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.
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.