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.

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.