Dates: 1931 – 1981
Production Dates: 1952-1981
Location: Sheridan College, School of Crafts and Design, Mississauga, Ontario
Types of Work: functional; wheel thrown with occasional use of slab building, press moulding and drain casting.
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: catenary arch, down draft, self-designed; wood-firing
Preferred Clay: stoneware and porcelain
Much of the following page content comes from an interview I conducted with Ruth Gowdy McKinley in her home in Mississauga, on December 8th, 1980, shortly before her passing. I’ll let her own words speak for herself in much of the article.
There are a few names in Canadian ceramics that when spoken are said with respect, almost reverence. Ruth Gowdy McKinley is one of those names. Not bad for a potter who produced teapots, cups vases and a myriad of other functional ware. People still talk of her process, her forms, her glazes and most of all her approach to the medium and its many steps. When I think of McKinley I think of artistic discipline and focus, a confident assessment of who she was and what she wanted.
Paula Murray, a Royal Canadian Academy ceramist, had Ruth as her mentor:
“She had a quiet, strong personality and never worked at a frenzied pace … [s]he was a powerful influence on me because of her reverence for craftsmanship. Her work was chaste. Her philosophy was that everything she made be beautiful and useful. I felt honored when she asked me to help with wood firing. Every month I would split the wood and see Ruth’s relationship to the firing process, her ritualistic way of starting early in the morning, raising the heat slowly, controlling the fire. It was a Zen experience.” 4
Born in 1931 in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth eventually came to Mississauga, Ontario, as the resident Potter at Sheridan College of Art and Design, with her husband Don, himself a renowned furniture designer and craftsman. She was true to her art as a student, a teacher and artist. She stayed true to the wood-firing craft in her work. Wood-firing was not the norm for most women potters. It was a man’s world. She was essentially a pioneer in the technique in the US and here in Canada
Ruth studied classical piano from 1936-1949 and would refer to the piano and its keys in her thoughts about the infinite possibilities of ceramics
“I try to make forms that are ‘beautiful.’ Variation in use demands such forms. There are an infinite variety of things one can do: cylindrical, concave, convex, in, out, straight. It’s like a piano with eighty eight keys. One can make so much music.” 1
Her first interest in ceramics started through china painting. Many pieces from the turn of the century were in her Long Island home. As she grew up with them she became interested in decoration and pattern and would, in this very early stage of her artistic life, apply decoration, pattern and applied ornament to functional dishes and tableware on ready-made forms. She also used to create designs for rims and dishes for dinner sets, sketching them in a representational way. These early ventures in clay started in 1949.1
Her family moved to Utica, New York. She continued in this decorative area of ceramics during the summer of 1952 when she humbly worked designing and producing earthenware pottery at Santa’s Workshop, Saranac Lake, New York.2
However things changed suddenly. That same year she enrolled in the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred, in what was then the Industrial Ceramic Design Department. It was here she had a revelation:
“Not only was consideration given to the final surface treatment and ornamentation but people were actually conceiving and making the forms onto which their ideas were to be placed. This idea had never occurred to me, incredible as that seems. To make a pot had not occurred to me!”1
Alfred had a rigourous schooling program under Charles Harder. On the industrial side she worked in plaster, turned plaster forms, and cast her pieces. But there was also the studio time in which she slab- and coil-built, press-moulded, and threw her work. During this time, 1952-1955, she worked as a graduate assistant to Harder and Daniel Rhodes. This was also the time when she helped build her first catenary wood-fired kiln. She received her BFA degree in 1953 and her MFA in 1955, and then worked in the “real world.”
From 1955-1966 the real world involved setting up studios and travelling for many years. There was the Ossipee Pottery in New Hampshire where she did much brushwork and majolica, making plates and casseroles, jiggering, throwing and casting; setting up a studio in Wayland, New York; work as a news reader for the Finnish News Agency (her husband, Donald, won a Fulbright Grant to study furniture design in Finland. Unfortunately, under Finnish law, Ruth was not allowed to practice her pottery. They did however, visit individual potters’ studios and the Arabia pottery); and as a Craft Fair Manager for the Summer Craft Fair in Ithaca New York.
This variety of experiences hides the discipline and focus of her personality and work. She was a woman of definite beliefs and opinions. For example, although she met Bernard Leach it was more his and Hamada’s philosophy she liked than their works.1.
On the contemporary ceramics scene in the U.S. she said :
“I like the simple shapes of China and Korea but felt what was going on in the US quite shallow, including what was going on in California. That kind of humour never appealed to me. I respected their clay handling, not the subject.”1
1967 was the year that she came as Resident Potter to Canada, to Sheridan College, Mississauga, Ontario. She would have preferred to stay in her U.S. studio, she said, laughing:
“I had mixed feeling at the time about coming to Sheridan. Don had heard about Sheridan when he came to jury a craft show. He was later appointed Wood Master and Director. In New York the time was right for me to make pots. Everything was spic and span, the wood cut and piled, the clay and glazes mixed. I swore I would never be that organized again.”1
From that time on she was to establish herself as a Canadian icon in the ceramic world, teaching, mentoring, jurying, exhibiting, writing and of course producing. Such was her renown she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1967, the first time a potter was elected to the organization. She was a go-to artist much respected in the ceramic and craft world.
Her passion for the making and firing process shows her likes and dislikes in the whole process. – she sold mostly from her studio, partly through open houses, and craft sales at the school, Sheridan College. She occasionally sold from exhibitions.
Sadly, her career was short. She died, at the age of fifty, in 1981.
