Donn Zver

Donn Zver. 1967. At the Sheridan College Kiln.
Donn Zver. 1967. At the Sheridan College Kiln.
Donn Zver today, at his Troy, Ontario studio.
Donn Zver today, at his Troy, Ontario studio.

A Donn Zver Capsule

Dates: 1948
Production Dates: 1966. Production starting date as a Potter was 1972
Location: Troy, Ontario
Types of Work: Functional Stoneware Pottery
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: gas-fired kiln, cone 10
Preferred Clay: stoneware, his own formula developed at Sheridan and modified over the years
Website: http://www.donnzver.com/
Signature/Mark/Chop:

Donn Zver engraved signature
Donn Zver engraved signature
Zver studio stamp
Zver studio stamp
Zver studio paper label
Zver studio paper label

Note: If the work is stamped or just has a label attached the work was not made by Zver himself, rather it was made by one of Zver’s professional apprentices as below. Donn adds:

“Some of the Apprentices marked the work with their own stamp, this was the case with several in the 1970-80’s. If I did work on the piece such as carve it or decorated it then I would also sign the piece with them.” 1

Biography

Donn Zver is one of those potters who intrigue me on several levels. There is of course his own pottery work, the success of his Zver Pottery and Cafe In Troy, Ontario. But there is also the arc of his career that captures so much the exciting developments of pottery, especially in Ontario, starting in the 1960s. Artists like Donn remind me that the course to success is often a long and risky one. What we see now is the result of perseverance and leaps of faith. Many, like Donn, can make everything seem so easy; yet there was hard work, the seizing of opportunities of the time, and dealing with life’s inevitable obstacles.


When and where does it begin? Those of us who have been around for a while have to shake ourselves occasionally to remember that dates such as the mid-1960s were over five decades ago, half a century! The state of ceramic as craft, hardly as art, in Canada then was so different in its presence, in inspiration and in opportunity.


In short, Donn Zver’s career highlights the growth of functional pottery during that period and following years.

Early Years: pre-Troy

Donn Zver throwing a pot in high school, Hamilton,1966.
Donn Zver throwing a pot in high school, Hamilton,1966.

We will start in 1966. The place, Hamilton Collegiate, Hamilton, Ontario. Steeltown. Donn Zver watched his art teacher throw a pot in art class and immediately fell in love with the process. What we need to remember is that then there was much general discouragement for people wanting to go into the crafts. As Donn as himself says:

“Crafts were considered where people went who couldn’t make it into fine art. There was a looking down on it and my teacher was concerned I wouldn’t be able to make a living at it. That was after the first class she threw on the wheel, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I like this! ’” 1

Initially there was caution and discouragement. His teacher felt at that time that he would make a better living as a graphic artist.1


Zver came from a family that liked to build things.1 He watched his father and grandfather, his first mentors, make furniture. Although they worked in the steel industry in Hamilton they did provide some inspiration for him to go into handcraft.5 His father would eventually help him set up his studio in Troy.1


Zver’s first attempt at furthering his education in pottery was a non-starter. Initially he tried to get into the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, the only post-secondary art school in Ontario at the time. He was rejected. He had too little art credit since he had only started taking art in grade 13.1 Yes, those were the days when academic high school students in Ontario had to go through to grade 13 to graduate. Although he had skipped other classes to throw on the wheel, he did not have enough high school art classes to his credit.2


But while driving back from Toronto, and rejection, along the QEW, the Queen Elizabeth Way, between Toronto and Hamilton, Donn saw a sign for the Ontario Craft Foundation School Of Design (later Sheridan) near Mississauga. He asked his driver-friend to pullover so that he could check it out.1


He speaks with excitement from that time and the following critical years:

”It had just completed its first year. We drove into the grounds and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is where I need to be.”’ 1

He stopped the first person he met in the hall to ask how he could enrol. He was taken to an office, and interviewed for twenty minutes or so. He still had his portfolio with him. The interviewer checked it out in silence, then said “Hold your breath. You’re in.” Donn was talking with Don McKinley, the school’s Director.1


His excitement about Sheridan continues:

“It was great! We could work through the night. It was fantastic. We were on our own there, separate from the main campus. … The new building hadn’t been built yet for Sheridan. Some of the school was in an old high school and we were in the girls’ school. We were a little island unto itself. …It was all very exciting. Sheridan was revving up and Georgian was coming along. So there was a lot of interest and excitement and we knew there was going to be a shift in the craft field in Ontario.” 1

”Ruth Gowdy Mckinley had a studio there and would come over and give one-day workshops. She had a wood-fired kiln and I would help her fire her 15-20 cu. ft. kiln. She would fire it about five times a year, and the students would go and talk to her in her studio, in a separate little building, the size of a two-car garage.” 1

His teachers at Sheridan over the years were Bob Held, Viveka Heino, and Angela Fina.1

Also:

