Monday, 21 May 2012

A New Context for Newfoundland Ceramics

When I agreed to present at the Planted Pots mini-symposium I knew I would be talking about ceramic practice in Newfoundland and Labrador.  I expected that I would be talking about the influence of the landscape, for example in Alexis Templeton's crystalline glazes, and the influence of Newfoundland heritage, in the case of the slut series of King's Point Pottery.  I knew I wanted to compare Newfoundland with Nova Scotia and Ontario too and what impact not having a NSCAD has had (we have no Walter Ostrom clones) and what impact not having a clay history or clay settler traditions has had.  Both contribute to the fact that there is no distinct Newfoundland regional style. What I didn't expect was that I would be speaking about Newfoundland as a distinct culture or the relationship between Newfoundland and the United States and its military.

I welcome opportunities to think about old things in new ways or to discover new topics.  That's one way I grow as a writer and thinker.  I was prompted to think about the distinct culture of Newfoundland and compare it to Quebec's vision of itself as a distinct culture after The Republic of Doyle got renewed for a second season.  Ex-premier Danny Williams was on the CBC radio saying what a proud day it was for Newfoundland that "Doyle" got renewed and at the same time so did "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" and the "Rick Mercer Report".  And this was against a backdrop of 10% cuts to the CBC by the federal government.  Not long after that, we had the Craft Weekend in early May.  Sure enough, the tri-colours of the old Republic flag were flying everywhere in St. John's.  From speaking with Alexis Templeton, I understand she had a hand in the colours being adopted for the logo that Jennifer Barnable created for the event.  It was obviously smart marketing and the colours dovetail nicely with the spring season as well.

When I tested out my new pet-theory (that Newfoundland saw itself as a culturally distinct society and the suggestion of the Quebec parallel) on Denis Longchamps who has just moved here (in January) from Quebec.  Without hesitation he completely agreed.  
Alexis Templeton's Studio during May Craft Weekend

Now for the U.S. connection.  When I juried the Fusion Fireworks show along with Bruce Cochrane and Christ Gustin last year I was surprised to see that no Newfoundlanders had submitted ceramic work for the event. (Urve Manuel did submit work in glass and was accepted.)  And this is a show with good prize money, documentation, it travels and there is also the opportunity to be acquired for the Burlington Art Centre ceramics permanent collection, which is the largest ceramic collection in a Canadian institution.  The problem is, is that Newfoundland ceramic absence creates a misleading impression and makes it look to the mainland as if we have no serious potters, which is very far from the truth.

I think our focus, in terms of clay in this province, has been directed towards the U.S. and NCECA in particular.  It is obviously the biggest game in North America as far as clay goes.  But it made me think about Newfoundland's long-standing relationship with the States.  For my presentation, I decided to look into that relationship.  This is what I decided to say about it in Halifax,

Instead of looking to the mainland, the focus traditionally has been for Newfoundlanders to look to the United States and there are many precedents for this.  During the 1880s, Newfoundland had its own free-trade agreement with the United States as it did not share in the disputes between Canada and the United States.  Newfoundland granted the U.S. access to its inshore fishery in exchange for duty-free access to U.S. markets for Newfoundland exports.

In more recent history, there was also a strong U.S. military presence in Newfoundland.  During World War II, it extended beyond army and naval bases in St. John's, Stephenville and Argentia to include smaller stations scattered across the island. Intended to strengthen the defence of Newfoundland and the U.S., these installations–with Winston Churchill's blessing– included radar sites, radio transmitters, and repeater stations used to establish an island-wide communications network.  The Americans built the telephone system in Newfoundland–not the British Empire.  Certain sites, such as the repeater stations, were large undertakings that required civilian help to build while others were shrouded in so much secrecy that not even local residents were aware of their functions.  However, nothing could prevent Americans and Newfoundlanders from intermarriage and strengthening the U.S.-Newfoundland bond.

Jason Holley grew up in a military family.  I think the contrast between the militaristic strength and clay vulnerability that is expressed in his work– the illusion of strength and control comes from his family experience.    That aspect was also something that was rewarding to think about for the presentation.  This is what I say in the talk about it,
When I saw Jason's card advertising his participation at The Artist Project with a tag line "The finished product looks so strong, militaristic, permanent, it's not."  I said to him, "That's about your father isn't it?"  His simple response was, "my work has always been about my father."

Michael Flaherty is the other younger maker that I talk about in the presentation.  His last show, Rangifers Sapiens, provided an opportunity to also discuss the issues of resettlement and the challenge to our natural environment.  So, although I talk a lot about pots and our wider ceramic circle in the province, everyone from the older generation of Margo Meyer and Ray Mackie to the "youngsters" Jason Holley and Michael Flaherty, it also turns out to be a crash course in Newfoundland history and culture from pre-Confederation to today's Republic of Doyle.  Not exactly just showing pictures from home and bragging about my kids.

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