The start of something big: the Medalta International Artist-in Residence Program: Amy Gogarty experiences a residency program in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.
MEDICINE HAT, ALBERTA, CANADA IS LOCATED on the South Saskatchewan River surrounded by farms and short grass prairie. Surprisingly, this city of 60,000 was an early favourite in the race to become Western Canada's industrial centre. With abundant supplies of natural gas and alluvial clay, Medicine Hat at the turn of the 20th century was home to a thriving clay products industry that supplied brick, sewer pipe and over 75 percent of the pottery used in Canada. Today, most of the factories have closed but they are commemorated by the Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District (http://www.medalta.org/), a 150 acre site housing the renovated Medalta factory, an interactive museum, a working pottery, archives and a contemporary art gallery. In June, 2009 the Medalta International Artists-in-Residence (MIAIR), previously located at the old Hycroft Pottery site, moved into a new, state-of-the-art, 12,000 square-foot Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics adjacent to the museum. With this new facility, MIAIR aspires to become a centre for ceramics research and creative production and a catalyst for ceramics excellence in Canada and abroad.
During the first 10 years of its existence, MIAIR invited artists of national and international stature including Les Manning (who later served for eight years as the residency's Artistic Director), Alan Lacovetsky, Robert Harrison, Tony and Sheila Clennel, Trudy Galeey, Linda Sorman and others to work alongside participants. This year, to celebrate its move to the new facility, MIAIR invited six artists. I was included as a writer and studio participant based on the belief that criticality in ceramics arises from a partnership between critics and studio practitioners and that this partnership evolves from hands-on or tacit understanding of the discipline. What follows is a brief account of my experience including the artists, facilities and discussions that took place during the residency.
The residency ran from June 1 to June 26. Each participant received a 250 square-foot studio with sink, table, wheel and storage. In addition to kilns, participants had access to glaze materials, a spray booth, moulds and other general studio equipment. The Shaw Centre also houses a library/meeting room, kitchen, offices and a gallery named in honour of Les Manning. The facility is air-conditioned and has a state-of-the-art system for moving and cleaning air. Skylights, windows and high ceilings create a sense of airiness and light. Materials are easily obtained from Plainsman Clay, a manufacturer of clay products located adjacent to the site. One week into the residency, MIAIR hosted a weekend symposium that included talks and demonstrations by the invited artists. The event was well-attended despite a freak snowstorm that caught everyone by surprise. Additionally, the Shaw Centre had a grand opening in conjunction with the Working Pottery and the Turning Room Gallery, two new components of the Historic District. Members of the public, politicians, donors and artists were given tours of the new facility. All in all, these events made for very busy days.
Prior to the residency, Aaron Nelson conducted a 10 day kiln-building workshop during which participants constructed both a salt and a soda kiln. For these kilns, affectionately nick-named 'Salt Lick' and 'Soda Pop', Nelson adapted details and modified plans for a fairly common sprung arch design from master kiln-builder Donovan Palmquist. He redesigned the kiln doors to hang by two sliding trolleys on I-beams. The sliding doors improve efficiency and eliminate the time-consuming task of bricking up the door. Each kiln is 30 cubic feet; a size well-within the reach of individual artists to fire solo within the normal residency period. It is expected this will encourage artists to experiment in ways they might not with larger community kilns. Judging from the participants who fired the kilns for the first time, the results have been very positive.
Shortly after the conclusion to the residency, Nelson assumed the position of Artist Director for MIAIR, a move that bodes well for the future. Nelson served previously as a consultant to the Archie Bray Foundation clay business in Helena, Montana US. He worked for two years as a studio assistant to Ruth Duckworth and for three years making piecework for dinnerware designer Eric Jensen, both in Chicago. His elegant porcelain dinnerware is coveted in Vancouver, where he maintained a studio for several years. Recently, he developed a new body of translucent porcelain that bisques at cone 018 and vitrifies at cone 04. His interest in this new material, for which there are few historical precedents, grows out of a concern for the environment and reducing the carbon footprint of his practice. He throws elegant vessels to which he applies screen decals of UPC codes, insects, fingerprints or barbed wire, icons of dirt and disorder that contrast ironically with his pristine forms. During the residency, Nelson worked on a chandelier project, using his new material to press-mould some 200 knife forms. When completed, the hanging knives will suggest danger even as they transmit light and trace delicate shadows.
