Dates: Jan: 1930 – present. Born Hamburg, Germany
Helga: 1927. Born Stettin, Germany
Production Dates: In Canada: 1966-2009
Location: near Victoria, BC
Types of Work: Functional, Sculptural.
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: Electric kiln
Preferred Clay: Earthenware
Website: Grove Art Works
Signature/Mark/Chop: Jan’s initials are a stylized potter’s wheel; Helga’s an ‘H’, two parallel lines with a dot in between. Both marks together on the piece indicate it was thrown by Jan and decorated by Helga. Jan’s mark alone is very common, as he did all the throwing and glazing of the utilitarian ware and the solid coloured, studio pieces. There are other combinations of marks, eg dates, Victoria BC, Victoria Canada, etc. They are always marked by hand. Grove Victoria BC and later by ‘Grove Victoria Canada’. They stopped using the Victoria element in the 1990s preferring date, mark and Grove BC.¹
Jan and Helga Grove. Have you heard of them? Then you should. The exhibition ‘Life With Clay: Pottery and Sculpture by Jan and Helga Grove’ at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria focuses on their lives and work. This article is not a review of the exhibition or its catalogue but does share the research of curator Allan Collier and images of works in the exhibition. Thank you, Allan.
For so much of the last half of the twentieth century the influence of the Leach-Hamada tradition in Canada seemed supreme. Yet there were other major traditions, solid, well grounded. In this case the Northern European tradition and its aesthetic. This difference is not a counter balance, after all, this is not a zero-sum calculation. Traditions, although sometimes blending, will also often co-exist like siblings or cousins in a broader family. While Jan and Helga Grove while in Canada have lived and created in the Victoria area of Vancouver Island let’s take look at a brief overview of their lives and careers before their arrival in Canada.
When asked why they pot Helga answered directly:
”It was the only thing we knew how to do!” 7
Their opportunities for development were limited in the tangle and upheaval of post-War Europe.
Jan born in 1930, originally from Hamburg, came from an established artistic family. His mother, herself a certified Master Potter his father a sculptor, set up their studio in Lübeck after World War II.¹ Ironically in his early years Jan said:
“When I was in high school I told everyone, I would never be a potter. I wanted to be an architect, but by magic, when school was finished, I started to pot. Once you begin you never can stop.” ¹
Helga, born in 1927, originally from Stettin, Germany, came from a more Bauhaus-influenced environment. She moved to Lübeck in the last stage of World War II where she apprenticed with the Groves from 1946-49. Her interests would take her into design areas such as painting and textile decoration: she would be the one adding the more painterly or graphic design elements to their pottery and her own sculptures surfaces.¹
The Groves earlier European training was traditional in format, one unfamiliar to most Canadians of the time. Jan undertook a three-year apprentice regimen with his parents in Lübeck in 1948, becoming a qualified journeyman in 1951. Helga similarly apprenticed with Jan’s parents, starting in 1946. Romance and marriage followed in 1952. Over the next decade Jan would continue his ceramic studies, to become accredited as a Master Potter in 1956. Helga’s interests took a short art and applied diversion in textile design, taking master classes under the Bauhaus Master, Georg Muche and graduating in 1952.¹
While both would create their individual works in their individual styles this role-sharing, form-maker and surface decorator, was not unusual in European inspired pairs, for instance the Deichmanns in New Brunswick and Folmer Hansen and David Ross in Saskatchewan. Perhaps a bit of banter between Jan and Helga could some up some key reasons for their success:
“Jan: She is a better artist than I am! I’m more of a technician.
Helga: Jan is a fantastic thrower on the wheel.
Jan: Both of us work well together. I did all the technical parts, like glazing.
Helga: And we didn’t work against each other.
Jan: That’s the wonderful thing. I admire Helga because she has fantastic ideas.
Helga: And I admire him too!” 7
Meanwhile, Jan and Helga worked at establishing their own studio and reputations. From 1957 to 1960 they operated the family studio back in Lübeck, and started to exhibit in group shows.¹ They thus gained their valuable exhibition, technical and business experience from these early beginnings.
