vancouver School of Art.  She works on a treadle wheel and is a great follower of the Leach tradition.  Both of us love the rich temmoku pots that come out of her wood kiln in Canyon, BC.  Her ash glazes and her Shinos are also spot on.  Lately, she has been experimenting with ‘blue’.  Some of the results are now sitting on a few new shelves in my kitchen.  They are lovely soft grey blues, far distant cousins from the coldness of the cobalt I have seen elsewhere.  Stewart has been firing her large Manabigama kiln designed by John Thies and Bill van Gilder for ten years.  I like it because it is easy to fire, using less wood and human hours than many kilns of the same size.  The results are also stunning.  What I don’t like about it is the crawling inside to stack the shelves.  That has to be the only drawback and Stewart is wondering herself, even though she is in fantastic physical shape, how long she will be able to wood fire her work.  For me, I hope it is much, much longer.  Stewart used to sell her work to a gallery in St Louis and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics shop in Toronto.  I say ‘used to’.  Many potters/ceramists, clay artists (what each individual cares to call themselves) rely on prestigious shops such as these not only for large sales such as the market in Toronto affords but also as a validation that their work is ‘excellent’.  Stewart now sells all her work locally, either at the Saturday market or through her studio.  Her buyers are repeat customers, often several generations from the same family, and tourists that come to the East Kootenays.  She has trouble keeping stock and her recent, lovely ‘blues’ fly off the shelves as do the more traditional Sung dynasty glazes.  How satisfying it must be to know that in an area with a small population your work is valued, even cherished.  If you are in the Canyon area, follow the blue artisan signs.  Her shop is open most days from 11-7 during the summer and fall.

As for me, I want to publicly thank her for hosting me, for talking pots, sharing her recipe for Quinoa brownies (delicious), and taking me for a walk in the beautiful cedar forests.  I envy her the quiet tranquillity that surrounds her in addition to the reasonable, very reasonable, indeed, cost of wood in the East Kootenays.  The wood here is not as good and is 5x more expensive – but, hey, we don’t have the trees that they do.  It was also very refreshing that when I asked her if she ever felt marginalized as a woman wanting to work in the world of wood firing that she said ‘never really.’  Tam Irving was super supportive to her as a student and both Cam Stewart and Robin du Pont, wood firers from the Winlaw area, have been nothing but great and giving.  Fabulous!

 

‘She’ is just about finished…needs some tweaking for the next firing. Did we learn anything?

Those of you reading my blog know that the idea for the new Bourry Box kiln came because there was a need for a ‘learning’ kiln.  A kiln that is easy to load, clean, fire and that can be fired numerous times in a short period of time to cone 13/14 and by one or two persons.  We just about did it.  The bagwall will be adjusted, new shelves will be ordered (please don’t use old soda kiln shelves), and a nice coat of Adobe will be spread.  Anyone have any ideas what colour we should tint that Adobe?  And we need some new insulating bricks for the door – we used the ones we had but it takes far too long to mortar them if they are broken.

The kiln requires a proper shed or it will simply deteriorate.  Putting a temporary one up is an option but then people begin to see that this might work and they give up on building one that would cover the space, the ware carts, and the students when they are loading and firing.  Hopefully,  we will have this before winter sets in.  Then the lever and pulley system can be installed allowing for one person to fire.  But, we also need to figure out a way to safely pre-heat the kiln in a public setting.  But, for now, this chimney needs to be attached to the building!

The kiln went up as Markus and I had planned and as we knew that it would.   But others were caught off guard.  You cannot mortar a proper chimney and weld all of the metal supports in two days.  It simply cannot happen with other demands such as the welding of the fibre board firebox lid.  And then if the scaffolding company comes and you haven’t finished, well…I can’t do a tell-all in my blog because in about a year the story of this kiln is going to appear in Ceramics Monthly and, hopefully, it will help others planning a community build.  What I will continue to do is to praise the participants who signed up to learn and help; they were very thankful and repeatedly told me and Markus what a good experience this was.  As I have said many, many times in this blog, it was their motivation, respect, and desire to build something the right way that made this possible (and, of course, Markus).

For now, though, I have to move on.  The ashes from the first firing have been fathered (yes I wore one of those horrible masks) for experiments with Nuka glazes.  I am going to go and see my friend Gunda Stewart in Canyon, BC in mid-July.  She has a beautiful manibigama kiln and her wood-fired domestic vessels are solid.  Then it is Guldagergaard and finally, The Third European Wood Fire Conference is in Le Borne, France at the end of August.  Check it out.  Paul Davis is giving a workshop on Oribe at Sturt (Australia) in early July (won’t be there but some of you might be able to jump on a plane; there are a few spaces left).  There are lots of things happening around the world within the wood fire community.

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!