Gunda Stewart also responds to environmental and ethical concerns. Living in Creston, British Columbia, an agricultural town of 5000 nestled between the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges, she occasionally wonders whether traditional potters are anachronisms in this digital age. Nonetheless, Stewart is committed to traditional forms and methods of making pots. Her pots are sturdy, generous and designed to be used by her and her community. She woodfires to cone 10, packing her kiln tightly to enhance chance marks made by the flame. Responding to forms that have varied little for hundreds if not thousands of years appeals to her as she sees herself carrying on a tradition, adding her own particular interpretation and aesthetic. Stewart approached her time at Medalta aspiring to make pots that were more expressive, lively and reflective of the deep appreciation she feels for the natural world. She began to make and assemble pots on the wheel, applying handles directly to fresh pots, and found this contributed a sense of immediacy and spontaneity. Working with artists who approached clay so differently helped her to understand her own process better and to incorporate new ways of working. She feels the residency opened new avenues for her to see and think about her work and is confident she can follow up on this back in her studio.
Rob Froese came as a participant in 2004 and as an invited artist this year. Since 1998, Froese has worked in Japan on his own or in the studio of noted potter Kazuma Nakano. He returned periodically to Canada, completing a Fine Arts degree and attending a number of artist residencies. His travels in Asia exposed him to a culture in which pots are treasured and considered works of art. Sharing food with Japanese friends, he observed the effect holding a bowl in one's hands and eating with chopsticks had on forms, textures and design. He locates his practice in the middle ground between two cultures. Japan transformed how he thought about ceramics and challenged him to define himself in a new culture, yet returning to Canada, he had to rethink his practice in the North American context. He continues to make functional wares, rendering each work a visual treat. His surfaces reveal a love of drawing and painting, and his conceptual interests become evident in his striving for 'rightness' in his work. He questions North America's obsession with perfection, preferring instead the accidental or unplanned--even the damaged--as he sees the chips and cracks that inevitably mar the perfect surface of his pots as evidence of use and history to be cherished. He works quickly, responding to chance marks and textures that evolve through the various processes to which he submits the clay. His work overall has an 'untrammelled' spirit to it. It is beautifully balanced yet not symmetrical; plates and bowls fit comfortably in the hand and feet reward searching fingers with pleasing textures.
Marty Shuter joined the group after spending the previous four months in a self-directed residency at the old Hycroft site, where she had access to an archive of production moulds. Many moulds in the 1970s were for ashtrays, the 'black sheep' of the ceramic family. Their humorous and kitschy nature--cowboy hats, spurs, piles of rocks and so forth--challenged her to repurpose them in a meaningful way. Shuter, whose production is both functional and sculptural, has been working with the image of the chicken. She compiled lists of chicken sayings and selected examples from chicken digests showing 'faults' detracting from perfect specimens. Modelling, casting and drawing the motif, she explores North America's obsession with perfection as well as themes related to gender, consumption and body image. The resulting works pay homage to the local while addressing larger issues of cultural stereotypes and attitudes towards craft.
Shuter works with cone six soda and was the first to fire the new soda kiln. She has developed a body of work that incorporates a unique way of making screen prints using coloured slips and a Thermofax machine. The machine transfers photocopied drawings onto plastic screen-print stencils, which can be used multiple times before they break down. Drawing on her background as a journalist, she adds laser decal texts describing favourable and unfavourable forms of chicken beaks, combs and other aspects of visual appearance. Referencing the history of printed ceramics, she expresses her concerns about how we address and judge each other.
