Her voice is soft. Her eyes are direct and wise. An aura of stillness surrounds her. Her pots are everywhere. Sunlight from the window streams across the studio and sets aglow the rich tones of a large raku pot, “Evening Rising,” which moments before was muted in shadow.
I’d come to interview Elke for Contact, having been very impressed with her show in the MultiCultural Centre in Stony Plain. I had seen her work before, at the National Ceramic Exhibition in Calgary, in Alberta Mud, in the Alberta Art Foundation Collection, and in her previous one-woman shows. I have always been intrigued by the subtlety of colour and form and the peaceful presence of her pots. Surely this is the work of a gentle potter, and, in many ways, it is.
But that too is an illusion, for there is incredible strength and creative energy in this woman. She is unwavering in her determination to define clay in her own way and to do whatever is necessary to accomplish this. She moves mountains of brick, clay, concrete or lumber to build one kiln, then another; a studio in the woods or a studio annexed to her home. She works with the same concentration and intensity when preparing for a show. She can become so totally absorbed that she drains her physical and creative resources, only to be completely revitalized by the results of a firing or the challenge of a new project.
She is a rare clay person. In these excerpts from a taped interview, we have a privileged insight into the development of a highly individualistic potter for whom not all triumphs come easily. We began by talking about her recent show.
ELKE: I was feeling high and drunk on pots! The mood of the show was making me feel that way. But it was so long ago. September.
CONTACT: You were so excited. It was very catching, your joy! It was an important show for you?
ELKE: Yes it was, because of the obstacles in the way of getting ready for it. I had a show last year. It was okay and very well-received. But there was something lacking, that was “unity”, a kind of quietness. There were so many different moods, too many different expressions, too many things I was trying to do but didn’t really know yet what I was doing.
This year I was afraid it would be a failure for me, that I would not able to achieve the “quietness” I wanted. “Serenity” is maybe too big a word but … When I walked into the room and the show was set up, I felt I had got it. It was a good quiet place just to sit on the floor and contemplate. It wasn’t too crowded; there was just the right mood. It belonged together. (There were a couple of pieces that shouldn’t have been there but people wanted them. I would have left them out). That’s why I was so excite! I thought “All right, in spite of everything. It could have been an utter disaster from an emotional point-of-view, putting things in there that showed the pressures I had been under all summer. It would have been very bad but somehow, subconsciously, I must have been very much at ease. I enjoyed tremendously working for this show. I was just “getting going” when it was too late to keep making pots. But in the middle of July, I didn’t have anything yet. I thought I had to call the show off.
CONTACT: You had about six weeks to work on it?
ELKE: Yes. There were a few older pots. Some were made in the winter time, after Christmas when I was teaching. Otherwise they were all made this last summer, just before the show.
CONTACT: Does having a goal, like a show, give a useful creative tension?
ELKE: You’d think so but I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. I did it last year, within six weeks too. It does have a kind of tense goal: I have to do this. I have to get it done.
If I accept a show, I won’t put on a bad one. I’d rather call it all off. You end up driving yourself like mad. It would be nice to work quietly for two years, then pick from the best of what you have and say: “Come and look at what I’ve done. This is what I approve of. The others were stepping-stones to get me where I am now. Hardly any of us can ever do that because we cannot afford it. Between all those creative thoughts, you realize all of a sudden that you better make some pots. You see the best ones even before you have a show. It would be ideal to have the two years.
But I don’t even know if I like having shows. At first I wouldn’t dream of it. Who am I to show my pots? It was John Chalke who said, looking at a little raku teapot, “Hmmm. You should have a show sometime.” That was the first kind of encouragement I got. I took that teapot and some others to Calgary and they were accepted for the National Exhibition and that utterly surprised me. About a year later, where there was no space in the house any more, I had my first show. Lene Holgerson at the MultiCultural Centre in Stony Plain was the first to invite me to show.
You feel torn. You don’t know whether you care whether anybody likes what you do. I expected to be torn to pieces because until very recently my work wasn’t accepted. Because I didn’t work on the wheel, because I didn’t use smooth, shiny glazes. My work was different. I had been used to being criticized for that. But that’s how I learned, how I grew up. I was always rather different from everybody. But I never expected to sell any of those pots, ever. So I was completely surprised when they did well.
I love making things with my hands, like making mukluks for my husband, or knitting socks, mitts, giving them away. It is the same thing with pots. There’s this gorgeous happy moment of feeling a sharing, me-with-you.
