Folklorist Dale Jarvis introduces us to local ceramic artists and the interesting history of pottery in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Growing up in Bonavista, ceramic artist Wendy Shirran was always interested in the arts, but she knew little about clay and pottery. After graduating from Memorial University, where she studied English and theatre, Wendy ventured about as far from Newfoundland and Labrador as one can - all the way to Japan. It was there that her interest in clay was sparked.
“I had a student there who, every day after her pottery class in Naruto, which is a famous place for pottery, used to bring her pottery to my class for our one-on-one session,” Wendy remembers. “She was learning English, and we would have English conversations around her pots. At that point, I said, that’s it, when I go back to Newfoundland, I have to get my hands in some clay.”
Upon her return, Wendy took her first class at the Devon House Clay Studio in St. John’s under the tutelage of Laura Sheppard. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wendy’s journey away and back again to find her love of clay seems fitting given the back story of ceramics in the province, which is linked to travel and the exchange of ideas.
The early indigenous peoples of this place left behind very little in the way of pottery. Only a handful of potsherds have been documented from archaeological sites, the majority from western Newfoundland and Labrador. Whether these ceramics represent a local tradition at the start of its evolution, or the movement of people and ideas from other areas of eastern Canada, is not yet fully understood. It’s possible that some of the earliest pottery was the result of far-ranging indigenous trade routes that predated the arrival of Europeans.
When settlers did come, European pottery came with them: North Devon pipkins and cooking pots; Bellarmine jugs from Germany; Portuguese Merida-ware and Basque roofing tiles. Clay as an industry
didn’t start until about 1832, when a man named John Clement of Smith’s Sound shovelled out the local clay and shaped it into bricks. By 1898, Trinity Bay brickmakers were churning out 60,000 bricks a year, selling them at seven dollars per thousand.
Livyers continued importing the pottery goods they needed, everything from dinner plates to chamber pots. Today, you can find locally made pottery at festivals and craft stores all across the province, but it’s a fairly recent evolution of the craft.
From Germany with love
We owe part of that evolution to another traveller, the late Margo Meyer, who in the 1950s moved to Corner Brook from Germany and started teaching the art of pottery-making. One of her first students was potter and ceramic artist Isabella St. John. Isabella now produces porcelain, stoneware and raku pottery in her Blue Moon Pottery studio overlooking the Narrows in the St. John’s Battery. Back in 1971, Isabella heard about a pottery course being offered in Corner Brook. It was a one-year course developed by Margo to give students the experience and skills needed to start their own pottery studios.
“We started with hand-building, as is usually the case, forming small pots and gradually larger pots from coils, from slabs, developing our own designs,” says Isabella.
“After some months of hand-building techniques, we started on the potter’s wheel, which we were all very eager to do. It was very demanding, and very rewarding. You could see your progress day-by-day. We went through that whole program and finished learning to fire the kilns and apply the glazes, every aspect, and had a final exhibition at the Arts and Culture Centre in Corner Brook.”
Inspired by Margo’s teaching, a love of pottery-making spread around the province. Isabella and friends applied to the Canada Council for funding to develop a pottery studio and craft store in Pasadena. The shop continued for decades, while Isabella herself moved on to Colinet, St. Mary’s Bay, and worked in a studio there.
One day another potter, Peter Thomas, who was working at Memorial University, came to visit. He said, “I was just walking in the Battery and I saw a handwritten sign in the window of this house. You should go check that out.” Isabella did and bought the house, and when the Memorial University clay studio shut down in the 1980s, she opened Blue Moon Pottery in that same house, a business she runs to this day.
The Craft Council takes form
Isabella and other passionate craftspeople also set up what is known today as the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Craft Council purchased the historic Devon House building on Duckworth Street in St. John’s.
“I remember walking through the empty space with Sophie [Margo’s daughter] when we did acquire ownership of the building, and trying to plot it out. ‘Okay, where will we put this? Where should the kiln go?’ and we did a layout for the studio, and so on,” Isabella says. “And that was it, the beginning of the Clay Studio.”
Years later, it was that Clay Studio where a young Wendy Shirran took her first clay course. Another journey followed: Wendy moved to Halifax to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, graduating with a B.Ed Art Specialist degree in 2003. She then moved back to St. John’s in 2011, and began working as the Clay Studio coordinator and running her own business, Wendy Shirran Ceramic Art.