Newfoundland artist Reed Weir works primarily in sculpture. She comes from an artistic family; her mother was a ceramist, her father a painter and her sister, Sky Weir, designs exhibitions including much of the Medalta museum site. In Newfoundland, she and her husband earned their living making and marketing clay whistles and other ceramic objects. Alongside the wholesale craft production, she began to make figurative sculptures, drawing inspiration from daily life in her rural community. Eventually, the sculptures replaced the production work as they gained an audience in Newfoundland and central Canada. Weir works directly and spontaneously, literally drawing with and into the clay, working various slips and oxides into the surface with a facility developed from years of production work. She came to the residency with a strong sense of what she hoped to achieve. Currently between bodies of work, she saw it as an optimum time to take risks and make changes. She wanted to expand beyond her comfort range and to 'shake herself up', challenge her assumptions and ascertain if her work is still relevant to the larger art culture. She felt her glazed surfaces were becoming too dominant and sought ways to allow the clay to say and show more. She experimented with terra sigillata and the effects of atmospheric firings. During the residency she produced a series of 'half-hour heads', expressive busts that distilled the information of the head into the most simple and direct expression. She was able to treat these with a great deal of freedom, applying a range of slips, engobes and other materials to enhance and enrich her already active surfaces and fearlessly sending them into the salt, soda or wood kiln. While not all of the experiments proved successful, embracing the accidental transformed her approach back home. She feels the residency allowed her to bring a stronger sense of play and immediacy to her new work.
Residencies provide essential opportunities for professional artists, who take time from their busy careers to network, experiment and generally move beyond their comfort zone. An additional eight participants applied for and were accepted to the program, several attending for the second or third time. Thomas Aitken and Kate Hyde (Ontario, Canada) were invited artists in 2005. They returned as participants this year to prepare for a large joint exhibition at the Burlington Art Gallery. Aitken's original training as a sculptor shows in his sensitivity to the nuances of form but he has focused for the last 13 years on domestic dinnerware. He manipulates the elements of design, making work that fits in well with contemporary life. In his view, a pot is never finished until it is in use in someone's home. This holistic vision extends beyond the individual: he believes contemporary domestic potters are important, as potting is not only a craft that produces useful objects but a form of communication that contributes to the social relations of the community at large. Kate Hyde, who received the Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramists in 2005, is influenced as much by textiles as by ceramics. Her collection of vintage clothing and beautiful fabrics inspires her delicate porcelain forms and she uses her considerable graphic skills to decorate Aitken's thrown forms with whimsical and charming renditions of harlequins, animals and elements of costume.
Jody Greenman-Barber (Saskatchewan) also has upcoming exhibitions and the residency offered her an opportunity to develop new work. Greenman-Barber makes both sculptural and functional wares that have in common her devotion to the wheel. She finds freedom in the movement and energy of the spinning. Increasingly, she thinks of throwing as performance and has produced a very clever animated short exploring her process. She often pushes clay to the point of collapse, piling one pot on another or slashing and altering her forms shortly after removing them from the wheel. Her pots contain an infectious rhythm that is loose, expressive and yet also very disciplined. She has developed an original and independent vision, one that reinvigorates the ethics and aesthetics of the handmade pot.
Carol Grant works with a range of clays to make large platters, tall vases and organic forms. Her whisper-thin porcelain vessels swell from impossibly small feet and remind her of things that she finds in nature. An avid outdoors woman, she collects clay from the remote rivers she encounters in her travels, uses it to make low-fire glazes and notes its origin on the bottoms of her pots. At Medalta, she worked with porcelain and naked Raku, a technique she perfected with years of constant research. She modifies Wally Asselbergh and Vince Pitelka recipes for slips and glazes to fit her clay body. Often working in black and white, she finishes her pots with a light coating of beeswax that gives them a soft, appealing sheen.
