Debra Sloan Capsule:
Dates: 1952, Nelson, British Columbia
Production Dates: 1973 – present day
Location: Vancouver, BC
Website: Debra Sloan Website
Types of Work: functional, figurative, sculptural, architectural, casting, press moulds
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: mostly uses electric kiln cones 03 to 3, and recently acquired a reduction gas kiln, cone 10
Preferred Clay: Debra most commonly works with red clay with white slip ground for coloured slip applications; she also works with white clay and reverses the practice, with a red or coloured ground; recently she has been working in porcelains and firing to reduction cone 10.
Signature/Mark/Chop: Debra Sloan is deeply interested in documenting artist signatures and marks. This is reflected in her recording her own signatures over the years.
Debra Sloan, A Short Biography
Debra Sloan, artist, author and animatrice. Hmm, no, that is not enough. She is more, so much more. She is one busy and travelling woman! Known especially for her babies, dogs and horses she provides an interesting arc of artistic development, publishing and volunteer activity.
Where did it all begin? Although born in Nelson, BC, she has spent essentially all her life in Vancouver with a few more recent travels to Europe and England. Her ceramic career started early, very early. Also, she drew horses until she was sixteen, then stopped when she started pottery. ¹
Her first inspirations were more about lifestyle integration than pure art. She was looking for a way to live, to be in that ‘place’, where her ideas started to form, as she drew¹:
“The integration thing started when I saw the NFB film on the Deichmanns , ‘Peter and the Potter‘. … I was in grade 2 and that charged me. Right away I saw that people living in their house, working in their house and doing something that was really neat to me. I held it in my mind”. ¹
Artistic inspiration would also come from home.
“When I was 6, my mother was taking sculpture classes with Santo Mignosa out at the UBC Acadia Ceramic Huts. She was making a model of my head and I remember loving the damp humid scent of clay in the Huts.” ¹
“[After taking Santo’s classes]… My mother would bring clay home that she had dug out of a river bank”. ¹
Later there was an inevitable Bernard Leach influence. She started taking pottery classes as a sixteen year old and read Leach’s ‘A Potter’s Book’:
“I read Bernard Leach’s book which was about the integration of living, working, and your life” … I couldn’t see how you could be a painter and live. But I could see that if you made objects you could live and integrate it into your life”. ¹
After taking pottery classes at night she worked at home trying to makes sculptures¹:
“My parents put a potter’s wheel (still in use) and a little space behind the the old oil fired furnace in our basement. I worked there until I was about nineteen, going on twenty. … I wanted to be self-taught making sculpture then. So I worked all day by myself. Things were cracking. … I was working in things that were solid too … I didn’t understand that clay needed to be hollowed”. ¹
Her education in pottery was a combination of the self-taught, informal, and formal, with some of the key names in Canadian studio ceramics.
- Pottery classes at the Ross Huyghe Pottery School in Vancouver, 1967-69
- Informally with Hiro Urakami, at the House of Ceramics, 1973 – 79
- Self taught at Peg;s Place Pottery School:
“ I ran it in a self-directed apprenticeship for 6 years, 1973 -79 …I wanted to establish my own approach without being influenced by a powerful teacher”. ¹
- Diploma course, the Vancouver School of Art / Emily Carr College of Art and Design (ECCAD) from 1972-82 with Tam Irving, Sally Michener, Ray Arnatt
- BFA from the Emily Carr Insitute of Art and Design (ECIAD) from 2004-05: History of Ceramics, Critical Theory; with Paul Mathieu, Liz Magor and Randy Lee Cutler
- The Emily Carr University of Art and Design (ECUAD) with Darcy Margesson, 2012 Glaze Technology
- Plus workshops with Marilyn Levine, Akio Takamori. And Walter Ostrom. ¹
Debra also developed activities and a network beyond purely artistic creation, some of which have had major results.
“I’m throwing my net out and somebody might take it up and help me move forward”. ¹
And she does cast a very wide net.