Yet there was a yearning for something more. During an interval of five years they worked in Istanbul, Turkey, at Tatbiki Güzel Sanatlar Yüksek Okulu an Istanbul applied fine arts school.¹ This teaching experience was to serve well in later years in Canada as many Canadian workshop and class attendees came to know the to the name, style and techniques of the Groves.
It was while in Istanbul that German-Canadian artist, Herbert Siebner, convinced them to come to Canada, particularly, Victoria, BC. Helga jokingly remembers Siebner’s “crafty” promise:
“ I loved to ride horses. He lured me by saying: ‘You can ride there!’ ” 9
Siebner was also critical in helping them establish themselves in their new home and establishing their artistic network.
Things then moved quickly. The Groves came to Canada in November,1965, bringing a level of experience almost unknown in this country.¹ Their timing was fortuitous. Not only was there an expanding interest in craft in general but also the catalysing effect of plans for the 1967 Centennial celebrations, including Expo67, meant funding was generous and exhibition opportunities more available. The time was particularly ripe for exhibiting, selling and teaching.
Consummate professionals Jan and Helga immediately set about establishing their presence. Within a week they had bought a property – a mink farm – in Colwood, just west of Victoria, where they would stay for twenty five years.4 Jan planned for an electric kiln and designed and built his first kick wheel. With the help of Siebner they connected with such well know Island artists as Leonard and Mary Osborne who shared their knowledge of materials and equipment. They started submitting to Centennial-based exhibitions. Jan was accepted at the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Fine Crafts, and at Expo 67, followed up by purchases.
Their studio was fully up and running by 1966. It would continue operating with one location change until 2009. They would support themselves with their studio production, teaching and exhibiting. They sold firstly more locally and then across the country.¹ Although a bit of a luxury sculpture would also be a significant output of the studio throughout this period: they made sculptures almost from the moment they opened their studio in 1966 right up until 2005.¹ The studio would finally close in 2009.
The Groves responded to the need for creating high quality ceramic work, continuing their success with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and solo exhibitions with the Canadian Guild of Potters in Toronto, among others. Their work would be illustrated in magazine such as Canadian Art. Their emphasis on high production standards helped shift general public and professional opinion out of the doldrums of viewing pottery as only a hobby.
The teaching years in Turkey paid off , not only in visibility but also in the quality message. A sampling of the scope of the teaching work done is extensive:
- Night Classes at local school and Nanaimo
- Workshops via Emily Carr College of Art and Design’s Outreach Programme throughout BC
- Night classes at the Education Faculty of University of Victoria, and
- Pottery classes in their own studio
Inevitably their studio became a popular tourist spot.
Their studio, exhibiting, teaching and sales helped them connect with other major BC ceramists such as Walter Dexter, Gordon Hutchens, Byron Johnstad, Wayne Ngan, Sally Michener and Stan Clarke.¹ Further networking with the artist group, the Vancouver Island-based Limners which they joined in 1981¹ further consolidated their reputation in the professional class of artists.