Work and scholarships saw him through his three years. Initially he worked in a Dominion store in Hamilton, a necessity, since his family wasn’t “really well off.” Bob Held, however, arranged for him to be hired to monitor the school’s kiln and to take care of the glaze lab. Pay was one dollar an hour. 1

[q]”Tuition was nine hundred and fifty dollars a year and included the residence and three meals a day.” 1

Donn also received a scholarship from the Hamilton Artisan’s Guild, three hundred dollars, “a lot of money then.” 1

“The Guild would put aside money from their annual crafts show at Christmas. They agreed to support me for the next three years while I was at Sheridan.” 1

“We tended to draw all our influences from the outside in. … All the teachers at Sheridan were American and I remember complaining about that. … There were Canadian potters like Jack Herman, and the Bozaks down in London. I was aware of them out there but because the teachers were American they didn’t even know them and didn’t go to their studios. We went to American studios on our field trips: Don Reitz’s studio in Wisconsin or Vivika’s studio in New Hampshire. So the influence was always looking out from Canada, rather than searching in. There wasn’t much here to draw from, not the history.” 1

That said, it was perhaps inevitable that it was two American potters who had a lasting impact on Zver’s style and thinking.

Donn Zver and Cynthia Bringle at Sheridan at Penland where he taught in 1975
Donn Zver and Cynthia Bringle at Penland where he taught in 1975

“Cynthia Bringle and John Glick were invited to come and do workshops at Sheridan. Cynthia who had just started at Penland, had come down from Alfred. I really liked her work. I would say she was one of my major mentors. And so was John Glick. It was the first time we saw real potters that were making a living working in our studio”. 1

The experience with Bringle and Glick led to other opportunities. The Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina, was key:

“At the end of the year I was really excited about the idea of Penland. Cynthia said ‘well if you want to come, I can get you in.’ So I applied for a grant from the Ontario Crafts council. I got a $1000 to go down there and spent the summer. John Glick, Paulus Berenson, Bob Turner taught. … I took functional pottery, throwing, hand-building, and firing in a gas kiln. They also had a salt kiln there at the time.” 1

Other aspects of studio life and teaching resulting from Penland were to be long lasting. The first was John Glick’s passion for working with studio apprentices:

“John had said that his apprentice was leaving and I could apply.to work with him in Michigan, down near Detroit. But the problem was the Vietnam war was on. He said that even though I was not an American, if it really got bad I might get called to duty. … So I turned it down. He and Cynthia are the two biggest influences on my work.” 1

“I went as a student to Penland in 1971. In 1975 Cynthia asked if I would come back and teach for the summer. It was quite a nice honour. I was the first Canadian potter to teach there.” 1

This Penland teaching experience would lead to first to some teaching, then to full-time studio practice.

Early Professional Years

Zver returned in 1971, “all gung-ho from the summer at Penland,” to establish the Pottery Course at Mohawk College, Hamilton. The school initially had thirty-six students in the ceramic department. By the end the year with the assistance of fellow Hamilton potters, Vera Bellingham and Bodil Pearson, he had over 150 students, in the part-time, continuing education course. 1

The next year, 1972, saw new developments and horizons for him. Donn took a trip to Peru and was inspired by the ceramic and metalwork of the pre-Columbian cultures.1

Back in Canada he operated a co-op studio outside of Dundas Ontario with potter Bodil Pearson and weaver Fran Wong. He also taught at the Valley School of Art and built their first Gas Kiln in 1972. During this time Donn had his first solo exhibition at the Canadian Guild of Potters Gallery in Toronto.2


But teaching presented him with a new master, new constraints. The only time he could take off to make and sell his own work was Sundays. He approached the Dean and asked for more money. The answer was “no”: he was on a three-year contract.1 However, life and family would come into play:

” I thought I’m not going to survive. So what happened was my grandfather passed away that year, up here in Troy. We lived in Hamilton. I asked my dad if I could move into the house and set up my pottery. Dad said, “Sure”. He helped me build a thousand square foot building on the side of the house. That was my first step here in Troy.” 1

While on the farm he built a large catenary kiln. Also, he started to have “apprentices” working with him. 1

”I was very interested in apprenticeship stuff, and having the next generation come along. So, I did have people work for me there.” 1


He worked to build his reputation and “get his name out there” as a potter:

“A couple of workshops at the Nova Scotia School of Art and at Holland College, Charlottetown; a first big one-man show at the Canadian Guild of Potters and an exhibition of slab work at the Rubaiyat Gallery in Calgary.” 1

With little overhead on the farm studio he was able to save a sizeable amount of money with his sales. Also, there was an apple orchard, and in the spring during blossom time he would have a picnic and sale. These were most successful. But he felt the business wasn’t moving along fast enough, that he was plateauing. He felt the need for further change.1

“Then in 1980 I wanted to get away on my own, away from the family. It was a bit isolating down the old dirt road, not on the highway. I needed to push my sales.” 1


