The Need to Touch

If you ask anyone that works with clay what it is that attracted them to the medium, the vast majority will begin to tell you how the raw material feels: moist, soft, cold, malleable, squishy. And if they close their eyes, they will tell you that clay smells of the earth after a soft spring rain. The tactile qualities of clay make it appealing to everyone from toddlers to seniors. For those that throw on a wheel, the “magic” of taking a ball of clay and creating something useful “from nothing but mud” astounds them. They love feeling the clay move between their fingers as they shape it.

One of the exercises that my first year ceramic students would undertake was to create forty 15-centimetre tall perfect cylinders. (For those used to measuring in inches, that would be six inches tall). A perfect cylinder does not lean; it has a clean 90 degree angle where the base meets the wall on the interior. It is not an easy task and across North American many wheel throwing classes begin this way. It is an assignment that is both frustrating, anger producing, and exhilarating when completed correctly. The successful completion of this assignment ensures all future achievements on the potter’s wheel because “everything begins as a cylinder.”

Student cylinder projects.

Once the centring of the clay is mastered and the students can repeatedly pull even walls to a height of fifteen centimetres, they are ready to move on, with confidence, to more complex shapes. In order to demonstrate that there are contemporary artists who employ the cylinder as a device for conceptual installations, I often had my students research the work of British artist, Edmund de Waal.

Porcelain vessel with lid courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

de Waal is internationally known for his book, The Hare with the Golden Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

The subject of his best selling book is his inheritance of 264 netsuke from his uncle, living in Japan, Iggie. In it, de Waal barely mentions his own work with clay while he traces the fate of his Jewish family in twentieth century Europe. One area that fascinated me that began in the book is the idea of sacred objects, grouped together, and encased in a glass cabinet or a vitrene. That theme permeates much of de Waal’s porcelain cylinders that are grouped together, never alone, in various styles of installations but either always in some type of enclosing device or placed so high, as in his exhibition at the Victorian & Albert Museum in Kensington, that no one could possible touch them. They were removed from the very tactile nature that is ceramics. Whether the raw material or the finished object, people want to touch the vessel or the sculpture, rub their fingers along the smooth or rough surfaces, always turning the item over to see the base. That was then and this is New Year’s Day 2021.

A new exhibition of work by Edmund de Waal is opening at the Gagosian Gallery in London. As a reaction to 2020, when everyone in the world wanted to touch another living person or have a good long hug, de Waal has created a series of work that are deliberately intended to be held.

In its press release, the Gagosian Gallery said that the London based artist worked on the pieces during lockdown. They note that it is the first time in sixteen years that de Waal has made single pieces rather than installations. The brochure quotes the artist: “I made these pots in lockdown during the spring and early summer. I was alone in my studio and silent and I needed to make vessels to touch and hold, to pass on. I needed to return to what I know—the bowl, the open dish, the lidded jar. When you pick them up you will find the places where I have marked and moved the soft clay. Some of these pots are broken and patched on their rims with folded lead and gold; others are mended with gold lacquer. Some hold shards of porcelain.”

Touching and being touched is widely known to be important for both mental and physical health. Touch can actually convey many emotions to a person including the most positive ones of being loved, of compassion, gratitude, happiness. Touching another human or non-human has the ability to alleviate their stress. Touch has the ability to demonstrate that one is loved.

One of the things that most people said they missed during 2020 with the lockdowns during the SARS Covid-19 pandemic was hugging.

I would like to think that Edmund de Waal has, during his time of working alone in his studio during lockdown, returned to that most fundamental element of working with clay: touch. I trust that as an artist he has realized that the absence of touch in his earlier installations speaks to the preciousness of a grouping of objects just like his inherited netsuke but they do not address some fundamental human conditions. The pandemic separated family members from one another, the death of one often meant that they could only see their loved one through glass or on a digital screen. What was missing was a human finger running down the cheek, stopping a tear. What was missing was a human hand grasping another as the last breath leaves the body. What was missing was a husband holding his wife as they both lay dying in separate hospital beds in separate rooms. As a contemporary artist, Edmund de Waal has responded to that great absence by allowing us to feel every surface of the vessels in the exhibition. By doing so each of us can close our eyes and hold the hand of the maker who alone in their studio working might have wished for someone, just once, to reach out and touch them.

