Gaétan Beaudin Capsule:
Dates: 1924 – 2002
Production Dates: c.1944 – c.1982ff.
Location: Quebec, Montreal, Rimouski, North Hatley, Quebec.
Types of Work: Mostly Functional but with many with sculptural overtones.
Preferred Kiln Type: oil, electric, wood and natural gas
Preferred Clay: earthenware and stoneware.
Artist, philosopher, engineer, geologist, teacher. These are some of the words of the many sides of Gaétan Beaudin. They do not do him justice. Although he was not the first studio potter in 20th century Quebec his name and his impact are first on today’s artists’ lips. Further, his struggle in overcoming the conditions existing in his early years are a testament to his perseverance and commitment. Yet part of his success came out almost by accident and a bit of serendipity; and in spite of his success and influence he was always questioning whether he was on the right path.
From his early years he was a bit of a rebel, seeking to explore beyond the norm. While a young boy in boarding school in Valleyfield he liked to draw, mostly hockey players and cowboys. ¹ He said of the time:
“I was tremendously unhappy. The boarding school was run like an army … but they let me draw. I got it into my head that I would go to a fine arts school and get the hell out of there. They let me go because it was the only way I was going to stay in school. So I was even classified as a delinquent. My mother convinced my father to let me go to fine arts school.” ¹
In 1942 he went to the École des beaux-arts, the only school of art at the time. There he studied drawing but was good at sculpting and modelling. He even developed an interest in commercial art. He was happy but puzzled as to where it would lead. ¹
But in his second year:
“I went into the ‘second building’. There were no windows. The door was open so I went in … I saw a guy there fixing up the clay. It was a revelation. I didn’t know anything like that existed. He told me he belonged to the fine arts school and there were only two students a year..I applied and got in”. ¹
The facilities then were simple and very hands on : mixing clay in a butter churn; the next day slaking the clay in water; sieving clay by hand with a small screen, etc. ¹ Pierre‐Aimé Normandeau was the the teacher. He would read to the students from a French technical book “a couple of afternoons a week”. ¹
“I knew him as an unhappy man. He wasn’t the man for the situation”. ¹
“They set up the basics of a course suitable for France but not for Canada’s clay; our clays were not yet the body needed to do the projects we were trying. The glazes were from French books but they were more often written by industrial scientists, very advanced but not well organized. Eventually they did buy American books”. ¹
The school had an old drip feed kerosene fired Denver Fireclay. It took thirty six hours to fire to cone 08. Normandeau would not help. Gaétan had to do it all alone: ¹
“I had to work all year to fill it. I would put all my stuff I had made all year long and pray to God it would turn out alright”. ¹
It was while art school he had an awakening about where suppressed interests lay. In his early school years he found science a boring subject, of little interest. Now he was soon studying geology, mineralogy, engineering and planning projects. ¹
But there were other challenges and considerations too:
“I was like an architect who can see a building from its materials … I was also interested in how you could make a profit. When I came out [graduated] nothing existed, no suppliers nor equipment so I had to find out … To become a potter I started with nothing. I started with having to find out about everything . For example what do you do about a kiln?” ¹
When he first started to practice professionally he would build his own kilns. Over the years he used oil, electric, wood and natural gas based on the product he wanted. ¹
Gaétan was candid about his professional development:
“It took ten years developing elementary knowledge before I had the idea I was a potter, before I could control what I wanted”. ¹
Part of this involved searching for clay samples. He started scouring brickyards:
“…taking a bus to a quarry, taking a shovel, carrying the bags of clay on my shoulders to the road, finding transport back to my little shop on a small lane off Papineau Street”. ¹
He had in fact started the Papineau shop before he graduated in 1945:
“A friend of mine at school was the son of a doctor. He was worried about his son and thought I was a hard worker and a very good influence. He offered me his garage as a workshop. That’s how I got financing for the shop”. ¹
Beaudin had one special client, whom he called a small gift shop owner, Paul Gouin, who ran a gift shop on Sherbrooke Street, Montréal. He was surprisingly candid about the relationship:
“ He would come every week and buy everything I had made. … I would fire it up Thursday and sell it on Friday. … It was horrible stuff”. ¹
Later he would modify this self-assessment to calling his work of the time “plain and honest earthenware.” ¹
Visitors to Beaudin’s place reflected the predominant attitudes of the time:
“People would stop in the lane by accident and ask what it was all about. … the word ‘ceramic’ was all about dinnerware made in a factory, usually white”. ¹
The public’s concept of “craft” did not develop until years later. For many years his work was sold as one-of-a-kind in gift shops. ¹ There is an irony in that later in his career Beaudin would be designing and making “factory” dinnerware.
