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.

The Art of Woodfire: A Contemporary Practice

As I began to prepare for my talk on the marginalization of women within the wood fire community (or women ceramists in general) at LaBorne in a few weeks, I took the opportunity to do what was done earlier with art history survey texts:  I started to examine the inclusion of women in publications on the subject.

In 2011, Mansfield Press, owned by the late Janet Mansfield (herself an internationally respected woman who fired her work with wood), published Owen Rye’s The Art of Woodfire:  A Contemporary Practice.  The book has a statement from Rye on why he is so passionate about wood firing in addition to a discussion on the aesthetics, history, and materials and processes of this very physical method of working with clay.  There are pages devoted to individual artists alongside beautiful (and large) images of their work and kilns.  Most discuss their choice of wood firing over other methods or what inspires them.  My objective was a little different.

The book was written in response to to an exhibition which was held at the Front Room Gallery in Gulgong, NSW, eventually travelling to all of Australia in 2011.  But it is much more than a catalogue and the discussions could be applied to the concerns within the wood firing community internationally.  Rye included a discussion of the 24 artists within the exhibition.  Of these the women represented include the late Janet Mansfield, Sandy Lockwood, Barbara Campbell-Allen (including a large photo of her anagama kiln in Kurrajong, NSW opposite an image of a vase and a bottle), and Carol Rosser.  Mention was made of others including Gwyn Hanssen Pigott and Moraig McKenna whose lovely wood fire porcelain was featured in two photographs.

Would I like to see at least half of the attention go to women?  Absolutely.  But a gold star has to go out to Owen Rye.  Many of the other publications do not include a single woman.  Stay tuned!

So excited to be a part of the Open Forum (with discussions and debates) at the Third European Wood Fire Conference in LeBorne, France

The French organisers of the Third European Wood Fire Conference in LeBorne, France have selected the speakers for the Open Forums and Discussions.  I am so pleased to be amongst so many talented wood firers including Julia Nema, Fred Olsen, Coll Minogue, and Ben Richardson.  It is going to be such an exciting time to be in this French village in the Loire Valley, home to wood firing kilns since the medieval era.

It is still not too late to register.  If you are into wood firing and want to be in ‘the place’, then check out the conference, find a flight, get some accommodation and go!  There is a week full of talks, demonstrations, discussions and debates and, of course, the meeting of old friends and the making of new ones.  The Third European Wood Fire Conference is August 25-September 1 at the Ceramique Contemporaine LaBorne Centre.  The website is at laborne.org

This is the listing for my talk…the more I research the marginalization of women in Ceramics the more that I am finding it is NOT a phenomena known in the area north of Berlin where women have been expected to work and have been equal in their training and their ability to supervise workshops for decades.  My talk focuses on North America with a nod to what has systematically happened in wood firing in Japan.

Thursday 30 August 10.45 – 11.15 am
Mary Ann Steggles

Mary Ann Steggles is Professor of Ceramic History and Ceramics at the School of Art, University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg.  Alongside her teaching, she curates, researches and writes on the history of wood firing and contemporary ceramics in Canada for various ceramics journals. She is working on a research project about the silencing of women ceramists and the marginalization of both women and ceramics in the world of contemporary art.

 

Her talk will focus on the marginalization of women within the world of wood fired ceramics.  In Japan, women are not allowed to fire the large wood kilns.  In Canada, the world of wood firing is dominated by a male view.  Historically, men have been the only visiting wood fire artists, their stories are predominant in the publications, even attempts to build a smaller kiln become controversial because the students see through male eyes.  The kiln has to be ever bigger, firing even longer, consuming more wood to get layer upon layer of fly ash on the surface.  Mary Ann students are women.  It is time they had women role models.  What are the experiences of other women wood firers?  and how can we create an aesthetic that counters that of this male view?