Dates: (1940 – 2014) Born, Newent, Gloucestershire, England
Production Dates: England 1963-1968; Canada, 1968 – 2014
Location: Calgary and Sundre, Alberta
Types of Work: functional and sculptural; thrown, press moulded, and handbuilt
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: electric for “art” pieces; wood preferred for functional work; gas; salt firing; later, soda firing stoneware; various, cone 6, later cone 05 – 04.²
Preferred Clay: Saskatchewan and Alberta clays but continuously experimenting with pre-mixed clays from commercial sources including kaolins.
Signature/Mark/Chop: “art” pieces were signed and dated; the chop mark was used only on pots for the Wild Rose Pottery with Barbara Tipton. The chop came from a stamp for sealing wax used by his father.²
I would like to thank Barbara Tipton for her gracious assistance in producing this page.
This page has been many years, four to be more precise, in the making. Those of us who have met John Chalke and spent time with him each have our special memories. Mine is sitting for hours on a street-side railing on the corner of Kawaramachi Dori in Kyoto, Japan, watching the hustle of people and traffic, and talking about life, love, and yes, pottery.
The following is a brief biography of John’s life and career. Some details may be familiar to you; hopefully I can add some lesser knowns.
John Chalke was a man of apparent contrasts in both his writings and pottery. His writings can be poetic; his spoken word salty, sometimes even quite direct; frequently supportive and compassionate. His ceramics range from the functionally comfortable and familiar to exuberant colours and textures in surface glazes and crusts.
John was born in in Newent, Gloucestershire in 1940. He met with Bernard Leach a number of times, enough to impress Leach and to receive a letter of reference from him. Not many artists can claim that recognition! Chalke here with the Leaches looks very much the young student; a contrast with the confidence of his later years.
“My early self-teaching was through the Bernard Leach school of pottery in England—the Anglo-Japanese alliance of the 1920s and 1930s in which Leach brought in Zen philosophy and the awareness of the ‘unknown craftsman’. And he opened my eyes to wonderful things. So I went off to Japan, as well as to the Middle East and Korea, looking for other sources.” 26
Although British born and trained as an art teacher at the Bath Academy of Art Chalke has remained a key ceramist not only of Alberta, but also of Canada – and internationally. His work provided that extra shot of DNA into a region dominated by one man, Luke Lindoe.
Our main story begins in 1968 when he came to Calgary, Alberta. Although he was well known in England he was reticent about his deeper reasons for emigrating. Nevertheless, the move was to be life long. But why move to Canada, specifically Alberta? There is his often quoted statement,
“I always wanted to be a cowboy. Instead I became a potter. Living out here there are good days when I can pretend I could be both.” 21
He had a counter culture side:
“I guess I’ll continue, perversely, to keep entering [society] now and then, make [pots] fairly often, and continue to spend as little as I can. Usually society in a polite world is fairly tolerant toward aging, slightly philosophical ladies and gents. Especially if they contribute something of a reasonably original cultural nature and burpeth not in public.” 28
Except for a brief two-year period from 1984 to 1986 in the United States researching glaze studies 25 Alberta became his adopted home, his base for over forty-six years. He developed a love of place and history and a liking for the cowboy persona. This latter he displayed without affectation
The catalyst for the move to Alberta was an advertisement:
“I saw an ad in the Times Educational Supplement. I knew where Calgary was from the BBC. Ontario was a no because of the cold and damp. Alberta has fantastic summers.” 1
He would teach that first year at the University of Calgary. He went to teach at the Alberta College of Art, Calgary, the next year after “falling out” with the university.1 Later he would also teach at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.
He used his teaching position well. As a teacher he was not forced to make things for the public.1 He experimented – and documented rigourously – with an almost scientific precision.