Gaétan was feeling insecure about having only one client. ¹ Then Rimouski happened. He received federal funding to set up classes and a workshop. From that period, 1946 -1953, come some of the most widely known collectibles of his work, the Décor Rimouski style.
“[It] was an accident which turned out to be exactly what I needed to do. I received a salary but there were no students in the years ’46 –’47. The federal government was giving money to rehabilitate veterans. I set up programs, bought mixers, pug mills, filter presses and did my research. It was a great time”. ¹
The parents of potential students wanted their sons to be carpenters and welders. 5 In total he developed or trained three ceramists. 6 However,
“If I did not have this ‘grant’ for ten years disguised as a teaching job my experiments might have taken me even longer”. ¹
He would thus speak of his two opportunities: his early “client”; and then his “grant”. ¹ But eight years later he was still wrestling with the idea of being a potter:
“ I had the idea of being a potter but I wondered about it on many grounds. “ ¹
In the fourth year of his stay at Rimouski he came to Montreal to attend an exhibition and attracted some students away from Normandeau and his more ‘static’ course. ¹ He wanted to provide more of a focus on Quebec. ¹
Toward the end of this Rimouski period he took a train trip to visit the Deichmanns in New Brunswick. He found the experience ‘mythical’ and confirming. ¹ However, at this time he did not know of anybody working in Toronto; he would not start selling at the Canadian Guild of Potters shop until 1955. ¹ Also, he had not heard of either Alice Mary Hagen or Mary Allison Doull in the Atlantic provinces. ¹
While in Rimouski for his last three years he also taught summer courses at the Penland School of Handicrafts in North Carolina. ¹ From this experience he was inspired to develop his own studio and school for professional potters in North Hatley in 1954. He thought teaching for five months would be a good idea. He bought an old hotel and converted it to his summer school. The intent was to provide a solid technical and artistic education using Quebec clays and glaze materials. 5
Outside of Quebéc his recognition factor was low. In a 1957 article by Robert Ayre in the periodical Studio he is not even mentioned.10 However, his work and his teaching were now becoming recognized by other, more practical sources. He received a Canada Council grant in 1963 and used it to go to Japan to meet and study that country’s ceramic masters, their national treasures such as Kei Fujiwara, Seimi Stuji and Tatsuzo Shimaoka. He would later bring Shimaoka to North Hatley to conduct workshops in the summer of 1964. He formed close relationships with the Japanese masters: at an exhibition of Kawai Kanjiro, a potter whom he particuarly admired, he was disturbed by the quality of the glazes,
“ I asked, ‘What’s the matter with your glazes”? Kanjiro laughingly replied. ‘ I can make a very good pot but with a very bad glaze’”. ¹
More students came to North Hatley, four to six students a year.
“…because I was already and old potter”. ¹
Such artists included Louise Doucet and Satoshi Saito, premier ceramists. It was here they first met. ³
The market for pottery had started to develop while he was in Rimouski. The move to North Hatley brought him closer to Montreal. He could now come to meetings of crafts people. ¹
His studying was continuous. Over the years he researched American books on glaze and kiln information: Parmalee’s “Ceramic Glazes’ and Andrew’s “Ceramic Tests and Calculations” were favourites because they were more technical; he also read the periodical “Clay Record” for information about equipment and supplies. 4 He states, however:
“A lot of my knowledge is from application, not theory. I adjusted recipes to suit the clay materials”. ¹
Maurice Savoie 8 mentioned that Beaudin did use Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and for a while lost much of his trade as a result. Leach, it seems was not the guru for Quebec as he was for others in Canada.
