General State of the Art 1900-1936

Canada c. 1900

Canada c. 1900. A very different Canada from today

It can be difficult to appreciate the differences between the environment  of studio ceramics in the very early 20th century and of today. I include the above map to give a graphic illustration of how much our country has changed, geographically and socially. History books can give us some general information, socially and economically but it was a very different Canada. Sometimes I marvel that anything was begun at all. To start with, even though the following points may sound simplistic, let’s clear away the obvious:

  • There was no Trans-Canada Highway.
  • There were no nation-crossing airlines.
  • There was no radio, no television, no internet.
  • There were no universities or colleges offering full-time, accredited ceramic courses.
  • There were no collectors, museums or galleries dedicated to the collection and dis play of ceramics
  • There was no “Canadian” tradition of studio ceramics. In fact, one could say the same situation exists today but for different reasons.

We did have some plus and minus factors:

  •  A faltering pottery industry that would leave a partial vacuum for people’s needs.
  • A school in Toronto, Central Technical School, that started out as a training ground to provide workers for the ceramic industry and architecture but which provided the seed for the nation’s first major pottery group.
  • Art Nouveau, a movement that started in England, spread across the Atlantic to North America and provided a platform for style and production.
  • Isolated studio potters, some immigrants, some Canadian, thinly strung across the country in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Some would become icons; some deserve to be better known.
  • Active womens’ groups, composed of the upper social strata of the major cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, with superb communication networks – enhanced by the national railroad – that brought in and nurtured art, craft  and “folk art” influences  and inspiration from such places as England, the United States and Europe.
  • Two universities, one in central Canada, the other in the prairies, with ceramic engineering faculties and professor-mentors who encouraged emerging talent.
  • More and more identifiable clay and mineral deposits.
  • And, although it may sound corny in this day and age, there was a pioneer stamina that most of us today could not begin to understand or survive.

Just think about the above. What would prompt one to even think about becoming a potter? What would prompt someone from a rural or farming background, or in a small town, or living in the industrial context of our cities to take an interest in ceramics, either as an art form or as a livelihood? The answers are many and the results reflect the variety. This section will reflect this diversity.

To start with, if I wanted to set up a pottery studio what would I need to know and do? Of course I would have to know how to make pots, either on a wheel (and how do I construct a wheel) or hand-built.  Then I would have to know how to fire the work. But now we must back up a bit. Where would I locate my studio and how would I design it? Where would I find my clay, how would I get it to the studio,  and how would I work the clay to  produce a workable body? The same for glazes. Firing is not easy, but where would I find out how to build a kiln, and what are the proper firing steps to make sure that the works do not explode or melt?  What kind of fuel would I need and where would I find it? What type of work would I produce, something basic and functional or something “artistic?” When I have produced my work how would I sell it and to whom? These are only simple questions for a complicated art form. Although there have always been hobbyists, for professionals It was not a world for dabblers. People made hard lifestyle choices. The options for us today are much easier to make.

Although there was a Canadian industrial pottery much ware that was sold came from overseas. Canadian buyers preferences were for imported whiteware or porcelain:

“No tableware of china, semi-porcelain or white earthenware is made in Canada. Imports have averaged over four million dollars in value during each of the last three years .”(1929-1931)1

The hard fact is that there were not the kilns or clays in these early days to produce the high firing temperatures porcelain required. For many it was difficult enought to get beyond earthenware temperatures.

But it was not just enough to have people. An appreciative buying public was also needed. This was not the case at this time. Although the following quote refers to industry the values apply to studio pottery, and exist still today:

“It is a remarkable fact that the average individual cannot distinguish between good and bad qualities in ware, and the customary ‘acid test’ consists of looking at the trade mark on the underside of the piece. If this shows a well known name like Wedgewood (sic) the ware is perfect. If on the other hand the name happens to be Brown or Jones, there may be something wrong with it.”2

This perhaps was the major challenge of anyone producing pottery. One way to avoid this was to produce ware as art, for exhibition as well as sale. In the larger centres this was  easier. In the more rural and isolated communities the emphasis would be on functional ware and developing a reputation for solid, functional long-lasting forms. Exhibitions and local markets thus were critical for laying the foundation for acceptance and reputation.

Although both men and women were involved in producing studio ceramics, in the larger centres, where there was the potential for exhibitions, pottery decoration or production was generally considered a woman’s art form, a hobby. This prejudice was to last for decades and still lingers. In the rural areas, particularly in the west, pottery was a rugged, individualistic, practical business.

The pioneer artists brought different traditions and lifestyles. Among the better known:

  • Carl Ahrens explored the traditions of the then “modern” Art Nouveau movement in the more developed part of southern Ontario and western New York.
  • Emily Carr was unique in her adopting Northwest Coast cultural designs and iconography while she lived in an urban west coast environment.
  • Axel Ebring and Peter Rupchan  brought their European immigrant traditions in pottery and lived in the pioneer rural environments of British Columbia and Saskatchewan, respectively.
  • Alice Hagen and Mary Allison Doull grew from American influences among others.
  • The Deichmanns  set themselves up as model rural potters in the countryside of southern New Brunswick. Their modernistic Scandinavian-influenced designs became a model lifestyle for many later potters.

We will get to know these artists better in other pages in this site.

Bibliography and Notes:

[1] Hunt, G.M. Canadian White Tableware a Future Industry. The Clay Products News. Feb. 1931, p.6. 61% from the United Kingdom, 10% from France, 9% each from Czecho-Slovakia (sic), Japan and Germany, and 2% from the United States.

[2] ibid. p.8

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