Variations on a Theme

“Being a potter is a constant journey of discovery and chance happenings. My hands discover and make visible the inside of me. They take what I do not know and give it form.”

reprinted from Alberta Craft Magazine, November/December 1994

When Elke Blodgett casts back through her memories for the source of her fascination with clay, she finds a little girl.

“We constantly moved when I was a child. I remember sitting in a bombed-out yard in Germany during the war, scrapping the mortar off bricks from ruined houses and making little houses and lean-to’s with the bricks.”

Since then Blodgett, who is celebrating twenty-five years as a potter, has always made things. She not only built an addition to her St. Albert home, but also what she calls her bush house, near the Pembina River. The only moving around now is between her two favourit places.

An then, of course, she builds her ‘pots’ — the large, pierced sculptural shapes, glazed with subtle colours, which respond to changes of light and atmosphere — as if alive.

“It must be unconscious. I must build. My hands do it, not me. After I’m finished, I stand back, quite remotely, and see what I’ve built. When I run into a pot of mine somewhere, I still feel it’s part of me. But with a life of its own, if it’s good.

She’s also a self-confessed fanatic kiln builder and has eight at the bush house, where she spends six to eight months each year. It’s an isolated life and could be lonely. But, by surrounding herself with the work of other clay artists, she feels as if a little part of each of them is with her in the solitude.

For Blodgett this interweaving of art and life is also a constant companion. And like her large, teetering sculptures, she views life in general as a search for balance.

“When I submit my pots to the fire, I give up almost all control. I watch the pots literally emerging from the ashes: changed, cracked, beautiful or not, never perfect. Sometimes when they are ‘good’ they seem to be alive: never quite finished, never completed. there would be nothing left to the imaginative power of the beholder if there were.”

“The shapes are primitive in a way. Each one of them. All precariously balanced. Everything I make has very little contact with solid ground, like life, a balancing life. You need a solid point to balance your life around.

Even her start with clay pots sounds like a balancing act. In 1969 she found herself despondent, with a very sick child. She had to get out of the hosue. So with the baby in a pack strapped to her back, she took her first pottery course.

Now her art and life have become so closely allied that it’s difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins.

Her home, detached studio and yard in St. Albert are full of clay pieces, many of her own, others by potters she admires. Large and small, even the shards she calls movements ar sketches, are kept as references for glazing. Sometimes, she saves a broken pot simply so she can put a candle under the domed shape and enjoy the reflected light.

Several years ago, Blodgett was forced to give up wheel-work because of a badly broken hand, caused by a fall from a roof she was building. But it may have been a partly happy accident because it led to a playful technique, which she describes as low-tech, even haphazard.

“I play with clay. Sometimes I make tiny prototypes. I don’t sketch. I make sausage-like lumps and throw them on the table or paddle them with a wooden spoon or two-by-four. I develop a rhythm, walking backwards and forewards, buidling lines and coils around the pot.”

In Blodgett’s repertoire there are about a half-dozen basic shapes to which she returns, as one series follows another, not unlike a musical variation on a theme. One of her molds dates back to 1978 and she still occasionally chooses it to start the first few inches of one of her towering creaitons.

“over the years I find myself going back to the shapes I worked with as long as twenty years ago. Thee same shapes, but somehow different — changed because of the difference the years have made in who I am.”

And like many intelligent people who find themselves ‘good with their hands,’ she is intensely itnerested by the centre of things — by what’s under the surface.

“I try to get to the inside of the pot. I am constantly closing the shapes in and then letting them open up again. I fired the “Moonrocks” till they cracked. I don’t want the pots to be finished. I want them to feel of clay, to leave them with a sense of motion — mobility.

“It’s a terrible gamble. I leave it all to the kiln god. At a certain point, it’s not up to me, it’s up to the kiln.”

But then so is life — especially when it’s lived as art. E.B.

“For someone who stands in awe, as I do, of everything in creation — whethere it be the human spirit, the verterbrae of a dinosaur, the scent of a flower, a sunset, some ancient geological formation, or a Bach Cantata — it seems almost presumptuous to want to ‘create’ anything at all, certainly not anything new or different. It has all been done, and so much more perfectly. For long periods of time I just stand back and contemplate. I cannot say what suddenly makes me put my hands back into the clay and make things out of it. It is some inner necessity, some irresistible need. If I produce anything worthwhile, it might make somebody feel good inside. And I stand back and contemplate once more.

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