Debra has recently been nominated for the Mayors Arts awards, city of Vancouver, by Craft Council of BC. ¹
She was awarded the Circle Craft Scholarship and a BC Arts Council Visual Arts Award for a residency at the International Ceramic Studio (ICS), Hungary in 2010, and 2013 when her work was also accepted into a Romanian show. This led to a visit in Romania and to her presenting a paper to the Cluj Symposium, and later writing an article, on Contemporary Ceramics.¹
The experience in Hungary led to a whole change in her practice.¹ On how it all began, the value of networking, and indicative of her energy she says,
“In 2007 I was asked to squire the visiting Australian ceramicist and editor [of Ceramics-Art and Perception, and Technical], Janet Mansfield, … around Vancouver for a couple of days. .. I took Janet to all the studios and galleries I could think of. When she saw my dogs, she asked if I would write an article about them for her magazine. Which I did –2008 ‘Dogged Process’ 7 in Kecskemet, Hungary – it was my first international acceptance, and Janet was on the jury. Old friends Hiro Urakami and Mary Daniel urged me to go to Kecskemet to see the exhibit. Mary came up with the tickets for both of us, and I got on a plane for the 1st time in 30years. We did not know that there was an international ceramic residency in Kecskemet, called the International Ceramic Studio [ICS] founded in 1976.. That meeting with Janet, her encouragement, and the outcomes, changed the direction of my practice. By 2010, my caregiving responsibilities [parents and my children] had lessened, and I was freer to focus on my practice and to travel. We went to the ICS residency 2010, and I returned in 2013, and am currently in discussion with the ICS about a roof tile project using Zsolnay clay and glaze for another residency in 2016 or ’17.” ¹
“It was a gift from God. It was fabulous. … That changed my life. I was there for six months all told”.¹
In 2014 she continued BC’s link with Leach as Artist in Residence at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, as the first sculptor since its founding in 1920, ³ Supported by a scholarship from FUSION. This opportunity came as a result of her editing and research on a book with Glenn Lewis, ‘Seeking the Nuance’, on Bernard Leach glazes. The book came to the attention of a Falmouth University doctoral candidate, Alex Lambley, resident Fellow at the Leach Pottery and Museum in St. Ives. Alex came to Vancouver and while staying with Debra interviewed many of the many BC potters who had studied with Leach or who had been influenced by Leach for her research. In return, Julia Twomlow, director of the Leach Pottery and Museum invited Debra to research and respond to a rare equine roof sculpture made by Bernard Leach in the late ’20s. She spent a month there and made horse and rider roof ridge tile sculptures, one of which is installed on the Leach Pottery roof Three are in the Leach Museum, on Bernard Leach’s work bench.¹
Debra has also extended her reach into Hollywood, submitting works for the set for the Tim Burton recent movie ‘Big Eyes’ based on the paintings of 1960s artist Margaret Keane (Adams). Debra’s works can be seen in a craft fair background scene.¹
The preservation of the history of BC ceramics has also been a passion. Supported by grants from the BC History Digitization Project, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, the Universiy of British Columbia. the Potters’ Guild of British Columbia and the North West Ceramics Foundation, Debra has worked with Jinny Whitehead and Linda Lewis on ARCH-BC, a digitized database of the newsletters of the Potters Guild of BC. This same group continues to collect historic and contemporary BC ceramists’ signatures, marks, and chops, to create a BC Registry.¹
Debra has her own studio. She and her husband built a garage for her studio, taking a loan off a life insurance policy in 1982. She has been there ever since. ¹
She, laughs, however, at her exhibition success that many artists can relate to:
“I usually apply for eight things and get accepted into one. … I do think my work rubs people the wrong way a lot of the time … I have a pile of ‘Go Away and Die’ letters about a foot high. My work usually gets rejected not accepted”.¹
Teaching at nights and boarding foreign students supplemented her income.
