Dates: b.1939 Selsden, Surrey, England
Production Dates: 1956-present
Location: Chosin Pottery, Metchosin, Vancouver Island
Types of Work: Functional and Sculptural
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: propane and electric; oxidation, reduction, combination; cone 9-10
Preferred Clay: porcelain
Blog: Robin Hopper`s Blog
Facebook: Robin Hopper’s Facebook Page
Signature/ Mark/ Chop:
I have only seen impressed marks and chops , invariably on or near the base of Robin’s ceramics. I do not know of painted signatures
A Brief Biography
Robin Hopper is a name that is familiar to almost everyone in the business. His multi-phased career, based on Vancouver Island, BC, has reached ceramists, collectors and galleries across the continent and beyond. As Robin says, tongue-in-cheek, his life has seen him as
“a man of clay and glaze. [I have] pushed mud around for seventy years or twenty-five thousand days.”
“ …a Professional Actor, Stage Designer, Property Maker, Stage Manager, Stage Carpenter, Grocer, Greengrocer, Jazz Musician, Teapot, Wine and Beer-Bottle, Trumpet, Trombone and Bugle Player, European Travel Guide, Founder of Several Clay/Art/Craft Organizations, Alchemist, Geologist, Primatologist, Linguist, Ornithologist, Botanist, Ceramic Historian, Educator, Author, Garden Designer, Lecturer on Japanese Garden Design, Laborer and Star of Stage, Screen and Potter’s Wheel!”
This list does not include the too-many-to-count volunteer positions, workshops and demonstrations along with his books and videos on ceramic technique and history. After such a demanding history of sharing his talents and knowledge Robin has listened to his body:
“My aging body decided that it doesn’t want to push clay around in my studio anymore and opted for other alternatives!”
The Canadian phase of Robin’s career started in 1968 when he arrived in Toronto from England. Initially he taught at Central Technical School, Toronto, the same school that gave birth to the Canadian Guild of Potters in 1937. In 1970 he moved on to Georgian College, Barrie, Ontario. He also soon set up a studio in Hillsdale, north of Barrie. During his three years at Georgian he founded and served as head of its Ceramics and Glass Department. During his stay there he stressed with his students not only the technical aspects of designing and producing art but also the importance of thinking of themselves as professionals and businessmen. Many of his students also gained professional experience by working with him in his studio. By 1972 he had left Georgian and now worked out of Hillsdale. This would be a further step to a full-time studio ceramic career that never looked back. Five years later in 1977 he moved his studio and family to Metchosin, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, to set up his home, studio and garden. He has been living and working there ever since, creating his production work, his one-of-a-kind pieces, and many books and videos. In the meantime he has been able to pick up such awards and honours as the first Saidye Bronfman award in 1977 and has been acknowledged as an honorary member of NCECA.
General Thoughts On Robin Hopper’s Art
The amazing variety of works of produced are a feature of Robin’s wide-ranging interests and talents. The focus of this page will be on these, his ceramic works.
His studio creations vary from production pieces to unique exhibition-quality works. Most of his work is on the wheel although the final form can be assembled, batted, carved or folded disguising the wheel-thrown origin. In such work he draws on his vast ceramic-history knowledge of British, Oriental and other cultures’ ceramics and glaze techniques.
There are two fundamental aspects to Robin’s work. His forms are simplicity in themselves, minimal in many cases. But his surface decoration is where he plays, with surface modulation and colour, and with landscape or abstraction. It is in harmonizing the simple and the complex that Hopper shows his genius.There is always a harmony between form and surface design. Robin has written extensively on both. His forms reflect the influence not only of natural, oriental and ancient shapes but also of recent artists such as Hans Coper. His surface subjects reflect his love of the macroscopic landscape – of sky, water, forests and mountains; and of the intimate, the almost microscopic, in his for his love of his garden – its flowers, other plants and inhabitants; and the geological – in core samples, sedimentary layers and mineralization. One can also see the influence of his earlier painting and graphic artist work. This latter is particularly evident in his more recent glaze paintings on ceramic substrate as he develops a more painterly style using ceramic media.
In looking at Robin’s works one has to be aware of another quality of his process: linguistic creativity, his making up new technical terms for his works and processes. For example “bonefuming” in the Hummingbird plate above is a term created to describe placing calcium materials (bone. shells), sodium (salt) and potassium onto bare bisque clay – not onto glaze – where it will bond with the silica and form a smoky glass. This is the area of brown tone behind the hummingbird.
Central to all his work and to his lifestyle is the importance of ambience and environment. Robin absorbs the elements of his surroundings. He stays in his Metchosin surroundings as a lifestyle choice.
Robin Hopper’s Works and Robin in his Own Words
“Gardens and landscape have been my primary source of ideas and inspiration for my work in porcelain and interpretive glaze paintings for over 50 years. Sometimes I use images from the whole garden. Other times I concentrate on small details.”
