Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau: Enriches the lives of those around him

Robert ‘Bob’ Archambeau (born 1933)  is one of Canada’s most renown ceramic artists.  When I asked him when he first fell in love with wood firing, he chuckled and said it was ” probably around the age of five when he made a fire that almost burnt the family garage down.” Bob graduated with an MFA degree in ceramics from Alfred SUNY in 1964.  For the next four years, he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before accepting a teaching position at the University of Manitoba where he teamed up with Charlie Scott solidifying a wood firing tradition (of vessels) that continues today.  Long before he was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for Excellence, those around him knew that his work was special as was his teaching.  Exceptional might be a better word.

Bob Archambeau has a deep respect for the art of Asia and the limited forms that he chooses to make are a reflection of this.  Note the word ‘chooses’.  There is nothing limiting about the vessels he creates despite the fact that he focuses on four or five vessel forms.  He says that he works on the same few shapes over and over again to improve his integrity as a maker while, at the same time, having deep respect for the traditions that inform those forms.

Anyone who has passed through the wheel throwing or hand building area of the Sculpture/Ceramics Building at the School of Art will be familiar with Bob.  He remains one of the best mentors that any of our students (and faculty) can have.  He is there working late through the night, on the weekends, and sometimes during the day.  When there are no classes being taught in the summer, he is one of a few that take over the clay area till the leaves begin to fall and students return in September.

Two or three years ago he had pieces drying – hundreds of them it seemed – spread across the tables in the hand building room.  At that moment, he was using leaves he had found on his walks as stencils for his plates.  He told me that he was making his granddaughter an entire set.  I was taken aback by this because, at the time, I believed his granddaughter to be 8 or 10.  What a remarkable gift to leave a child.

Twice a year, Bob heads to fire his work with Dan Anderson and his students in Illinois.  He has travelled around the world firing wood kilns with some of the leaders in the field.  On his retirement, his intent was to work in his studio in Bissett, Manitoba (about three hours northeast of Winnipeg).  He built a wood kiln in anticipation of the freedom he would have to work 24/7 if he chose.  Then there was a series of events that happened one of them being an entire ban on burning wood – despite the fact that one could argue that a kiln is an enclosed space.  Still, his dreams halted, Bob was quick to take a different path and it is the reason that he is at the School throwing with many students watching and learning.  In fact, Bob believes that students learn by “watching”.

Bob is also a collector.  Not only of leaves to use as stencils but anything handmade that catches his eye or objects of nature.  One day he had covered the two shelves of a trolley with shells.  He called me over saying, “Always look to nature for inspiration.”

One of Bob’s dearest friends was the late Takamori Akio. In 2015 Takamori was asked to provide a story (Bob loves stories) for a catalogue I was writing for an exhibition of vessels at the School of Art Gallery.  He wrote to me about Bob’s first visit to Japan.  Takamori said:  “Naturally, Bob was very visible in the small Japanese village when he visited me in Nagura, Japan.  He was a giant from Canada.  He would say that Japanese people might think that he was 100 years old because his hair and beard were turning white prematurely.  Bob wished he was invisible perhaps and he tried his best to become as small as he could like a ball of mercury.  He was so careful and acted like a gentle giant who tried not to irritate people around him.  So, Bob walked around very carefully with a shy smile on his face and if he had to talk, he whispered.  His effort worked very well.  Everybody liked him and nobody was intimidated by the stranger.  He did not bump his head or break things when he visited the small houses in the villages.  Bob could satisfy his insatiable curiosity by going to all the niches of the villages and finding small treasures for his eyes to see”.

Bob continues to be a gentle giant at the age of 84.  And those who are fortunate to see his passion for clay continue are truly blessed.

IMG_8358Bob Sandblasting a pot 1IMG_8268

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.