Dates: 1944, Wolverhampton, England.
Production Dates: 1966 – present.
Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Types of Work: Sculptural and Functional
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: electric kiln; oxidatio.n
Preferred Clay: own white stoneware clay and porcelain.
Signature: Alexandra uses underglaze pencil to sign her work. She does not use a chop mark.
Website: Alexandra McCurdy’s Website.
A Short Biography
Alexandra McCurdy is an artist whose work crosses media in inspiration and content. Ceramics and fibre cross and interact in new ways. Her forms and surfaces are an ongoing iconography of self-discovery and self-revelation, at first unintentional, later deliberate. There is also paradox: not only is there the expression of contemporary social values but also a frequent recall of her own history. Although her work can express symbolic complexity, her own personal message is direct and open.
Born in 1944 in Wolverhampton, England, her newborn life was marked almost immediately by tragedy: the loss of her father, a Canadian RCAF pilot flying for the RAF. The loss is a recurrent theme for Alexandra, a subject that arises in her conversations and in writings about her. Her early years were spent in her maternal grandmother’s house. Textile design and technique were an early constant influence. Her mother, a designer for a textile company, and her aunts, who wove embroidery designs onto blackout curtains to conserve heat by building fabric walls to reduce the room’s size. Later, wherever she could, Alexandra would study textile techniques and designs, both as complements to her ceramics, and as important media and historical elements in their own right.
The mystery of the loss of her father was to affect her life in other ways. Her mother was rumoured to be a British spy in order to track down the story of his death. Later, on the suggestion of relatives, her mother later took her to Vancouver Island to meet her paternal grandmother. There her mother met and married a Canadian naval officer. A stern, uncommunicative man he and Alexandra took an immediate dislike to each other. He packed Alexandra off to boarding school at the age of five years. English boarding schools were her life for the next eight years. By the time she graduated high school Alexandra had gone through fourteen schools. She muses that this experience, originating from the coldness of her step-father, might have been the root her feminism expressed as the need to exercise control over her own life.1
Ceramics came into her life by less than direct paths. It is interesting that since her early studies were in drawing and painting, along with her lifelong interest in textiles, that she even became a ceramist. For example, early in her married life she was in Beaconsfield, Quebec, where she studied with the ceramist Rosalie Namer because textile lessons were not available. At another time, while passing by an NSCAD pottery studio, she saw students working in the studio and thought “that looks like fun.” From that time forward ceramics was the medium for her.
Her time at NSCAD (1976-80) as a mature student – she was 35 years old – at first proved to be a challenge. John Reeve, as visiting artist, and Homer Lord were her salvation. They encouraged her to experiment with white clays and multi-coloured glazes in her work. Nonetheless, it would still be several years before she found a style and approach that was more suited to her needs.
Feeling artistically lonely she went to study in a winter session at the Banff Centre. While there Leopold Foulem, an instructor, recommended she get her Masters degree. Although she was accepted into the pricey Royal College of Art, another instructor, Richard Slee, suggested she attend the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, Wales for the quality of teaching. Her MFA thesis was on Women in Craft and included research into suffragette symbolism: for example, the triangle for equality; the rhombus, a call to unite; the ladder, the metamorphosis of women over the years. The resulting convergence of fibre and clay, and of representation and symbol, have been constant, conscious directions ever since.
Alexandra McCurdy has exhibited widely across Canada, and in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, Tokyo, Japan, Faenza, Italy, and Florida, USA. She is also widely collected by private collectors, museums and galleries.
Gallery of Alexandra McCurdy’s Work
Alexandra’s work is of two general types, production and personal-exhibition. This page will deal with the latter. Although these images are arranged chronologically there is much revisiting and renewing of styles and forms in Alexandra’s work over the years.
Also, there is a two-part video produced for her exhibition opening, “The Fabric of Clay,” at the Burlington Arts Centre, that is informative not only about Alexandra and her work but also has an engaging interplay between the artist and the exhibition-curator, Gloria Hickey, showing why the exhibition was a success.
“My work has long been inspired by textile patterns and motifs drawn from the intricate quill and needlework of indigenous Mi’kmaq and women’s textiles, by my research into Western textile history and the central role played in it by women, and by my mother’s personal involvement in the British textile industry earlier this century.“3
Copper Red Jewel Box, 1978. Porcelain, coloured slip, transparent glaze fired to Cone 10 in reduction. 6 x 7.5 cm. This is an early work before Alexandra found her voice in her later styles and symbols. These little “jewel boxes” were so named because they were placed in the kiln amidst large “oatmeal-coloured” glazed casseroles and bean crocks, so popular in those days with the other students. They were made at NSCAD when John Reeve was there teaching and were the beginning of decoration for her. She was interested in the colour and the depth of the glaze. The spider web top prefigures her weaving motifs of later years. Like much of her work these works are small, intimate in size, personal. Alexandra continues to create multi-coloured pastel-hued pieces in her production work, as seen in the portrait at the top of this page. Her later work is more monochromatic.