He had saved fifteen to twenty thousand dollars. A new—his current property on highway 5—would cost forty-eight thousand dollars. He was able to arrange financing for the property, but it would take two years to renovate the main building. 1

“As I made a bit of money at the farm I would buy some drywall and go over and do some drywall work. I was running back and forth. But then I had all the energy in the world. … Two years later I had a big final sale at the farm and was stunned that I sold twelve thousand dollars worth that day.” 1

Troy After 1982

Zver applied his learnings from Sheridan. Part of his third year project was to set up a studio: develop his own clay, develop a line of work, pricing his own work, and building equipment, such as wedging table, and bats.1 He restored the 1935 garage on the property, and also restored an 1861 home on the property.2 He lived upstairs in the original building. And worked downstairs in the pottery, opening his studio in 1982.


He now focused on pottery making and reduced his teaching/workshop activities.2

Donn Zver's Pottery and Restaurnt, Troy, Ontario
Donn Zver’s Pottery and Restaurnt, Troy, Ontario


In 1996 he built Cafe Troy to complement the pottery, using his pottery in the Cafe as a marketing tool for the pottery business.2 He convinced the bank to give him a loan to build a restaurant, $200,000. He built the restaurant. The year the restaurant opened in 1997 his sales went up by $75,000.1


Donn owns the restaurant but doesn’t work in it apart from developing menu projects with the chef. Financially the restaurant is a loss leader but the resulting pottery sales are worth the cost. 1

[q] “That helped guide me down my road of personal solvency. Part of the whole plan to make myself self-sufficient here in Troy.” 1

As a side note, the online site Trip Advisor lists the restaurant as number one in April 2019 and the number one shopping place in the Hamilton area.

There were other reasons behind the business expansion. Zver is quite candid. By the mid ‘90s his sales curve was beginning to flatten out. Sales were not going up.


At that time Zver was-starting to exhibit and sell in craft shows such as One Of A Kind and the Ottawa Craft Show.1


The trigger was an experience with the popular One Of A Kind show in Toronto. He had had a booth for a few years. Sales were really doing well, about thirty-five to forty thousand dollars. Many potters were happy to make ten thousand dollars. There were always people in his booth. He collected names and addresses to build his business. Then he received a letter from the owners of the show stating he was no longer welcome because his work was not up to the standard that they felt they wanted. He was confused. Was he blacklisted?1

“I was devastated! That was the moment I made a personal commitment to make myself and my business solvent. That I didn’t have to depend on anything else that happened out there. Nothing outside of Troy is going to have power over my me or my work. I’m not going to do the shows. I’m going to work to become independent. … And that’s when I decided the one way to get more people to stop of the highway is to build a cafe. There’s 1000 cars a day going down this road. If I can get them to stop and eat off my pottery maybe they’ll come into the show room and buy work. It was part of my plan to make myself self-sufficient.” 1

Just as important to Donn were (and are) other personal reasons for the combined businesses, evident to those who know him:

“I like the interaction with the people. I’m quite a people person and I know that I didn’t want to be hidden away at the farm. It’s lonely out there. So when I moved to Troy things just boomed. … A lot of my customers have become friends, it’s really amazing.” 1

“To me the clay is the catalyst, the end result, the relationships and interconnections I have with the customers. That’s the big thing. I enjoy that.” 1

With clay as the catalyst he stayed with functional ware.1

“To me the pottery … is connecting to people, not just my customers but also the people who have been influential in my life as a potter. I cherish that. That’s what it’s all about.” 1

Donn Zver, in his office. The business side of his pottery
Donn Zver, in his office. The business side of his pottery

Once he opened the studio, he left teaching at schools and workshops to devote his full attention to making pottery and running his business. 5

“I ‘d rather be working, being an example of a living potter rather then going out and trying to prove myself. I am who I am and this is where I am. Come out and see me. If you are potter come and we’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk.” 1

Donn still is an advocate of mentoring, a lasting effect of his Sheridan years. He is also concerned that a lot of students can go through a ceramics program without the experience of a studio.1 A key feature of his business is his supporting apprentices, or as he prefers to refer to them, assistants:

“ I am a teacher [of apprentices] at heart and want to ensure I share my expertise. I am committed to the development of apprentices. They work with me for three to six years before spreading their own wings.” 5

“ I had apprentices right from the beginning, on the farm. … What inspired me? I’d have to go back to John. John Glick always had apprentices. It was a way he could connect and pass on the information. He wasn’t a teacher in the sense Cynthia was – she taught in a school – John was a functioning potter. His way to continue the education was to have people working with him. I have the same kind of feeling for it. I’m desperately concerned about what’s going to happen in the future in clay. It seems fewer and fewer potters are having apprentices, or as I call them, assistants. To me an apprentice is someone who comes to you without much knowledge at all and will likely stay with you from 3-6 years. When I feel, and they feel, they are ready to move into their own studio they move on. Now I have some people who have some experience and come to me … so even though they are learning by being here I am not actually teaching them.“ 1

