- Preferred Clay and Source: porcelain, made to his own formula
- Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: gas reduction to cone 13
- Types of Work: mostly functional and sculptural
- Current Studio Location: village of Lonsdale, Ontario
- Production Dates: 1966 — current 2016
- Birth Date: November 14, 1943
- Website URL: Harlanhouse.com
- Blog URL: Harlan House Blog
- Facebook URL: Harlan House Facebook Page
- Sample Signatures/Marks/Chops:
A Harlan House Biography
Many people know of Harlan House through his early, exquisite Iris Vases. But there is so much more to this artist who has been creating since the late 1960s. Harlan House is an artist with something to say, and he often says it quite forcefully. In this article you also notice two threads throughout.
Firstly, House is driven by the need to learn and to explore; not to rest on well-deserved success and laurels. His work is a constant succession of discoveries, messages and re-assessments, followed by new discoveries, new messages, new re-assessments; and the cycle continues. “So what?” you might ask. Look at the differences between then (1976) and now. But these are only the visible signs of constant exploration of subjects, forms, styles, recipes, and techniques. Sometimes the results are serendipity, sometimes deliberate.
Secondly, his art is very much the man himself. Harlan House is closely connected to his environment: whether it be near, of nature and its denizens around him; or further-off, of the broader socio-economic trends that envelop and shape us today. To the former he is respectful; to the latter, well read on.
House is a ceramist whose style many think they easily recognize. They are partly right. In reality his styles over the years have taken many turns and diversions: from stoneware to porcelain, to mixed media; from exquisitely beautiful flowered porcelain vases to deeper social commentary in ships; from wheel thrown functional forms to large, cast and handbuilt sculptures; from workshops to online videos that demonstrate his techniques and list his recipes.
Many writings on his life start with the fact that Harlan House was born in Vancouver, yet the reality is Vancouver was so early in his life it was of little consequence artistically. His early artistic development was fundamentally Albertan. His family moved to and around Alberta in his early years: Lethbridge, Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary.¹
Essentially a lifelong business man and entrepreneur he earned money in high school making and selling engraved and stamped-leather belts and purses, techniques learned from a neighbour. He would later use these skills used in one medium to great effect in his ceramics.
The Alberta College of Art (ACA) in Calgary was the art school closest to him so it made sense to study there. His earliest plans were to study commercial art, which at the time he thought was painting and decorating the sides of trucks.¹ However, art school in 1964 was an eye opener as to what commercial art was really about so he changed directions to art. ¹
His initial focus was on painting, an interest he still continues today. In 1965 House visited fellow student, Bob Bozak, in his Calgary pottery studio, and found he actually liked pottery.¹ This “brought out the hands on thing”. ¹ In his third year during noon hours House would go to the ACA pottery studio. This new interest was something of a bold venture for an art student in those days. At the time there was a clear distinction, a hierarchy, between fine arts and crafts. Crafts were not considered in the top tier.¹ Pottery would be considered a step down. Nonetheless he asked the instructor of the time, Walter Drohan, if he could study pottery. Drohan, also a friend, agreed. In his third year Harlan would switch directions. He would continue studying ceramics for another two years, graduating in 1969 with a Diploma in Fine Art.¹ House confesses as to why he followed the ceramic route, contrary to his normal business savvy:
“I was a romantic. I went with the heart and not the pocketbook.” ¹
He would repeat this theme several times over the years.
Alberta was a strong stoneware domain at the time, courtesy of the influence of Luke Lindoe. Drohan, himself a Lindoe student, was House’s first instructor. He and subsequent instructor Bert Borch introduced House to porcelain. Borch, fresh out of Berkely, California, with something of a craft background, helped instill an attention to detail in House.¹
Also studying at ACA at the time were Anne Marie Esler and Ted Diakow. Leopold Foulem was also there for a year. House remembers him as outrageously original, setting up his own space in the studio, his own territory. Foulem did not like firing so Harlan did much of his firing for him.¹
House’s ceramic talents while in school were increasingly recognized. He received Visual Arts and Crafts grants and awards from the Alberta Government, from the Hill Memorial Trust Fund Scholarship, and from an Anonymous Award for Sculpture, from the Alberta College of Art.³ He was also having one man shows in Vancouver and Calgary. Soon after graduation, by 1970, he was involved in the Canadian Pavilion at the Osaka, Japan, World Fair.
With his two fellow potters, Diakow and Drohan, House immediately started up the business side of his work. In 1969 they set up the Clay Association Studio, in Calgary, subsequently titled The Clay Associated Ltd. With his friends he talked the local Royal Bank — that was used to multimillion oil deals — to lend them each five hundred dollars: ¹
“We told them we had no money but boodles of energy.” ¹
They got their loans.