Black “Imari” Covered Jar, 1979. White stoneware, underglaze colours, transparent glaze, fired to Cone 5. 17 x 13 cm. This is an example of the work Alexandra was doing before she discovered women’s patterns as a key influence in her work.
“I was searching for influences, but needed to find something that touched my soul.”2
The design is a regular pattern of Japanese heraldic-type symbols regularly spaced around the body and lid. One layer of patterns is daringly cut by the body-lid interface. Paper cut-outs which acted as resists created the octagons. She then covered these with black underglaze. The paper resists were then taken off and filled with slip trailed pattern. The glaze added a depth to the surface that interested Alexandra at the time.2
Copper Green “Mishima” Bowl and Cup and Saucer, 1981. White stoneware, underglaze colour, transparent glaze, fired to Cone 5. 7 x 14 cm Bowl; 8 x 8.5 cm cup; 1 x 12.5 cm saucer.. These elegant functional works were done while she experimented with colour and glaze and before she discovered patterns used by women in their craft. And yet, on the cup, here again is an interlacing or network pattern prefiguring textile-weaving of the future. Collection of Hugh Kierkegaard, Bedford, N.S.2
Peacock Blue, Yellow and Green Teapot, 1982. White stoneware, underglaze colours, transparent glaze, fired to Cone 5. 14 x 22.5 cm. This is an “iconic” teapot. The work was in an exhibition that changed her direction forever. It was included in a juried exhibition at Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in Halifax, N.S., called All Fired Up. A friend looking at it commented that she liked Alexandra’s use of quilt patterns. McCurdy had no idea that it was a quilt pattern, but that comment started her search for textile patterns used by women, and that were a celebration of women’s craft. The bell-shaped work also displays an early use of Mi’kmaq dyed quill-work design arranged in lozenge shapes.
“Upon arriving in Nova Scotia from Quebec, I was awed by the amount and quality of women’s work in textiles, and not signed. As far as I was concerned they were works of art and should have been signed, so I decided to celebrate them in my own work.”2
Green and Yellow Oval “Quillwork” Covered Box,1987. White stoneware, press molded, coloured underglazes and slips, transparent glaze, fired to Cone 5. 8 x 17 cm. This is another watershed piece, more directly fashioned after the native Indian quillwork using patterns similar to theirs. The designs had meaning in their work but she did not copy their actual patterns; rather, she created her own. At the time she was criticized for “appropriation” and stopped making them. Interestingly Emily Carr had her own personal ethical issues in using aboriginal motifs in her ceramics, but in the ethos of the times did not suffer the slight of “appropriation” that can be used so easily today. Soon after, Alexandra decided to do a Master’s degree at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Learning. Collection of Hugh Kierkegaard, Bedford, Nova Scotia.2
Blue Butterfly Box, 1991. Porcelain, plexi- tubing, (wire and beads as connectors). 13 x 13 x 13 cm. This was the first of the boxes made while Alexandra was doing her Masters Degree at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Learning. Already the work is recognizable as a “McCurdy Box.” The birth is sudden without any obvious precursors. The convergence of clay and fibre has now moved beyond surface design to the actual structure, the “fabric” of the work itself. The viewer, when peeking down through the open “+” sign, can see at the bottom a caged butterfly. McCurdy has often used the butterfly in her work: it was used by Judy Chicago as a symbol for the metamorphosis of women over the centuries. Alexandra also uses the image in the Golden Rule #1, below. Here it is caged, but the “+” sign, signifies that eventually it will be freed. This box was in her grad show, in an exhibition called Masterworks, at the Mary E. Black Gallery, and most recently in the Connections exhibition at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto, Ontario. It is now in the collection of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, N.S.2
Detail of the Blue Butterfly Box, 1991. Showing the caged butterfly at the bottom of the box, as one peers through the plus sign.
