My old friend, Tony Clennell, once told me that writing a blog was like having a horse: you had to feed it every day. Well, those of you who regularly check back for news will know clearly that my horse must have died. It has been a while since I sat down to write and there is lots of news. So news first and research/writing/ceramics next! This summer is set for two significant events. The first is my artist residence at the Contemporary Arts Centre in La Borne, France. I am so excited to be working in their studios and firing their Phoenix Fast Fire Kiln. Also, I will be meeting the women who will be using the anagama kiln, and there will be a symposium dealing with the challenges of being a woman and wood firing. All ages will be present. It is going to be quite fun! I will also be giving two workshops and getting to use that fabulous soft La Borne clay. Shortly after, on August 31, I will officially retire from teaching for the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. No tears. It has been great fun, but it is time to live – and to be able to take advantage of those ticket sales to beautiful places that have been ignored. So mark your calendars and have a drink of some kind – juice or adult beverage – in celebration with me!
Now, to get to one of those projects that will fast become the top of my to-do-list shortly again. For those who have been reading this blog or who know me, I continue to try to find all of those men and women who came to Canada during the Vietnam era who were potters. In 2016, I received a Chalmers Grant for Craft from the Canada Council to begin this project. To date, I have 119 individuals who have contributed much to the ceramic landscape in Canada. Some have won the highest awards our country could offer. Many taught, and all made ceramics. But today, I am reaching out for help on one single individual. Her name is Carol Graham, and Doug and Verona Bridges saw my call for information on Carol and wrote to me. Doug taught at Malaspina College with Carol and Verona, and Carol travelled to Taos and Santa Fe where they visited Blue Corn and convinced her to come to Nanaimo. Doug and Verona also have an extensive collection of Carol’s high fire functional domestic ware. The minute I saw the images, I was drawn back to the 1970s when everyone was using iron-rich clay and muted glazes in their high fire kilns. Many were also, like Carol, using stamps on their work. Gosh, that was a great time to be a potter! One of my favourites in their collection is a dillweed plate meant to hang on the wall. I can almost feel Carol slowly and steadily pushing the dill into the clay.
The only other information that I have on Carol Graham is that she received her MFA from Puget Sound and in 1983 she lived in Cobble Hill, BC before she died. If you have any recollection of Carol Graham or own her work, please contact me. My plan is to finish the book on the women who came to Canada during the Vietnam era and who were potters.
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!
Today, was Markus Boehm’s last day in Winnipeg. He will arrive at Berlin Tegel at 10:30 am on Tuesday (his time). I hope that he understands fully how this single event of building a kiln and firing it in a week changed the lives of current and future students – and myself. You see, for years I have either avoided or kicked the old train kiln. Some days I kicked it really hard. What the students knew of wood firing was ‘Thomas’, the train kiln, 58 hours of stoking every 90 seconds and never reaching temperature and eating up cords of wood. Thomas also belched out black smoke from his stack. But Thomas was tired, the bricks had expanded and contracted and I knew – from being at Markus’s that a wood kiln could reach temperature (cone 14), in less than 14 hours and use only a small amount of wood. Even with so short a firing, there would be ash, depending on where the pots were stacked. For the students, whose lives often did not include being able to financially travel the world and visit wood fire potters, they did not understand that there was an alternative to Thomas or the anagamas that have become so prevalent in Canada. John Chalke wrote in an article for The Log Book that Canadian wood firers wait for an outside influence to come in before change happens. Well, Markus, you were that outside influence. Bob Archambeau, one of Canada’s most recognized ceramic artists, even brought a German apple cake that his wife Merie made in celebration. Bob watches. He once told me that students learn more from watching professors thrown than those who ‘tell them’. He is, of course, correct. I wonder if he believed we would be successful? Must ask him! On Sunday, he joined us in celebration after the kiln opening (it reminded me of when the eye is painted in on the Buddha, the Daruma, or the Dragon boat). We were happy to have him with us.
Former student, Donna Garafolo, decided that Markus should be the kiln god. She recognized in him what many of your friends and associates already know: you do not ‘see’ a difference between men and women who fire with wood (or for that matter in any field). Your view is strictly level or even. You told me that this is an ‘East German feeling’. All of the men and women had to work. For me, to see that women potters were equal to the men, even at the beginning of the 20th century, in Germany but not elsewhere was an eye-opener. My friend, Susan, tells me that women were not allowed to even use the welding torch until 1978 at the University of Saskatoon. How sad. Things are changing but…
I am giving a talk at the Third International Wood Fire Conference on women who fire wood kilns in Canada and how many have been marginalized – well, women in ceramics in general. If you are reading this and have a story and do not mind sharing it with me, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org Surely I am not the only one!