It was, of course, a much different world in ceramics at that time. Alberta then was under the influence of the vigorous stoneware style of Luke Lindoe and his students. Alberta and Canada were experiencing the pre-1970s surge in ceramics. Chalke was keenly aware of this new Canadian environment. He admired Walt Drohan’s delicacy; with Ed Drahanchuk it was his speed.1 Harlan House had just left Alberta for Ontario; Duane Perkins had come from the US to Manitoba; he saw Jack Sures as one of the most dynamic people when he came; while John Reeve influenced most of Canada. Chalke called him the Robert Redford of ceramics.1
He felt himself in virgin territory with his British and Leach background. He said unapologetically of the period and environment words that reflected something of a culture shock.
“I was arrogant, British. … I was in the top 12 in Britain, a min-super star. …no one [in Alberta] was talking about glazes or kilns.” 1
Although he knew and associated with Lindoe he never fell under his stylistic influence nor into his student orbit, although they would go on clay prospecting trips together. Chalke said of Lindoe and his pottery:
” Another of those was Luke Lindoe … . As ornery as they come, but I think that was just his cover. He was probably 25 years older than I was, a past teacher, a professional clay finder, a self-taught geologist, a life-long potter, lived down south in the drier parts of Alberta. I have spent some good times with him, mostly out in large open spaces where, fortunately, present day humans don’t count for much. “ ²
He was to later refer to Lindoe as the “clay whisperer” for his knowledge of clay. 32
Barbara Tipton says of Chalke and Lindoe:
“I think he revered the man as important for Alberta Ceramics. In fact, he was so concerned that Luke be remembered as a remarkable man he produced a video on him.” ²
Unfortunately the title and location of the video have been lost over the years. Hopefully not permanently.
Alberta artists were soon to witness Chalke’s style and technique:
“People were surprised when I came as to how much water I used. I didn’t think I used much water at all. … “There weren’t any interesting glazes around. Boring, predictable, a celadon, a brown one, a green one and a white on. That was it. … I did bring with me soft clay ideas that were new here, grogs and wood kilns.“ 1
He made his own bamboo trimming tools. Though, of course, not his invention it was what he was used to. Along with his preference for wood kiln firing which was not as common in those days in Alberta. He built the first wood kiln at the University of Calgary and was soon able to achieve cone 12. 1
Chalke fitted in quickly with the exhibition and award protocols of the time, participating in exhibitions that had ‘Canadian’ or ‘Alberta’ in their titles, including from 1971 to 1975 the Canadian Guild of Crafts, the Canadian Guild of Potters and the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto. 15 By 1971 he had received his first Canada Council Travel Grant. 14
On the inevitable ‘are you an artist or potter?’ question Chalke had mixed thoughts. He saw himself:
“Perhaps more as an artist but I don’t want to relinquish pots. I make pots. I like pots. I limit myself to what I throw. I don’t make large stuff. I make small stuff and most of it’s functional. I like making my clay. I like firing.” 1
“Yes, I’m a potter, and whether I’m an artist I don’t know. I don’t like the word ceramicist. I still stick by the words I like, ‘clay glazer’. I glaze clay and I like the ceramics process.” 1
“I change and when I change I usually go to things that are handbuilt. … from a pottery concern, thrown things, to things not pottery. … I don’t like the associations with canvas. … Ceramic is what it is, simply clay.” 1
Widely travelled, he would always return to his adopted province, to the studios in Calgary and Sundre he had set up with his wife, Barbara Tipton. Here he would experiment, create, and conduct workshops.