Fluted Bowl. These Agateware works are some of Robin’s most widely known and recognizable work. Like most of his work they are of a porcelain body of his own recipe. Layers of purer white and stained bodies are interleaved to produce an effect that is variously reminiscent of water, shell patterns or sedimentary layers of sand or rock. Robin wisely does not add any other surface decoration to these already animated and busy surfaces. The colours are limited, restrained, mostly white with blue or grey or brown. These works generally tend to be more intimate in size, more easily picked up and handled. The forms are typical of much of his work: lidded jars, bowls, plates, are thrown on the wheel and then batted, folded or carved. Interestingly, but independently, Alice Mary Hagen had come across Agateware sometime in the early 1930s, probably while she was in England. Upon her return to Nova Scotia she developed the technique. Her style is called “Scotian Pebble Ware.” The effect is quite different from Robin’s, lacking his clarity, cleanness and precision.
Lidded Jar. I like this particular work because there is an unconscious symbolic echo in the elliptical forms reminiscent of Northwest Coast cultural imagery. Unlike Emily Carr , an earlier Victoria-based artist, who exploited the forms and subjects of that culture in the 1920s, this result is pure accident, coincidence. The work also shows the results of his modifying the original wheel-thrown shape by either paddling it with a wooden bat or bouncing it of a flat surface.
Feather Bowl. This bowl is an example of a more complex form of Agateware. The form is of two parts, an original porcelain bowl uniformly glazed in blue and an added contrasting rim of Agateware feathered in white, grey and black. The colours and shapes reflect an interest in the ripples at the water’s edge leading to deeper more still ocean depths.
Another feature of Robin’s work is his use of sculptural forms. These are often assembled works made from a variety of thrown and cut pieces. Some show the impact of Hans Coper, the British ceramist, who Robin acknowledges as one of his inspirations.
“I get inspired by historical work, adapt to my own form concepts and interpret the ideas accordingly. I then hope to come up with purely personal objects. The forms are mainly limited to variations on geometry, circles, ovals, parabolas, squares and rectangles.”
Porcelain Disc Form. The range of shapes in such works reflect Hopper’s admiration for the simplicity and directness of Hans Coper’s monumental forms. A thrown porcelain cylinder surmounted by two thrown bowls joined at the rims, in turn topped by a short neck and ridged lip. The whole is in white porcelain, matte and unglazed on the exterior but glazed on the interior. The disc surface is slashed across the general central area with dribbles of rutile and white slips, modified by iron and manganese mocha diffusions. The whole is gas-fired to cone 10 reduction. Such works are usually exhibition pieces, often produced in series for coming exhibits.
“The way that I work is to first find out all that I can about the process and its geological associations. I then decide what colors of slip and diffusions I want to work with and test them until I have what I want. The objects are then made and when leather hard the slip work and diffusions are done. With practice, one can make diffusions that either look like one tree or a whole landscape. Since I use high-fired vitreous porcelain, it is not necessary to glaze the surface.”
Mocha Diffusion Footed-Bowl. This example reflects the influence of Coper in its elegant concave curved beaker silhouette form atop a cylindrical stand. The mocha diffusion technique was popular in England in the early 19th century. The dendritic patterns of the mocha diffusion are clearly seen as the addition of drops of acidic fluid are dripped or trailed onto the alkaline slips creating the feathery or moss-like shapes seen on dendritic limestone or agate. Robin uses apple-cider vinegar mixed with colourant to achieve the effect. He finds carbonates or stains work better since they are lighter. (Robin explains his process in more detail in his blog page Mocha Diffusions.) This is an example of Hopper looking at the small and intimate in nature. The effect of the process is also similar to the wet-in-wet technique used in watercolour painting when wet pigments are placed directly next to or onto each other
Robin follows through on series inspired by various themes or motifs. In catalogues one can find works listed as SouthWest series, Oriental series, Night Forest series, Garden series, Hummingbird series, with titles such as Green Garden, Night Garden, Classical, Clematis, Zoomorphic, B’Oribe, Mocha, Mediterranean, Chado ,
Let’s follow up on two, The Southwest Series and an example of the B’Oribe Series.
“This series of my work is inspired by pottery of the indigenous people of the American southwest. Their wonderfully graphic work was the first pottery I ever remember seeing in a museum when I was 8 years old. Black, red and white have been my favorite triad of colors for 65 years. I’ve tried every variant of these three colors that i have been able to imagine.
In the southwest series, the dry greenware forms are sprayed with white terra sigillata, polished with a soft cloth and brush decorated with a variety of brushes using black-bronze pigment. This is then fired to cone 9 in oxidation. This is followed by painting and trailing with a chrome red lead glaze and re-fired to cone 010. All firing with this series is done in an electric kiln in oxidation.
Southwest series pieces are purely decorative and not for functional use.”