Allan Collier writes on the importance and dedication of Jan and Helga Grove and their approach to their creations:
“[their] pottery is a testament to the Groves’ strong belief in the value of craft in contemporary life, where the handmade object – original with subtle variation – gains a favoured status amid the conformity of mass production. … the Groves reinforced in their own work a direct link between product and artist, always signing by hand each piece made in their studio.” ¹
The following general technical comments are provided courtesy of Allan Collier and are included in his outstanding catalogue of the retrospective exhibition of the Groves life and work “Life With Clay” at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, BC.¹
- The groves supported themselves mainly through producing cups, vases, bowls, teapots, jugs, goblets, lamp bases, coffee pots.¹
- Throwing and glazing were mainly Jan’s responsibility.¹
- The majority of studio output was thrown and glazed exclusively by Jan. Some pieces were thrown and decorated by Helga alone, while others were done collaboratively with Jan doing the throwing and Helga the decorating¹
- All pieces were handmade individually without moulds.¹
- Their primary clays were earthenware clays. They started looking for suitable clay; first on Siebner’s nearby property followed by red clay at nearby Island View Beach, which when mixed with mortar clay served as their first clay body and subsequently as a base for engobe,6 black and yellow glazes. Then bought a red low-fire clay and grey high-fire clay from Fairey’s in Vancouver; after that Lloyd-El Ceramics in Victoria.¹
- All work was fired in electric kilns. In the early 1980s they acquired a four foot tall front loading kiln that helped with large sculptures increasingly made in the 1980s and 1990s. Their work contrasted with the dominant Leach influence of traditional English and Asian ware and forms, and stoneware reduction firing in gas kilns.¹
- Collier describes the Groves use of colour: “Over time they settled on five standard colours for their functional ware: cobalt blue, nickel blue, copper green, brown and night blue; other colours that appeared were moss green, yellow and black. The last two used only for the first years then dropped as solid colours though later used as accents.” ¹
Jan Grove Pottery (thrown and glazed by Jan Grove)
Form was Jan’s forte:
“Once you are stuck in the mud, you are stuck in the mud, you know. I was never a painter. I saw things in three dimensions. That was perfect for pottery. I always saw everything as it should be.” 9
Jan Grove. Jug, cobalt blue glaze, 1967. The work was part of the major Canadian Fine Crafts exhibition at Expo 67. The work is a nod to oriental forms with its undulating contours with a ridge at the stopper. The surface colouring distinctly Jan’s, a satin matte deep blue glaze with undertones of black. Though more complicated in the lip and handle regions it foreshadows his Canadian works that harmonize simple forms and surface colour that together establish a forceful physical presence.
Jan Grove. Jug with Hole, cobalt blue glaze. 1989. The colour is the same deep blue. The form is minimalist, the whole an integral shape, one-piece; the handle a pierced ‘hole’. The only opening to the interior is the mouth atop a shortened neck, its lip plain. The ‘handle’ contours catch the light with a soft glow, enhancing the sculptural volumes of the body. The blue, obviously a favoured colour, is matte, flat, absorbing the light. Overall the surfaces are soft, rounded except for the lip’s rim. It is biomorphic, pulsing with a life force. Such pieces indicate Jan’s marketing savvy. As Collier says:
“When exhibiting [Jan] preferred to make large items that stood out from the others when displayed” ¹
Jan Grove. Vase, black green feathered glaze, 1980. In his earlier years in Canada Jan did experiment with surface and colour effects. Here, a surface that looks like a pitted landscape, perhaps a slight nod to the Leach-Hamada tradition. It is lighter and more varied with greater tonal contrasts. The effect is of a pock-marking or cratering of the surface of green-white and dark brown. The vase is smaller than his exhibition sculptures.
Jan Grove. Vase, cobalt blue glaze with rutile highlights, 1988. Here there is a sensuous blend of the matter dark blue body topped by a feathery shoulder that drapes shawl-like in a sensuous light blue with touches of yellow-bronze . The whole is surmounted by lip and mouth that glow with an almost metallic bronze.
Jan Grove. Jug with Offset Neck, moss green glaze, 1986. This green form is a topological analog of the blue bottle above. The obvious difference are firstly the colour, like a patinated bronze, the body is bulbous, the handle more accentuated and centred, and the neck extended chimney-like. With minimal decoration Jan moves the functional form into the sculptural emphasizing positive and negative spaces.
Helga Grove Pottery (thrown and decorated by Helga Grove)
Whereas Jan’s work is characterised by strong, often almost closed forms of intense colour Helga’s work although sometime coloured is more monochromatic with a strong use of surface line consistent with her interest in drawing.
