A Very Personal Statement

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reprinted from Contact magazine, 1994/95 Winter.

Whatever mood it was that made me register for an evening class in our local potters’ guild twenty-five years ago, it must have been more than a whim. It was so important to me that I actually cried when, at first, I was put on a waiting list because the class was full. I went to classes, quite often with a baby in a back pack, wearing a long woolen skirt. I sat there all evening with a lump of clay an expecting beautiful pots to flow out of my hands. Nothing ever happened. The few things I managed to put together usually had collapsed by the time I came back to finish them the following week because I had wrapped them too tightly in plastic.

Eventually — it was never easy to get away from home and three children — I took more classes whenever and wherever possible, particularly at the Banff Centre. I used to watch “old” potters like Carton Ball, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, Michael Cardew, Ruth Duckworth and others at workshops and marvel at the obvious satisfaction they seemed to find in their work. They appeared so at ease — that is the closest expression to describe the self-absorbed involvement with what they were doing. Somehow, what they were making seemed not as important as the sense of interal balance and contentment they were projecting. When I grew old, I wanted to be like them …

I have been making things out of “nothings” since I built my first lean-to from the bricks of our bombed-out house during the war. I also love to build with wood: there is nothing as soothing on a bad days as going to the lumberyard and stroking a long board of beautiful-smelling cedar and considering all the things you could make out of it — all the while feeling the living trees around you. It was natural to work with clay, in spite of my hapless beginning efforts. The material did not impose any restrictions such as wood, stone and metal do.

So I set out to become a potter. Since I was very impatient, I was a pretty bad potter. All I wanted to make was the biggest pots on the wheel. I had learned from observing potters at work while sitting in front of them in clases, so I did everything in a mirror-image way. All my hand movements were reversed. After a while, at wheel throwing demonstrations, I started to stand behind the wheel to watch, but by then it was too late. I never did learn to throw a pot the right way. There were many awful pots that were given away, and when I ran out of willing friends, I furnished the kitchens of youth hostels. Once, I was offered a commission to make dishes for a restaurant, the back-to-the-earth kind. They siad my pots were so heavy they would never break.

When I fell off a ladder one day while building the Woodshouse (the author’s cabin west of Edmonton-Ed.) and broke my right hand, it seemed just another in a series of almost predictable accidents which run my life. It was meant to happen. This one finished my barely-begun career of making functional pots on the wheel. At first it seemed like the end of all my dreams. I felt blind. My hands are my eyes, my tools. They are what I sense with, touch with, see with, talk with, build with, transform with.

It took me a long time, as well as much negative criticism — and a close friend reminding me to re-read Paulus Berensohn’s Finding One’s Way with Clay — before I found a way of using the gift of being accident-prone in a positive way. I became a raku potter. Not in the Japanese tea-ceremony traditional sense, of course, but in that I learned to accept and use accidental happenings when making and firing my pots. I gave up trying to be in control. This was also a way to combine my obsession to work with fire, bricks and clay at the same time. I must have built almost as many kilns as I made pots, since the large scale of the pots demanded a special kiln for quite a few of the pieces.

The kilns are as simple as possible, wood- or propane-fired, with no way to control temperature or atmosphere. That, combined with the fact that the glazes are equally haphazardly thrown together, invites more accidents. I have never tried to manipulate glaze effects. It has been suggested that by now I should be able to control such things. Maybe I should. Often I wish I could repeat a particular result. But it really does not matter as much to me as the moment of thrill when the pot comes out of the kiln, and never knowing what it will be like.

Over the years, I have found myself going back to the shapes I worked with as long as twenty years ago, the same shapes, but somehow different, changed, because of the difference the years have made in who I am. I am a bit more patient now, and I am still making big pots, utterly nonfunctional and useless pots. They are all handbuilt, using a technique that resembles the way wasps make their nests: little bits and pices of clay thrown on the table to thin them out and then joining them to build up as high as four feet. This technique, if it is one, developed out of necessity: I can no longer wedge clay or make coils. When I am working like that, I often remember the American potter Carlton Ball, after a serious illness, demonstrating very large vessels: he made several smaller ones and put them together. It seemed so logical, even then.

I am still working at finding that sense of quiet contentment I admired so long ago. Being a potter, for me, is a constant journey of discovery and chance happenings. It is a way of using my hands to explore and make visible the inside of me: they take what I do not know and give it shape. In some of these emerging shapes, I am beginning to recognize the impact of the environment I grew up in: in the monolithic prehistoric tombs of the heath country, the carelessly sculpted geological statements of the Alberta Badlands and Rockies. I am a potter, and I will never be able to work at the scale I envisage. But I would like to be able to give shape to something that makes the space that surrounds it and the space it encloses come to life.

To me, the great joy of working with clay and fire is watching the pots literally emerging fromt he ashes: cracked, crazed, beautiful or not, never perfect: but when they are good, they seem to have a life of their own: never quite finished looking, never completed. There would be nothing left to the imaginative power of the beholder if there were.

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