Being a leader in ceramics at times frustrated Beaudin. A potter friend in Deerfield, Connecticut, helped him develop a speckled stoneware recipe. Back in Quebec:
“Everybody went wild about it. My booth sold out after three days at the Palais du Commerce. I gave out the recipe and next year everybody was selling it”. ¹
He was not impressed with this easy copying of the formula. ¹
And North Hatley was taking its toll:
“I was coming back [from Japan], opening up doors on things I had already started”. ¹
The work became full time. He became exhausted. The more he worked the more depressed he became. ¹ He separated from his first wife who did not want to leave North Hatley. ¹ In late 1964 he opened up a small gallery exhibiting Quebec and Japanese artists. He also took a position at l’ Institut des arts appliqués teaching ceramic technology. Here he was still outspoken. On the quality of pottery being produced in Quebec in the late 1960s he is quoted in the Globe and Mail:
“Gaetan Beaudin, director of ceramics at the Institute of Applied Arts on St. Denis Street in Montreal and a leading authority on ceramics in the province, says: ‘Pottery is not a well-established profession in Quebec. We don’t have pottery we just have lots of potters. Some are good designers, others have drive.'” 9
Perhaps this is more a reflection of his continuing personal quest for meaning and direction in his own work. still he gives glimmers of hope for the future; in the article we have our first mention of and praise for Enid Legros among others. Nonetheless, he seems to have taken the long view in his belief in the need for quality Québec ceramics and continued at the school until 1973. He also worked on boards as an advisor to the government on crafts and industry.
But Beaudin was not just words, and certainly not just an academic. Since there was nothing supply-wise in Quebec for Quebec ceramists he joined with Pierre Legault, who was supplied by Jorgen Poschmann of the Pottery Supply House, Oakville, ON, at the time to correct this situation. ¹ What was originally Legault Inc. became SIAL with Beaudin, Legault and Bertrand Vanasse. Their mission was to provide clays, glazes and tools to professional potters. Their operation was located on Lalande Boulevard, Pierrefonds. Through its twenty eight distribution centers it sold throughout Quebec. They obtained much of their clay from a clay shale site in St-Octave-de Métis. 6
The word ‘sial’, by the way, is a geological term referring to the upper part of the earth’s continental crust and reflects Beaudin’s interest in matters geological.
Not satisfied with this result they wanted to compete with the English and Asian ceramics that flooded the markets. 6 SIAL II was formed in 1973 to manufacture Quebec ceramic tableware. Maurice Savoie was included. There was a strong demand for their product but it was a small company with small capitalization. ¹ The company acquired more capital and partners, a group of concrete engineers from Montreal, specialists in quality control. Over the years he felt the company was becoming less and less his, and more capitalistic.¹ He was interested in “joining human and economic considerations, not just profit.” ¹ Ironically he realized he had created a structure he no longer liked and withdrew a few months before July 1981. ¹ SIAL II had become a thing where power was in ownership and he was not a major owner. ¹ Also,
I was fifty seven years old. I didn’t think I could handle the sixteen hours a day that I did in my first 25 years”. ¹
He left SIAL II to return to developing one of a kind works, rewarding himself, he said, and spending time in setting up a shop in Rosemere, QC. ¹
His last exhibition was at the Salon des métiers d’art in 1982.²
It is an understatement to say Gaétan Beaudin had a major technical, aesthetic and social impact on Quebec ceramics. His material studies, his experiments in harmonizing art and industry, and his teaching so many future Quebec ceramic “greats” is unparalleled. He is remembered and honoured more recently and officially by the Prix Gaétan Beaudin and by the Galerie Gaétan Beaudin, Val-David, Quebec.
The plaque reads:
“Il y aura toujours en nous cette nécessité d’éclairer de la joie d’être cause
Gaétan Beaudin 1924-2002″
Gaetan Beaudin Gallery
Beaudin’s work covered a range of styles from an almost folk art to biomorphic to Scandinavian, to Japanese, to industrial.
