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Fête of Clay

by Tom McFall

Imagine yourself, at the water's edge along the Peace or South Saskatchewan River. Look around and up, through the mosquitoes and swallows, past the willows and poplars, to the layers—stripes of colour and texture. Stop. Don't look any further. We are not seeking rare birds or exposed dinosaur bones. We are looking for and at clay. Mud. Guck. Our search has been repeated countless times by Alberta potters, ancient and contemporary, because these banks of clay, either irritatingly dusty or impossibly slippery, have provided an invaluable and irresistible raw material. This clay, the need for simple and useful vessels, natural human ingenuity and a potter's desire for self-satisfaction, have converged in Alberta to foster 2000 years of pottery making.

Pottery, anywhere in the world, starts with clay. Clay of some sort can be found exposed in almost any river valley or roadside cut-bank in Alberta. Not all of it has the properties necessary for shaping and firing into pots. Tony Hansen from Plainsman Clays (Medicine Hat) explains that clay particles, eroded out of the Rocky Mountains, have been deposited throughout Alberta. The geology is complex but the result is simple. Seams of virtually pure "pottable" clay, as much as 30 ft. (10 m) thick, are unique to Alberta and Saskatchewan. Now erosion is exposing these layers of clay throughout Alberta. In the Beaver Hills where I live, clay is all that remains of a lake that once lay atop glacial ice. When I was a teen, well drilling brought up a clay sample that I was able to throw and fire to a dark chocolate brown. This availability and variety of clay has encouraged prehistoric, industrial and art pottery, unlike anywhere else in Canada.

Several stunning prehistoric pots have been reassembled for display in the new Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture at the Provincial Museum of Alberta. The oldest piece exhibited dates back 1,200 years. Archaeologists have found tens of thousands of pottery fragments throughout southern and central Alberta. No prehistoric pots have been found intact—not surprising considering Alberta's demanding climate and the millions of bison and antelope hooves that once trampled Alberta grasslands.

Archaeologist Jack Brink explains that pottery making, likely the work of women who supplied a family group or camp, disappeared quickly and entirely with the introduction of European metal kettles about 200 years ago. Before that, most families of the buffalo culture probably possessed at least a clay pot or two, for cooking, for carrying and storing water, or for preserving dried berries and seeds. Pot fragments at the Provincial Museum still have traces of both plant matter and animal fat left from prehistoric dinners.

Ancient potters knew about clay— where to find it, how to work it, how to form and fire it into pots over 20 inches in diameter. They added handles and holes for hanging, thickened rims to add strength. They were concerned with regularly replacing worn or broken pots, and they may have abandoned pots when a camp was moved, knowing replacements were easy to make. They also understood the decorative opportunities of clay and tested their creativity with a wide variety of surface patterning and personal style. By studying functional and decorative features, archaeologists may eventually identify individual potters or potting families, enabling us to appreciate Alberta's earliest clay artists. These prehistoric pots—with their classic forms, fascinating textures, subtle colours and clear evidence of the human creativity— have all the essential characteristics of good contemporary art pottery.

Coincidentally, Alberta's first commercially-produced pottery featured an Indian head as its trade mark. For the first half of this century the Medicine Hat area was Canada's industrial clay centre. More than a dozen factories, at times employing almost half the working population of that city, produced everything from bricks and sewer tiles to ceramic pop bottles and popular tablewares. The best known factory was Medalta which produced thousands of different products—crocks, jugs, chicken feeders, hotel ware, medical equipment, and dinnerware in vast quantities.

All these clay products were made with a high degree of hand work, particularly in the finishing and glazing processes. Few of the thousands of employees who came and went from the Medicine Hat factories thought of themselves as artists, but many were employed for their abilities to work, technically and creatively, with clay. The skills required to develop a new line of dinnerware for mass production were essentially the same skills expected of a contemporary art potter—working knowledge of clay characteristics, firing and glaze science, form and function, decoration, consumer tastes and even marketing. The names of many of these early pottery "experts" are lost, but their work is now sought by collectors who appreciate both the history and visual distinctiveness of Medicine Hat pots.

The Alberta Potteries factory (later named Hycroft) was built to state-of-the-art standards in 1936 and continued production until the 1970s. English-trained potters and technicians often held management positions. But as many as 20 workers, usually local women trained on the job, were employed during peak production. They were skilled at brushing on glaze, adding hand-painted flowers and trim, applying transfers for commercial labels or drawing and applying portraits of famous bulls or anniversary pictures of churches. Their work, usually anonymous, resulted in some of the more interesting and curious products from the clay factories. A sharp eye can still spot examples at garage sales—plates with dancing antelope, beer steins with cowboy hats, or mugs with "get back to work" inside.