“I do sell but not enough to make a living … I sell them one at a time … I work slowly. I can’t crank out things for galleries. I want to be known and respected by colleagues, not famous”. ¹
Currently she is working on a joint article with respected artist/potter/UK historian, Peter Smith, about the history of the horse and rider roof tiles that Bernard Leach made,¹
Gallery and Analysis
In her inimitable style Sloan describes her early years:
“During the early 1980s I dug up a local red earthenware clay, referred to as Haney Blue, dried it, crushed it, added plastic fire clays, barium oxide for the salts, slaked it, then sieved it, poured it into drying bowls, and finally wedged it for throwing a decorated line of slip-ware. GAD!!.” ¹
Sloan now uses mid-range, very plastic red and white clays, and also sometimes stoneware and porcelain. She was introduced to porcelain during her stay in Hungary. She now has a new pre-made gas kiln she shares with and travel buddy, Mary Daniel. She admits to not being someone who loves firing or kilns. She also works in cone 10 reduction porcelain and slip casting. With twelve cubic feet she can do five or six pieces at a time and have a quick turnover. ¹
“Mary had only had so much space to donate to the kiln so we opted for small and fast”.¹
Her subject matter is wide. At any time her work can shift between themes: a torso, a baby, a dog, or landscape/architecture. She has not evolved from one theme or style into another, rather she frequently shifts between long-standing, favoured themes:
“I work in a serial kind of way. I don’t make a lot of work over a period of a month or two. I might make three babies. Then I’ll go and make a dog or two, then an architectural piece. I’m always revisiting things … as a different person each time – my perception is constantly changing”.¹
“I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to technology. I’ll do anything that’s required. My main objective is to find a way of doing what was in my head”. ¹
While she does not think of herself as a dedicated technician she does have a distinctive approach:
“I spend as much time on surface as I do on the making. The surface is far, far riskier”. … my surface approach is instinctive, unknown … I’m always surprised at the way it comes out, and I’m sometimes pleased. … How I make a piece depends upon how I’m going to treat the surface. The minute I start I think, how am I going to get the best surface out of this?” ¹
She goes back and forth: sometimes the work frames the surface, and sometimes the surface is the frame for the work.¹
She will refire a work “dozens of times if that’s what it takes”, using white and coloured slips. She makes her own slips, liking the brick earthenware colour as a background. Sometimes she will use Gerstley Borate to harden off the surface and brighten the colours “just a tad” without necessarily adding shine. ¹
“I use my teaspoon technology, adding stains and oxides until it looks right, treating the slips like poster paints.” ¹
Occasionally she will use decals or transfers:
“I don’t like it when technology becomes too important. Jeanie Mah called it the Tyranny of Technology …But it’s fun to make a pattern from the transfers or decals. Most of my transfers come from China. I use them simply because they are easily available.” ¹
Figurative work is a mainstay of Sloan’s creations. She acknowledges a dilemma familiar to many in the ceramic world, the old debate about art and craft:
“Do I have to make up my mind as to whether I have to do pottery or sculpture. Can’t I hang on to both? What is the difference what I make? If it is an effective piece of work, what does it matter what it is, what is made of, or how it was made.” ¹
Her torsos are part of her answer to this question; she says why she makes female torsos:
“ I was being referred to as a ‘woman artist’ because of my female-only torsos, but male torsos are just not that much fun to make.” ¹
“I dislike being categorized into any kind of ideology, feminist or otherwise.” ¹
Ladies Night Out, 1985. Debra has produced a number of female torsos, especially in her early years. The torsos here are not flattering Hollywood types, nor idealized classical Greek goddesses. They sag and flow showing the effects of age and life. They shout and gesture like the Three Graces losing it on a night on the town that has gone out of control. Heads and limbs are frequently sliced off, moving the focus to the torso forms themselves.
