Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Creativity on Saskatchewan's Country Roads--revisited

Today, Bill and I drove up to North Star Pottery, Mel Bolen's and Karen Holden's studio and home, because I needed to do some research on ceramics before I head to Banff Centre for the Arts next weekend to work on Soul Weather for two weeks.  They live and work in a church south of Carmel (and east of Humboldt) that they've rebuilt to be a studio, home, and shop.  When they bought the land in the 1970s, there were no trees surrounding the building:  just a church on a hill.  They have since planted 10,000 trees which threaten to cut off the view from some of the dormers they've added to the second storey barrel-vaulted space.  A renovated farmhouse is an artist's retreat and the second storey of a rebuilt barn holds Karen's painting studio.

Artists are often generous people.  Mel was certainly being generous with his time today, giving me his Labour Day afternoon to talk about the art and science of ceramics.  He told wonderful stories--of taking a fine arts ceramics class at U of R as an elective and finding Jack Sures working his magic at the wheel.  Jack, he said, didn't baby anybody.  He didn't guide you around the pottery studio and tell you what everything was for.  He simply sat down at a wheel and started to throw.  Mel was instantly attracted to the physicality of it, to its embodiment of the laws of physics. He still gets quite lyrical when he talks about this plastic medium that hardens in the most remarkable way and of his desire to leave in each piece an echo of its plastic, earthy origin.  He was also attracted to the science of it:  inventive potters know the secrets of earth, glazes, and the ways of fire.  Mel talked of working with Jack Sures in a kind of intense apprenticeship that involved everything from moving house several times to preparing clay and building kilns.

But he also talked about the generosity of making art:  that when you invite people to a show or into your booth at Bazaart, it has to be with generosity.  Your work is a gift, and people will sometimes take it and sometimes leave it, but the generosity--and the risk-taking that comes with it--has to be there.  If you are lucky, you will find yourself with the stories, doubtless fragmentary, of the people who buy your work; in turn, your work will become part of their stories.  This is what he loves about ceramics, that people take it into their hands, put it to their lips, cook in it, always trusting the craftmanship.  "Intimate stuff goes on," he says.

But Bolen likes to work the line--one he describes as crooked, sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes grey and fuzzy--between art and craft.  When he hasn't thrown for a while he always starts by warming up his craft by making mugs, moving on to bowls and plates, until something demands that he begin to explore the borders of ceramics and take some risks.  At this point in his career, this seems to involve his use of "terra sigilatta," a slip made from clay that he burnishes by hand into the surface of a leather-hard piece; then he fires it at 2400 degrees in his kiln and then, just to add another variable, throws damp salt into the kiln once the temperature has been reached to release caustic sulphur.  The result is quite wonderfully unpredictable:  the sulfur doesn't reach every part of each piece evenly, so the effects vary; in some places the silica from the clay he uses for this process breaks through the slip; at other places the slip bubbles and crackles. The time and place these pieces occupy in the kiln are written on their surfaces:  the side of a piece that's turned away from the blast of salt looks entirely different than the side that takes its full force.  Some pieces are fired on their sides, propped up on clam shells, so that their undersides are completely different and may have vacancies in the glaze that show where the shells were.  He varies these effects even more by making some of the slips out of "wild clay" just to see what kind of a surface they'll make.   Tradition meets experiment and innovation in these pieces.  That double sidedness of this work can also be seen in the shapes of the vessels he throws for this work--often very classic vases.  But then he might flatten the sides and score them with a nail.  Or he might use an old broken fishing pole to make folds in their sides, sometimes rhythmically and regularly, sometimes randomly and playfully.

This is an inventive and inspiring body of work.

The drive north to Humboldt and back was also quite beautiful.  I don't think I've seen this gently hilly landscape so soon after combining, with the swathes of straw still on the fields.  There was something intimate about the curves and arcs and dips made by the swathes, as if the farmers knew each fold and curve and cranny of their fields.  Toward the end of the day, the setting sun came through a haze made by combining, making the whole landscape ethereal.

1 comment:

  1. That sea-foam green bowl on the bottom left is beautiful. I completely forgot how much I love ceramics that have that pale blue-green-sea coloring to them.

    Sounds like you are having an adventurous and productive sabbatical!