Helga Grove. Vase, fable animal sgraffito on red clay, 1953. The vase is a very early work of Helga’s from Germany. Although she and Jan worked jointly on functional ware Helga’s effects and style are strikingly different. Such care, such meticulous design moves beyond the mere functional. The simplicity of form, the vase with its almost closed mouth is a familiar shape. Yet the surface, its colour, a simple brown-black, is carved in shallow relief, with frieze bands of geometric patterns and ‘fable animals’ speaks of Helga’s interest in pattern and design. Chevrons, triangles, lines and animals are meticulously scratched and outlined into the surface in low relief Although one might assume the animals are inspired by other cultures Helga says they are just from her imagination.¹
Helga Grove. Saki Set, 1967, white glaze with cobalt blue decoration. The work is from 1967 early in the years after the move to Canada. Here the decoration repeats a motif on each of the elements, an encircled six-pointed asterism. The design is in a cobalt blue, thickly brushed onto the white surface matrix. Added dots and tear drops hint at an Islamic inspiration, an interesting cross-cultural reference on a Japanese form.
Collaborations (thrown by Jan, decorated by Helga)
Jan and Helga Grove. Jug with Double Neck, incised black decor, 1966. This double necked jug wheel thrown by Jan and decorated by Helga is from their early years in Canada. The form, wheel thrown and assembled, again hints at their Turkish experience. Jan’s form is severely symmetrical in profile with a bulbous body, and its two cylindrical necks with flared spouts bridged by a cylindrical handle. It is all curves and volumes emphasized by the Helga’s meticulous, infilled, incised design that wraps around all elements like tight bands of engraved leather. The “wrapping” not only complicates the formal symmetry it also enhances it, forcing the eye to explore each shape and surface element, their joints and boundaries, to linger, tempting the finger to follow line and shape in an endless motion. This is not standard, quickly produced functional ware. It must have been a time-consuming item plan and create and suggests the Groves’ early interest and move into sculpture in late 1966, almost immediately after their studio set up.
Firstly, a brief aside. Surprisingly, considering the number and quality of their sculptures, such items were not their main focus. Functional ware was the couple’s main motivation. Jan confirmed:
“Sculpture work was always on the outside … only when I had some time or when I had an idea. Most of the time, I made pots and pans … pieces like these (sculptural works) were extra. … If a show was coming up – that gave us a push to work on some of the ideas we had on our minds for quite a while but never realized.” 7
” It was a luxury.” 7
Jan and Helga’s individual approaches to their sculpture is also quite marked, although they were both interested in figurative works. Apart from discussing technical issues they basically worked independently.¹ They would produce sculpture from late 1966 to 2005, increasing their production from 1980 on as their reputation and studio capacity increased, acquiring a front loading electric kiln, while their association with the Limners, the Vancouver Island artist group, prompted them to exhibit more frequently.¹
Modernist to the core, throughout this period Jan and Helga remained true to their medium. They worked with clay in its thrown, slab forms and assemblages, not disguising or covering it to resemble other media.
Jan Grove Sculpture
Jan Grove. Visitors from Pluto, brown engobe, 1971. Jan’s sculptures were often quite spontaneous in their creation, often evolving as the work developed. His style would use mostly thrown and assembled forms, occasionally with slab additions: cylinders, rings, cones and vessel forms.¹ They would have minimal surface decoration. Some, as in Visitors from Pluto have a humourous quality that convey an alien ‘individual as family’ grouping, looking as though it/they took a wrong turn off on the galactic highway.
The core of Jan’s subjects is relationships
“For me, the inspiration is the human relationship. That was always what I liked. I did quite a few couples … Two people are interacting. Sometimes it’s a love story. Sometimes it’s a confrontation.” 7
Jan Grove. Couple, nickel-grey glaze 1996. This work is twenty-five years after Visitors from Pluto. There are formal similarities but here the mood is quite different. In such a couple grouping Jan uses the formal abstraction to focus on body language, of intimacy and activity. Here a couple face us full frontal. The man’s hands gently rest on the shoulders of the woman. She, in the foreground, stands hands on waist, confident, perhaps even aggressive? The heads are simple, featureless spheres that cannot betray any emotion via face.