The Medalta factory is now both a provincial and national historic site. It and the Hycroft plant are open for tours, courses and seminars in contemporary pottery and are being developed as an international centre for clay studies. But the Medicine Hat clay industry is not just part of Alberta's past. Early industrial pottery continues to influence and inspire contemporary potters. Many professionals avidly collect Medalta ware, and some, such as John Chaike of Calgary, one of Alberta's most internationally recognized clay artists, cites historic pottery as an influence.

The Medicine Hat potteries went into decline during the 1950s. Consumer habits changed, labour costs increased and the owners of aging factories were reluctant to reinvest. German and Japanese ceramics became stiff competition for the Alberta industries. Ironically German art pottery and traditional Japanese folk pottery became a major influence in Alberta. Individuals such as Sibyl Lubenthal helped found the Edmonton Potters Guild and Noburu Kubo introduced hundreds of students to Japanese traditions. Exchange visits over the years have fostered a continued fascination with Japanese techniques such as raku firing and forms such as tea bowls.

By the 1950s, pottery as a craft took on new life, and since then Alberta has been a hot-bed of innovative functional and sculptural clay arts. Thousands of amateurs have taken classes at schools, allied arts councils and guilds. Over the last 30 years, dozens have made their living potting full-time and have developed national and international reputations for award-winning work.

The oil and building booms in the 1950s created an irrepressible atmosphere for new artistic endeavours. Art and craft programs appeared almost as fast as post-war suburbs. Luke Lindoe began the clay program at what was to become the Alberta College of Art (Calgary). The provincial arts branch was arranging pottery courses. During the '60s and '70s, the universities of Calgary, Alberta, and Lethbridge, as well as Red Deer College and the Banff School of Fine Arts, introduced ceramic studies. The Edmonton Potters Guild offered its first courses, and since then dozens of clay studios have sprung up in community arts centres from Beaverlodge to Pincher Creek. Although funding for clay programs is drying up faster than clay on a hot summer day, the extraordinary level of both amateur and professional activity in Alberta is unique in Canada. Several other commercial clay ventures have had a lasting influence on Alberta pottery. Luke Lindoe also started Alberta's first art pottery studio in Calgary. Dissatified with the availability of raw material, he founded Plainsman Clays in Medicine Hat. For 35 years, Plainsman has been the principal supplier of pottery clays to most of Canada. Following in Lindoe's footsteps, many other Alberta potters have set new standards for creative, technical and even craft business innovation.

Today, dozens of professional potters are scattered throughout Alberta. All Alberta cities (and many towns) have shops that feature their work. Christmas craft sales also expose budding and part-time potters to an appreciative public. But Alberta pottery is not solely of local interest. Many Alberta potters are steadily building national and international reputations as practitioners, teachers and experts. They have experimented with clays, glazes, firing techniques, forms and visual effects. Pages would be required to list the exhibitions, awards and accolades of Alberta potters such as Carol and Richard Selfridge (Edmonton), John Chaike and Barbara Tipton (Calgary), Greg Payee (Calgary), and others. Major clay conferences are held in Edmonton, and the national clay magazine is published in Calgary.

I confess to having some personal favourites—potters with an "Alberta" flavour to their work. Bibi Clement (Hythe) features whooping cranes or chickadees on her large wood-fired platters. Peggy Heer (Edmonton) uses subtle colours to portray Alberta landscapes in clay; Don Wells (High River) sculpts wild animals onto bowls and plates; Evelyn Grant (Calgary) features dancing cowgirls on her teapots; Linda Stanier (Stony Plain) combines casting, carving, and glazing techiques to interpret Alberta wilderness; Bradley Keyes (Calgary) features grain elevators, straw bales and prairie fields; and Deb Demers celebrates nature with her sculptural bowls portraying pelicans and other birds. In Alberta pottery, diversity reigns. Arne Handley (Medicine Hat) president of the Alberta Potters Association and chair of the Alberta Craft Council, states grandly that "clay is the soul of Alberta craft." I might add that Alberta pottery has a popular and populist soul and I look forward to continuing my own somewhat obsessive pursuit of enjoying it.

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