The trio then had to convince the Calgary City Land Rental Office to let them rent an old downtown building with 3,400 square feet of space, and a leaky roof. On a rainy day, with the “roof leaks as the main water source”,¹ city inspectors granted them the licence to set up their studio, with fifty dollars down and three months free rent, The inspectors thought the three of them somewhat crazy. The three friends started business in 1968 and had the studio functioning by spring of 1969. It all worked well for a few years.¹
“Ted had the advanced knowledge as he had worked for Ed Drahanchuck and knew a lot more about the aesthetics and business than I did. I was more of the technician at that time.” ²
The situation in Calgary, as in much of Canada, in those late ‘60s early ‘70s days was much different from today. House remembers his group as being the only studio in downtown Calgary. There were other potters, of course, but no studios. Ed Drahanchuk had moved to Bragg Creek; Luke Lindoe had set up Ceramic Arts, which became a Luke Lindoe-John Porter production place, and was considered “outside of Calgary”, three to four miles away.¹
Also, Calgary galleries would not touch ceramics at the time. Since there was no retail opportunity House had to export his works to stores across the country: Edmonton, Banff, Vancouver, Victoria, and later on to Toronto and Montreal.²
In this stoneware environment he started to use porcelain:
“I started porcelain in art school. Around 1967/68. With Bert and Walter. I couldn’t give it away. I got a taste for it in art school but kept it up on my own when I set up the studio in Calgary. … but the problem was there was no market for it. We would clean up the studio, and work on porcelain until we ran out of money and then go back to stoneware. … I virtually made it on the side, while making stoneware.” ²
“I used to re-slake the porcelain. It didn’t work well for me [using] the recipe from Bert and Walt … so I had to develop my own. My present formula came to me about 25 years ago It taught me a lot. I learned the hard way. It was a quite non-plastic porcelain and very high temp. We didn’t have much knowledge of porcelain those times. No one was making it or selling it. The floor scraps made me interested in porcelain and in developing a better porcelain.²
The floor scraps he refers to were supplied by Luke Lindoe who used to bring him the trimmings from the floor of an electrical insulator factory in Medicine Hat.¹ As he developed from student to professional House came to know Lindoe more professionally:
“I met Luke while in the ceramics program at ACA, however it was just a passing meet. We really met later when we formed the Clay Association. Luke was just getting the clay business going, and was eager to sell his clay to us. He visited the studio several times, and used us as a testing ground from time to time. It was at this time that he noticed my work in porcelain, and so he brought me the floor bits from the insulator factory in Medicine Hat. Nice guy.” ²
Harlan struggled with the new clay. So why stay with porcelain, a difficult and unsaleable medium? In short, Chinese porcelain. House laughingly complains he was “born eight hundred years too late.” ¹ But while visiting his mother-in-law’s house in Vancouver around 1965 he experienced a revelation² :
”The Chinese were a major influence in all of my work right from the get-go. … The school (ACA) didn’t really do much in terms of Art History. There were literally only two books on ceramics in the library. I tripped upon, in an antique store, a 16th century carved celadon plaque, carved in bas relief. As a kid I had made my money carving leather, a little tiny business from the age of 12 until I went to art school, making belts and wallets out of carved leather in bas relief, low relief. When I saw the ceramic I knew immediately what I was looking at and connected with it instantly but it was on porcelain. I realised I knew nothing about Chinese anything and got very busy looking at Chinese history and ceramics from the very early period to about the 1600s, especially the Sung times, their forms, their shapes and especially their reasons for working as hard as they did.” ²
“I was carving porcelain from day one after seeing that Chinese piece.” ²
Further encouragement to work in porcelain came from an unexpected source:
”I had a mentor in Virginia Watt in the Canadian Guild of Crafts, in Montreal. And she actually came out to Calgary in ‘70/’71. I had porcelain sitting in the studio. She wrote a cheque for the whole lot shipped it to Montreal and sold it. Then asked for more. This was exactly what I wanted. I then started to mount exhibitions of it. Then things took off from there. She was a very important, critical person in my life. She was very patient and understanding, a potter herself. It meant for me that I didn’t have to rely on making stoneware jardinières and lamp bases for a living. She would sell, for all intents and purposes, my research. I could now do research and work away.” ²
But in Calgary change happened. Diakow left around 1971-72. Also, the city wanted to tear down the building to build condos and to put the artists on a month to month rental business This was an unworkable situation. Clay Association eventually ended when the business was sold. House sold the business to Neil Patterson, a former House student, in 1973 for $1200 ¹ and looked for other locations. As a businessman he knew the more he could keep his business overhead costs low the more he could create and sell:
“I needed a very low overhead situation. … I had some land near-Edmonton land but couldn’t afford to build on it; and was not interested in the ‘cup and saucer’ trade. I had earlier checked out a ‘nice place’ in Sechelt, looked at Vancouver Island, and the BC interior.” ¹
But a friend, Jack McMaster, was constantly encouraging him to move to Ontario, sending him classified ads for properties in Eastern Ontario.¹
“I went down to have a peek. We had two kids by that time.” ¹
House also wanted to meet the people who were selling his work. ¹ He was further impressed with the landscape as they drove down east in a rented Volkswagen, ‘loaded down with wine.’ He even looked as far as Ottawa for the cheapest real estate.¹
“It was a matter of my coming, just where. I had $3500” ¹
A chance observation in downtown Toronto sealed the move to Ontario: stained glass and a house number:¹
” The ‘Calgary mask’ was removed when while strolling down Prince Arthur I saw a stained glass window [containing the street number.] I had a glass collection myself. I was impressed with a city that could display and preserve that level of art.” ¹
Low overhead was a must. He and his wife Maureen found their new location in 1972, an old hotel in the village of Lonsdale in eastern Ontario:
”It had a barn. Being a romantic idiot I kept it. The mortgage was $100/month. My idea of wiring was putting in a light bulb. … I bought something that was in really decrepit shape; in hindsight I learned how to do things for myself, [though] raised a city boy.” ¹
Of that decision he said, laughing, it could be considered:
“Business wise probably the stupidest move of my life.” ¹
Yet there was now a reboot in his work as he more purposefully
“started to change from stoneware to porcelain, so a restart.” ¹
Just prior to the final physical move to Ontario House met Lindoe. Their parting words are classic Lindoe and House:
“I stopped in to say good bye to Luke on the way to Ontario in March of 1973. It was then that he told me that by the time I got to fifty I might know something about throwing a pot. I was totally offended, because I thought I already pretty much knew how to throw a pot. Of course I said nothing at the time…and in the course of time realized that he was pretty much on the money, except he could have extended the number to 60 and been more accurate!” ²
The legal Clay Association books, and name came to Ontario for a while and he functioned under the Foreign Business Act for about a year as an Alberta company. However, the Ontario powers-that-be told him he couldn’t use the Clay Association name any longer so he changed the business to his personal name Harlan House Inc.¹ He has used this name since.