“Crossing the line between ceramics and weaving fascinates me. Simulation/illusion in ceramics is a trigger, a declaration of the fact that there is “more than meets the eye”3
Blue Mandala,1992. Porcelain, embroidery floss, plexi- rod. 64 x 64 cm. This was the first of the ceramic quilts, using the symbols she had discovered in her Masters Degree thesis research. These symbols were used by the suffragettes and sewn into their banners: the spiral means growth, the triangle equality, the rhombus a call to unite. Alexandra feels this was the time when she became more overtly feminist. She used embroidery floss to sew the tiles together, since she had traced women’s craft through textiles and embroidery. As a rejection of the usual anonymity of traditional fibre art Alexandra placed her initials on the front at the bottom of the quilt, not the back.2
Blue and Red Footed Bowl with Ladders, 1996. Porcelain, slip cast, coloured underglazes, transparent glaze, leather, copper wire, beads, fired to Cone 9 in oxidation. 12.5 x 13.5 cm. This piece is typical of the many works made after Cardiff. Alexandra had researched women in textiles for her thesis, called “Women in Craft”, and taken on many of the symbols used by them. She was piercing the pieces and sewing in copper wire, leather, etc, which themselves made patterns. She was trying to create the illusion of piercing the piece with a needle, and having the needle come out the other side and wanted the inside/outside pattern to be the same. The design is thus a composite of ceramic and textile materials and surfaces. This bowl uses a ladder symbol which was used to illustrate the metamorphosis of women through the centuries. These pieces were footed, on a pedestal, the idea being to literally elevate them as a celebration of women’s craft. However, such works would receive mixed acceptance since potential buyers were concerned about the effect of the puncturing and slicing that were part of the design. Innovation isn’t always easily accepted.2
The Ties That Bind, 2000. Porcelain, embroidery floss, wooden dowel. Fired to Cone 10 in oxidation. 82 x 64 cm. This ceramic quilt was the first of the silkscreened images and the beginning of much more autobiographical work. The images are inter-generational, those of her mother, her daughter and herself. The fingerprints are also all theirs. The design and colour are simple and regular: black and white photo-silkscreened images with red thread outlines and corners, the whole softened by a scalloped border. Clasping hands and single finger prints define individuality, intimacy without fussiness. It was shown in the retrospective the Fabric of Clay, and in five other exhibitions, including Mothers/Daughters at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax, which travelled to the Confederation Centre in PEI, and to the Acadia University Art Gallery in N.S. It was accompanied by four prints of their hands.2
Underwraps 6, 2000. Relief print on paper. 76.5 x 51 cm. This was the last of the Underwraps series of monotype underwear prints. Although not ceramics, the more overtly sexual images of the series indicate the feminist themes McCurdy has been working on. She did six prints, each representing the underwear of a particular era, beginning with her grandmother, and ending with her daughter. The actual garments were stiffened, inked and put through a 300 pound printing press.
“These were designed to illustrate how we have changed about our body image, from squeezing in the waist and pushing up the bosoms, to wearing scarcely anything at all. This particular one is the “teddy” worn by women these days to entice men,” 2
Blue Box, 2007. Porcelain, (wire, beads as connectors). 13 x 13 cm. Such works are incredibly labour intensive. These boxes are made by repeatedly slip trailing on cheese cloth to create a warp and weft effect. There are six layers of the slip-trailed lines in each side. She makes at least 15 sides for each box because they tend to warp in the firing. The sides must be warp-free to connect at the corners. Porcelain seems to have a memory and if warped during any part of the process would resume that warped shape. Alexandra will take off her glasses to get closer to the work and then hunch over her piece. She trails thixotropic slip onto the cheesecloth. The slip contains sodium silicate and uses less water. It thus promotes faster drying. The cheesecloth will imprint itself on the slip. She then drills holes for sewing before the clay dries. This box won “Best in Design” in the 2011 Fusion: Fireworks exhibition organized by the Ontario Clay and Glass association, which travelled Ontario for two years. The Burlington Art Centre permanent collection.1
Blue: Chicago and Friends, 2009. White stoneware, coloured underglazes, transparent glaze fired to Cone 5. Emily Carr plate 1.5 x 22.5 cm; Judy Chicago plate 1.5 x 20 cm; Georgia O’Keefe mug 10 x 8 cm; Lucie Rie Bowl 5.5 x 20 cm; Barbara Hepworth plate 1 x 15 cm; Beatrice Wood plate 1 x 15 cm. Indigo dyed fabric 1987. Cotton fabric, 90 x 54 cm. This piece illustrates her women-artist-mentors, influenced by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. The images were silkscreened onto rolled out clay, cut in a circle and pressed onto the surface of the plate.2
Black Box with Raffia, 2009. Porcelain. raffia (wire beads as connectors). 13 x 13 cm. The black boxes are an offshoot of the fact that her father, an RCAF pilot flying bombers for the RAF during World War II, was killed in action and was missing for two years. “We never found out what happened to him. Had he lived my life would have been very different. The “black box” in planes today tells the story of what happened in an accident. In those days black boxes did not exist. And so this is an autobiographical piece.” Black boxes are not just about surface colour, they are also about the secrets inside. Collection of Raphael Yu, Ajax, Ontario.2
Green Spiral Box. 2009. Porcelain, (wire, beads as connectors) fired to Cone 9 in oxidation. 14 x14 cm. This box has no openings, but is a tweed, illustrating that yes, she can replicate weaving It is made the same way as the other boxes. The spiral symbolizes growth.2 Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick.