Big Red Torso, 1995. Here the simplicity and almost minimal surface definition has a quiet repose, a dignity, although it is headless and armless. Its simple lines and volumes almost hide the fact it is a vase, a device that Sloan uses in her other forms. This is in keeping with her roots:
“I like doing pottery. It’s where I started”.¹
“… I do not have the discipline to stay within the parameters of functional making for any length of time, and find I become tempted to go sideways. However, most of my work is formed around space, akin to the central and very abstract idea of what a pot is. The presence of internal space is something specific to sculptural ceramics.”¹
Mountain View, 2010. Not only is the form a torso but the surface design and lip are landscape inspired. The torso form is further camouflaged by the landscape colours and layers. There is a contrast between the form’s lower regions, in bare clay and matte slip, and the upper, from the hips up, in glossy blue and white glazes. The lip is a ragged circle of light blue and white mountain peaks. So what is it: a sculpture, a landscape, a pot? Sloan answers this way:
“I’m more comfortable calling them objects / things , as what I make is intended to share personal space, rather than sculpture, which I think of as occupying public space”. ¹
“They are made as a pot would have been made. Around space”. ¹
Dancing Torso, 2013. Here the headless torso is animated by extended arms that reach skyward in dance and celebration. This is an interesting effect since the emotion is carried not by facial expressions but by body gesture. The colour is not natural, rather it has the patina-like blue wash with full figured volumes of a long-buried paleolithic Venus. On closer inspection the work is seen as hollow with the opening extending along the upraised arms
Babies and Figures
The Babies series is Sloan’s best known theme, partly because she feels we all remain a bit as babies.¹ The babies, as well as the horses and dogs, are where her personal experiences come into her art.
Although she deals with slip- and press-moulded figures there is subtlety in the changes in expression or gesture; this is about provoking responses in the viewer to rethink their associations and feelings about archetypes.
To challenge our preconceptions Sloan uses two principle devices. Firstly, she produces multiples. But these are not mass produced clones. Gestures, poses, expressions are shifted; surfaces are washed or coloured in bright, unnatural colour and frequently “tattooed” with decals; she might add other media such as brush bristles, fishing line or even rebar. Secondly, themes can be combined: babies with dogs – or with horses or riders – or figures strolling through dioramas.
Although they are babies, and except for the obvious such as ‘Foot Grab’ of 2005, many actually stand, gesture and impress as little adults. Not all are cute and cuddly. Some are even disconcertingly mischievous, especially when interacting with dogs and horses. Yet the intent is not malicious, merely provocative, challenging.
“When you start making the baby form outside of its normal parameters you can start unsettling people, making them question things … their own reality”.¹
Diane Espiritu captures their energy in her review of one of Debra’s exhibitions:
“One is immediately drawn towards Debra’s voluminous baby sculptures that kick and scream with fervent expression, figuratively silenced, and expertly captured mid-tantrum. Her use of wire and fish line to represent hair adds to the anguish in their mature facial expressions. … The baby is a significant metaphor because of our natural tendency to empathize with them. … Deborah uses the baby as a universal metaphor for the human world … serv[ing] as a reflection on our cultural tendency to overreact before thinking a situation through”. 4
Foot Grab, 2005, is a pinch pot baby, made In the palm of the hand. A fairly recent work this is one of her main formal types. This small, naturalistic form captures a naturalistic, even endearing, animated pose that is familiar symbol of babyhood. The surface is simple, undecorated. Because of their vulnerability to breakage the extended arms and legs are a bold design feature in clay. Yet they extend into space animating the form. For the size of the work there is a surprising amount of small detail in the fingers, and the toes.
The Golden Boy, 2012. Golden Boy shows Sloan’s combining two themes, the torso and the baby. The truncated torso now has a head that slightly tilts and turns to its left with a slightly wistful look. The body is androgynous, not the usual female torso. The form is compact, self contained, the surfaces smooth, the slip giving it an almost metallic surface. The title is enigmatic. The boy is neither golden nor explicitly a boy. Here in a seemingly simple work Sloan is playing with perception.
Twin Binary Road Warrior Figurines 2015. Debra likes to group figures and play off sameness, with sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle differences. Here two figures almost face each other, rigidly standing at attention, not quite communicating, in spite of their proximity. The obvious differences are their surface designs and the wire and fishing line expressions of bad hair days. Subtle changes in the eyes and necks give them different personalities.
This quiet, harmonious form is one of four types Debra uses in her baby subjects: she also creates emotionally-charged screaming babies; a standing form, many with a “kitty cat” gesture; and more recently, posed figures, sometimes in connection with animals that can be best described as sculpture in their poses.