House has been in Lonsdale since, creating, researching, exploring, and selling porcelain. Now gallery exhibition sales of porcelain are no longer a problem.
Although he was never really a ‘joiner’ in the ceramic world he is most certainly a ‘sharer’:
“I’ve always felt my time should be spent in the studio and working there rather than hanging out with crowds and organizing. I wasn’t good at that. Meeting, meetings, meetings. I was always better as a potter than socializing.” ²
“I’m not very good at building a reputation. The idea of doing one thing and doing it very well … would drive me crazy. I would rather change and keep researching.” ²
Now via the internet he is in the process, over past two to three years, of basically sharing everything on the technical side in his studio: documenting his work, his clay and glaze recipes; and creating short, technical videos, with Oscar Peterson, playing in the background, on vinyl LPs, on an old turntable, and “enjoying it like crazy.” ²
Conversations with House are sprinkled with a sense of his business savvy in keeping his overhead costs low but these are soon countered by artistic decisions he made that he jokes ‘were stupid decisions.’ Yet these latter decisions worked and he moved into new styles and forms. What drives him is his attitude:
“I like to work; I don’t consider going out to the studio going to work It’s fun. … I am freed by my craft, not bound by it.“ ¹
A Harlan House Gallery
House’s sources of inspiration are many: from Chinese Sung forms and glazes to Wedgwood sprigs, from Sèvres’-inspired large sizes, to Meissen slip casting. He develops shapes and surfaces that are purely his own. Over the years he has discovered new subjects and media He develops playful bowl interiors, fanciful boats and shapes; he experiments with sinters, and exploits the translucency of porcelain. The following are some general thoughts and observations before we look at the works themselves.
- With humourous modesty he says:
“My craft from way back has been very good. I have my tools together, I can do what I want to do.” ¹
- House cuts costs by making many of his own tools and improvising studio machinery. Here he simply switches a vacuum cleaner hose from the suck to the blow-end to spray glazes from a converted canning jar.
- He will frequently shift between the forms and subjects he likes to make:
“[I’m] never sure …. Tuesdays it’s this, Wednesday’s it’s that.” ¹
- His technique is subject to the needs of the moment:
“Right now  I’m doing more casting but that could change next week. I’m of the opinion that it’s not how you can make something but that you can make it.” ²
- He has employed wheel-throwing and slip casting; sandblasting, bas-relief and cut-out carving, and sprigging.
- Quality is a key concern. He does not keep ‘seconds’:
“I try to put everything I make into a show. In other word I edit down in the drying room. I don’t sell seconds.” ²
- Along with improvising equipment House minimizes the number of materials he uses:
“I’ve limited myself to a very few materials. I’m always amazed at what you can do with ten materials. I don’t keep anything exotic or crazy. I’m not focusing on the latest and greatest technology. I’m just using these old materials that are very traditional. I’ve always been curious about what you can do with four or five oxides and seven or eight base glaze materials.” ²
On clay and glazes:
- House acknowledges the difficult nature of porcelain:
“I keep thinking of myself as a parent, trying to raise good forms to be hard, white and translucent.” 5
- He has created his own recipes, first in early stoneware, and then porcelain, from the very beginning. There were both personal and economically practical reasons for doing so:
“I developed my [own] clay body because: a) I’m rural and I didn’t want to be driving back and forwards from Toronto for a box of clay every time I needed one; and b) I listened to a number of young potters in the early ‘70s bitching about clay bodies and blaming the clay bodies for almost anything that they did. And when I found myself joining that tribe I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. If I made my own clay I cut out all the bitching. And it is an economical, realistic and learning experience to make you own clay.” ²
- One can find his personal porcelain and glaze recipes listed on his website and blog, adding a detailed, technical sharing seldom seen online.
- Celadon has been a major glaze but he has explored and experimented with newer ‘glazes’ such as Morgan and Marine Wudi. These are described further in the gallery below. His favourite glaze is “whatever is right.” ¹
- House, in our most recent conversation  says:
“I’m back to propane. I built a wood fired kiln in ’82 and fired it for about ten to twelve years. I’ve returned from wood to propane reduction, high temperature. Temperature range: back wall is cone 13 to 14; the bulk of kiln 11 to 13.” ²
- He used to look for more control in firing; now he doesn’t give it the same importance. Accidents are welcome.²
- Much work is once-fired, not even bisque-fired, seeking the way of Chinese and Japanese potters.
In his early and post-college years House created youthful, rebellious works, making statements about his concerns on social and environmental developments in Alberta.
“My aesthetics at this time were totally eclectic. I really mucked about, really influenced by Walter [Drohan] but technically good. I worked mostly in stoneware, some porcelain, only because it was there.” ¹
How We Make Highways In Good Ol’ Alberta, 1970. House was also, and still is, a painter. Some of his early works are mixed media. He has always had an intuitive connection with his environment. The forms and style of such early works are unique to the time and were not repeated. They reflect the energy of the social and environmental movements starting in the late 1960s.