The Golden Rule #1, 2010. White stoneware, beads, ribbon, fired to Cone 5 in oxidation. 14.5 x 16 cm. This piece’s title comes from the saying “He who owns the gold rules.”1 It is another feminist, autobiographical piece. The purse surfaces do not try to simulate fabric or leather but are consistent with the flat symbolic format of her ceramic quilts. The design is simple, rectangles within rectangles. The Judy Chicago butterflies float next to a heart. Metamorphosis and Love? Alexandra Adds further meaning and thoughts:
“I’m not sure that people get it however, since times have changed to the point where women are making as much as men. But as a ceramist, this is not true, probably never will be, so I am commenting on two subjects.”2
Black Box with Weaving, 2011. Porcelain (wire, beads as connectors) fired to Cone 10 in oxidation. 12 x 12 cm. This is one of the latest of Alexandra’s black boxes. The box continues her theme of containment and enclosure surrounding mystery. She has discovered that the eye can see inside the boxes if she uses a dark grill in the centre of each side. This opens up possibilities. Sometimes her boxes are impenetrable with mysterious unknowns, sometimes, as here, they give glimpses, of a symbolic mystery. The small, tight weaving on the top is autobiographical and refers the weaving of her life. Again what seems to be a simple play of surfaces and forms is actually a deeper personal concept with multiple layers of meaning,2
Blue Butterfly Box 2, 2012. Porcelain, (wire and beads as connectors). 12 x 12 x 12 cm. There is the butterfly inside the box and then on the top, finally freed. At times I think the symbol goes beyond decoration and is self-referential, that the butterfly is Alexandra herself. Freedom and metamorphosis are a constant theme in her life and work. The placement of the butterfly inside is also an echo of those blackout curtained room-boxes of her early childhood. This box was juried into the 2103 Fusion: Fireworks travelling exhibition, organized by the Ontario Clay and Glass Association.2
“In these Boxes I have deliberately left the “inner workings” to the viewer’s imagination, embellishing the external instead, in an ambiguous way. The boxes have been compared to things as diverse as Japanese tea houses, Catholic confessionals and Muslim women’s burkas. They intentionally utilize the feminine principal of containment and enclosure, and are intended as a metaphor for women, including myself. For me, the simulation/illusion of weaving is another way to celebrate women’s work over the centuries.”3
Polka Dot Bowl Series, 2013. White stoneware, coloured underglazes, transparent glaze, fired to Cone 5 in oxidation. 5 x 16 cm approx. each. This is a new series based on the polka dot, done in her Florida studio. All she has there is a test kiln so her pieces are small. Alexandra had done polka dot ware back in the late 1980s. These new works are typically small. They are functional in appearance but almost too precious-looking to actually use. They have a tight, clean precision similar to her earlier works. What is different from those earlier works is the use of mini-dots, within polka dots within circular vessels – can we call them macro-dots? – almost fractal in effect. David Kaye Gallery.2
Alexandra McCurdy uses the forms, techniques and symbolism of fibre and ceramic arts. Her works are deeply personal, usually autobiographical. She provides an interesting contrast with the artists of the two major currents that have dominated Canadian studio ceramics: Leach and the Orient. She has adopted the ethos and sometimes the symbolism of the suffragette-feminist movements, yet her style, her forms and their effects are uniquely hers.
Alexandra McCurdy Updates
- Alexandra McCurdy Elected to the RCA
- There is an excellent online article by Gil McElroy on Alexandra’s boxes you can read at The Heart of the Thing: Alexandra McCurdy’s Boxes .
- Alexandra McCurdy elected to the International Academy of Ceramics, 2019
Endnotes and bibliography
1. Interview with Alexandra McCurdy
2. Email correspondence with Alexandra McCurdy
3. Alexandra McCurdy “Essay on Boxes,” supplied by the artist
4. McCurdy, Alexandra. The Fabric of Clay: Alexandra McCurdy. Catalogue of the Touring Exhibition. 48 pages. Co-Published by the Burlington Arts Centre. 2011