Sunday, 13 May 2012

Trying to make sense of the Galapagos Island that is Newfoundland ceramics

Platter by Isabella St. John 2011

This past week I have been chipping away at my upcoming presentation at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on contemporary ceramic practice in Newfoundland and Labrador, amongst other things. 

I am tempted to think of ceramic practice here as being a kind of Galapagos Island –a relatively isolated place where weird and wonderful things take place that you don't see anywhere else.  I know that's not literally true but I have been struck over the years at how eccentric ceramic practice is on our island.  For example, Bavarian born Margo Meyer taught several potters during the 1970s who went on to become professional potters.  But none of them produced work that in anyway resembled Margo's work, which was gaily painted, functional ware in the spirit of folk pottery.  I am Austrian on my mother's side of the family and I can tell you without exaggeration that I have seen whole towns in the Alps that produce functional and decorative ware that looks like a first cousin to Meyer's wares. 

Feast of Pottery, an annual project masterminded by potter Alexis Templeton that brings together some of the best pottery in the province in an event-based retail environment.

Isabella St. John was a student of Margo's but you'd never know it from any of her ceramic work done at any point in her career.  I think St. John's gift is that she always knew what her own artistic vision was and she never compromised it.  Isabella listens to her own muse.  Her work is varied and it would be easy to look, say at her sculpture of Cormorant Woman, and then to look at her towers series, and think they were made by two completely different people.  Alexis Templeton, in turn, was a student of Isabella's but you'd never know if from her crystalline glazes.  There is no resemblance between Isabella's work and Alexis and from watching the two of them in their respective studios I don't see a similarity in process or methodology either.

Reed Weir at work in her studio on the Horizon Watchers series

Last week, I was working with Reed Weir, writing the essay and revising it in preparation for her Horizon Watchers solo show at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax.  It was the culmination of a long process of telephone interviews and e-guided question and answer sessions.  I get teased that I should have been a shrink and reviewing my notes in Reed's file I can see why.  Weir is a very intense artist and I was able to use that intensity to go successively deeper with my questions and then help her refine the answers.  She is incredibly dedicated and I have no doubt that she will succeed in her career. 

Reed is lucky to have had the support of her dealer Jonathon Bancroft Snell over the years.  He is a man with a mission and it isn't necessarily commercial.  This week he mentioned to me in conversation, that his was the only gallery where you could walk in and see not only Reed's sculptural work but her production work too.  He has everything from a loon whistle to her most resolved examples of figurative sculpture.  I think he's interested in the whole story that is Reed Weir and that is rare.  In Weir's sculpture I see an important shift from the local to the global and universal.  I'll tell you more about that when her show opens on June 15th.

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