“I was Just out of school and didn’t like what was happening in Alberta. Oil exploration and highways to everywhere with very little sensitivity to the landscape. I didn’t like people doing what they were doing to the landscape without respecting the landscape … building a four lane highway to Banff. I disagreed with it then and I do now. Highways and cars, bigger trucks!” ²
Holiday Coupe, 1971. This early enthusiasm was to continue for a few years. But in his describing it, House reveals his move to shifting to functional forms:
“Holiday Coupe is glitter, glitter, glitter, bigger, bigger, bigger; silver china paint. But I moved away. I found no one was interested in it. There was no market for social criticism. At the same time, I found I could not be a teacher and maker at the same time so I chose maker. As a maker I have to make a living, how I can I do this, and still be honourable to the craft. I moved to functional ware. It was interesting for me but I wasn’t very good at it but I wanted to become a good functional potter [to] elevate it to an art form. My job became how to make functional ware well enough, fine enough, to get it into the area of art. I switched gears and purposes and away we went.” ²
With Holiday Coupe one might be tempted to link the work with the Funk movement developing in Regina at the same time but House says:
“I admired but was not influenced by them. By the time they became famous I was working in porcelain in Ontario, on a porcelain trajectory, on the other end of the scale.” ²
This early Stoneware vase, 1971, produced while House was still in Calgary. Form and pattern are starkly portrayed. The form is a vase on it own built-in stand. Ridges make for clearly defined three-parts: foot, body and neck sections. This divisions emphasize the swell and hollows. This play of convex and concave also are treated differently. A plain white foot, a plain brown neck and mouth, but a patterned body in a black and white repeating pattern.
“The technique was to glaze the vase with a crackle white, and then brush a cobalt/manganese slip over the glaze on a banding wheel. Then, parts of the cobalt slip were carved and scraped off of the glaze, leaving a bold pattern. Slow tedious and careful work…and worth it. The influence …came from looking at Northern Chinese Cizhou works of art.” ²
Further significant changes were to come as he developed his knowledge of Chinese ceramics in form, surface, and subtlety of design.
Stoneware Vase, 1977. After seeing the antique Chinese plaque with bas-relief House started to carve his surfaces in relief. Such works also show his interest in floral and other natural forms he developed, especially after he moved to Ontario. He would continue this treatment as he moved into his more familiar porcelain works. The vase is a Meiping, “Plum Vase” shape of Chinese inspiration. The contours are smooth, uninterrupted moving from a cylindrical foot to a tight chimney mouth. The colour is a pale celadon. The design is a cascade of stems and flowers bursting from the shoulder down to the foot, a pleasant, subtle contrast between background and raised forms. Many years earlier House had received good advise on the difference between being inspired by and just copying Chinese styles:
“A wonderful instructor, Walt Drohan, impressed upon me its was a very good idea to know about art history but a very bad idea to copy it. … The techniques, the forms infiltrated my head from the get-go.” ²
Untitled porcelain. 1980. The flower design is made of slip-trailed relief, delicate as spider webs. Colour is sparingly added. His focus on porcelain work allowed House to create more subtle effects.
“Little things in porcelain can become big, whereas in stoneware they can be become lost in colour and design.“ ¹
The Alberta Government Telephone, Edmonton Offices Mural is set against a pure, white, wall of precision-cut rectangular panels. House has set a crisply outlined sloping design that slants down from the left to right. Its panels are random shapes fitted together as in some puzzle. Surface textures are part granular, scattering the light like crystals, part glossy, smoothly reflecting light like glass. House adds an explanation of the materials and the works’ meaning:
“My intention was to use the telegraph poles to form a cable-like form suggesting the importance of modern mass communications. At the same time I was suggesting that the dispersion/leaking of information from the cable into little floating satellite pockets would become worry areas to some corporate/political/military people who want all things to be kept secret. The stoneware form is a topographical landscape with the stainless steel inserts representing the intrusion of European humanity into nature and scars that they make.” ²
Although House created several murals for government and private companies in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario this was not his preferred artistic direction. He moved on.
The Iris vases are some of House’s most recognized and admired works.They are a combination of carving, modelling, appliqué and colour techniques. Shapes and surfaces become more fanciful: forms become elegant cylinders. The series is what brought House to the attention of collectors and galleries. He admits the series is only a small part of his work but in the early years they received essentially all the attention.¹ He went for ‘high realism, a beautiful living sculpture, a beautiful, gorgeous, sensuous thing’. ¹ He further explains the source:
“[Irises were] one of the only flowers popping up the first spring when we first got here [Lonsdale]. I did drawings and paintings. Then I thought, now wait a minute. Why can’t I put irises on vases? So I did. I first did them as bas relief carving. Then they eventually emerged as a 3D iris. [With] slip casting I could paint or model. The irises started out as low relief, then high relief. They finally emerged as full blown irises, sometimes painted sometimes carved.” ²
Iris Vase, circa 1978. This is a basic cylindrical vase form, simple with sgraffito stems incised on the body leading to a glaze blush and to a carved lip with a realistic appliqué of a hand-carved and -shaped flower. The contrast between the simple curved cylinder form and the three-dimensional iris is dramatic. The carved lip and realism of the flower suggest the clay itself as the origin of the blossom’s life force.
Blue Sue, 1981. House experimented with various colour and design arrangements. A simple flattened cylinder is topped by a by a blue arrangement of iris appliqué: a drawing of a ladies torso starting with some blue stripped panties. The line below the iris is meant to suggest legs.² The whole is simple, restrained, yet covertly saucy.