His assistants work on both their own work and his work. He will set them projects and they produce their own work and fire it, and if of a suitable calibre they can sell it there. Zver does not need to advertise for assistants. They find him. 1


Zver also loves the enthusiasm and aspirations of students but occasionally he has to give visiting students a reality check:

“Experience is so different from the sheltered walls of the school. [Sometimes] students come here and think ‘Oh my God. This is it!‘ So I have to go, Wait a minute, wait a minute! My first year on the farm I worked in the basement. I couldn’t stand upright. Every spring there was six inches of water on the floor and I had to wear rubber boots to go throw on my wheel. This is not where it started. It took 45 years to get here.” 1

Other Zver Accomplishments

So far I have focused on Zver’s own studio and related activities. But since the 1970s Zver has also been busy helping the cause of pottery in Ontario and in raising the profile of Ontario pottery. One project was the start up of the Ontario Potters Association, (now Fusion: The Ontario Clay & Glass Association).


The 1970s were a time of tremendous social change and economic hard times. The Canadian Guild of Potters was shutting down. The new replacement, the unfortunately short-lived Ceramic Masters Canada was national in scope. There was a “void” in Ontario that needed addressing.

“And through all of this, Anne Sneath and I sat on her cottage porch on Stoney Lake we talked about reaching out to other Potters in Ontario and asked ourselves what could we do to form a closer link with the other Guilds and Potters in the province. We knew they were out there and we know there was this vacuum in Ontario. So why not get the Guilds and Potters together and talk about what we could do to fill the void left by the Canadian Guild of Potters. We met outside of Hamilton at a remote Camp in Ancaster. After a wonderful weekend of Raku we decided to form a committee to investigate the possibilities of forming a Provincial Association. That committee set out the vision and the structure from which we worked to form the new Ontario Potters Association in 1975. Fondly called the OPA.” 3

This would not be easy. This was not familiar territory to the planners. Early “visions” were grand in scope: 3

• How would they help the young Potters who were emerging from the Community Colleges?
• How would they link them with those who were already out there making their living and contributing for so long to the well-being to our community?
• How would they provide leadership to approximately 16 Guilds in Ontario? 1

For Zver the most important point was: how would they become the outward expression of the Potters to their greater audience the general public? 1


The initial results were extensive. Over the many years since the foundation’s success was varied. But the OPA/Fusion presence was solid:

• The Potters Shop in Yorkville where Sylva Leser transformed the shop to a gallery of national prominence.
• the first known Travel Guide to Studio Potters of Ontario.
• the annual Auction of Pottery held at The St. Lawrence Gardens in Toronto.
• the bi-annual exhibition of Ontario Potters and Glass blowers.
• The establishment of the Ontario Potters permanent collection which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Burlington.
• Workshops by such international Clay Artist as Michael Cardew, Mick Casson, Alan Caiger-Smith, David Leach, Cynthia Bringle, Ken Ferguson, and Jack Sures.
• an annual resource book through the publications committee.
• The OPA Slide Collection.
• and the publication Ontario Potters. 3

Zver reminisces of those special times:

” We were not out to change the world, but we had an energy that moved beyond us into the world, and it’s that spirit which changed and challenged us. Those first five years were magical.” 3

Time has changed some of the early successes, but Fusion is still a solid and respected organization navigating the currents and tides of today’s economics and politics.


Zver’s work with the OPA included his work as President of the from 1975-1980, numerous jurying assignments, exhibitions and workshops. Many of his workshops dealt with not only with the technical and artistic side of pottery but also Zver’s particular interest, “Professionalism and Studio Management.” 7 This theme of artist-businessman has been a constant of Zver’s career.


Further, over the years Zver has continued his personal outreach to charitable causes and community support ventures such as:

• Veterans; The Poppy Project: Poppies for Veterans by Donn Zver: https://www.poppiesforveterans.com/
• Haiti: Bowls For Haiti: http://www.publicityworksprconsultants.com/artsandculture/bowls-for-haiti/
• Dolly Parton: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library: https://www.kidscanfly.ca/donn-zver-pottery-is-making-a-difference-in-childrens-lives/

We often take for granted or complain about the current state of affair in our lives or work, not realizing nor appreciating how different things would be without the earlier work of others. Donn Zver is recognized for his contribution to Ontario and thus ultimately to Canadian pottery. Gail Crawford writes of his presence and importance:

”The right leader at the right time. … [H]e was regarded as a guru who ate, slept, and breathed his subject. His commitment to clay was singular, and under him the provincial clay organization became the most lively craft media guild in the province.” 6

As a further recognition of his work Donn Zver has received such awards as the Mather Award For Lifetime Achievement in 2000, and more recently the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, the latter in recognition of his outstanding charitable work and contributions to the arts.8


Today, in addition to running his pottery and cafe, both smooth-running operations, he spends time in in Florida. He sees it as:

“A good alternative to retiring since doing ten thousand pieces a year, Florida revitalizes me and lets me work on a book: ‘My journey.’” 1

Finally, although there is the business side to Donn Zver there is also the passionate side about ceramics and its potential that has sustained him since his introduction to the medium and business as a high school student. In a recent keynote presentation at the 50th anniversary of the Burlington Potters’ Guild he describes the source, strength and effect of that passion:

“What lured me into pottery was the hope of finding a deeper meaning to my life by learning to make things well with my hands and as a result, my journey as a potter has transformed me. For me, my life as a potter functions as a source of meaning, authenticity and fulfillment. From the day I picked up my first ball of clay I knew that my life would be committed to bringing something new and meaningful into the world through my work.” 10

Here’s to passion!