Harlan House

It was many decades ago that I met Harlan House.  Within the decade, I was fortunate enough to have spent some time with him and Maureen at their home in Lonsdale.  Harlan has always been there when a question needed to be answered.  So this weekend is kind of bittersweet.  It would have been the weekend that Harlan would have had his annual open house exhibition and sale.  It is the day that I have received my copy of his book, My Work, My Way.  Fifty Years in the Studio.  

Harlan once told me that one of the things he admired about Bert Borch, one of his instructors at ACAD, was that he wrote his glaze recipes on the board.  Anyone could use them; they would never be the same.  Nothing was a secret!  Harlan has already posted his book online for anyone to download.  If you haven’t found it, check it out.  Just Google Harlan House.  It is full of all of the recipes that he used over the years with images of his work from the very beginning in Calgary.  My fondness is for Harlan’s sense of humour.  It comes out in his work as do a myriad of influences that he discusses throughout the text.

In a world of excess, some have a desire for sustainability.  Harlan was way ahead of the game.  If you were to tour his studio, you would be able to see the old Electrolux vacuum cleaner that he used to spray glaze on his ware.  He maximised the use of stainless steel milk containers (being disposed of by a local dairy farmer) to mix up his slip, and his kiln was, the last time I was there, the original from forty years ago.  Harlan believed in treating everything around him with gentleness and love.  That gas kiln was fired for five days, slowly.  It lasted.  There is something to learn there!  I am pretty confident that one of the two Shimpo wheels in his studio was at least forty years old.  Harlan and Maureen lived in the slow lane, enjoying their family, their garden, and the life that Harlan’s creations gave them.

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Harlan is famous for his beautiful celadon porcelain and his ‘Iris’ pots.  He once gave a workshop at Pinecroft Studios (arranged by his good friend, Tony Clennell).  There he demonstrated how he applied the slip which, itself, resembled marshmallow cream.  Tools were, I suspect, rarely purchased.  Instead, ordinary objects found a home by his wheel.  This included a stainless steel bicycle spoke (note that stainless steel should not rust and hurt the beautiful white clay) that was used for a lot of things including levelling the edges of the wide rim platters when they decided to curl upwards.

Always ready to move on to something new once he has mastered a form, Harlan not only used the smoothy shiny Chinese glazes but worked on a series that resembled barnacles, the Morgan.

The one below is the GW Bush aircraft carrier single flower boat with one dim candle on board!  I told you he had a seriously funny sense of humour especially when it comes to ignorant politicians.

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For anyone considering ceramics, you should take a page out of Harlan House’s playbook – be patient.  Porcelain taught him to be patient.  He once advised me to tell my students that if they wanted to work with porcelain, they needed to learn how to trim, and they needed to like trimming.  He would also add that recycling the clay that was left from the trimming is a must.  I cannot think of any better advice to give to everyone working with clay, regardless of the type.

Many people – collectors, friends, curators, gallery owners, and locals – will miss Maureen’s cookies this weekend.  Harlan hasn’t quit working.  He just isn’t keeping a regular schedule.  Check out his website, read his book, look at his work – it is delightful.

Ruth Chambers at the Willock and Sax Gallery, Banff

I am a great admirer of the Willock and Sax Gallery in Banff, Alberta for many reasons, including their consistent support of ceramics.  Each of us knows that exhibitions are planned well in advance but the current April Flower shows seems more than appropriate after the area got hit with snow yesterday.  Each of us needs our mood brightened at the end of April when friends all over the world have been celebrating the arrival of spring for some months now.

One of the ceramic artists whose work is being shown at the Willock and Sax is Ruth Chambers.  Ruth spent a month last year working at the Ceramic Research Center in Skaelskor, Denmark while she was on leave from her position at the University of Regina.  Ruth hand-builds porcelain, often multi-coloured, firing to cone 6.  The gallery’s online catalogue states:

“Ruth Chambers creates bulbs and flowers out of delicately coloured porcelain at various stages of their growth. She carefully considers and skillfully constructs sculptures of extreme detail. Continuing research into the tradition of still life and its requisite considerations of space, form and time permeate her micro-compositions of fragile, improbable porcelain configurations. In this way, the artist addresses ideas of beauty and temporality.” 