But things were becoming too easy. By 1981 he said:
“I do irises because I like to do them and by God, When I don’t like them I will quit them!” ¹
’46 Chev and Formal dinner vases, 1978-9. Hints of a ‘fatigue’ with the purely floral theme can be seen as he dresses up vases to include cars, roads and formal attire. The Chev sits flower atop a road’s double-solid-line in a strictly vertical arrangement. The Formal dinner attire sports a tie, lapel curves and a flower boutonière. The motifs in both works hint at House’s need to move on in theme and technique.
Seventeen years later he would act on his feelings about iris vases. He would stop producing them around 1982 with one last hurrah in 1988
Lucky Ol’ 7 Iris Vase, 1988. With a painted surface and flowers there is also a dimpling of the vase body. Overall there is a diagonal surface design, Zen-like in its brevity. The effect is of an Ikebana arrangement in porcelain. This is his last flower iris vase, ever. It was specially made, a one-off for for an exhibition.² He frankly describes his reasons for stopping their creation and repeating a familiar theme:
“It grew and grew and grew. I found they were very saleable. I learned great deal about handbuilding, painting, overglaze. It came to a point where I was no longer learning enough. If I wasn’t learning there was no point. I was doing it just for the money. I felt like a slut. So I just quit. I didn’t make anymore iris vases. From a business point of view it was a dumb thing.” ²
Generally,however, flower forms are a favoured subject. He would continue using the iris, and other flower motifs in other directions, as in his later chandeliers, where he exploits the translucent nature of porcelain with light.
Sprigging: Landscapes And Nature In A Plate
House continued his exploration of 3D surface designs. Sprigging was a new area of interest but he couldn’t find anyone who knew how to do it on this side of the Atlantic.¹ In 1987 he received a Canada Council and British Council grant to study the technique. He says of this new direction:
“I knew about it from Chinese work from a long time ago. Around me in Lonsdale I have a pond with ducks, birds, fish. I wanted to create landscapes within a bowl. I know about carving, bas reliefs, but from a visual standpoint it wasn’t working for me. It was limiting. Sprig would work, enabling me to make low relief as well as high relief. I tried and tried but couldn’t do it. I was familiar with Wedgwood. I didn’t like their work but liked their technique. I got to talk with two women at Wedgwood and a gentleman working on a Portland vase. … He shared all his secrets. I Couldn’t take photographs, and made notes, but they demonstrated what I needed in a heartbeat. When I came back I needed to revise the whole regime of information. because I didn’t have their sprigging-modelling clay from Newcastle. I had to use plaster where I could imitate them. I could now make fish for my ponds, and ducks. … A whole flotilla of sprigs came into being over the next 15 years. Everything from people, fish, animals. Little landscape stories in my back yard.” ²
These works are additive as compared to the earlier, subtractive bas-reliefs. House would move between these two approaches over later years. He has since put videos on his website to share his sprigging technique.
Pond Wall Platter. The interior of a bowl or plate lends itself to a pictorial design immediately perceived, framed, self contained. There is no need to rotate the work to view it in its totality. In such works sometimes the scene is in the well, sometimes the rim, sometimes overlapping both. The central character or elements are representational, the rest of the landscape field spare. Most often they are in a celadon glaze. Here House has also added a granularity, fish food, that pimples the surface. This is a device that not only plays with the viewer’s expectation of a smooth ceramic surface but also displays House’s link to nature: he does feed the fish in his garden. The rim itself also displays a rough outer-edge. The whole speaks to the fact that this wall plate is a work of art, to be displayed and not hidden in a cupboard as plates usually are.
Later Work And
Developments: Sometimes Old, Sometimes New
Reed Section (Self Portrait As Seen By Peacocks). 2000.
The blue colour of the celadon vase comes from cobalt blue watercolour paint.³ House appreciates its fine particulate nature:
“You never get a speck. You won’t get strong blues, rather, light blues. I use it for the fine grind.” ²
The artist himself peers out from the two-level,precisely carved surfaces Meanwhile in Not Quite, 1999, his wife, Maureen gazes at a blossom. Vanity in using his wife and himself as models? Not quite. His use of himself or Maureen has everything to do with business and art:
“I’m a really cheap model. I’m also in rural Canada, so it would be a cost to have someone come here [Lonsdale], if they would. … It also helps me keep practicing my drawing.” ²
The contrast of glaze colours demonstrates House exploring recipes for celadon glaze. The bas reliefs are a memory of earlier techniques, here used for more detailed, even extravagant effect. There is also a hint of humour in both works: House’s self portrait is almost hidden behind a rigid vertical pattern of reeds. Maureen’s face is a piece of House’s commentary, here a bit more personal:
“It is a portrait of Maureen with her face pressed against a glass door in our house. It is bas-relief carving with a hand built poppy added to the thrown form. This came about because after a speaking engagement at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, Maureen and I were standing about taking comments from the crowd. A lady asked Maureen “ do you do anything?” I was insulted, but Maureen took the high road and just said “No” to the lady.” ²
New Glazes and Surfaces
House’s continuing need to experiment and learn extends to other surface effects, his glazes. House will even pursue for aesthetic effect what other ceramists would consider a glaze failure. Such glazes are a far cry from his polished, familiar celadons. Clay is inherently a tactile medium itself but he expands this tactile sense to include two unique glazes, Marine Wudi and Morgan Glaze. Interestingly he frequently applies them to traditional Chinese forms.
