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"Artist John Chalke"
Artist John Chalke.
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"Grey Pod Up, Grey Pod Down"
John Chalke, "Grey Pod Up, Grey Pod Down," wall piece, stoneware clay, multiglazed, multifired.
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"Clouds and Sun"
John Chalke, "Clouds and Sun," wall plate, stoneware clay, low fire, hand formed, multiglazed, multifired.
Willock & Sax Gallery, Banff
January 17 to 21, 2008
By Amber Bowerman
It was 20-below on a November weekend, closer to 30-below with the wind chill, but ceramists John Chalke and his wife Barbara Tipton were headed to their rustic cabin west of Sundre in the Alberta foothills in spite of the bitter cold. They would be firing up their three-chamber wood-fired kiln for the last time until spring. It’s a huge undertaking. Packing the more than 100 clay pieces — pots, bowls, plates and more — into the chambers takes six or seven hours itself. “It’s not the firing that’s a problem,” Chalke explains. “It’s that you have to pack the kiln in a certain way. It’s like you’re moving and you’re packing a chest.”
After packing the kiln, the next step is a lot of waiting — at least 14 hours. Shift after rotating shift of monitoring, and a dose of humble surrender. Once the pieces are packed and the long process of firing begins, Chalke has no control over the way the flames mark the clay. One piece might be darkened subtly by the heat, an-other scarred black in places by the licking flames. Some will inevitably be ruined. In the end, about 40 per cent of the pieces will turn out. “There is some surrender,” Chalke says. “It’s not difficult for me to feel there are other forces at work. There’s no ego attached to it.”
Chalke first became interested in ceramics in the early ’60s in his native England after he saw an old coal kiln being fired for the last time. The way he describes it, the glowing coals and the flames “dancing on the walls” provided the only light that night, as the roaring heat fired delicate porcelain teacups. “That left such an impression on me,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m witnessing something very special.’”
In 1962, he fired a wood kiln for the first time himself, and since then, he’s been building and firing kilns consistently and concocting glazes with an alchemist’s aplomb. His work has been shown in more than 250 exhibitions around the world. In 2000, Chalke was the first recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Media and Visual Arts for Fine Craft. Two years later, he became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. And in 2005 he was awarded an Alberta Centennial Award for Excellence.
This spring, an exhibition of his new work — much of it from that last winter firing in November — will be shown at the Willock and Sax Gallery in Banff along with the work of Barbara Tipton and Robert Sinclair. Many of Chalke’s pieces will feature pod-like forms, like the bean-shaped objects in his 2006 Grey Overtakes on the Bend. The pod theme emerged quite recently, and Chalke describes the forms as similar to the skin of an avocado after you’ve scooped out the insides, or the shape of ballet slippers. But Chalke doesn’t like his work to be too literal, preferring instead to have the viewer reflect a little longer and a little more deeply to find resonance. Like “a piece of music that sticks with you,” Chalke thinks meaning can come to a viewer long after they’ve left a sculpture behind in a gallery.
Similarly, the themes that emerge in his work often come from experiences long past and sometimes forgotten. “Making art is a great way to act out our lives and I don’t see much wrong with that,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point of living?”
Back in the warmth of his Calgary home, Chalke speaks fondly of his cold weekend “tucked away in the poplars,” firing up the wood kiln. “I think it’s the contact with the country that I really like,” he says. Still, he won’t make the drive for a wood firing again until spring. The Alberta winters are just too cold to spend in the log cabin. But when warmer weather comes, Chalke will return as he has for the last dozen or so years. “When the first birds are thinking of coming back,” he says, “I come back too.”
Represented by: Willock & Sax Gallery, Banff; Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary; Harbinger Gallery, Waterloo, Ont.