General State of the Art 1937-1995

In spite of the Great Depression and World War II ceramics continued  to develop, to expand. The earlier Pioneer Years were bearing fruit. Most of the pioneers continued their work for several decades to come. New names were to appear.

The Canadian Guild of Potters  was established in 1936, mostly with graduates and students from Central Technical School. Eventually other guilds would be formed across the country but for many years the vast majority of new practitioners were amateurs. This was openly acknowledged even by the Guild: in 1941, pottery, according to Marguerite Baines, Chair of the Exhibition Committee, the Guild, was:

“..a  joy to middle-aged women.” 1

To be fair this is more a reflection of the existing core membership of the Guild. Yet it was these same women who laid the solid foundation of what was to follow in organizational strength, exhibition organizing and networking and yes, even quality. Quality was an ongoing issue. In 1943 Pearl McCarthy was to comment in the Globe and Mail:

“If this art craft is to advance in quality and number of workers it will need the kind of new member who is willing to take both chemistry and art seriously.” 2

This spectre of amateurism  and hobby-craft was to dog ceramics for the next two decades at least, and in fact still contributes to the art vs craft discussion. Similar comments would show up in jurors’ comments in later juried shows in the ’50s and early ’60s. Yet overall, advances were continually made. If there was not yet the home-grown quality there would soon be.  An influx of new European talent some displaced by the war, of American teachers, and of students from Leach’s St Ives workshop in Cornwall, England, would assist this development. One could say the theme for this period is the steady development of professionalism of ceramics in Canada.

The exception to this “amateurism” were the developments in Quebec. There the government had been more supportive of crafts  and built on its homegrown and French traditions. Eventually a stream of highly competent ceramists graduated from such schools as the École des Beaux-Arts (founded in 1936) and the École du meuble (founded around 1923) in Montreal. Some such as Louis Parent, Gaetan Beaudin  and Maurice Savoie would progress to further studies in France and the United States. English Canada did have art schools in the Maritimes and Ontario and individuals like Alice Mary Hagen ; however,  in schools such as the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto, founded in 1876, the focus was on art. The OCA for example did introduce instruction in the crafts in the 1920s and a ceramics program in 1940 but did not to get more serious until the 1960s. The West increasingly gained momentum:  Alberta with the solid contribution of the Medalta potteries was well positioned. The province developed the Provincial Institute of Technology and Arts (PITA) in 1936. The Alberta College of Art (ACA) in Calgary developed its ceramics programme about 1947 with Luke Lindoe at its head. Alberta from that time never looked back and developed much of its own style and impetus. Manitoba was to have the first university based ceramics program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally started as the Winnipeg School of Art in 1913 the school was incorporated into the University in 1950. . BC was to start with activities of groups on Vancouver Island and in the Ceramic Hut at UBC, Vancouver. It was then was to emerge as an energetic and creative powerhouse under the influence of the U.S. northwest coast, California, and the steam-roller impact of Bernard Leach. But the Canadian Guild of Potters was basically the essential glue for some time.

“Spreading the word” was now more energetically applied. Ontario developed an initial and early organizational lead-role through the Guild and reached out, to the east and west, and to the United States. Yet paradoxically while there was an overall awareness of developments and personalities elsewhere across the country there was a disconnectedness between regions everywhere, aggravated by geography. Icons of eastern and central Canada were less known and less influential in the west, and vice versa. There was BC, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic. Not much has changed politically and socially over the years it seems.

Daniel Rhodes 5th Annual CGP Workshop April 1955

Daniel Rhodes. 5th Annual Canadian Guild of Potters Workshop, April 1955

The amount of international activity beyond Canada increased through exhibitions, and workshops. Not only was Leach a visitor in 1950 but also recognized experts such as Daniel Rhodes gave workshops. This was complemented by an increased migration of artists within Canada.The influx of artists and teachers, particularly from Great Britain and the United States, increased. Much of the cross border activity with the United States by the guild was initiated by the constant energy of Nunzia D’Angelo of both Central Tech and Guild experience. She was tireless in her correspondence with the organizers of the Ceramic National exhibitions organized by the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred, NY, NY. This resulted in Canadians exhibiting in these shows and eventually winning awards. A steady trend towards involvement in international,  as well as national, exhibitions continued.

Bailey Leslie at the Wheel. First Demonstration by the Canadian Guild of Potters at Eaton's College Street Store, Toronto 1940. Page Toles, National Archives of Canada PA 164214

Bailey Leslie at the Wheel. First Demonstration by the Canadian Guild of Potters at Eaton’s College Street Store, Toronto 1940. Page Toles, National Archives of Canada PA 164214

Also, during this period there was an increased activity in ceramists demonstrating and exhibiting in other international exhibitions. The intent was the constant publicizing and hopefully democratizing of ceramics to the general public.

There was an increasing confidence  in exhibiting both within and outside of the country, although there were still quality issues to be worked out. There were now articles by Guild members themselves on how to set up a pottery studio. These built upon the “bible” of the time, Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” that came out in 1940. There was even a home-grown version by Ruth Homes’ 3 that included illustrations by Canadian potters such Tommy Kakinuma and Molly Satterly.

This increasing confidence was also seen in other ways: the annual reports of the Guild become more professional and extensive with large sections devoted to such items as glaze research and lists of exhibition awards and honours; there were regional reports from groups in such place as Quebec and BC; There was also a greater interest by the media in pottery and the potters’ lifestyle.  The National Film Board of Canada produced film shorts such as “Peter and the Potter” a whimsical tale on the Deichmanns. Magazines such as  Western Homes and Living and Canadian Homes and Gardens romanticized  the rural, idyllic potter’s lifestyle of such people as the Deichmanns in New Brunswick and the Schwenks  in the Okanagan.4 Such articles seemed to focus more on interior design than on the works themselves. A potter’s life seemed to be one cottage-country  retreat Regardless of the content of the articles there was an evident interest in reaching a wider public.

This period was also the time of the Massey Report to which artists such as Kjeld Deichmann made presentations.

The period from the 1950s to the late 1960s is marked by the increasing strength and competence of the regional organizations, by the scope and scale of exhibitions both on the national and international scale, and by the first indications of that two-edged sword, government funding.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the schools with programs that if they were not ceramic programmes were at least craft programs. This is the time of the rise of such institutions as Sheridan College, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and the Alberta College of Art. Guilds and councils would come, morph and go; the same with ceramic periodicals. The 1990s and following years would see the era of government cutback and the shrinking of many institutions and groups. Yet paradoxically this was an age of great experimentation and innovation in both opportunity,technique and style. This is the age of galleries and collectors, the age of Hopper, House, Manning, Chalke, Tremblay, Ostrom, Campbell, Mortimer, Sures and many more. Only some were Canadian-born. Many brought their talents from England, the U.S., China, re-stirring the mix of inspirations that has been a hallmark of Canadian studio ceramics. These are deeply professional artists. Studio  ceramics was no longer the realm of amateurs and hobbyists.

Endnotes and Bibliography:

  1. Baines, Mrs Marguerite. The Clay Products News August 1941. p.2.
  2.  Reproduced in the Clay Products News , May 1943, p.5.
  3.  Home, Ruth. Ceramics For The Potter. 1952. 229 pp. 16 pl.ill.
  4. On the Deichmanns: Earl, Lawrence. Dykelands – Down Fundy Way. Canadian Homes and Gardens. June 1941 pp. 114-16 & 38-41; on the Schwenks: Western Home and Living. April 1961. Cover and pages 11-13

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