Left: Untitled Marine Wudi glaze on a Huluping, Double Gourd Vase, 2002; Right: Detail of Marine Wudi glaze. Although the interior has a grey-green celadon glaze, the exterior, warty texture of the double gourd form is a dramatic contrast with the smooth celadon surfaces of his Sung-inspired wares. This follows House’s belief that inspiration is one thing; blatant copying is to be avoided. Just as he struggled with increasing his skill in handling porcelain, he rises to the challenge of using difficult glazes:
“Marine Wudi is glaze that as a young person I would have thrown out because it is very unbehaved, undisciplined. It does all kinds of things. It’s a sinter rather than a glaze and led me to all kinds of things. It changes with every firing and every change of application Some potters would find it disappointing. … I like the idea it changes its nature from piece to piece and from the top of the kiln to the bottom. It’s a very unpredictable, wonderful. It’s named after two important women: my wife Maureen — I changed the spelling from Maureen to Marine because it has an underwater feel; and the Empress Wu, the only female empress of China. Something I made up myself.” ²
Left: Morgan Branch Vase; right: Detail of Morgan glaze. House here combines celadon and Morgan glazes. The applied handles are a delicate “Chinese” addition to a sturdy box form with flattened sides. The effect is antique, of a deep, long-term burial with surface scarring and patination. As with Marine Wudi the naming of this glaze reveals House’s almost puckish sense of humour that he aligns with a deeper purpose of reinforcing the tactile nature of ceramics:
“Morgan glaze is a sinter too but with different materials, colourants. It is a relative of Marine Wudi with essentially the same base. I named it after the most wonderful black cat I ever had in my life. The whole idea of using these kinds of glazes came to me when I saw the tests come out from Marine Wudi. I was compelled to touch them. They are glazes that do that to people. I find that the older I get I find that my work is in glass cases [in collections]. Don’t touch! I found these glazes while looking for something else. They spoke to me, ’touch, touch, touch me’, so dramatically I thought, this will be good. Maybe people will pick things up and actually touch them. I like what they do visually and I like their compelling to touch. I think that’s important.” ²
“I have been asked frequently to explain how Morgan glaze works. Truth be known, I don’t know all that much, except that I like it. I am also asked why I can like a glaze like Morgan, and at the same time like a glaze like my HH celadon. The celadon is following in the traditional steps of Song Chinese potters who I admire greatly, while the Morgan glaze is the opposite of that. I think the answer is simple. I am a North American who has little tradition, who admires traditions but at the same time sees rules as something that can and maybe should be broken. New tradition.” 9
Craft As Art: Exploring Accidents And Conventions
As if his works were not artistic enough House developed other ways to bridge the art-craft divide. He would exploit throwing techniques, by kiln “accidents”, and by adding “shadows” to familiar forms.
“I like accidents. I used to throw everything [on the wheel] on the centre and that is no longer important.” ¹
“We are such a stainless steel, copper plated society. Everything out of the normal is seen as wrong.“ ¹
Romance, 2006. After experiencing the vagaries of firing works in different location in the kiln, House explored here the aesthetics of accidents. The subtly bas-relief-carved vase does not stand, as convention expects, but rather lies, fused to its shadow, a shadow itself decorated with bas-relief tulips. The work hints at the Sung discards that can be found around the ancient Chinese kiln sites.
Reeded Teapot with shadow. Although he made teapots they were not a favourite form.1 The shadow is a device he uses to express a long term consideration:
”The shadows are the actual shadows of a teapots or vase from a single viewpoint using a flashlight. Each one is different, for each one it goes with. The effort was to liberate teapots from cupboards. Most teapots are stuck away. To make it a work of art I wanted to make it occupy more space. The shadow becomes a home and place and becomes integral to the teapot, becomes the ‘teapot place’. Sometimes the shadow arises from the teapot sometimes it envelopes the teapot. …. Thus there is intrigue, and it enters the art world, thus raising functional to high art.” ²
Celadon Teapot Butter Dish, 2013. Occasionally House will play with forms that are not what not what they seem. The clean geometric lines and edges of this teapot form belie its actual purpose as, a butter dish. Function vs art are at play showing House’s concerns about the art-craft dialogue.
Fast Food Invasion: New Social Commentary
In case you haven’t realised it yet and I haven’t said it enough, Harlan House is an artist with something to say.
House continues to surprise with his works that convey messages that are not subtle. It is as though he returns to a youthful social-iconoclasm of earlier years. Also, increasingly he would move from his earlier wheel throwing to slip-casting and hand-building.
Heidi McKenzie writes in a Ceramics Monthly article:
“Believing that there always has been a role for art in affecting social change, House was keen to have people take notice of the potential ills of corporate commercialization, consumerism and industrialization. House is nothing if not a man with a message. “I hope that I’m pointing out the invasion of corporatism into my life and everybody’s life that’s around me. I want to point out the idea that large corporations can control virtually everything that goes on.” 8
House explains one of the later triggers that moved him in this direction:
“I started out as a painter and continue to paint. I Started to paint junk food in the mid ‘80s. It came about when we told our kids they could make any dessert they would like. I was expecting them to make homemade apple pie but they chose Jello and marshmallows. I realised that they were being influenced by what other kids were taking for lunch. They were all easy foods and industrial put-together food. At the same they were at the same time screaming to go to McDonalds. And I was saying, ‘No, No it’s junk. We don’t go there.’ In the end we had to go there. … So I became interested in choices people make, and a lot of it leans towards the fast and dirty junky foods that were marketed like crazy.” I painted various forms of junk food for white bread and processed cheese. So there wasn’t much of a jump for me when I made the jump to porcelain. I had a background in it and simply made it three-dimensional.“ ²
Such works are not Pop Art or kitsch. They are direct, emotional, at times even angry. Art with a message.