Jan says of the piece:
“My favourite piece is Couple. … .Actually, I made it for Helga. It is Jan and Helga. Everybody wanted to buy it, but I said, “Not for sale!”. It’s one of my favourite pieces, but this is a fairly late one. Before it, I made other pieces and I had favourites there, because this one didn’t exist yet. But those fade into the background after I made this one. This is us.” 7
Helga Grove Sculpture
Helga’s sculptures are by contrast made from slab-built and wheel thrown pieces, their surfaces marked with the infilled, incised lines seen in her pottery. Animals and drawing have long interested her.¹ Her sculptural approach differed from Jan’s in that not only did she sketch to plan her works¹ but she also had other considerations:
” I worked on my sculptures in the kitchen in the evenings after I put the children to bed, so I wasn’t interrupted too much.“ 7
The line shows up sometimes as decoration as in the vase below, sometimes helping define forms such as legs in Mize, and even as other media in the legs of Vanity, practical supports as verticals.
Helga Grove. Vanity, clay with incised black decor, 1966. Vanity, an early work, is sizeable, almost metre and half tall of unglazed clay supported by metal rods as legs. A hybrid, yes, but an enigma. Is it animal, bird? What are wings, and what is body, and why are there four legs? Helga’s familiar incised lines serve as feather markings and body decoration, movement on planar surfaces. The small spherical head is atop a long cylindrical neck . The bill/beak is upturned to the vertical, the ultimate snooty-nosed angle.
Helga Grove. Mitz and Mautz, clay with incised black decor, 2005. A later work , Mitzi and Mautz is a double-headed hybrid. The red clay form is made up of simple thrown cylinders and slab shapes. The surface decoration is relatively sparse compared to other works. The form and surface are simple elements giving the whole a primal feeling, something elemental that teases the eye and the mind. And yet there is still that element of whimsy.
There is an element of closure though in this work:
“This was my last piece. I broke my hand the day before. I slipped. That was in 2005. And after that, I couldn’t really work anymore.“ 7
The Grove studio closed production soon thereafter.
Links to Sites for Information on the Groves
- Curator’s Clip with Allan Collier: Life with Clay.
- Potters Jan and Helga Grove at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria with sculptor Godfrey Stephens. Karl Spreitz and Collaborators Archival Film Collection — project partially funded by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia. Producer: Karl Spreitz, 1970, 16mm film. U998.41.5/13. 2:00 min. The 1970 clip’s sound is a bit irregular but it is interesting overall showing Jan throwing a vase on the wheel with occasional views of Helga in the background.8
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Collier, Allan. Life With Clay: Pottery and Sculpture By Jan And Helga Grove. Essay by Alan Elder. Catalogue of a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from January 20 to May 28, 2017. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. 2017. 128 pages. Hardcover.
2. Jan and Helga Grove Pottery Website: Grove Art Works.
3. The Limners, started in 1971 were a collective of Vancouver Island potters, painters and sculptors. Ceramists involved included Walter Dexter.
4. The Groves operated Grove Studio from 1966 to 2009: from 1966 to 1990 at 2218 Sooke Road in Colwood; then 1990 to 2009 at 3778 Duke Road, Metchosin. Their studio included an extension for teaching and later showroom.
5. Bauhaus: a Modernist German art school operating from 1919-1933. Its philosophy combined fine art, crafts and architecture. It was one of the most influential schools of the 20th century.
6. Engobe is a slip-like, self -glazing coating of the clay body.
8. Potters Jan and Helga Grove at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria with sculptor Godfrey Stephens. Spreitz Collection. Karl Spreitz and Collaborators Archival Film Collection — project partially funded by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia. Producer: Karl Spreitz, 1970, 16mm film. U998.41.5/13. 2:00 min.
9. Chamberlain, Adrian. Sooke Pottery Duo Considered Among Best In Canada. Times Colonist January 21, 2017.