I got so carried away talking with somebody who looked at my pots with almost the same mood as I made them. I think that’s the only reward one needs. To have one person come, to take the time and look at what you’ve done.
CONTACT: You said then that it was hard to give some of the pots away, to sell them.
ELKE: Very … hard.
CONTACT: Like your children you described them.
ELKE: It’s hard. Very, very hard. Oh, when I came home and it was so empty! Pots full of other people’s feelings expressed towards them, all gone. Like the pots Shimaoka laughed about. (I took a class with him at Banff Centre.) I didn’t want to sell them but I really need the money very badly because I have not place to work. I usually work here on the coffee table. I have no room at all. So I had to sell them. And with each pot went the feeling everyone who had seen it had poured into it: the stories Shimaoka told me because of it, the books I’ve been led to because of it. Because somebody’s said: “Here, look! Where did you get that from? In this-and-this book?” I have to run and find out. All the things I’ve learned because of the things that have come out of me. Other people point and say: “Look what you are doing!” and I say: “Am I?” …
Once I asked an acquaintance who collects Eskimo carvings to come and see my show because I like his way of looking at things. He wrote a good review as far as I’m concerned because I learned so much from it. It was strictly for me, as if he had given me a lecture on what I’m doing. I thought: “So that’s what it’s all about!” From then on, I started to consciously look at what I’m doing. Before I never cared. I just do it this way. Do it that way. It helped very much.
Why do I have an exhibit? Why don’t I take pots on consignment to a store. It’s because I can’t part with them. They live here as part of the furniture. When there’s one gone, everyone asks: “What’s missing from the room?” There are pots sitting in the fireplace, on the benches, everywhere! There is no room for even one more. Finally I say: “Okay. It’s time I weed them out. Let other people decide which they like. Then they sell. But oh, what a let-down then! … I was happy sitting there on the floor just looking at them, like my children putting on a full stageshow. You can’t say you are proud of them. There were only two or three that I was really very excited about and never wanted to part with. These aren’t usually everybody else’s favourite. That doesn’t matter.
It’s a kind of satisfaction. The same as when I build a house. “There it stands! Look! Out of nothing. Out of pieces of wood, a house!” That is what we did out in the country. Out of pieces of 2 x 4’s we built up a house!” That is what I do with a lump of clay. Then try to give it some life. I tried to explain to you in Stony Plain my fascination with whale bone carvings and how, somehow, the Eskimos with their hands put back some of the life that that bone once had. And it keeps on living as a piece of bone, a piece of art. To me these carvings are still a piece of whale more than anything else.
This is what I want to do with pots. I want them to remain a piece of clay, constantly able to change. To turn into mud, to turn into stone, but not be vitrified for good. One way I am trying to do this is with the glazes I use. They are unpredictable, always changing. You turn the pot around and it’s a completely different pot. The light changes, so does the pot. I’m trying to capture that, trying to keep it alive, non-vitrified. keeping it moveable … It is awfully hard to express. Can you understand that? I don’t want it to be a “dead body”. I want it to remain a piece of earth. Usually when you are a potter, your goal is to give something a permanent shape, fire it as high as possible and it will sit there forever.
This, for example, is Ruth Duckworth’s pot, a wheel-thrown porcelain pot. Heavy. Believe it or not, I think in a way she is trying to do the same thing, in the shape and glaze she has given it, trying to still make it not a piece of kaolin that’s forever turned into hard porcelain. This is almost soft, almost cold in a funny way. I had watched it grow and at first I didn’t like it. It seemed so awkward, misshapen. Yet, eventually I bought it from her.
They say a pot should always have the weight that your visual image projects off it. You shouldn’t pick it up and be unexpected jarred by its weight. If this one were light…
CONTACT: It is a contradiction though. So many of the forms she’s made suggest encaptured air. When you gave this to me, it was your gesture I was reading. I wasn’t sure for a moment whether you were reacting to the weight of it or only clowning that it was so heavy. I still expected it to be light when you handed it to me.
ELKE: Without this weight, it wouldn’t have the same character. If this were light porcelain, what would it be? A strange hunk of deformed clay? … It cracked very badly in the making. I watched Ruth fix it everywhere. It is a strange piece; it is reminiscent of stone-carvings, of the very primitive kind … I have never looked at it with this view before. I love it.
CONTACT: When you were describing how you made pots, when you were talking at the show, you gestured as if you were centred within the pot. Raising your hands on either side, you said: “When I form my pots, I am finding a shape …” and you became part of the pot.