A Donn Zver Gallery

Some Further Donn Zver Facts

  • In his earlier work the influence of John Glick and Cynthia Bringle are more noticeable: press stamping from Glick; from Bringle, the carving. 1
  • Since 1982 Zver has used just a gas kiln, cone 10 reduction, with a stoneware clay he developed at Sheridan and modified over the years. Some of the ingredients have changed, companies have changed but it’s basically the same clay he developed in the clay technology course  taught by Viveka Heinno. 1 However, over the past several years he has re-explored wood firing with the Hamilton Potters Guild.
  • In his glazes he uses iron, rutile combination and cobalt oxide.
  • Much of the colour changes of his works reflect customer-taste changes and parallel changes in society.

“I started back in the ‘60s, the hippy era. A lot of the colours were oatmeal, earthy colours, the white glaze and the use of iron oxide on the pieces. That was all. And then we moved into the ‘70s the softer, ‘pastely’ colours. As we headed towards the turn of the century we got into these very deep contemplative colours, rich deep burgundies, deep green, coloured bathrooms, Now we are just turning back. The most popular colour in my work is my black with the overlap in the white and softer colours you can see in interior designs in magazines.” 1

“ I could’ve made a fortune in the ‘70s if I had a dusty rose glaze. I hated the friggin colour. “ 1

“The colours move, and my work echoes that1…That’s part of what I mean connecting with my customers and giving them what they want. … To me it’s a give and take relationship. I don’t see it as my role to tell them what to have.” 1

“If I were to describe my work, I would say it is evolutionary. I have always favoured rich, earthy tones in my colour schemes.” 5

  • Zver is vocal about his love of clay and his connection to people:

“Over the years many of my customers have become friends, and are greeted at the studio with a hug. They are the reason I continue to make pottery after 47 years. To say I’ve been touched by clay is an understatement.” 5

“I love the tactile quality of clay. The greatest enjoyment comes when I realize that someone else enjoys my work enough to include it in their lives and homes”

  • He makes over 12,000 pieces of pottery a year.” 5

Early Works

Donn Zver. 1966. First Bowl. Canary. Yellow glaze. Earthenware. 10.2 x 10.2 cm.
Donn Zver. 1966. First Bowl. Canary. Yellow glaze. Earthenware. 10.2 x 10.2 cm.

First Bowl. 1966, Canary Yellow glaze. Donn’s very first pot. Not bad for a high school student and his very first effort at that. Simple in form and colour, it has a subtly closing lip. He is proud enough of this piece to include it on his website. Interestingly the age and early attempts of Zver in his ceramics, even in high school, show an interest in documenting his life and his career and can be seen in the many pictures of his early work and of his career, whether it be in Sheridan or Mohawk or in his early studios. Zver is a true entrepreneur and recognised the value to his career in documenting his style his development, even his appearance throughout the years.

“The only reason that survived was my dad wasn’t too happy with me going into art He was like the macho guy. He urged me to go work at DOFASCO or the Steel Company. When it came out of the kiln I was thrilled with it. I thought it was pretty neat. …My teacher suggested I give it to my Dad, so I did. He promptly took it downstairs and put screws and nails in it and it sat on his workshelf for the next 42 years.“ 1

Family support can come in so many different flavours. After his father passed away he asked his mother for it back. She said, “Why do you want that for. Your pottery is much nicer now.1

Donn Zver. 1970. Bottle Form. Sheridan College. oatmeal glaze in stoneware, 15.2 x 30.5 cm.
Donn Zver. 1970. Bottle Form. Sheridan College. oatmeal glaze in stoneware, 15.2 x 30.5 cm.

Bottle Form. 1970. At first glance this work has the look of an inverted footed-bowl, unconventional for a bottle form. Domed in shape it consists of three separate elements: a base, flat, like a thrown plate, separated from the body by ringed ridges with brown and black rim-like lines defining the foot-belly juncture; an inverted thrown bowl form with a classic ‘70s “oatmeal” glaze, ringed by brown and black tree-like silhouettes; and from the encircled shoulder upwards, by the sweep of a small thrown spout. A feature of Zver’s early pottery is his use of a carefully drawn line at junctures of the body, here at the base and at the shoulder, carefully drawn as the pot turned on the wheel.