Ruth Gowdy McKinley: Her Art and Her Own Words
Her Statement of Purpose:
In potting I believe beauty and use should be considered equally, To this end I have always made useful pots while working and searching for the most personally satisfying form-function relationship in each piece. 2
“I know I’m not a plastic potter. I hope people think my forms are very clean with no hesitation in line, no wavering. … I only occasionally work from drawings and sketches. I have no time for it. … My pots are quiet and simple. They are sometimes lost in the bombastic statements in exhibitions. … My thinking in stoneware tends to be a little broader than porcelain. Stoneware tends to be more plastic and forgiving. … – “It’s a question of judgment but it’s also a question of making a lot of pots and making a lot of mistakes.” 1
“I work in cycles, a porcelain cycle then a stoneware cycle , it’s a house-keeping feature.” 1
She also worked in series such as spouts and handles foot rings or lids, or for a week or two would only make teapots. Her mind would totally focus on one function.
”I like spouts, variations on pulled handles or bamboo handles with five or six in a series. … It was more efficient to work with one form, my mind is set on variations on a spout and not on casseroles.”1
She was a true believer in foot rings to finish a work.
Her techniques were varied: drain-casting such things as wine decanters and small tea bowls. Sometimes bowls were thrown off the hump. “Just look inside the pot to see if it’s thrown or cast.” Her work seldom gets over 15” unless it was special order.
“I can cast ninety-eight tea bowls in a day. I can’t throw ninety-eight bowls a day like some potters can. … I’m not a classic potter. I’m not built like that, to just sit down and throw a casserole. I don’t work quickly. My works are very tight, non-clay-like, very hard. If that’s a condemnation, that’s OK. I try to make the form clear, from foot ring to lip or lid with no hesitation in that line.” 1
Ruth had done some decoration and carving in the last few years. The decorations she liked were applied sprigs of clay as part of the construction, and organic joints to avoid harsh joints.
“I like to carve into leather hard clay, the clay just rolls off like cheese, an absolutely marvellous feeling. …the piece is so cool, damp.”1
“Frequently the glaze comes to mind while throwing. Sometimes it changes when I see the changes in the bisque phase, unless it’s a commission. I will spend a day or two only glazing teapots: in the morning from 9:30 to 11:30; afternoons from 1:30 to 5:00, and sometimes an hour or two after supper. I try to keep a balance between work and family.”1
“l like slip-trailing, especially over celadon the way it breaks over the high places and puddles in the low.”1
She favoured such glazes as chino glaze, satin matte. Sometimes she would fire with no glaze and definitely did not like thick glazes that mask the form
“Glaze should be a skin that suits the form and texture. “I make the glaze decisions early on. For example for the exterior “I might think, Hmm, that might be a matte teapot.” … “I spent many years doing glaze tests to help clean out the teapot inside to get rid of the scummy tannin deposits. I now use a semi-transparent glaze that goes into every teapot, making it very cleanable.” 1
It would be an understatement to say that Ruth liked to be involved in all stages of the firing.
“I don’t fire as frequently as other potters. … – “I hate bisque but it’s a necessary phase. It’s chalky, a nails-down-the blackboard stage”1
On her passion for wood-firing she liked what the wood ash does to the ware:
“I am not interested in how fast I can reach temperature. If rapid firing were my goal wood surely would not be my choice of fuel. It is the oneness with the kiln — the exhilaration — the awe of firing. Both of these emotions are heightened by the physical effort involved.
From dull red to bright yellow a quiet strength is gathering in the kiln. During the glaze reduction there is a ‘voice’ in the stack — I usually reply. All firing alters the ware, but my pots, fired unsaggered in this wood burning kiln, have an additional alternation. During the firing wood ash is deposited on the ware throughout the pot chamber; when high temperatures are reached the ash melts and fuses with the glaze, engobe or with the clay of the pot. Over the years that I have fired with wood these variable effects of the wood ash have become more and more predictable and thus planned for. It is this variable and unique quality — the mark inherent to this fire — that continues to hold my interest, is often my delight, and always demands my respect.3
“I think most potters are pyromaniacs. There is so much power there. Everything melts. I would so much love to be in there and see what is happening, glazes melting and bubbling, to watch that happen.” 1
A further example of her methodical discipline and control was in unstacking the kiln. Whereas other artists cannot wait to check and critique still hot pots fresh from the firing Ruth’s approach was measured.
“When I unload the kiln I do not spend a lot of time looking at the pots. I clean up kiln and shelving first to get it all ready for the next firing. All the pots go onto a table. I then go into the house have supper, sleep, and then maybe the next day go to look at them. I want to look at them as they really are.” 1
A Gallery of Ruth Gowdy McKinley’s Art
If there are collectors or collections that have images of Ruth Gowdy McKinley’s works they would like to share please contact me.
Major Collections with Online Images:
- The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo, Ontario. The Gallery has the most extensive archival collection on McKinley, her life and work.
- The Burlington Art Centre, Burlington, Ontario.
- The Gardiner Museum, Toronto Ontario.
- The Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec.
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Morrison, Barry. Personal interview with Ruth Gowdy McKinley, Mississauga, Ontario, December 8, 1980.
2. Resume of Ruth Gowdy McKinley, Ontario Craft Council Archives.
3. Mckinley, Ruth Gowdy. Mark of this Fire. Studio Potter, Winter 74/75. Published the next year also in Tactile. There might have been a film made of the same title, “The Mark of This Fire” (30 min. Colour) to be released in 1979 but I could not find a reference to this.
4. Baele, Nancy. Paula Murray. Honoring the Natural World. Ceramics monthly May 2006 pp. 54-57.