Early Montreal (c. 1943ff – 45)
Vase, 1945. Signed, “La Faïencerie d’Art Montréal 1945 GB”. Beaudin’s early works were simple earthenware, red fired, red glaze, firing as close as possible to vitrification, sometimes to cone 08, depending on the clay. They were covered with an additional transparent lead glaze and engobe. He called it naive but plain and honest earthenware. ¹ This is a particularly ornate piece with a landscape motif of trees and flower flowing around the belly of the pot.
Jug, 1945. Red earthenware. Signed “La Faïencerie d’Art Montréal 1945 GB”. This simple and heavy creamer has a traditional, rustic quality. Its overtly wheel-thrown marks on an undulating belly, its flared mouth, and attached open handle contrast dramatically with his next phase, Décor Rimouski.
Rimouski (1946 -53)
“I picked up clay by the river in Rimouski. I tried developing ‘vitirified’ products … where the clay came from. The basic product was an ordinary red, Quebec clay that could be perfected in the body, workable, dry well and become a totally rigid product. “¹
Décor Rimouski Creamer, 1946-53. 13.5 x 8.9 x 7.6 cm. The designs from this period are three dimensionally complex, with multiple layers of curving forms. More than one image is required to give a hint of their true appearance. The glaze is smooth, and glossy, essentially blemish free with a more industrial look than artisan. Although the basic form of the creamer is standard there are now ergonomic considerations in the double spout and the off-kilter handle. The handle is now showing signs of closing in to the body of the pot and seems to flow organically from its connection to the base of the pot.
Décor Rimouski Sugar Bowl. 1946-53. 10.2 x 11.4 x 8.9 cm. The forms have a similar, standardized look in glaze colour and handles to the creamer above. There is an organic flow throughout such works. The look is “modern” unlike anything seen in Quebec at the time.
Décor Rimouski Cup and Saucer, 1946-53. Cup, 5.1 x 12.7 x 10.2 cm; Saucer, 2.5 x 22.9 x 16.5 cm. Beaudin used his “free” time in Rimouski well. The transformation from his earlier Montréal work is quite amazing. Gone are the heavy forms and decorated surfaces. They have become smooth, even, and organically flowing. They have been called “biomorphic” and “free form”, and are reminiscent of the flowing, sculptural forms of Jean Arp and the folded amoebic forms of the Surrealists in their modernism.
Décor Rimouski Mugs with Integrated Handle. These works reflect Beaudin’s interest in harmonizing human and ceramic forms, creating an integration of use, design and industry. While in Rimouski Beaudin had much time for research to explore design and production concepts. Such works are now much sought after collectibles. They were produced for years after he left Rimouski under licence to Laurentian Pottery.
North Hatley (1954-65 and later)
Vase, 1955. This vase was exhibited in the Canadian Ceramics of 1955 exhibition and illustrated in the July, 1956, Clay Product News with the note “a ceramic piece by Geatan (sic) Beaudin of North Hadley (sic), QUE. Mr. Beaudin conducts a centre where potters may spend a few days a week or an indefinite time for study and criticism of their work.” It won a $25.00 Canadian Handicraft Guild prize. By 1955 Beaudin was selling through the Guild shop in Toronto. ¹
The work shows a distinctive Scandinavian simplicity of form. This and the engobe decoration is typical of much of the surface design work produced by Canadian potters of the time. The contrast with Décor Rimouski is dramatic.
Blue vase c. 1956-7. This vase is similar to the type of Beaudin’s works listed in the Canadian Ceramics 1957 exhibition catalogue, shown at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, and organized by the Canadian Guild of Potters and the Canadian Handicraft Guild. He had obviously reached out beyond his Quebec roots. All four of his included works are earthenware; three are listed as works in shades of blue glaze. By this time Canadian ceramics had achieved a recognition that went beyond sites such as the Canadian National Exhibition and gift shops.
Bowl, 1954-73. North Hatley. Collection of Gilles Derome.
The simplicity of this earthenware bowl and its linear surface pattern reflect Beaudin’s sense of strong form. Hand made it still shows a hint of his sense of industrial design seen in earlier years in Rimouski.