Over the years travels and traditions became less obvious, melding into something uniquely John Chalke. By 2009 he said philosophically:
“It used to be that I would pay cultural homage to the places where my favorite pots and kilns came from. Japan and Korea were foremost on the list. Those places don’t play the same part in my seeking anymore. It’s time to close the circle. Probably it’s only because I’ve traveled a lot that I can reasonably say it doesn’t matter how far you go, the back door now nourished by memory and comparison is far enough.” 5
Life would settle into seasonal routines; the years would make him more reflective:
“The straight path to the studio from the house is necessarily most serpentine some days. Some months of the year, though, make it much simpler. When the days grow warmer I work much more outside, where pots dry more quickly. I become a potter and become familiar again with muscle and ache. From November on, when things are freezing solid outside, body activity slows down and more cerebral struggle takes its place. A farmer might go curling during this time. I suppose I go handbuilding. This sequence has been part of my making for well over 30 years. The only thing I can see that has changed is more honing, more reflection, more revisiting old and new places in my mind, and less guilt about the now petty.”4
Although we know Chalke mainly as a potter he was also an author contributing articles to such periodicals as Ceramics Monthly. His writing on technical matters was clear, yet there is a poetic element:
“It’s still hard to know how my pre-making mind operates. I know it sometimes calls upon quarries of ideas, which are based on known previous historical and cultural contacts … early American and English slipware, French wood-fired country pots, Japanese Oribe designs, woodcuts from early children’s books. But then there is another pulse which sporadically appears above the thought horizon, like northern lights. It might be the peeling red and blue paint on a barn door … or a folk art weathervane … perhaps the word “Clinchfield” on a boxcar across the tracks…. What the objects I make must have to operate successfully is a comfortable relationship with the human scale: for example, an engaging encounter with both hands. But they should maintain a querulous position also, like dug up jewelry or a table top in the rain.” 6
Chalke has been called a ‘punster’ but he was also what might be called a ‘funster’. He had a sense of play, and stretched his workshop format to the limit when he taught Peter Gzowski how to throw a pot – over the radio! Gzowski, the host of the CBC radio talk-show, Morningside, was in Toronto, Chalke in Calgary. The transcript of the show not only has a humorous quality to the venture but also shows a personal connection, a patience, a willingness and daring by John to put his name and reputation — on the airwaves, audio only — on the line. 19
Such was his reputation he would leave the province on many occasions for exhibitions, workshops, and judging juried shows – sometimes as the sole juror – for international exhibitions. These latter included the New Zealand Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award in Auckland 1996, and in Australia as sole judge for the 2000 Sydney Myer International Ceramics Award in Australia. 6
His reputation also resulted in his receiving many major awards and other recognitions, including:
- 1975: A member of the International Academy of Ceramics (Geneva) 9
- 2000: Awarded the first Fine Crafts Award, Canada Council’s-Governor Generals Awards in Visual and Media Arts
- 2002: Voted a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art (RCA).
- 2006: Awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal
- 2006: Awarded the Linda Stanier and Family Memorial Award by the Alberta Craft Council.
- 2012: Awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal.
He would also develop major projects such as co-authoring with Ann Mortimer The Canadian Connection, the first full-length audio-visual presentation describing the growth of Canadian ceramics from 1695 to 1979.
In a reflective mood he could also be modest. On his life and success he merely says:
“Making art is a great way to act out our lives and I don’t see much wrong with that, … Otherwise, what’s the point of living?” 10
“Maybe I came at the right time.” 1
A John Chalke Gallery
Some Initial Thoughts and Considerations
To say that John Chalke was a prolific artist is an understatement. Only a full catalogue raisoné could give true meaning to the scope of his output. I hope the images, comments and quotes below give a sense of the man and his creations.
The Alberta Craft Council describes Chalke and his work:
“John is best known for his exploration of visually adventurous and technically exotic glazes. The work is contemporary in colour, imagery and surface, while the ideas may refer to historical or cultural contacts; be they 18th century North American folk traditions, Japanese Oribe designs, Spode transfer ware or stills from Fellini movies.” 3
Amber Bowerman says of his exhibitions:
“ … Chalke doesn’t like his work to be too literal, preferring instead to have the viewer reflect a little longer and a little more deeply to find resonance. Like ‘a piece of music that sticks with you,’ Chalke thinks meaning can come to a viewer long after they’ve left a sculpture behind in a gallery.” 10
Barbara Tipton writes:
”John Chalke makes plates, or works of clay to hang on the wall. They’ve been called clay paintings, clay drawings, wall plates. His business card calls them ‘plates too good to eat off.’ He has referred to them in letters as “artPlates.” 28
And Tipton further writes of his almost archaeological interest
“Many a shard has been picked up along the way: the broken handle from a Greek amphora, a portion of rim from a 17th-century red ware plate, the foot of a Japanese teabowl. There are several drawers full, neatly sorted by category. Much can be told from these small puzzle pieces, and though the puzzle will never be completely assembled, they contain valuable clues to the making and firing. They are not there to be copied, but to be assimilated, absorbed and understood. And they come out in an approach, an attitude to the work that lends it a feeling of old and new, crudeness and grace all at once.” 28
Chalke himself would call his building up the glaze surface through successive layers “refire madness.” 21
Time and place were two key elements in Chalke’s work: his thoughts range from the geologically ancient to the historic present. His surfaces – and subjects – range from the wide expanse of cartographic landscapes and outlines, through cowboys and cows, down to the intimate scale of druzy geode interiors, or to snow crystals, and hoarfrost on berries.