Left: Harlan House McRose Holder & Fries-Coke, 2009; right: Harlan House. Wing Chief. These are direct references to the iconography of the forms and designs of our fast food culture. We might smile at our understanding of House’s message and perhaps even hold a smugness in our agreement — before we head out with the kids and stop off for KFC or a Big Mac on the way. But play and comment are consistent: remember the teapot butter dish and How We Make Highways In Good Ol’ Alberta, 1970 above? What we don’t recognize at first is that the drink cup is in fact a flower vase, to hold roses, real roses. Those aren’t straw-holes! What would be your response on seeing a bouquet rising from such a cup? House has moved well beyond iris vases and sprigging into images and forms that make us question our every-day, conventional, social assumptions and acceptance of fast food and big box stores in our lives. Very arty, just touching on the surreal or Dada.
Windy Single Rose Vase With Fries, 2009. Yet House always the romantic, combines the outspokenness of a faux drink cup and fries with the tender tradition of the simplicity of a single red rose, that is at the same time comforting and jarring. Such works also show House’s skill in creating realistic forms and details to please the eye and tease the mind.
As an aside, and in typical House humourous openness he says:
“I hate red roses.” ²
Ships and Going Global
House would expand his concerns, on corporate influence, from its advertising on this continent to its global exploitation of fast food culture.
Heidi McKenzie in Ceramics Monthly comments:
“ House’s boats evolved in size and monumentality into metaphors for the vessels that ferry mass-produced ‘junk’ back and forth from the West to the East.” 8
The Chinese junk form came from one of his trips:
“On a trip to China in ’97 I saw the most wonderful and adorable boat in a canal in YiXing where the [Chinese] teapots were made. The boat was a piece of junk thrown together. The people on board were beautiful, happy and smiling. The very idea that a very happy family could be on a piece of junk amazed me. That’s where the later boats came in.” ²
Invasion Of Western Fast Food To Rural China, 2009. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. The ship form is a nod to the basic ship-form, easily recognized. There are contrasts in surface treatment: the ship’s hull is rusty, a scratched hulk. Is that ‘piss off’ scrawled near the keel, sgraffito, in the Morgan glaze? The corporate superstructure is clean, industrial with a meal box, including chicken legs, all in polished, unblemished white and blue glazes. Adding to the grunge-sterile contrast is an inherent instability in the composition: the stubby ship is top heavy; all hints at an unbalanced globalism.
Paradoxically House admits to not being a boat person. “I’m a prairie dog”. ² Although does admit he “fell in love with the canoe as a teenager while at YMCA Camp Inuspi in Waterton Lakes, Alberta.” 9
Ee-I-Ee-I-O, 2009. His boat works started to become quite large. Fortunately while in Sèvres, France, workers gave him tips on how to handle and move them in the various production stages. On the the pristine deck are two, white structures, one a precariously placed pagoda. A logo is also now plastered on the boat’s dirty hull. The whole stands upon a small footed base of wood and blue tile that at the same time is a global sea and a gallery-display base. The title of the work, a children’s song, reflects House’s long term disdain and frustration with the direction of corporate dominance and the decline of the local ‘little-guy’ in society.
From a technical view the scale of such works also needed new handling practices:
“On a Canada Council grant in 2003-4, I became interested in Meissen ware. I went to [Germany] first to take a look at what was going on there but couldn’t get into factory. So I went back to Sèvres and into the factory studying their old moulds and technology. Their porcelain body and firing temperatures were almost identical to mine. I learned more about slip casting and handling large moulds so that I could come back to produce and to move larger works.” ²
The boats would reach four and a half feet (137.2 cm) in height. He would need the assistance of Maureen to handle such works.8 They would also include the cruise ship theme. The less than savoury parts would include plays on such stories as the grounding tragedy of the Costa Concordia
Light as a medium
House’s interest in lighting has obviously expanded from his early days of ‘only being able to screw in a lightbulb.’ ¹ The direct use of light is a path that so few porcelain artists follow.
“I’ve been interested in lighting most of my life, Of course porcelain’s translucency lends itself to lighting.” ²
Beater Bucket Lamp, 2008. The anti-globalism theme would continue in some of his chandelier works, Here the surface of a meticulously carved bucket-chandelier captures portraits, both human and fowl in a warm translucent glow. One can, by the way, follow more recent developments in House’s thinking and work by following his blog.
However, such direct expressions of frustration can be only sustained for a time. Other artistic considerations come to the fore.
