Master potter reflects on career of exploring the limitless wonder of clay
St. Albert Gazette, Saturday, Mar 05, 2016
By Scott Hayes
These days, the name Elke Blodgett is more synonymous with ardent environmentalism than anything else. It might have surprised some when she was announced as one of the two co-winners of this Mayor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. She spent decades as a master potter, a profession that was largely self-taught.
Heidi Alther, St. Albert’s visual arts co-ordinator (and former director of Profiles Public Art Gallery, now called the Art Gallery of St. Albert) recalled being really moved by Blodgett’s work during a show in 2000 when Profiles was still located in Grandin mall.
“There were these incredible vessels … large and impactful. I had never seen anything like them before, certainly not in raku because that medium is tricky. That she worked that large is really impressive. It’s fragile and toxic. It left an impression,” she began.
“I don’t remember every single exhibition that I’ve seen throughout my years but there are some that I absolutely won’t forget and that was one of them.”
Count Alther as one of the many astute observers of the immense talent that now lies dormant in Blodgett’s retired hands, crippled from the art that she loved so much. In fact, you can find her highly prized work in the permanent public collection of the City of St. Albert itself, along with those of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Canada Council for the Arts, and even the Banff Centre for the Arts and the Consulate General of Japan in Edmonton, not to mention being represented in numerous private and corporate collections throughout North America and Europe.
The work stands for itself, filled with power and wonder not just because of its size and primitive beauty but also because of their ideas.
Born nearly 80 years ago in Germany, Blodgett seemed to inherit her artistry as much from her father as she did her eco warrior spirit. He was an environmental chemist who spent his career cleaning the water and the air while developing strategies for growing vegetables without pesticides or herbicides.
He also took cinder ash from factories and discovered its effectiveness in concrete manufacturing, making cinder blocks from the abundant waste material. Blodgett was undoubtedly influenced by his recycling and his ceramic ingenuity.
“He mixed the fly ash with cement and baked them in my mother’s stove,” she said.
Although she lived all over the world, from England and France to Switzerland and Greece before hopping across the pond to the United States, she eventually landed in Canada 50 years ago. She took some night classes to learn about clay.
“I’d never been able to do pottery. The way I lived in different countries all over Europe, there was no place where you could do pottery … where I could be alone and quiet enough to do any. It was always in my mind,” she recalled.
“I’d always collected old pieces of pottery wherever I lived. I was fascinated by the old artifacts, the old urns. I tried to figure out who had made them, tried to find the handprints on the clay.”
It was only when she settled in St. Albert that the necessary quietude made itself available for her. Those pottery classes were “a disaster” because she didn’t quite fit in, so started on her own path, much as she has done with so many other pursuits in her life.
Not only did she teach herself about handbuilding her own clay pots, she also learned how to make her own kilns and became a well-known teacher. She built some amazing wood kilns – even massive ones – all over the province. Blodgett is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, from repurposing discarded fur coats into functional muffs and mittens to collecting mushrooms and berries around town to build up her stores to building her own cabin out of scrap wood. She said that she could make glazes out of dust and dirt. I believe her. If anyone could do it, she could.
“I built kilns for people who couldn’t afford to go to art school, building them out of scraps of whatever we found in the middle of nowhere. Once in the middle of February, we built a kiln in downtown Lloydminster. Can you imagine how cold it was trying to fire that kiln?” she joked. “But it worked.”
“I went from one part of the province to the other. All I wanted to do was to get one student turned on enough so they could keep going without having to go to art school and spending a lot of money.”
Blodgett eventually studied under celebrated potters Mary Borgstrom, John Chalke and Tatsuzo Shimaoka among other fantastic teachers – “the best in the world” – and earned scholarships to the Banff Centre to learn more techniques, all while building up her impressive catalogue and résumé of accomplishments including a number of exhibitions and dozens of prizes too.
She became fascinated with raku and of new ways to explore the art of pots. She smashed some of her pots so that the broken pieces could create new works. She made one pot as the inner workings of an eyeball, a feat that sounds impossible but to look at the finished work is mesmerizing in its beauty and preciousness. Blodgett loved “the rhythm of the clay as it formed itself,” she said.
Clearly, I missed my timing as I would have dearly loved to have been such a lucky benefactor of her immense knowledge and experience. It’s now been at least several years since she has had her fingernails dirty with clay. The ravages of pot building have taken a brutal toll on her body. She simply cannot handle working with clay any more. Her eyes and her hands have faltered so much that her art is now a past tense proposition, and she misses it dearly.
“It’s very hard, physical work,” she admitted, pointing out her arthritis makes many actions tougher than she can handle. She developed manganese toxicity from her pottery. That, coupled with surviving polio as a child, means that her nerves are pretty shot too.
“It was such a personal thing to be a potter for me. I never thought of feeling proud, only of feeling good of what I was doing. I would go to bed every single night dreaming of pot shapes. It was a very rich life. It was a journey of discovery. I was always exploring something new. There wasn’t anybody teaching anything like that: you had to go and explore it yourself.”
As a legacy to her art, her work stands as perhaps the greatest testament to the artist herself. Admiring a sizable piece like Solveig, one of her works found in St. Albert’s own collection, one is struck by its delicateness yet imposing strength, its rough edges yet undeniable beauty. It looks like a broken egg at one point and the Chauvet cave wall before primitive stick horses and people were carved into it. Elke’s art – like Elke herself – endures through sheer determination. A force of nature, indeed.