Clay, its sources and character were of the utmost importance. Almost like a prairie farmer, Chalke said:
“Understandably the source of my clay became more and more important. Like a crop clay was harvested and stored each year.” 20
Stoneware was his preferred clay. He was not a lover of porcelain:
” If it weren’t for the shrinkage and fussiness I could get used to porcelain. But that kind of white is a little bit too urban for an untamed flame. … It could use a little country.” 20
Barbara Tipton describes Chalke’s form-making processes:
“Most of the works of late are constructed by pressing clay into self-made molds. In the making, the objects are sometimes altered, such as by breaking clay away from or adding clay to the rim; or cutting the object, then reassembling it so that the contour is not continuous, but slightly shifted. Thus works originating from the same mold become individual in form.” 28
Chalke describes his firing process and why he switched to soda firing and his preference for wood firings:
“Looking back at all the glazing with salt that I ever did, I now find that material rather heavy-handed in its fluxing action, and unnecessarily demanding compared to glazing with soda. Soda is kinder to the kiln, to its surroundings, and to my own psyche. It dances, hesitates, varies. Constantly subtle. Compared to soda, salt is a bombast, a demander, not pleasantly inquisitive, but insistent. … A long wood flame such as pine really helps too to flow soda vapour along and through. Liquid propane gas, on the other hand, is difficult. Natural gas. flame length is somewhere in between “ 27
Although form was important he did not diminish the importance of his glazes:
Chalke was constantly testing and experimenting with a combined artistic and scientific precision; however, even this side of his character he described, with introspection:
“What I have feared for years is that I would become that type of shrew who would fuss and piddle around over details. And yet details must be respected, especially when they become underpinnings for structure instead of mere add-ons.” 23
“Glaze is surface enhancement but it can also be its own master. It needn’t be subservient or secondary to any greater cause. Like appropriate throwing marks, it’s a declaration of completion. “ 23
There are the two sides to Chalke’s persona: the private and the public. The two images below show almost two different people, Introspective and active. Chalke was always searching for new methods and techniques While the left image shows him seated at a table cleanly and thoughtfully applying glaze, not spilling it on his sweater, on the right, he is in a T-shirt, using a slingshot in a deliberately active and “accidental” method of glaze application. The target seems so small, the results so potentially random as he shoots into a glaze filled plate. The glaze was so thick it retained the impression of the ball. ²
As mentioned, he was meticulous in his glaze studies and observations:
“I always do two test per glaze in small shallow bowls thrown off the hump. Same test poured on different days to present varied viscosity … goes in different parts of the kiln to ensure a cross section of circumstances. … One glaze took me five years, according to my notes. Another took me four.” 24
Typically Chalke, he also said:
“A kiln firing isn’t complete without these. It would be like going to a party without bringing beer. 21
Barbara Tipton described how his glaze tests would have at least two ingredients, sometimes as many as ten. John would study each, over tea, with a jeweller’s loupe, detecting subtle differences, selecting those to further study and those to discard. There were binders-full of results and analysis. 32
For example, to achieve some effects he would use trisodium phosphate for the bubbling and clumping effect 24 and “frits to develop a shiny molten base in combination with a crusty dry ground.” 18
A certain “legendary” quality would build up around Chalke and his statements:
“He swears he can tell temperature with his nose and spends as much time thinking about rock and roll as he does about ancient Japanese and Korean pottery – which is to say, a lot of time.” 18
Even while describing the corrosive power of his alchemy Chalke is poetic:
“… in glazes cryolite brings fluoride to the dance. It mists the studio windows forever and runs on even slightly vertical ceramic surfaces unless checked. But it’s a rugged coastline, a mountain range, a frozen slough on a prairie.” 23
In his early works we can see the explorations in form and glaze that were to attract attention later.