ELKE: That’s what I was trying to do with those large, strangely off-centred pots with the very narrow bottoms. I had a very precariously-balanced year. Three years, really. Just barely managing to keep going physically emotionally, and all of a sudden it seemed to me if I could find a way of expressing with my hands what I am trying to do with my life … if I can make a pot do it, then I can do it too. If I can form a piece of earth to stand up on this narrow, strange bottom and reach up to the sky … just be there: wide and open and rich and tall … then I can do it, even if I don’t have much to stand on.
There’s Shimaoka’s sense of balance: solid, grounded. There’s mine: probably at heart a very “suspended” one. Somehow I am managing all right. That was my excitement that evening. It worked out all right. I found a way to stand.
CONTACT: When did you and clay meet?
ELKE: … In my mind. A long, long time ago. During the war in Germany, and after the war. I always wanted to work with clay but you couldn’t do that in the city, you couldn’t do that bumming around Paris or London. Even when I went to college, I never had a place to work.
Actually only here in 1969, I took my first pottery course, out of despair over a very sick child. I had to get out of the house once in a while. I sat there with a long skirt on, a long woolen skirt, with a lump of clay in my hands and I just held it … I couldn’t do a thing. (I certainly wasn’t a “gifted potter”!) I looked at the clay and thought: “This is what I’ve dreamed of all this time? … It doesn’t want to come out!” You know, I was waiting for it to flow out of my fingers. Not on the wheel, just by hand. Walter Grigot was teaching the course here in St. Albert at the time. I didn’t make a single pot the whole time. Then I started making pitchers on the wheel. Do you know Paulus Berensohn’s book? Look back in the section about the potter who is at heart a carpenter, in the Notes. The little passage was about this potter, who for years desperately tried to teach his students how to make even-walled pots. This fellow, forever and ever, made nothing but typical German-type salt-glazed jugs, with heavy, heavy bottoms. The teacher eventually found these pots on a shelf and looked at them and said: “My god! There stands a man! I’m so glad somebody refused to learn from me.”
I made heavy-bottomed pots, absolutely awful. I threw them in the garbage. One I kept. It is in the woods right now. It is one of the first pots I ever made on the wheel. It was a solid bottom and a terrible lip, a handle pulled with a cutting wire, but it has such character! I’m so glad I kept it, as a memory of what I stared out with clay. Exactly opposite to what I’m doing now! It just sat there. But, okay, that was the kind of pot I needed to make.
In the meantime I’ve changed. Going back: for two or three years I didn’t do anything at all, just fiddling with clay once a week. I broke my arm very badly and had to stop working for two or three years.
The I had the chance of being asked to be Mary Borgstrom’s assistant. She was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I don’t like the studio set-up. I want to go and dig my clay, build my kilns out of scraps, make my glazes out of ashes and dirt. So I worked with Mary for two summers, building kilns and travelling around with her here and there.
She had the essentials. She gave me a foundation. She taught me to teach others.
About three years ago, I fell in love with John Chalke and his pots. It began with an article in Ceramic Monthly. He made some glazes that lived. Some of his large plates had what I wanted to do. They were not frozen stiff into some strange dead thing, they were still moving and living. I called John and said: “I want to work with you. Are you teaching a course at Banff? Can I meet you?” So first thing, I invited him to a give a workshop here in St. Albert. He came and gave us a funny kind of typical-John-Chalke-workshop. Nobody understood anything, but six people were very happy. I invited him for a private workshop. There were four of us. We had a gorgeous workshop in the basement! I went off to Banff and worked with him there for two years in a row, and learned to look at things.
Then Ruth Duckworth, the other really, really lucky break. I had admired her for years and my dream was to work with here. I talked to Les Manning at the Banff Centre and he said: “Come down. I want you to take here class because I want to see you work together. I want to see what you two exchange.” He didn’t say, “Come and be a student.” I was absolutely horrified. Me? Ruth Duckworth! … I admire here tremendously. She’s a very strong-headed woman, knows an awful lot. She was forever giving of herself to her student. I learned endless things from her, one of them: self-confidence.
I’ve had fantastic luck with Mary, with John, with Ruth and with Shimaoka. what next? How much can one absorb? If I had to choose with whom I want to work with next, I wouldn’t know who to pick. Really not. I would like to meet some people, like some of those Australian potters, especially Joan Campbell. I’m the luckiest person in the world to have had the chance to get close to the potters I admire most, not just to take a couple of day’s course with them, but to be friends with them, to meet them every day for every meal and to talk with them. This is a dream. You can’t be any luckier. Now I just want to settle down and start working with clay again.