Over the past quarter-century, the Clay Studio has been instrumental in building a strong community of cer-amic artists, with a focus on commu-nity outreach, collaborative projects, internships and work placements.
“When you walk into a community studio, there’s conversation,” Wendy describes. “It varies from shop talk about ceramics, to something going on in someone’s own personal life. We’re celebrating this, or we’re celebrating that, or we’re helping somebody with this difficult time. It’s constantly organic, and it’s community-building - a diverse community of all ages and backgrounds.”
This summer the Clay Studio is moving house, and setting up a new workshop on Water Street in St. John’s, where visitors can see artists at work, take part in one of their many workshops, or learn more about the annual outdoor pottery firing on Middle Cove Beach.
Ceramics in the province continues on its own path, moving from its earliest functional, production pottery styles and branching out into more sculptural and experimental artistic work.
“There’s a million possibilities,” says Wendy. “You can never stop learning from it. I think that’s my love with clay. As well, it’s done all over the world: I can travel anywhere on this planet, and slip into this community wherever I go, and in any city people are working with the same love of this material. It’s incredible. I’ll do it until the day I die.”
“In Our Hands,” Wendy’s most recent gallery show, featured handmade porcelain vessels inspired in part by her great-uncle Wilson Hayward’s stories about the fairies of Bonavista.
The best journeys are the ones that bring us home again.
NL Pottery Tour
King’s Point Pottery
27 Bayside Drive, King’s Point
Multiple award-winning artists Linda Yates and David Hayashida have transformed a 1960s gas station into one of NL’s best known craft and art galleries. They have been creating a line of blue and white functional pottery with their signature “Whales and Waves” designs since 1992. Keep your eyes open for Wallie Hayashida-Yates, the studio’s friendly greeter cat.
Plank Lane Pottery
196 Water Street, Carbonear
Charlene Sudbrink graduated from the College of the North Atlantic’s pottery program in 1992 and has been creating ever since, making
her Wave Over Wave mugs, run-
ning pop-up workshops and pottery classes for beginners, while also offering studio space for experienced students and potters.
Wild Cove Pottery
102 Main Street, Port Union
Ceramic artist Michael Flaherty is always up to something interesting: digging clay, collecting glaze materials, creating installation pieces, or building wood-burning or solar-powered kilns. Drop by his studio in the Port Union Registered Heritage District to see his handmade stoneware pottery and one-of-a-kind sculptures.
Northeastern Folk Art
This studio is a marriage of the east and west coasts, both in the figurative and literal sense. When they began making pottery and giftware, Mike Gillan and Erin McArthur brought together different ideas and designs. Mike, a chef who has had a lifelong passion for carving and polishing stones, found ceramics to be a natural move. Erin gladly left the corporate world once the dream of an encore career making art became possible. Their work is available at fine shops and galleries around
Newfoundland including The Rooms Gift Shop, 9 Bonaventure Avenue,
St. John’s (www.TheRooms.ca); and at The Artisan Market, 96 Main Street, Twillingate (Twillingateandbeyond.com/artisan-market.html).
Blue Moon Pottery
17 Outer Battery Road, St. John’s
No jaunt through the twisting lanes of The Battery is complete without stopping in at Isabella St. John’s cheerful yellow studio. Twice chair of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, Isabella was also one of the founders of both the Christmas Craft Fair and the Council’s Clay Studio. Look, as well, for work by her niece, Erin Callahan St. John, owner of Saucy Pots Pottery (www.saucypots.me).
Pottery Firing on Middle Cove Beach
This all-day, all-ages, free event happens every year towards the end of summer. Students and volunteers make upwards of 300 pots, and first fire them at a low temperature in an electric kiln. On the morning of the firing, a pit is dug into the beach and lined with wood, sawdust and other flammables. The pottery is wrapped in seaweed or newspapers, sprayed with iron oxide and copper carbonate, and stacked in the hole. Then, more wood is piled on top, perhaps some salt is thrown on, and the whole pile is lit ablaze. The fire burns for three to five hours, and when it dies down to embers the finished pottery is revealed. The random combination of minerals, salts and high heat results in unpredictable patterns on the pieces, which are sold right there on the beach as a fundraiser supporting the Clay Studio’s programming. Get your pottery while it’s hot!
Visit the Clay Studio website to find out dates and more information.