Much early work is slab built.

Donn Zver. 1971. Spiral Vase. Art Gallery of Burlington Collection.
Donn Zver. 1971. Spiral Vase. Art Gallery of Burlington Collection.

Spiral Vase. 1971. The vase is slab-built with a thrown neck and spout. Slab- building was a frequent for Zver in the early years. The work is a study in contrasts: folded slab body, and thrown conical neck and spout, with a precise, engraved, spiral design. Multiple glaze layers, white in the furrows, brown on the ridges accent the spiral. The corner folded edge centres the spiral, rather than having it centred on a face. The effect is almost hypnotic in its intensity and precision and at the same time increases visually the height of the work. The small spout on top is diminutive by comparison .

Donn Zver. 1973-74 hexagon jar with crested handle. Art Gallery of Burlington Collection.
Donn Zver. 1973-74 hexagon jar with crested handle. Art Gallery of Burlington Collection.

Hexagon jar with crested handle 1973-74. In 1972 Zver went to Peru where he was fascinated by the culture and metal techniques of the Pre-Columbian cultures. Upon his return he lectured on the trip. For a few years he created works reflecting this “exotic” inspiration. The first things one can notice in such works are the handles and the vibrant use of colour. The jar and lid forms are hexagonal, with a rhythmic wave form cut into the hexagon define the body and lid separation. The base is a running frieze of olive and orange topped by a thick black band. The body has the appearance of interconnected panels of contrasting yellow and dark, blue-black. Each panel, or face is separated at the edge by a fold, and by orange frames. The lid is of a similar olive and orange as the base but ends in a flat top surmounted by a handle of symmetrical curves inspired by Incan gold work. Not only the forms but also the metallic glaze surfaces are a nod to the South American inspiration.

Earlier Canadian pottery traditions were also an influence.

Donn Zver. (1973-83) Jug. 22.0 x 17.0 x 14.4 cm. Thrown stoneware, glaze with stamped design. Collection: Art Gallery of Burlngton.
Donn Zver. 1973-83 Jug. 22.0 x 17.0 x 14.4 cm. Thrown stoneware, glaze with stamped design. Collection: Art Gallery of Burlngton.

Jug, 1973-883. However, while he was inspired by foreign stimulae Zver admired more homegrown earlier traditions.

“I have always been inspired with the clear and honest statements made by our early Canadian potters, who in their time reflected the needs of the people through their work.” 4

“I see myself as a potter who works in the same tradition as those early craftspeople of the past. When I work with clay, I work knowing that someone will see the merits of the piece and want to use it in their home. From that standpoint I accept the responsibility that the piece must not only be aesthetically pleasing but that it will also fulfill a necessary function.” 4

Although the jug is of classic design upon a columnar base There is a play of curve and swooping lines whether it be on the belly of the jug or the curls of the lips, the handle, or even the swipe of greenish glaze. The base and lower belly are in a dark olive-black with an oxidized red-resist circling pattern. From the waist up the surfaces are in speckled bands of yellow-orange with a splash of a wash of yellow green, the throwing lines most evident. The shoulders are elegant, dome-like sweeping up into a full throat and folded lip. The handle is solid, secure.

Donn Zver. 1985 Covered Casserole #2. 15.8 x 21.4 x 22.3 cm. Thrown stoneware, glaze with stamped decoration of iron and rutile oxide. Collection: Art Gallery of Burlington
Donn Zver. 1985 Covered Casserole #2. 15.8 x 21.4 x 22.3 cm. Thrown stoneware, glaze with stamped decoration of iron and rutile oxide. Collection: Art Gallery of Burlington

Covered Casserole #2, 1985.. Multiple glazes and forms are like a last hurrah as production and economic realities assert themselves in Zver’s new location. the orange stamps on the waistwere made of cut out sponges. Although he would further simplify forms the trimmed rim would occasionally re-appear in later works.

Troy and the Following Years:

The move to the new studio in 1982 produced new looks in Zver’s work. The evolution would take time but the effect can be seen in shapes and their formation, and surface designs and colours: more throwing, less slab work; dramatic colour contrasts; and the occasional use of deep transparent glazes . Some features he would keep such as his decorating or scalloping the rims of his vessels be they plates or casseroles, dishes or vases.

“Now my work is more simplified and I’m playing with the use of glazes and the overlapping of glazes, to produce different surfaces. So my forms have simplified to allow that to happen, whereas before I was more concerned with texture and surface embellishment.” 1

“ I think It’s part of the simplification, I think. I used to do a lot more brushwork and stamp decoration which was the John Glick influence and I do less of that today.” 1

His work evolved but remained rooted in deeper personal beliefs:

“ My evolution is subtle. I always felt uncomfortable if I went into the studio and tried to make something totally off the wall. To me the most important thing is the connection that someone would like this and use it. And that kind of propelled me to stay with functional pottery. … Think of the coffee mug. It’s often the first thing people buy from me. It becomes the most personal thing.” 1

Donn Zver. 1985. Stoneware Jar. Copper red glaze with a opal blue top. 33 x 22.9 cm.
Donn Zver. 1985. Stoneware Jar. Copper red glaze with a opal blue top. 33 x 22.9 cm.