Footed Parabolic Bottle. This form is a popular and much seen shape in Robin’s work and exhibitions. Against a pure white canvas of porcelain and terra sigillata Robin has loosely brushed on a sumi-e type flower holder in black with a central kanji-type calligraphic swirl in red. The holder supports one sparse reed. The whole rests on a loosely drawn but dense brushwork of a bed of flowers that includes a favoured motif of Robin’s, an eye-like circle of dropped white slip with a central dot of red slip. The shoulder to neck transition has a simple band of black on red. The colours also reflect a desert sky just after sunset. This work reflects Robin’s interest in fusing different cultures, styles and periods.
Olla Form, Southwest Series. Vase shapes such as this reflect a more humble and traditional form. They were used for cooking or storage. Its wide convex belly is topped by a conical, slightly convex, cylindrical neck, and minimal lip. The two are perfectly balanced in scale. The design is framed rhythmically, both horizontally and vertically. Leaf forms create small vertical vignettes on the neck. The body swirls with fluid leaf movement around bands of red and black. A pronounced diagonal emphasis of the leaf shapes moves the eye continuously around belly of the pot. Vertical movement of the design is countered by the horizontal banding on the throat, neck, belly and foot. The base is unglazed white porcelain.
Tri-foot Plate Southwest series. The form of this bowl is typical of Robins bowls: a wide flared rim with a deep central depression; the two elements are of contrasting styles. The bowl proper is a deep red set off from the lip by a thin black band. The rim has a dynamic counter-clockwise swirl of leaves and blossoms which are themselves restrained by the reverse design of leaves of rhythmic loops and curves of slip trails. Across all of these shapes Robin trails a red slip over white, as stalks or blossom dots. We can see here Robin’s control of localized chromium red glaze on top of a tin-opacified terra sigillata.
The cross cultural theme also can be seen in a variety of approaches Robin uses such as his B’Oribe ware.
B’Oribe Plate, 2004. B’Oribe is another term invented by Robin. Oribe is a Japanese style where the works are randomly decorated with glazes. In between the splash glazes are iron brushwork patterns, often, as in this work, quite complex. He borrowed the concept, thus B’Oribe, or “borrowed from Oribe.” This plate resembles a pastiche of Japanese kimono-like designs scattered across the rim and sliding down into the bowl’s recess. These tighter geometric designs are contrasted with trailing, flowing organic lines and shapes. The orange and grey base colours each occupy about half the surface. The work is one of his most multi-coloured expressions in blues, greys, white red, orange and green. Yet the colours are gently restrained. The elements are familiar but set in a new context. Such works are abstract with just a hint of Hopper’s beloved garden forms.
Much of Robin’s latest works have been in the form of ceramic substrate paintings, a medium he came across about twenty years ago. He has pioneered the use of this relatively new material and has produced videos on the subject (Robin demonstrates ceramic substrates). A large part of this current direction reflects his acknowledging his twenty-five thousand days of producing pottery and the effect it has had on his health. He has gone more directly to earlier painterly roots, painting images on flat rectangular surfaces. The surface is ceramic substrate. Robin has written about the material in articles, videos and on his blog but here is a brief summary. Ceramic substrate is a space age material developed by NASA and other industries for such things as heat shields and computer cards. Because of high production quality controls much substrate is discarded as seconds, unsuitable, garbage. What does not work for NASA works well for artists and the availability of seconds keeps the cost per unit down.
Homage to Adolph Gottlieb. The surface is like vellum. Robin draws on it with ceramics pencils or pens, or Conté. The initial image is similar to a pen and ink drawing. He fires the image in place at around cone 6 in his electric kiln. Later, he will use glaze and slip trailing in combination with glazes or terra sigillata in multiple firings to build up the surface further. He uses either oxidation or reduction firings, or a combination of the two. Much of the imagery relates to his garden, plants and landscape. This particular work takes him back to his art roots in an homage to the American Abstract-Expressionist artist, Adolph Gottlieb. In a loose landscape a zen-like black central orb is suspended within a blue square above a brown spattering of earth. Minimal content, pictographs and brush work make for a deeply meditative object.
Robin Hopper has inspired many with his never-ending quest for innovation, his passion for sharing his knowledge and expertize, and his whimsical interest in life, culture and nature. But one can never doubt his seriousness or passion. His latest love, his gardens, keeps him still producing, creating and exploring.
Links To Other Sites for More Information on Robin Hopper:
Chosin Pottery Inc. This is the main home page for Robin and Judi Dyelle
Phoenix. This is Robin’s personal blog where he not only talks about his work but also reflects on life and gardening.
Ceramic Arts Daily. This is a listing of the many videos and articles Robin created for the online magazine Ceramic Arts Daily.
The Bronfman Collection. The collection based on Robin’s 1977 Bronfman Award, currently housed by the Museum of Civilization.