I am personally enthralled at the patience, the observation, and dexterity it takes to manipulate a clay that often doesn’t want to be controlled.  There is a softness, a gentleness in the way that Ruth handles the colours but the underlying core has to be related to Vanitas, the transience of life genre of seventeenth-century Dutch painting.  In this way, Ruth pays homage to the women like Rachel Ruysch who popularized that genre in her depiction of grand bouquets full of blooming and dying flowers.

Unlike many ceramic sculptors who have been pushing the size of their objects beyond the colossal, Ruth has kept some of the pieces life size.  One bulb looks like it is just beginning to sprout is 2 x 2 x 1.l75 inches.  Ruth has captured the moments after dormancy when the tunic (skin-like covering that protects the fleshy scales) and the shoots come alive.  The tunic is translucent; you can almost feel it crumble between your fingers if touched.

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There are twelve porcelain sculptures in all ranging from single bulbs to fanciful lidded cups with tulip knobs, footed bowls, and an amazing piece titled, Still Life with Snow Peas, Avocado, and Strawberries (feature image of this blog).  

Ruth studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design, receiving her MFA from the University of Regina in 1994.  She is currently the Associate Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty at the University of Regina.

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It is so great to see support for Canadian women working in clay.

Photo credit:  Willock and Sax Gallery

 

Sara loves porcelain

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.

 

Ann Cummings

Ann Cummings arrived in Canada in 1974.  She first lived in Edmonton and then moved to Toronto the following year.  She says that she “wanted to get as far away from Detroit as she possibly could”.  For those that do not know the history of race riots in the United States, Detroit was at the heart of many of them.  They began in 1967 when Detroit erupted and caused further riots across Michigan.  Imagine the US government trying to end the riots y sending in the Army National Guard.  43 dead, 1189 injured, 7200 arrests with 2000 buildings destroyed.  The scale of the riot that year in Detroit was only eclipsed by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.  Like so many of those who came to Canada in resistance to the Vietnam War and the social ills of America in the 1960s and 70s, Cummings has been working with clay for more than fifty years.  Her work has continued to evolve.

Cummings attended Wayne State University where she graduated with a BFA degree in ceramics and drawing.  She has also attended the Archie Bray Foundation (1973), Sheridan College (1976) and was a resident artist at the Banff Center for the Arts in 1992.  Cummings early work centred on wheel thrown vessel forms.  Later, she created work that was both personally expressive and decorative.  She also started using raku firing methods, a technique that she has taught to hundreds of students.  She now works in cast and moulded porcelain sculpture.  The subject of her new work is memory.

Her first studio in Toronto was with a few other Sheridan graduates in a large warehouse.  Later she was at Harbourfront and later at The Spiral Potter in the Beaches area of Toronto.  Eventually, like so many of us, she set up her studio in part of her home in Toronto – the basement.  I wonder how many of us have done this?  Today, Cummings lives outside of Toronto in Port Perry where she has a 900 sq foot studio, a LPG soda kiln and a raku kiln for workshops.  She also does extensive firings in her electric kiln.  Nothing has slowed her down from the day she crossed into Canada.  She is still working, is still part of the studio tours in her region, she teaches workshops after years of successful teaching at George Brown College, Sheridan College, and Ontario College of Art to name only a few.

Cummings has been represented by the Prime Gallery, the premier Canadian gallery for ceramics in Toronto and has had many solo exhibitions in Alberta and Ontario.  Most recently, her work was shown at the David Kaye Gallery in Toronto (2016) and at the Art Gallery of Burlington (2017).  Cummings was in included in numerous group exhibitions.  They include the Propeller Centre for the Arts in Toronto Invitational (2013-15), the Jingdezhen International Invitational Ceramic Fair in China (2009), the Work from Heart, Mind, and Hand Exhibition at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto (2009) to name only a few.  Images and discussions of her work are included in the late Robin Hopper’s The Ceramic Spectrum, Paul Scott’s Painted Clay, Graphic Arts and the Ceramic Surface, Peter Dormer’s The New Ceramics:  Trends and Traditions, as well as John Gibson’s The Decorated Vessel:  Contemporary Approaches to name only a few.  In addition, her work has appeared in numerous ceramics magazines including Ceramics Monthly, Fusion, and Contact Magazine.