“In my earlier work I did a lot more slab work and they were more elaborate pieces. But then I was living on the farm. I had the security of the farm and didn’t have to pay rent and all that kind of stuff. … I could afford the luxury of spending an hour on a couple of pieces there. … But when you move into your own studio things start to change. So I think a bit of my work began to evolve. Simplified, if I can use that word, out of necessity because I had to produce more. My expenses were a lot higher.” 1

Stoneware Jar. This jar form is simple, smooth with colours and bands defining key portions of the pot’s body. The shoulder has a subtle underglaze design. The colours are precise, cleanly placed and are of the visible spectrum: reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, violets. Yet they are restrained, in harmony. This jar is quite different from anything we have seen so far with its smooth and polished look resulting from the gloss of the glaze and the simplicity of the colour arrangements. Their bandings around the body are quite harmonious, more subtle in style compared to the contrast in tones and colours that he used in his earlier works.

Donn Zver. 1999. Slab Tray. Dimensions. 30.5 x 5.1 cm.
Donn Zver. 1999. Slab Tray. Dimensions. 30.5 x 5.1 cm.

Slab Tray. Although slab building did remain in Zver’s production he continued the use of glaze contrasts and smooth surfaces. The asymmetrical glaze design flows into the scalloped edges creating a tension with the gentle, bowl-like form. There is a deliberate asymmetry in the design the effect is one almost of a test of bands of colour in the clay’s patterns in the bands and brush stroke washes of the blue line. There is a sense of exploration here as to the potential of what can be done with a surface. There are four bands of colour and design, as though Zver is experimenting with the surface effects: solid fields of black and brown juxtaposed; a resist-like pattern in orange; and a zen-like blue brushstroke. All rest on a speckled white surface. Zver talks of his flat surfaces:

“I’ve always struggled with flat surface. I’ve never wanted my works to look like paintings. … Back when I was in school the intent was to make them look like painting. I just wasn’t interested in that. I just like the play of the colours of the glaze with each other.” 1

Donn Zver. 2014. Stoneware Tray. Copper red with black with iron and rutile stamp decoration across the surface. 5.1 x 35.6 x 25.4 cm.
Donn Zver. 2014. Stoneware Tray. Copper red with black with iron and rutile stamp decoration across the surface. 5.1 x 35.6 x 25.4 cm.

Stoneware Tray. Zver has continued with the use of contrasting colour areas to dramatic effect. Here in a more recent work the colours completely cover the surface extending to the edge of the rim. The red-black contact creates a subtle maroon band. The boundary is further enhanced by loose drops of yellow that bleed a little, into the red-black matrix.

Donn Zver. Dinnerware set. Copper red sand black.
Donn Zver. Dinnerware set. Copper red sand black.

Such glaze designs can be customized to customer needs or desires although he is not a slave to popular trends.

“Dinnerware is an important part of my work, especially with customer who have collected for a number of years.” 1

Donn Zver. 2019 . Open Casserole. Stoneware. 7.6 x 35.6 cm.
Donn Zver. 2019 . Open Casserole. Stoneware. 7.6 x 35.6 cm.

Open. Casserole. This glaze design format is much used in his dinner sets: two colours with a transition band. Zver’s website includes tips on how to best use and preserve his stoneware pottery. This approach is quite typical of Zver since he is concerned not only with his clients’ satisfaction with a purchased product but also their preserving the items they purchased. Zver prefers to have clients as friends and talks frequently about his close relationship over the years of continuing friendships with people who have purchased his works.

Donn Zver. 2018. Stoneware. Overlapped glazes. 10.2 x 35.6 cm.
Donn Zver. 2018. Stoneware. Overlapped glazes. 10.2 x 35.6 cm.

Although he has his “bread-and-butter” line of functional ware of functional ware and custom dinner sets Donn Zver has retained his artistic side as he continues to produce one-off and small run pieces that can highlight form, silhouette as well as glaze colour and depth.

Bowl. 2018. Here Zver has overlapped glazes in the well to give a fire effect, one of a roiling lava pool. A black glaze frames the bowl. The rippling rim is a circle of tectonic energy, linking fire sources, be they volcano or kiln in origin. The colours are intense with deep, mirror-like, glosses producing a tension between function and decoration.

Donn Zver. 2015. Large thrown bowl, stoneware, cone 11. Multi glazes in centre with midnight blue in outer area. 10.2 x 35.6 cm.
Donn Zver. 2015. Large thrown bowl, stoneware, cone 11. Multi glazes in centre with midnight blue in outer area. 10.2 x 35.6 cm.

