Art

In the Eye of the BEHOLDER

Canada's finest artisans are pushing their craft into the realm of art

PATRICIA CHISHOLM July 16 2001
Art

In the Eye of the BEHOLDER

Canada's finest artisans are pushing their craft into the realm of art

PATRICIA CHISHOLM July 16 2001

In the Eye of the BEHOLDER

Art

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

A single ghostly dragonfly floating on the surface of a lustrous pale green bowl. A huge vase made of smoky, pastel glass, its bloated base tapering into a delicately twisted neck, like some sightless prehistoric creature. Cups and saucers precisely stacked on plates, a painted nude snaking from the surface of one vessel to another. Such are the works of Canada’s leading artisans in glass and clay—technically brilliant, esthetically innovative and conceptually adventurous.

The world is beginning to notice. Long overshadowed by the larger and much wealthier American crafts community, Canada’s finest ceramic and glass artisans are more than coming into their own. Some are pushing their craft into the realm of art by creating objects with the qualities of sculpture. Their works are displayed in an increasing number of public galleries across the country and many exhibit regularly abroad. Although making a living by throwing pots or blowing glass is still far from easy, over the last five years top names like glassmaker Jeff Goodman and potter Peter Powning have found ready markets on both sides of the border, with some selling as much as half of their work in the United States. Others, like conceptual ceramicists Jeannie Mah and Paul Mathieu, sell relatively little to individuals but are collected by many leading international galleries and museums. “Pieces by Canadians are now as good as those from any country and that is say-

ing a lot,” says Sue Jefferies, assistant curator of contemporary ceramics at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto. “The international standard is very high.”

Canadian glasswork, in particular, has been coming on strong since the late 1970s, when Sheridan College’s glass studio, directed by artisan Dan Crichton, began to refine ancient techniques that

Canada's finest artisans are pushing their craft into the realm of art

allowed glass to be blown in studio conditions. That studio, still headed by Crichton, now houses one of the largest academic glass programs in North America, with space for 60 full-time students. The supply of artisans is matched by a growing demand for unique, beautifully made objects for the home—and by a willingness to pay for them. Joan Chalmers has been one of Canada’s most generous sup-

porters of craft art for more than four decades, funding awards and using her Toronto home to display her own extensive collection. “More people are realizing that it is all right to buy something that is one of a kind that can also be used in everyday life,” she says. And there is, of course, the sheer pleasure of possessing a striking object, whether or not it holds flowers or pours tea.

Some of Canada’s finest artisans talk about what they are trying to achieve in their work:

HARLAN HOUSE ceramics

Harlan House, who lives near Belleville, Ont., has been making beautiful, functional pottery for more than 30 years. Known for the soft, lustrous quality of his glazes—drawn mostly from traditional Chinese and Japanese techniques —House produces pale green bowls, platters and vases, many with gentle swirls or images of insects subtly worked into the surface. Always innovating, House, 37, is currently working on a series of long, narrow vases that are designed to be laid on their sides. Placed this way, they take up much more space, turning a table into a plinth for the display of a functional object that is also art. “The idea is to examine how much attention can be focused on a single piece,” House says. One of the most articulate defenders of the notion that the distinction between art and craft is passé, House believes there should be no barriers to his pieces being used, despite their prices—

$100 for a cup and saucer and up to $2,500 for a vase. “If a teapot is beautiful and provocative and can also be used, what a bonus.”

PETER POWNING

ceramics, metal, glass and stone

Another 30-year veteran, Powning joins clay, metal, glass and stone into forms both airy and earthbound. Upright tablets have centres bulging with webs of glass bubbles, while a disc of clay, bronze and glass looks as if it could have been dropped from outer space—or unearthed from an ancient burial site. Textures seem both intricate and rough-hewn, evoking an object’s fiery birth and the subde relationship between material and technique.

Powning, 51, who lives in Markham ville, N.B., says that his pieces, which he sells for up to $25,000, often arise out of a “feeling or a moment” inspired by nature, but that trying to pin down that feeling can be counterproductive. “Being too analytical about a piece begins to reduce the effect of what you are describing.” Powning also cautions against becoming too focused on the technical virtuosity involved rather than the entire esthetic experience. “When people look at my work, I hope there’s a sense of mystery,” he says, “and that the mystery is not ‘how did he make this?’ ”

DAN CRICHTON glass

A respected teacher and activist, Crichton is proud of the fact that his Sheridan students regularly win awards at international exhibitions, recently picking up three at a show held at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York. He’s also a consummate artist. The surfaces of his large, crucible-like glass vessels are embedded with multiple layers of coloured glass, which contain metallic oxides—producing an eerie, shimmering effect in which light is both absorbed and reflected. The interiors of the vessels—most of which are priced from $5,000 to $6,000 —are also carefully refired, often with gold and platinum. Sometimes he depicts the tracks of subatomic particles whirling around on the darkened inside walls. Crichton, 55, says he’s drawn to the medium because of the unusual way it

combines “robust athletic activity with the cerebral and the thoughtprovoking. It is a material that has two contrary states, the viscous fluid state of hot glass and the fragile hard state of cold glass, and you are playing with that transformation point all the time.”

JEFF GOODMAN glass

Toronto’s Goodman is one of the country’s most successful artisans, selling his designs widely in Canada and the United States. His simple but elegant bowls are wildly popular, even though he makes fewer than he once did, and his tall serpentine vases often seem to defy the force of

gravity. Many of his blown-glass pieces, which sell for up to $6,000, are cast using moulds embedded with broken rock to suggest rougher textures. Over the last decade, Goodman, 40, has also gained a reputation for his architectural work, including glass tables and cabinets with glass doors, as well as sand-cast panels used to decorate the public areas of office buildings. Canada, the artist says, is gaining its own identity in the field of glass, becoming known for work that is personal and inspired by the northern landscape. “There’s a strong tie to the land,” Goodman says, “and the feel is more rugged, less decorative than pieces produced in the United States.”

JEANNIE MAH ceramics

The extreme thinness and fragility of the cone-shaped, cup-like porcelain vessels produced by Mah—and their prices, which can reach $ 1,000—generally limit her sales to serious collectors. But her work can be seen in galleries across the

country, as well as in Europe and the United States. Deeply intrigued by the history of ceramics, Regina-based Mah makes frequent use of images that refer to other periods or traditions in ceramic art, particularly Minoan Crete, 18th-century France and Song Dynasty China. “It’s amazing to me how certain patterns have travelled,” Mah says. “Blue and white, for instance, started in the Middle East, travelled to China where it was refined and then started to be exported to Europe.” At the heart of her work, though, is Mah’s enduring fascination with her material. “When I started to use porcelain, I really liked what my hands could do with it,”

'WHEN PEOPLE LOOK AT MY WORK, I HOPE THERE'S A SENSE OF MYSTERY'

Mah, 49, says. “I really push its translucent potential—it’s the fragility of the work that is one of the most enticing things about it.”

PAUL MATHIEU ceramics

Quebecer Mathieu, who teaches ceramics at the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver, describes his work—teacups and saucers precisely stacked on plates, or a teapot, cup and saucer together called Fluid Exchange—as “functional pottery forms made in the traditional way.” What sets the pieces apart as art are the paintings, often of nudes, that cross from one surface to another, turning a collection of vessels into a canvas. “The two aspects enrich each other,” says Mathieu, 46, whose work, which sells for up to $ 15,000, is held in numerous public collections around the world. “They are decorative, functional pots but they also refer to larger issues, like the AIDS crisis or how we view art.”