Baby Lucian Weeps, 2013. Here the baby is of a more energetic, even disconcerting type, a parent’s nighttime fear, screaming in a tantrum-like fit; or is it in pain: a parental dilemma, the need for some peace and quiet or fear for the source of the baby’s pain? Such babies are now larger, more baby-size. The pudgy body forms are generalized. But that little contorted face!. spite of their discomfort one does not feel the impulse to pick and cradle their forms. On such babies the faces are more painfully contorted than in her dog or horse forms. The drama of the expression has a counterpoint in a simple white slip colouring.
Other baby forms can be dynamic and abstracted in their colouring such as Baby Bound. In spite of their discomfort, again, one does not feel the impulse to pick and cradle their tantrum-ridden forms. Viewer distance will also be a factor in viewer response. From across the gallery they are seen as a generic baby form provoking perhaps an instinctive response to nurture; however, as the distance decreases the instinct becomes one more of curiosity, perhaps even dread. Illustrated in a book or online format their gestures and expressions, however, are immediate.
Debra will spend “two weeks making a baby form and then brushing on glaze, treating it like a pot”.¹ Sloan calls her use of moulds “still pretty primitive” because she only makes two-sided moulds, not twenty-piece moulds”, as many Hungarian students can do.¹ Press moulding and slip casting are preferred techniques. With press moulds she finds she can move the arms about and shift the head. Small gestures change the whole feeling of the piece. Slip moulding she says, “Is more prescribed”. ¹
Trio. 2013. This pose is inspired by the Chinese ‘good luck’ clay cats that can be seen in every Chinese storefront window.¹ Crowded onto a little base they are fully frontal, their right hands are raised, like some cloning experiment gone wrong. The pose is also reminiscent of a greeting, or “stop” gesture or even oath-taking ?
The body forms are the same but there are subtle differences in facial expressions.
Debra is not really a fan of mixed media finding that media sometimes fight each other; however, when included, it’s about making a pleasing composition that can be exceptional and dynamic.¹ Hair is a signature device she does use for multi-media.
“The hair adds an energetic dynamic that you can’t do with clay; sometimes the straw or fishing line catches the light without taking away from the piece”.¹
Mobile Girl – with Dead Battery, 2015. The pose here is “classical” in composition. A broad triangular arrangement the girl rests on the floor her right arm braced by her left leg, both opening up the composition . Her body twists as she looks up to some unseen item of interest. But the stillness of the pose is broken by the multi-coloured hair that streams back from her scalp like some banded rocket blast. The use of porcelain along with love of wire speak to the influence of her Hungarian sojourn.Taken For A Ride, 2013. Continuing with the theme of new influences, a change of. clay, a change of venue (Hungary), or a partial shift into another favoured theme can produce dynamic physical and emotional effects. Debra’s babies can appear with horses and dogs or in dioramas. Here a bald headed baby sits astride a dog, impishly pulling on the dog’s tail. This is a surprisingly complex and open composition. Where in her regular babies she would arrange multiple similar forms, here two different forms are inextricably entangled. The surfaces are smooth, differentiated only by their colouring. Yet both human and canine share a similar mischievous smile that looks up and engages the viewer. It seems a happy time.
Babes in the Woods, 2015. Here in a more recent work Sloan has provided a variant on a traditional fairy tale but with a twist: the babes are a human and a canine, and a very toothy wolf-like canine at that! There is an overall sense of vulnerability, mainly through the pose and fearful expression of the form on the left. Covered in a white matte slip with a forest pattern and with hair of wire-attached leaves the effect is mythical. The whiteness of the human is what immediately catches the eye. The glossy, black dog-wolf with its overbite canine teeth rests head to head with the human. Fear, mutual comfort and protection are combined in a compact mass. These works provide a segue into another theme, Dogs
Sloan has been making dogs since 1976.7 There was then a two decade hiatus before she again took up the subject. As in her babies:
” What I’m trying to say is open to the person interpreting it. … I use generic forms, babies or dogs, something we all know”. ¹
Howling Dog Pitcher 2005. Forms such as this show how Sloan enjoys combining “functional” pottery and sculpture. Although a pitcher it screams, almost literally, with wide open mouth and bared teeth. The form itself is also animated, from the the curved tail-handle to the eyes, ears, muscles and tendons that end in decorative spirals like some Anglo-Saxon metal-work motif. As a counterpoint the overall surface is smooth, in a semi-gloss, with an even overall colouring. Although the term pitcher suggests function, a vessel, the work is actually a stand alone hollow sculpture, too beautiful to use.
