The Les Manning Gallery
The Les Manning Gallery at the Historic Clay District in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
THE BLOCKBUSTER EFFECT - DESIGN DETAILS: THE SHAW CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY CERAMICS
BY: Katherine Wasiak
For decades, the Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat, Alberta produced 75 per cent of all the dishes manufactured in Canada. Stoneware for the armed forces, railway dining cars, restaurants, and homes across the country all came from the Hat. Today, Medicine Hat’s Historic Clay District celebrates the community’s significant past in industrial ceramic production and nurtures a future for ceramics arts. Western Canada’s largest national historic site, the Historic Clay District covers 150 acres and includes the restored 1912 Medalta Potteries factory, the Hycroft China site, the last remaining beehive kiln from the massive Alberta Clay Products plant, and now, the new Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics.
“Visitors are often mystified about how this industry could flourish in the middle of nowhere,” says Barry Finkelman, the District’s executive director and general manager. “And then they learn about the natural elements — natural gas and clay — and economic geography that made it possible.”
The focus of restoring the Medalta Potteries has been on recreating a historical working pottery. Visitors can watch the entire production process as workers create a wide range of stoneware including cups, bowls, teapots, and crocks, using the same molds, equipment, clay and glazes used in the original factory — they can also walk into the huge beehive down-draft kiln where the work was fired. “Our exhibits provide an experience,” says Ron Mason, Medalta’s education co-ordinator. Trained interpreters share stories about the potteries and the people who worked there, and visitors can see a display of more than 2,500 pieces created in the Medalta and associated potteries.
Now that the Shaw Centre has opened in the former Sunburst Ceramics factory, the Clay District has been able to expand its highly regarded ceramics residency program — the ten-year-old Medalta International Artists in Residence program for established and emerging ceramists. “I could not have imagined this place,” says Ontario artist and former resident Tom Aiken. “We were surrounded by historic equipment and had the opportunity to talk with people who actually worked at Medalta.” With the Shaw opening, the program has expanded to year-round programming. By next summer another building on the site will add a hall for community events, a gallery for changing exhibitions, and an outdoor concert venue.