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"Ian Steele, potter"
Ian Steele, potter, 1973.
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"Homage to Adolph Gotlieb"
Robin Hopper, "Homage to Adolph Gotlieb," 1978, collection of the artist.
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"Lara’s Theme, Music box"
Byron Johnstad, "Lara’s Theme, Music box," 1974, private collection.
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Robin Righton, "Jar," c. 1985, private collection.
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"Mary Fox, Tribute"
Mary Fox, "Mary Fox, Tribute," c. 1985, collection of the artist.
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"Slim jug with handle"
Jan Grove, "Slim jug with handle," early 1970s, collection of the artist. Photo: Stephen Topfer
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Heinz Laffin, "Casserole," n.d., Collection of the artist. Photo: Stephen Topfer.
Roots of a Movement
back to the land at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria showcases the homesteaders, artists, activists and architects of the Vancouver Island pottery scene of the 1970s and 80s.
By John Luna
In October, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria will present the work of 31 ceramic artists from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, made during the 1970s and 1980s. Guest curated by Diane Carr, Back to the Land is the first group exhibition to focus on this unique period in the island communities of the West Coast, an important step in reconstructing the ethos of an era.
Until relatively recently, it could be challenging for North American ceramic artists to see their life’s work taken seriously as art. The day-to-day experience of living with ceramics, many of them household objects whose beauty is, by design, inseparable from their utility, fosters a different kind of contemplation than we usually associate with museum environments. Important traditions could be overlooked as ‘mere craft’ as opposed to ‘fine art’, a separation many take for granted without considering the complex social and cultural histories involved.
“ I see craft as an essential part of any work of art,” says Diane Carr. Recalling her own formative experiences with an art professor who spent time in Japan on a Fulbright Scholarship. Carr says “I was as much inculcated with Asian philosophy, Zen in particular, as with Cézanne.” Concealed in this charming remark is an awareness of the underlying dialogue between East and West that was as vital to France’s Impressionists as it was to North American pioneers of abstraction, including experiments in lifestyle, architecture, philosophy, and, as rejoinder to all of these, ceramics.
In the early 1970’s, Carr found herself with the unexpected gift of a small pottery shop that was on the verge of closing. She immediately organized an exhibition of several local potters, and discovered that something was in the air: “we must have had 200 people show up for opening night.” One show led to another, and Carr began looking for ways to support a business. A serendipitous encounter with a pottery-loving bank manager led to a line of credit that allowed Carr to purchase works outright from the potters, so she could choose carefully and acquire the best.
Carr’s gallery, The Potter’s Wheel, helped realize a period in which artists — many of them already important influences in the region — could support themselves with their work. Ceramist Mary Fox recalls her youthful beginnings, selling work at swap meets in hope of making enough money to buy more clay; for her, pottery galleries offered the possibility of a market as well as a chance to learn by looking. Eventually, some two dozen full-time ceramists were active in the region, almost half of whom are still producing work today. Ironically, for Carr this meant living with less. “There was no money in running a pottery gallery in the 70s,” she recalls, recounting how a load of pots crammed into her Volkswagen on the ferry from a remote studio on Hornby Island was worth more than the car at the time.
Carr sold the business in 1975, but remained devoted to the cause, becoming instrumental in the development of Vancouver’s Cartwright Street Gallery, a publicly-funded initiative that later became the Canadian Craft Museum. “The idea was to get ceramics accepted as worthy of exhibition and serious discourse in public institutions like the Vancouver Art Gallery.” This meant not only presenting work, but researching and writing about its history and development. It was during these years that Carr began curating the kinds of exhibitions that would lead to Back to the Land.
The inspiration for an exhibition at the AGGV came after a lecture Carr presented at Victoria’s Abkhazi Garden called Form and Function, focused on key members of the scene and their influences. With the help of Victoria-based textile artist Carole Sabiston, a CD of images was passed on to Gallery Director Jon Tupper, who responded, “you’ve got a show right here.”
Carr set about finding works for the exhibition, not a simple task since many pieces were more than likely to be found in private homes. In some cases, the artists themselves were tapped for prime pieces, loaning work they had set aside for decades (Carr convinced venerable ceramist Walter Dexter to surrender his teapot to the cause, plucking it right off the kitchen counter.) In the process, Carr divined distinct lineages, “who had been taught by whom,” and in doing so laid bare the roots of the movement.
As a trained art historian, Carr acknowledges that the most straightforward historical influence in the exhibition would be that of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Leach and Hamada met when Leach (an Englishman born in Hong Kong) went to Japan to study art, falling under the spell of both Japanese pottery and the ideals of English Arts and Crafts Movement founder William Morris, who famously stated, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Combining Asian traditions with those of England and Germany, Leach and Hamada promoted a synthesis of technique, but also a philosophical perspective. They founded a workshop in St. Ives, Cornwall in 1920, building a Japanese-style, wood-fired kiln in a labour-intensive tradition that would later be taken up by West Coast artists like Wayne Ngan. Leach popularized their ideas in writing in 1940, attracting dozens of apprentices and students from around the world, including British Columbia.
An entirely different chapter in the story of form and function could be found in the work of Jan and Helga Grove, German potters born into in a rigorous European tradition descended from the legendary Bauhaus school. Where much West Coast pottery is roughly textured and archaic-looking, the Groves’ work engages in a refined formal play, mixing echoes of primitive and modern sculpture within a disciplined physical continuum.
A third influence was Abstract Expressionism, the raw, searching approach that dominated North American painting after the Second World War, producing such spectacular images as Jackson Pollock’s dripped and splattered murals and Jack Shadbolt’s dancing, calligraphic line. The dramatic designs daubed in soft, watery slip clay over the surface of a Walter Dexter vase recall such restless gestures, but their intensity and immediacy is more than a matter of style. Carr cites a fusion of Asian ‘nowness’ and a distinctly North American “cult of the ‘I’, the need to be identified with the piece, to put your name on it, to have a title, to name it art.”
And perhaps all of these sources with their rich contradictions — tradition and synthesis, discipline and play, spontaneity and craft — should be considered with respect to the potters’ milieu, and what “back to the land” meant for these artists. Social movements advocating an escape from the city and a return to simplicity and self-sufficiency have long offered provocative alternatives to urban routine; crises like the Great Depression and the Second World War compounded their urgency. For Carr, it meant working as an activist with Voice of Women in Vancouver, helping American men evading the Vietnam War to escape to the Kootenays or the Gulf Islands.
Ceramic artist Gary Cherneff remembers how this “influx” affected the nascent artistic community on Salt Spring Island: “It was huge...We all benefitted from their intellectual capacity and moral compass.” Cherneff points out the ways in which a desire for community and the beginnings of the environmental movement resulted in a unique moment of creativity and collaboration, between homesteaders and activists, artists and architects: “It was a very giving time.”
Carr is eager to take us back to this shared experience, citing the vocabulary of pottery as relating to our physical common ground, “the language of ceramics is...‘neck’, ‘throat’, ‘shoulder’, ‘foot’, ‘belly’…It’s language is in the body,” quoting Hornby Island potter Wayne Ngan as saying that “the pot is the physical manifestation of the breath.” Carr argues for the importance of contemplative objects in our everyday lives, and points out that her degree is in “history -in-art”, that a communal history — lost lore and local clay — remains in these objects to be examined, enjoyed and considered.
Back to the Land: Ceramics from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands 1970-1985 is on at The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from October 5, 2012 to February 3, 2013.