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ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU: 2003 Governor General’s Award in the Visual Arts
A potter’s potter, balancing form and space.
By Amy Karlinsky
It is a bejewelled autumn day. Everything orange and dappled in light. Robert Archambeau has invited us to his remote studio, a three-hour drive north and east of Winnipeg. We see more deer on the road than passing motorists.
When we arrive, we talk about the small lake that fronts his studio property, about the gold mine underneath the house, about the elk hunted by the locals in this outcropping of the Canadian Shield. As he puts it, “It’s the oldest rock in the world. The general environment has a great bearing on what I do, the look of the clay body, the edges of the glazes, those details and other subtle things.”
A 2003 Governor General’s Award in the Visual Arts — he is the only winner from Manitoba, ever. It’s a pretty astounding honour, given that ceramics as a medium is often marginalized for its utilitarian aspect. That’s a Western shortcoming, unheard of in Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditions. It hasn’t troubled Archambeau. He is known as a potter’s potter, one who has built an art practice on the basis of the vessel form. He is remarkably humble about his achievements. “I have been making pots for over 45 years.” Then he murmurs something about a telephone call, his surprise, having to rent a tuxedo and clear time for the gala event.
Born in 1933 in Toledo, Ohio, by 1968 Archambeau was teaching ceramics at the University of Manitoba School of Art where he stayed for 23 years. Now retired, the artist has more time for sustained work in the studio and for travel. He is revered by students. Archambeau’s work and a selection of work by others is the basis of an exhibition this winter at The Winnipeg Art Gallery, entitled, Robert Archambeau, Artist, Teacher, Collector. He confides, “There could have been at least 10 more students.”
He says his style and his philosophy have not changed much over the years. “I make pots; fire them with wood, based on a few Asian traditions.” It’s an understatement. Archambeau has spent sabbatical years and travel exchanges working in Korea and Japan. He has been open to the influences of the wood firing and the weight of Japanese tradition, studying works made at Hagi, Yamaguchi and Okayama Prefectures, Bizen, and Koshiwara, Fukuoko. He relates amusing stories about the reception of his work in Japan. He is a big man and his shifts in the scale and proportion of the tea bowl are not always understood.
Inside the studio, the couch is neatly organized with piles of paper, representing the reams of work and commitments the 70-year-old Archambeau is in the midst of. This includes the exhibition at The Winnipeg Art Gallery, as well as an upcoming trip to St. Louis for a wood firing.
As a first-time visitor, I am drawn by the arrays of objects, both natural and cultural, arranged on surfaces, floors, tables, bookcases and walls throughout, including shells, coins, prints, textiles, books, sticks, hides and ceramic vessels — his own and those of others. Figures of beauty and meaning; objects for the artist’s contemplation and absorption, these small collections of things have been isolated for their formal, material, textural and symbolic interest. Archambeau’s surroundings are restorative for those blighted by mass culture.
Bob, as his friends call him, insists on serving us a bowl of homemade stew after our long drive. I ask to peek into his kitchen cupboards and am dazzled by the sight of thick stacks of plates, the colours of the earth; gorgeous, individually made bowls nestled in stacks; mugs made by potters around North America waiting to be held by coffee and tea drinkers. Archambeau lets me choose my own. I am reluctant to shut the cupboard; there are significant lessons here about the artist’s understanding of beauty and form.
The day seems to spring from a deep well, related, I’d like to think, to Archambeau’s consciousness, but also to his spiritual understanding of vessel making. It’s a daily discipline, a sacred art, and an elemental one. Archambeau’s vessels are acutely related to his physical, mental and spiritual balance. A pot is a time-based art, a form distilled, worked upon, but always subject to irrevocable change through fire. Clay involves inputs and outputs of earth, water, air and fire. Too much air at the wrong time, too little water, uneven drying, something awry in the kiln, and “poof.” In the kiln, gusts of air and falling ash have to be fortuitous. Discipline and serendipity, planning and chance: these are lessons learned by the investment of hand, rhythm, and a careful alertness. He explains the deep relief carving into the bulbous forms of his long-necked vases, heavily incised to catch the lick and fortune of the flowing ash.
Eventually we look at the morning’s work, a series of wheel-thrown bowls drying on a flat board in preparation for trimming. I ask about working in series, and he directs my eye to the subtle variations in proportions and contours. I start to see the immense variation in lip, contour and belly. He shows me a sheet of drawings encased in a plastic sleeve. There are enough to suggest that the artist’s vessel making begins as a pre-meditated, deliberate and exact intention, though it does not end there. The drawings and the pots speak to both the artist’s sensibilities as a formalist, and his awareness of an eastern understanding and tradition of beauty that infuses everything he does.
It’s an intensely discriminating eye with the dexterity, patience and skill to realize intentions. I am struck by the way he handles his pots, caressing their exterior forms while supporting, it would seem, their interior spaces. Is it possible to hold air? After my encounter with Archambeau, I’d have to say yes.
As I leave, I notice more arrangements of sticks. The bark has been gnawed off to reveal smooth and shiny surfaces. The inner structure of joins and transitions has been laid bare. I recognize these as beaver sticks, symbols in some Aboriginal cultures of making dreams manifest. Such an understanding and appreciation of form and material, of inner and outer life, run like a vein of gold right through Archambeau’s house and studio buildings. It’s magical, not in the sense of being enchanted, but as if Archambeau stood, in perfect balance, at the centre of a swirling vortex. And I suppose he does. I imagine him bent over his wheel, a massive presence and a gentle spirit, making pots, listening to Sufi music, connected at the centre of the vortex to other times and places, and the now of the pre-Cambrian shield.
Robert Archambeau, Artist, Teacher, Collector opens at The Winnipeg Art Gallery February 20 and runs until May 30. Robert Archambeau is represented in Canada by Prime Gallery, Toronto.
Amy Karlinsky is a freelance writer and a sessional lecturer at the School of Art, University of Manitoba.