Landscape #4, 1973 or 1975. A comparison might be to corrugated sheeting; another to ocean waves. But here I see forces that are tectonic, geological. In what on first sight looks like rhythmic, mountain-building folds, on closer inspection shows parts that are off-set. The left fold slightly extends forward like a subtle transform fault. The ripples decline in height and expand in width like a play on the height of the Rocky Mountains to the Foothills. On the right a dotted and then full line lies along the groove like fault-line, a “tear here” hint. In contrast to the rhythmic transition from fold to fold, the colours are simple and direct. Their boundary clearly, sharply defined. The turquoise Egyptian paste is mottled, rough in texture and colour. The white by contrast is clean, like ice crystals of newly fallen snow. This two-part separation of colour and form is a feature seen in many of Chalke’s work.
Canoe Race Afternoon. Stoneware. 1979. Sometimes I think Chalke created titles as though he were creating Zen koans, to provoke the viewer to search and think about the form. They can certainly be humourous. Barbara Tipton wrote that while revealing
“… a sense of fun, and just occasionally downright silliness, under that surface is a single-minded seriousness and dedication to what he does.” 28
Here the surface is like some cratered part of a moonscape using the shape of a bowl to create a circle of mountainous forms enclosing a pitted and slag-strewn concavity, bleak in colour. Matte earth tones of flows and blisters contrast with shiny globules that look molten. The effect is rugged, almost disturbing in its dark form and texture. Yet there is an honesty since the same forms and surfaces come from the forces of the kiln. In such works chaos may seem to reign supreme. He acknowledges his approach to the final outcome of a work was a combination of accident and intent:
It’s The Right Building But … . 1978. In this slab-built work form takes precedence over the glaze. The nonsensical title has an architectural reference but the details say industrial. It sits more like some discarded, rusted, even demented, machine shop artifact. The purposelessness is deliberate. The slabs and ribbons are joined and cut as though by some amateur welder. The ribbons of “walls” look like rusted and corroding iron, their edges, jagged and even saw-toothed. Yet overall there is a general surface glossiness from the salt glaze process.
A Selection of artPlates
The artPlates are Chalke’s best known works. While his surfaces are a controlled chaos, they are in opposition to the simpler geometry of his forms’ shapes: circles, polygons, ovoids, rectangles.
Barbara Tipton says of these works:
“The finished pieces are difficult to put into anyone category – don’t easily fit into a niche. The work is contemporary in its colour, imagery and surface interest. But a stenciled cow (a frequent image over the last two years) might also refer to 18th-century North American folk traditions, such as weathervanes and slip-trailed redware; split, shifted forms may have been derived from looking at 17th-century Japanese Oribe ceramics. These early ceramic traditions are important to Chalke. In addition to his house being filled with old pots from both East and West, trips abroad are usually working vacations, either visiting museums and galleries, or scouring the countryside in search of abandoned kiln sites.” 28
Wholly Cow, 1985-86. With a title that is a typical play on words Chalke displays a spotted cow – or on closer inspection is it a bull, a further play? – floating in a yellow sky, and disconnected from what many would read as the orange ground. The orange also contains, a small floral display decal, almost unnoticed in the overall design. The glazes are casual in their thin wash across the ceramic’s deliberately rough surface. Over the years this order will be reversed with the glaze’s surface texture assuming a more assertive role in the design.