A similarly coloured large thrown bowl has a much simpler form but here the rim-well divide is raised as though a a large bubble has burst around some volcanic vent. The two are like snapshots, phases of a volcanic landscape

Donn Zver. 2016. Tall jar. Stoneware, reduction firing with copper overlap glaze. 33 x 15.2 cm.
Donn Zver. 2016. Tall jar. Stoneware, reduction firing with copper overlap glaze. 33 x 15.2 cm.

The tall jar on the right shows another of the many aspects of Zver’s work that I enjoy: his ability to insert a paradox into his work. Perhaps I can call it “subtle, or simple, complexity” where to basic forms he adds elements that give those “aha” moments be they the contrast in glazes, both in proportion and colour, or the wider flair of a lip, or the extra solidity of a finial. The more you look the more you see. Here the shapes also remind me of Chinese ceramics.

Donn Zver. 2016. Vase Form. Stoneware, reduction firing with multi glazes. 30.5 x 20.3 cm.
Donn Zver. 2016. Vase Form. Stoneware, reduction firing with multi glazes. 30.5 x 20.3 cm.

In the Vase form on the left the functional origin of such a work is obvious but the focus on form and silhouette and understated glaze colouring move it nto the realm of sculpture. The harmony of the surface colour takes second place to the swells of the silhouette and the upward thrust of lines to the dimpled swelling of the lip in an understated elegance.

Donn Zver. Vase. 2018. Wood-fired. Sodium silicate decoration on lower surface, shino glaze on the top. 33 x 20.3 cm.
Donn Zver. Vase. 2018. Wood-fired. Sodium silicate decoration on lower surface, shino glaze on the top. 33 x 20.3 cm.

Wood-Fired Vase. For the past few years Donn has been wood-firing some of his works with the Hamilton Potters’ Guild. Since he has two electric kilns for bisquing and a large gas travel-kiln for firing, the Hamilton group’s kiln enables him to revisit firing techniques not available in Troy. A vase such as this illustrates some favoured features of his work: contrasting textures and colours on a basically traditional form, but with the surprises of wood-fired effects. The egg-shaped belly is matte in surface with an effect like tree bark that spirals up to the gloss of the glaze of the shoulder, neck and lip. These areas have subtle ripples and edge swellings.

Don Zver has proved himself to be a canny businessman as well as a respected artist and animateur. He continues to design and create, but as a “person” he now finds himself in the position of having the luxury of ‘time out’. The work he creates these days are the the result of years of focused artistic and business planning, and of an empathic reading of his clients. He is a potter, an artist, a mentor and entrepreneur. Respected by his peers he has made his pottery in a small community in southern Ontario into a place where people can not only view and purchase his art but also connect with an artist who has also given so much of himself to the development of Ontario pottery.

Links to Sites for More Works on Donn Zver

Donn Zver Pottery and Hand Made Dinnerware. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnPAzjNR_eY . 5:40 min. Youtube. Basically an infomercial but interesting nonetheless to give an impression of the interior of the Troy shop with some Zver biography, and pitches on his work for sale and the restaurant, but interesting still as an infrequent example of internet marketing by an entrepreneurial potter.
Don Zver Pottery – 40 Years in the making: 7:26 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gyf7pDjz2sE An enjoyable video with shots of the studio/restaurant with interior scenes of the shop display area and Donn throwing; Some interesting scenes of Donn in the 1970s/80s and wedging clay throwing and creating. Also included are archival shots of the Gallery opening, a display of Donn’s love of ceremony and of a sharing of success with friends and clients. In short one can see that Donn is very much a “people person.”

Major Collections

• The Dofasco Collection of Ontario Pottery,
• The Ontario Potters Collection, Art Gallery of Burlington
• The Massey Foundation Collection of Canadian Crafts, Ottawa
• The University of Alberta Collection
• The Glenbow Gallery Permanent Collection
• And, many public and private collections
• The Museum of Civilization, Ottawa

Endnotes & Bibliography

  1. Donn Zver. Interview and correspondence with Barry Morrison. December 27, 1980 and December 17, 2017ff.
  2. Donn Zver website: http://www.donnzver.com/
  3. Donn Zver. OPA article 1977, provided by Donn Zver.
  4. Suzanne Bourret. 5 Questions. Spectator interview, not dated. Provided by Donn Zver.
  5. Donn Zver. Touched By Clay, 1999. Provided by Donn Zver.
  6. Gail Crawford. A Fine Line: Studio Crafts in Ontario from 1930 to the Present. Dundurn Press. Toronto.1998.
  7. Donn Zver resume 1981.
  8. Tea in the Valley: http://teainthevalley.blogspot.com/2015/10/donn-zver-pottery.html
  9. Johnathan Smith. Curator. Art Gallery of Burlington Exhibition Catalogue. Don Zver: 40 Years in the Making. June 8-September 22, 2013.
  10. Donn Zver. Keynote Presentation To The Burlington Potters Guild. 2019.