I don’t know if I succeeded. I felt really good this summer about doing it. I think we all are, in a way, inside what we give out, through what we are doing with our hands. Our minds. Now my mind is in my hands. My husband does it strictly with his brain. I have to translate everything down, through my arms, my hands, and out … (I should have a drink. Maybe I could find the words better.)
CONTACT: But you say in words, far clearer than anyone I have heard, the relationship between a human being and clay.
ELKE: Does that sound pretentious enough?
CONTACT: No. No.
ELKE: Because I am not trying to be a philosopher-of-clay …
CONTACT: I hear an “openness”, an “honesty”.
ELKE: I’m not trying to express any grandiose ideas. I am just trying to find: “Who am I? What am I doing here?” … I’m not sure. I’ve never tried to talk to anyone about it because most people just laugh. I could have talked to Shimaoka about this but his way of expressing is so different. What I wanted to learn from Shimaoka was the same sense of balance, spread very broadly, in his traditional, functional ways. His pots are just like him, beautifully balanced.
Shimaoka laughed most of the time, and usually when he saw my pots. The one called “Dancers”, he particularly laughed about. And another one that’s in the wood now. A funny pot, narrow bottom, flaring out and it has a pouring spout. Everybody in the world would insist it couldn’t possibly stand on its foot when full of gravy. It was just a typical gravy-boat, very narrow bottom, yet it stands as solid as a rock, full or empty, and he liked it so much he eventually glazed it for me himself. It was funny to watch him spend what seemed hours glazing this pot. And it came out of the kiln absolutely awful! The glazed hadn’t matured; and we laughed together.
Shimaoka-san’s whole being was laughter (on the outside). He once told me that he laughed all the time whether he was happy or sad. He said it was better to laugh; it was healthier for you. So when he laughed at my pot, I said: “this time, please, you have to tell me. Is it because you’re happy or because you’re sad that you are laughing?” “Oh,” he said in his deep voice, “because I am happy!” Oh to learn from him how to live and laugh! He made me very happy. Now, in a way, his pots talk to me.
I love to make medieval jugs. That’s my solid bottom. But I can’t use that many jugs around the house. I don’t sell them. I don’t even try, I give them to friends.
CONTACT: Suppose I took the dream away from you and said you could never pot again.
ELKE: Oh dear. It would be as if you suddenly went blind: you’d be lost. Completely lost … it is a terrible thought.
CONTACT: It has that magnitude in your life?
ELKE: Oh yes! My hands? My soul is in my hands! It’s all touch. (Laughs: they look like it too!) I have to feel wood and to feel clay. I work, half the year, fanatically with wood; the rest of the year fanatically with clay. Maybe to be reminded of the life in clay, once in a while I have to touch warm wood. At the moment, as you can see (referring to the studio under construction), it’s definitely wood. Mostly because I simply haven’t any more space.
CONTACT: You said you couldn’t make little things. Your pots have to be big. Why?
ELKE: Maybe because I’m little. Maybe … I really don’t know. I do have to buy my mugs or trade a pot for them because I won’t sit down to make mugs. I’ll make a pinch-pot sometime to drink out of, to feel the warmth. All of my other pots are big. And they keep getting bigger! and bigger! They’re only limited by how much I can carry. Even that I’m going to overcome by simply building them in the kiln and firing them inside.
There is a certain point where big would be too big for a shape. If that shape (an egg-shape 20 inches high beside the Franklin stove) were bigger, I’m not sure it would be right any more. Then I would make other things that are bigger. I don’t know yet.
It does look funny: every one of them is so big! Shimaoka would always roar with laughter when I carried one of those heavy pots on my shoulder to the kiln. I didn’t think it was very funny at all. It was heavy! and I had to get it there.
CONTACT: You are very, very independent, aren’t you?
ELKE: Oh, yes! I have to be.
CONTACT: There is what you want out clay. Despite all kinds of influences that could have changed you, you have stayed with your own convictions.
ELKE: That’s my stubbornness. I usually stay with my conviction through anything and none of my teachers ever tried to change or influence me. I suspect they all were slightly amused by me, and knew I would not change but always want to learn.
CONTACT: Where do you and clay go from here?
ELKE: What I want to make next is pots turned inside-out. The one in the show, “Enclosed Space” is the beginning of that. There’s another one sitting in the garden under a tree there, that “Cave”. I want more enclosed spaces, more pots containing pots, pots weaving around each other. It’s terribly ambitious-sounding, but it is sort of a nesting instinct. There have been the “egg” forms now I want to go back to the nest … That’s not exactly it, but my hands will tell me.