Set of Glazed Pitchers, 1961. From the 1961 Canadian Guild of Potters Exhibition.
By contrast These Beaudin works show their wheel thrown origins. They are fairly conventional, traditional, probably earthenware. Although reminiscent of his much earlier student days in Montréal the works are now more accomplished finer of form and proportion, with a lighter feel. By 1965 he had moved into stoneware.
Long Necked bottle, c. 1965. Probably stoneware.The formal influence of Japan is quite evident in the form of this square, long-necked bottle. It was exhibited in la Galerie le Tournesol which opened August 15, 1965. 7 The shop, which he opened with 10 other artists, was on Mountain Street.
After his Trip to Japan Beaudin’s work begins to display form and glaze elements reflecting his Japanese experience. The form is heavy, sturdy, almost minimalist in effect. The work looks like a two piece construction: slab or handbuilt box base with a wheel thrown neck luted to the box base. Catalogue listings such as the 1965 Canadian Guild of Potters exhibition refer to such works as Bizen ware with goma technique, reflecting a reddish brown, hard ceramic form without glaze, with traces of molten ash.
Vase, 1954-65. Simple forms are a characteristic of Beaudin. Here he uses broken, horizontal bands of grey-blue glaze, with a feathered effect, separated by vertical strips of white and black glaze. The overall pattern creates a rhythmic and pulsing, laddered effect that enhances the vertical movement of the form. The foot is bare showing a speckled red clay surface.
SIAL I and II (1965 – 1981)
SIAL was started in 1965 to provide a supply source of clay and glaze materials for Quebec ceramists. SIAL II started in 1973 was an ‘industrial” pottery created to mass produce stoneware dinnerware. Such works are much sought after on the secondary market.
SIAL II Oval Dinner Service, c. 1976. Stoneware. This was the most extensive design produced by SIAL II. Daniel Congé describes the set as:
“dinnerware designed by Gaétan Beaudin from the intersection of two ovals. The pieces have a two-tone orange-brown glaze produced by salt spray, to which is added a choice of four complementary shades: white, brown Tenmoku, celadon green and gray, reminiscent Beaudin’s stay in Japan. Pressed or molded with a new ceramic paste made of porcelain 75% and 25% clay, the parts of the service need only one baking a period of twenty-four hours at a temperature of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. … distributed in Europe with the trademark Cerval”.6
- Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
- Museum of Canadian History
- The Toronto Design Exchange.
- canadiana – important canadian design
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Gaétan Beaudin. Interview with Barry Morrison, July 25, 1981, Montreal.
2. Conseil des métiers d’art du Québec (CMAQ) obituary for Gaétan Beaudin
3. Doucet-Saito, ceramists. Archives De Radio-Canada : Date Released: March 10, 1978
4. Parmalee, C.W. Ceramic Glazes. Industrial Publications, Inc. Chicago. 1948.; Andrews, A.I. Ceramic Tests And Calculations. John Wiley and Sons, 1928; and Brick and Clay Record, Windsor and Kenfield, University of Michigan.
5. Lamy, Suzanne. La renaissance des métiers d’art au Canada français, 1967. Ministères Affaires culturelles, Quebec
6. Cogné, Daniel. Projets de Recherche En Céramique Québécoise (Première partie).
7. Antique Promotions Website . Page on Gaetan Beaudin. This site is a goldmine for information on all aspects of Québec ceramics.
8. Maurice Savoie. Interview with with Barry Morrison.
9. Capreol, Joan. Women Potters Make a Splash in Quebec Ceramics. The Globe and Mail, July 1967. The article continues: “Of the dozen top professional potters, four are women. They are according to one authority Namer, Louise Doucet Saito, Virginia McClure and Wanda Rozynska.”
10. Ayre, Robert. Ceramics in Canada. Studio, vol. 154 #777, December 1957, pp. 168-75. Ayre mentions only four ceramists of the period: Louis Archambault, Jean Cartier, Françoise Desrochers-Drolet, and Claude Vermette. Functional pottery in Québec was below the the radar of critics and writers of the time.