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"Les Manning at work"
Les Manning working at the Fule International Ceramic Art Museums in Fu Ping, China.
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"Touch the Sky"
Les Manning, "Touch the Sky," stoneware clay, porcelain, celadon glaze. Collection of Cecil Finch.
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Les Manning, "Wind Form," stoneware clay, porcelain, celadon glaze.
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Les Manning, "War Horses," made in Fu Ping, China.
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"Sun Up / Sun Down"
Les Manning, "Sun Up / Sun Down," stoneware clay, porcelain, celadon glaze.
LES MANNING - HOMAGE
Creating abstract, sculptural forms that evoke Alberta landscapes, this artist and mentor has taken Canadian ceramics to the world.
By Katherine Wasiak
Les Manning is an artist, senior arts administrator, advisor, juror, lecturer, workshop leader, and strong advocate for ceramic arts. His passion for the form has taken him around the world, exhibiting in Asia, Europe, Egypt, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and across Canada, and his sculptures are found in collections in Canada, the United States, Japan, Asia, and Europe. “It’s wonderful to be able to do something you’re passionate about,” he says. “I love where my life has taken me.”
It’s a long way from the ranch in Provost, Alberta, where Manning grew up, thinking about being a painter. “I was going to be the next Charlie Russell,” he chuckles. “My high school art teacher actually drove me to Calgary to register at the Alberta College of Art. She had that much faith in my ability.” But once there, he discovered clay. “I was attracted to the sculptural and functional aspects of the medium,” he explains. “Coming from rural Alberta, functionality was a big part of our culture.”
Several elements have influenced Manning’s art practice, and the Rocky Mountains are high on that list. “The mountains are my spiritual home,” he says. “Regardless of where I live.” It didn’t start out that way. When he moved to Banff in 1970 to start a 25-year stretch as director of The Banff Centre’s ceramics studio, Manning felt claustrophobic in the mountains. “Oddly, when I lived on the prairies I worked vertically, then in Banff I stopped throwing pots, built slab plates and worked horizontally.”
His work evolved, moving from its functional root to more sculptural forms, reflecting his growing appreciation of the mountains and his interest in the potential of the medium. “I find inspiration in the dynamic uniqueness of the Rockies,” he says. “I’m particularly attracted to the high country above the tree line and the natural forces that formed it.”
Manning uses clay in a painterly fashion, creating abstract landscapes by combining different clay bodies that range from dark stoneware to greys, greens and pinks, to delicate white porcelain. He has been influenced by the Group of Seven and the expressive way they applied paint. He alters his thrown vessels and glazes them with translucent celadon, which reminds him of the colour of Lake Louise. The surface is sandblasted, reducing the sheen and leaving the glaze to pool in areas. He adds silver amalgam to small stress fractures, creating flashes of light reminiscent of sun on water. In recent works, Manning has incorporated elements that reflect the impact of humanity on his beloved landscape, imprinting subtle arches and lines into the clay.
Several times a year, Manning’s studio practice is put on hold while he tends to the many provincial, national and international arts organizations that have attracted his attention. He served as president of the Alberta Potters Association, was a founder and vice president of the Alberta Crafts Council, the first president of the Canadian Craft Council, and vice president of the International Academy of Ceramics and representative for North America. He has traveled to 46 countries so far for ceramics-related activities.
One recent project involved organizing a team of nine Canadian potters for a residency and exhibition for the official opening of the Canadian Museum at the Fule International Ceramic Art Museums in Fu Ping, China. “We were challenged to work with industrial Chinese clay and glazes, and explore the intersection of our art practice with Chinese culture,” he says. “We left a legacy of almost $200,000 worth of art to start the Canadian collection.” Manning adds that the Canadian Museum is among 12 national museums on the site open in time for the 2008 Olympics. The plan is to establish residency opportunities in China, which will add to the permanent collection.
Manning is familiar with the value of residency from his experience overseeing ceramic arts at The Banff Centre. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of bringing people together in a supportive environment,” he says. “These encounters bolster people’s faith in their own ideas, help nurture their concepts, and encourage the exchange of ideas.” He explains that a ‘rest’ from the everyday is priceless. “By removing the demands of home life, regular responsibilities, and the pressure of financial issues, artists find they are free to explore, discover, and create. It can be scary, but it is an invaluable experience.”
For the past seven years, Manning has been helping develop the Medalta International Artists-in-Residence Program, located on the Medalta Potteries site in Medicine Hat, Alberta, part of the city’s Historic Clay District and a National Historic Site.
“In 2000, I attended the program as an invited artist and was impressed with what they were doing,” he says. The next year, he became the program’s artistic director. He’s enthusiastic about floor plans for the10,000-square-foot International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics, expected to open in spring 2009 at Medalta.
This is the fourth studio facility Manning has been involved in planning, so he’s getting good at it. They have plans to turn a round walk-in kiln into an exhibition space, create forklift access so large pieces can be easily moved, install skylights galore, build 14 large individual studios, and create an area for raku, salt, soda, and smoke kilns, in addition to gas and wood kilns. With this permanent home, plans can proceed to expand the residency program, which currently invites several artists who mentor and work alongside the dozen participants for a month.
The program already attracts artists from Canada, the U.S. and as far away as Japan, Ireland, Greece, and Australia, and with expanded facilities they can build the program to include longer residencies, ranging from three to 12 months. “We want to create an environment where great things can happen,” he says. “I’d also like to see critics and writers included in the program because an outside perspective is necessary for ceramic arts to grow and develop.”
Once the new building opens, Manning hopes to step back a little and spend more time in his studio. “My plan was to focus on studio work when I turned 55. However, I’m a little late getting started on that one,” he says, admitting he is now close to 65. Looking back over his 40-year career, he muses, “In many ways I fell into things more than got there by having great knowledge . . . but I do have a great passion. I think my real contribution is in the area of community service. I want to keep ceramic arts in the public eye and get the word out about its value.”