The dogs evoke a similar range of feelings to the babies. Some are engaging or appealing, others display a cunning smile and guile, again the intent is to challenge as well as enjoy.
Grande Chihuahuas, 2002. These are an earlier essay in her return to the dog theme. Made from clay slabs the two dogs, an infrequent “grouping” of dogs, stand on guard.
Almost mirror images in pose they display different attitudes, or is it personality? Aggressiveness and cautious curiosity. Either could stand alone but as a pair they form a guard-dog barrier.
Hound Supersized, 2007. As it looks to some unseen master this figure is based on a Staffordshire figurine in Debra’s collection.7 Rather than slab-based it is a hollowed out solid. This approach enables her to have a smooth uninterrupted flow of line. The colouring is deliberately and delicately naturalistic.
There is a subtle symbolic resonance here: a dog of the aristocracy rests upon a purple cushion. The effect is diametrically different from her later dog effects. The extended neck adds an elegance to the form linking pot and sculptural forms.
Face Lift, 2010. The whole effect is one of mass, density. There are no openings or piercings reaching out into space. The nature of clay, its mass and surface are the dominant forms. A baby stands front and centre before a patient bulldog, lifting up the flabby facial folds. The expressions in this case are quite reserved. The unusual juxtaposition of naked child with the fang-end of the dog produces an instinctive parental reaction in the viewer in the potential for danger. Yet there is no emotion or sense of threat on either part. The child’s face has a sense of infantile focus or purpose while the dog passively and patiently stares off into space as though this is a ritual performed a thousand times before.
On our human-canine relationship Sloan says:
“Dogs occupy a strange place in our lives. They are not human, nor wild; they are somewhere in between, a way we relate to the animal kingdom”.¹
You Sly Dog, 2013. Here the facial expression is more overtly cunning. So much so that the title of the work is unavoidable. All dog, no babies, the expression is one almost any dog owner has seen in their pet at some time or another. The dog is paunchy. Sloan enjoys the moving the clay. It sits on an integrated base that flows out of the body mass. Paws that look like baby hands clasp the “doggy-bone’ decorated surface. She has added a decal, a flat 2D design that is a counterpoint to the folds and dimples of the clay surface.
Sloan comments on these “doggy” expressions:
“[I am] trying to make a connection between us and the animals. Expressions add a human element to animals. It’s very intentional. I want to capture peoples’ attention. … This creates a problem for me in exhibitions or art shows because it’s perilously close to being cute and I really don’t want to be cute. Expression and gaze are devices to add content – suggesting meaning and the animation is intended to engage, something where I want to engage the viewer.” ¹
Depending on their shape and size the dogs are slab-built. If it was any size she would make it solid, cut it into many pieces, hollow them out and put them back together again, working with her clay soft so that she can be a little more plastic in the gestures. For something like a leg or tale she casts and then press moulds it.¹ For a face, however,
“When I am creating these expressions I am only moving the clay around a tiny amount. It’s about transformation … It’s quite exciting”.¹
The horses are a relatively new object, though not subject, of interest. Some have wheels, evoking childhood memories of toys. Some have riders: these can be babies, again linking two of her favourite themes.
Over time the baby figures attached to the animals have become less baby-like and more what she calls proto-human. ¹
Rider inspiration was renewed by the roof-sculptures she saw during her stay at the Leach pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall.
Horse drawing was a passion in Sloan’s early years, the first thing she did, incessantly.¹ Her drawing them stopped when she started potting. But they have a special place in her heart still:
“Horses mean so much. They are not only a beautiful form. They essentially facilitated farming, transport, war and migration. They were our cars. They are also another connection to the animal kingdom … but they mean less to us now and when you use them you are tapping into some nostalgia referring to the past: … The residency at the Leach re-inspired me on horses”.¹
Leach in Tweed, 2014. and Hamada Comes to the Leach, 2014.