Ship with Murano Oars, 2013. Continuing with the ship theme, a cruise ship throws out shafts of light of murano glass while a myriad of glowing, rimmed portholes are arranged in rows. There are even light holes on the bottom, the keel. Well it is a chandelier after all! But it is boat that won’t float. A bulbous, ghostly, translucent figurehead with a necktie glows on the bow adding an enigmatic touch of humour: its cheeks are puffed out as though ready to blow; the necktie itself is decorated with a tight pattern of polka-dot-holes of light. The deck superstructure houses the light source. The effect is one of structure and mass with scattered light, a ceiling-suspended multi-media sculpture. The necktie by the way was, and still is used by House to suggest corporatism elitism. ²
Left: Peony Lamp #1. 2015; Right: Harlan House. Peony Lamp #1(detail). 2015. Here House returns to a favoured theme and carving technique. The glow casts floral patterns of varying intensity, highlighting the levels of detail and ceramic thickness. On an incredibly thin surface he has modelled a surprisingly ‘deep’ space of folds, projections and voids, capturing the depth and energy of the flower, using only a knife.² New, delicate forms with old trusted techniques. He shares more details:
“Some technical info…bear with me. The shade form is slip cast. The cross section is thin…about 1/8 inch and quite fragile. A “cookie” of thicker cast porcelain is made so that the shade has a home for the entire process. This cuts out handling problems as some areas are virtually paper thin when finished. The cookie is the only thing that gets handled but it is still a bit of a nightmare moving the shade on the cookie into the kiln. The cookie goes into the cone 13 firing with a sprinkle of silica sand on it to keep the shade and the cookie from fusing and to cut down on pyro-plastic distortion. The cookie and the shade shrink together in other words…but do not fuse. This is the same concept as the Tang Chinese potters used for their camel and horse sculptures…which always have the feet attached to a big bit of clay earth that is supporting, and in the firing shrinking and moving the same way as the feet of the horse. Smart.” 4
House is unabashed in his use of slipcasting:
“When I was in art school slip casting was an absolute no-no. But it’s just a technique. It is was it is.” ²
Pool Room Condo Lamps. 2015. Set up in his pool room, House show his further explorations of porcelain and light in architectural and geometric motifs. The light-shades are freer forms, hemispheres and undulating rectangular cones, with a variety of piercing patterns. The warping is a natural consequence of the firing as he lets the works slump to achieve unexpected effects.
With a bit of whimsy he adds:
“I find it funny that people living in a condo have a condo for a lamp.” ²
These particular works are above his pool table
“In my new pool hall! … I do have the lights made. They are condo lamps. There is nothing like a large group of people silently cheering ‘civilized’ activities from above.” 9
Some end thoughts. Apart from his art one of the things I admire about Harlan House is his generosity in sharing and giving credit where it is due. But I will not close this article with more about Harlan but share some of his thoughts about someone who has kept him successful all these years, his wife, Maureen. The artist’s life is difficult, often at the best of times. Family support can be as important as artistic success. This may seem sentimental but so am I. Here are Harlan’s words:
“Maureen has played that difficult role of being my most valued critic, and at the same time the love of my life. It is easy for me, and probably very difficult for her. She has always been there in the background making sure that I take the high road, and encouraging me to live with the chances that I always like to take. …Maureen has been running our small business for decades, which has left me free to work with almost no knowledge of what actually is “our predicament”. She has done a better job than I ever could have. … She is my very best friend. …So, while my signature is on each piece of work that leaves the studio, there really are two…or there should be. In the art business, all of us know that cannot happen, but maybe just writing this will go a little way towards recognizing Maureen’s gift to me, and her contribution to my body of work that now spans almost fifty years. Still in love, still friends; thanks Maureen.” 9
Links to Sites for More Works and Information on Harlan House
- View Harlan House’s website series of short videos on his techniques for throwing of the hump, trimming, decorating with slip, and sprigging.
- House also shares many of his recipes and thoughts on such items as recipes, celadon glaze, and bas relief carving on the “Technique” tab on his website.
Selected Major Collections
- Glenbow Art Gallery; University of Calgary; Government of Alberta; Alberta Art Foundation; Confederation Art Gallery, Prince Edward Island; National Canadian Craft Council Collection; Montreal Museum of Fine Art; Canadian Guild of Crafts Collection, Toronto; Massey Collection, Toronto; Royal Scottish Museum, Britain; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec; Art Gallery of Burlington, Burlington, Ontario; Canadian Craft Museum, Vancouver, British Columbia; Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax; Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, Jiangxi, China.
- Plus numerous private collections.
COMMISSIONS, MURALS (Ceramics/ Stoneware/ Porcelain)
- Hoffman and Chinery Designers, Edmonton, Alberta; Alberta Government Telephone Buildings, Calgary, Alberta; Highfield Development Corporation, Victoria Place and Highland Place, Edmonton; Nu West Land Development Corporation, Edmonton, Alberta; Burnett Duckworth and Company, Calgary, Alberta; Built in Art. Ontario Crafts Council, Toronto, Ontario; Built in Art, Canadian Craft Museum. Vancouver, British Columbia.
Endnotes & Bibliography
- Harlan House interview with Barry Morrison, March 22, 1981.
- Harlan House interview and email correspondence with Barry Morrison June 29, 2016ff.
- Harlan House. CV provided by the artist.
- Harlan House website
- Harlan House: Some Feelings About Porcelain. Ontario Crafts Council Newsletter. V. 5, no. 4; December 1980, pp 8-9.
- Harlan House: Studio Porcelain: A Ceramics Monthly Portfolio. Ceramics Monthly, v.29, issue 10. December 1981. pp47ff.
- Diane Creber. Harlan House. Monthly methods: Mixing Clay and Casting Slip. Ceramics Monthly, September 2004, pp. 49-51.
- Heidi McKenzie. House Sets Sail Ceramics Monthly. October 2011. pp : 46-9. An excellent article that shows later works by House and describes his frustration with the omnipresence of fast food and big box corporatism.
- Harlan House Blog.
- Various authors. Alberta Clay Come of Age: Studio Ceramics in Alberta III 1964-1984. Catalogue Alberta Potters Association and Alberta Art Foundation. c. 1986, pp. 90-91.
- Various authors. MUD, Hands, fire. Catalogue. School of Art, University of Manitoba. 2015, pp. 86-87.