Gail Carnet' treated the residency as a research forum. She grew up near Medicine Hat and is the third generation of her family to work in ceramics. Although she has long worked in clay, a recent physical injury made throwing difficult. Thomas Aitken stepped in to throw stoneware plates for her to decorate, another happy example of artists collaborating on creative projects. Carney scoured the countryside and city archives for information on her family history and local lore, which she synthesized into complex narrative drawings. She adapted patterns found on historical plates to frame narratives detailing such arcane subjects as the history of the potato arriving in Europe, the intricacies of alchemy or how snakes survive winters on the prairies. She decorated Aitken's forms with underglaze pencils and pastels, producing unique and intriguing adaptations of traditional souvenir plates.
Juliana Greaves also grew up in the area and returned for her second residency. After earning her BFA in ceramics, she attended international residencies in France and Kecskemet, Hungary. She noticed in Europe that North Americans are perceived as being free and expressive. In Europe, many ceramists design for a purpose, producing beautifully designed dinner and decorative wares. She feels cultures can learn much from each other and that residencies such as Kecskemet and Medalta bring different artists together for interaction and exchange. Keith Rosychuk attended the kiln workshop taught by Aaron Nelson and experimented with soda firing during the residency. Influenced by the work of George Ohr, Rosychuk throws and alters vase forms, allowing them to hang upside down to stretch and otherwise deform. His freely applied glazes result in surfaces that are dense, tactile and expressively charged. Carolyn MacLaren came to ceramics from a background in film studies and business, starting to work seriously after leaving industry to raise a family. The residency offered her the opportunity to explore beyond the limitations of short courses, to learn from the professional ceramists attending and, inspired by the opportunity for critical review of her work and dialogue with the other participants, to begin to chart a personal course for her future. Technician Jenn Demke embellishes her functional ware with sgrafflto, slip and other materials, treating her ceramic surfaces as drawings. She paid close attention to the decorative work produced by Hycroft and Medalta in the 1950s and 1960s, noting that whimsical and charming patterns were used on wares directed towards female consumers. Her work will be sold in the gift shop accompanying the Canadian Crafts Federation exhibition at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in Korea, at which Canada is the official guest country this fall.
To have such committed and talented artists working together made for a productive and inspiring residency. Diversity in approach, geography and culture spawned discussions lasting long into the night ranging from practical issues of studio organization and marketing to more existential realms, including the relevance of the handmade in the digital age and how one determines if a pot is 'good'. Residencies like MIAIR represent the next stage in education and professional development for ceramic artists. A practice as complex and multifaceted as ceramics develops and moves towards a healthy future through artists coming together to work and exchange ideas. The facility is important and the Shaw Centre offers much to satisfy; but the most important ingredient--artists--remains the force that shapes creative practice and makes it relevant in a contemporary world.
Diversity in approach, geography and culture spawned discussions lasting long into the night ranging from practical issues of studio organization and marketing to more existential realms, including the relevance of the handmade in the digital age and how one determines if a pot is 'good'. Residencies like MIAIR represent the next stage is education and professional development for ceramic artists.
In June, 2009 tire Medalta hrternational Artists-in-Residence (MIAIR), previously located at the old Hycroft Pottery site, moved into a new, state-of-the-art, 12,000 square foot Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics adjacent to tire museum. With this new facility, MIAIR aspires to become a centre for ceramics research and creative production and a catalyst for ceramics excellence in Canada and abroad.
The residency ran from June 1 to June 26. Each participant received a 250 square foot studio with sink, table, wheel and storage. In addition to kilns, participants had access to glaze materials, a spray booth, moulds and other general studio equipment. The Shazu Centre also houses a library/meeting room, kitchen, offices and a gallery named in honour of Les Manning.
With abundant supplies of natural gas and alluvial clay, Medicine Hat at the turn of the 20th century was home to a thriving clay products industry that supplied brick, sewer pipe and over 75 percent of the pottery used in Canada. Today, most of the factories have closed but they are commemorated by the Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District
Amy Gogarty is an artist and a writer based in Vancouver, Canada. She has published over 80 critical essays and reviews of visual art and recently co-edited Utopic Impulses: Contemporary Ceramics Practice (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2007).