These are the first results of the renewed interest in horses. Inspired by equestrian roof tiles she saw in St. Ives, these works sit four square upon a base. The Leach work has a conventional, simple horse, but a clothed – business suited – portrait of Leach. Heads, arms, legs and tails extend into the four compass points as he turns to his left. The glazing is simple for its external, archititectural function. The effect in this early work is doll-like.
The Hamada work has a different feel. A bespectacled, naked Hamada sits astride a more weary, plodding horse that turns its head to the viewer, Hamada almost projects an air of arriving in triumph, disdaining to gaze out or connect with the viewer. That’s the horse’s job.
Arriving at the Coast, 2014. There is a joyous exuberance of rider and horse. Seen in three quarter view the corpulent rider turns, her arms and head thrust upwards as though looking at some ecstatic vision. The horse, in a relatively static pose, tilts its head. It has the same type of toothy smile seen on Debra’s dogs. The surface is a glossy series of strata of blue and green glazes with a central band of unglazed clay cutting through rider and horse. The hair, again like the ultimate bad-hair day, radiates from the rider’s head in a solar crown, a counterpoint to the overall solidity of mass and surface. Mass, materials and colours aside Sloan has created forms and expressions of almost ecstatic joy.
Wheelies in the Woods, 2014. The initial effect of the work is of a child’s toy, a horse on wheels with a flaring mane. Yet a closer look reveals more subtle details: the head has that Sloan-smile and human eyes; the body forms are rounded and folded, revealing their clay origin. But the wheels are not round, rather, are pairs of toothed cogs. This detail is not noticed until the viewer comes closer. The work thus assumes other connotations depending upon its distance from the viewer. Her dogs by contrast do not have wheels. But here:
“The wheels on horses have nostalgic associations”.¹
Whisper Sweet Nothing, 2015. Here Debra again truncates the limbs. Rider and horse engage in conversation, reflecting Sloan’s interest in the close relationship between human and animal. The horse is covered by a thinly applied, watery, white wash that does not cover the underbelly and inner truncated legs. The spray-like tail and matted mane hair are curled wire. The head, turning to the rider, has the same expression seen on her dogs. The pink, naked rider, leans forward, slightly off-centre, mouth open to whisper in the horse’s ear. The body is paunchy, unglamourous. The head, covered in a alopecia-thin crown of wire-hair. The emphasis is not about riding a horse but about relationship, communication, themes that are a constant in Debra’s works.
Equine Dreamboat, 2015. In recent years there is a new dreaminess, a reflection, a sympatico-oneness of humans with nature. Here Debra plays on the whiteness of porcelain to produce a harmonious compact, allegorical human and nature theme. A figure reclines lazily, cross-legged on the back of an uncomplaining, cobalt striped and zebra-like “sea horse.” The whole rests on a base of white sea foam. And there is the tail: Debra enjoys the delicate curve of the tail, that here extends more like some fragile tea cup handle.
Landscapes, Architecture and Dioramas
Although she does not do many, Sloan has worked on landscape imagery preferring local regional imagery. She makes these works because she likes the visual beauty of the glaze:
“I like colour. We are so fearful of colour and it says so much”.¹
“One of the hardest things is getting that colour and surface right”.¹
Also, landscapes provide a theme for her to challenge viewer perceptions and associations:
“Landscapes and architectural references are about my environs and provide opportunities to add contextual layers. Placing my figures and images within regional metaphorical constructs and outside of how we normally encounter these images is how I comment on our interaction with environments and society. ” 9
Vancouver, Bird’s Eye View, 1977. This is an early landscape with generally recognizable renderings of details of the landscape she loves, Vancouver. The bird’s-eye view composition is conical with mountains, oceans and sea wall, downtown towers, and, of course, people relaxing on the shore before a blue Pacific. The scene has a cartoon-like quality in its abstraction but is immediately recognizable as place. The little white figures are a motif she frequently uses in such works.
Litter, 2012. Here there is more of a social commentary as expressed in the title. A little diorama has one of her dolls walking on a pavement through a fragmented cityscape. The oblivious figure strolls by a building that simultaneously displays internal and external architectural details and construction modes: external classical moulding, windowed drywall (including a cat) and brickwork. An asymmetrically balanced composition, the obvious litter, a crumpled piece of paper, sits in a corner almost unnoticed. Or is the building itself, architectural debris, the litter? The effect and message are ambiguous.
Window Watchers (or Hive), 2013. While in Hungary Debra was experimenting, reaching out into other expressions. Along with her babies and dogs she produced strongly 2D works such as this. A castellated, multi-fenestrated, rough facade is populated with mini, white figurines in various poses. The figures however, do not just peer through the windows but stand and move in them, filling the space. The work has a curiously abstract quality, of an irregular, almost checkerboard pattern. The title is intriguing: what could be so interesting as to draw all the figures to fill every window and the roof top to look out at us? The work is also a play on medium: we know it is clay but there is a strong feel of a plate of steel, rusted and patinated, cut by some crude blowtorch. Between the surface and the figures the work is surprisingly animated for what initially looks like a simple repeating pattern.
Debra Sloan says in summary of her approach:
“As a person born mid-20th century, [I feel my] work travels between nostalgic modernist beliefs and the scepticism of post modernism – [my] ideas criss-crossing between the loss of modernist confidence, and the wicked pleasure of postmodern irony. [I] does not follow current trends, nor reference specific traditional practices; [my] work is lies somewhere in the past/present as object/thing / sculpture/pot.” ¹
It will be interesting to see where Debra Sloan goes next in her inspiration and themes and their combinations.
Debra’s Published writing
- 2014 ‘Contemporary Ceramics of British Columbia’ Ceramics Now Association Magazine http://www.ceramicsnow.org/ post/98972026841/contemporary- ceramics-of-british-columbia- by-debra-sloan Issue#3
- 2010 ‘A Special Place’ [essay, images] Technical Issue #31, Australia USA
- 2009 Editor -“Seeking the Nuance” Glenn Lewis-author, Phyllis Schwartz-producer ISBN 098-0-9696077-1-7 published by the Potters Guild of BC
- 2008 ‘Dogged Process’ [essay / images] Technical, Volume #27 Australia
- 2005 ‘Perception of Craft/Design/Fine Art’ [essay] Metal Arts Guild of Canada Magazine Volume 20 #1
- 2005 The Potters Guild of BC -The First 50 Years 1955-2005’ [Heather Cairns co-author] FUSION Magazine, # 29 # 3 Ontario
- 2005 ‘Origins of a Ceramic Culture’ Source Book, PGBC 50th Anniversary
Collections and Galleries
- The Leach Pottery and Museum, St Ives
- The Ceramart Foundation and Ceramics Now Association, Romania
- International Ceramics Studio Collection, Hungary
- City of Port Coquitlam
- City of Port Moody
- University of British Columbia Library
- Leach Pottery Shop and Gallery, St Ives, UK
- Circle Craft Co-op, Vancouver, BC Canada
- Gallery of BC Ceramics, Vancouver, BC Canada
- Gallery Gae Shulman, San Francisco
- YVR Crafthouse Gallery
Endnotes & Bibliography
1. Debra Sloan. Interview and email correspondence with Barry Morrison.
2. Debra Sloan Website: Debra Sloan website
3.Debra Sloan. Contemporary ceramics of British Columbia, 2014. This article is based on Debra’s presentation at the 9th International Symposium Ceramics and Glass, between Tradition and Contemporaneity that accompanied the first Cluj International Ceramics Biennale Exhibition in October-November 2013, in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania, Romania.
4.Ceramic Sensibilities . Ceramic Sensibilities: One to Many By Diane Espiritu, Potters Guild of BC Newsletter . April 2013 1, April 2013, Volume 49 No. 3. Newsletter of the Potters Guild of British Columbia, p.4.
6. Debra Sloan CV
7. Debra Sloan. A Dogged Process: Debra Sloan creates life-size dogs. CeramicsTECHNICAL No. 27 2008. Pp. 30 – 36.
8. Horsing Around Exhibition October 2 – November 2, 2014