Horse Learns To Read, 1985. This plate moves into more familiar Chalke territory for many: a whimsical title and a seemingly readable content. A figurated landscape with horse and rider in silhouette in the lower left foreground and a lettered landscape and scratched, clouded sky in the middle- and backgrounds. The colouring is restrained, mostly creamy white and blue greys in the landscape; black and red silhouettes for the rider and horse. The focus here seems to be more of an implied content, the surfaces and colours are all relatively muted.
His surfaces become more elaborate. Nancy Tousley writes:
“A Chalke vessel isn’t just a plate or a bowl. It’s a unique, three dimensional form with every bit as significant a surface, which has been richly elaborated by thick, layered, textured and coloured glazes, and sometimes bits of decal.” 8
Beside Herself, 1987. Chalke’s work has been collected by such venerable institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. As Chalke’s surfaces developed more complexity his plate forms generally tended to become more simple. Here in an octagonal outline much is going on. The well of the plate is off-centre and contrasts with the rim surface. The centre is outlined and defined by a glaze stroke that looks like some careless rusty streak, and bubbles with white and purple with hints of green. The rim by contrast is energized by texture, colour and imagery. The eye cannot avoid the upper right dark splash that looks almost like burned food. The two decals of the woman resting her head on her hand have a retro 1960s quality to them. Visually there are textures to explore; emotionally there are subtle cues that will depend upon the viewers own memories. Overall there is a hint of an Oribe-like asymmetry and use of decal as pattern
Barbara Tipton best describes Chalke’s re-glazing and re-firing process:
“…glazes flow, erupt, spill into one another. What emerges may vary greatly or only slightly from the original concept, and, therefore, always requires a period of evaluation. Every change in form, colour or surface during firing sets up new relationships in the composition, and the decision must be made as to whether these new relationships are the most effective for that piece. If they are not, then further glazing and firing must follow. Sometimes that means coating entire areas with glaze; other times minute details are added, such as a thin line of gold lustre to delineate a rim, or a touch of underglaze pencil to emphasize one edge of an image.” 28
Tallest Ladder 1999. The form is a basic plate or charger. Its surface and subject restrained compared to the complexity of many of Chalke’s works. The central decals have the same enigmatic imagery and titling as in other works. What is interesting is that the work displays a bifurcation, a duality, in glaze texture and colour. This can be seen in many of his works: the left is not the same as the right, or the up not the same as the down. Here the left side is a relatively smooth pink surface; the right is pink, mud cracked, with white strata layers visible beneath. Even the decals, the same image, are coloured differently, left and right.
Grey, White, Orange, Red Oval Plate, 1999. Sometimes though a plate form is just a plate form. The glaze areas more controlled, a series of concentric oval areas moving from the cheese curd whiteness and texture of the rim to the red of the centre. There is a restless, a roiling movement of surface. Yet it is contained, controlled, within the conventional element of plate rim and well, with an almost bull’s eye effect.
Round White, Orange, Black Mottled Wall Plate. 2000-1. While he was making his two part plates some experiments took him into new areas. Amusingly a similar work to this one is illustrated in Robert Fournier’s An Illustrated Dictionary of Practical Pottery 24 as an example of a glaze defect, crawling. The glaze texture is of overall orange and white shapes flowing across a “perfectly” formed shallow bowl. The pattern is even and consistent, with an almost organic vitality, turning what some considered a glaze defect into an audacious surface.
Hips and Hoar speaks to an occasional literal connection between his clay work and his writing. Chalke had said of his later works:.
“My recent work has been an attempt in a frozen moment some of the experiences we are unable to touch, like the pristine edge of certain melting snow, hoarfrost on a berry, certain drying sand – and almost physical place where hand and foot have never made contact. … These works of art are best fondled by the eye, as it were, rather than by touch.” 22
Red Creek Boundary 2009. Frequently the left-right shift is more dramatic and obvious. Here surfaces and edges collide in a riot of colour and textures as a diagonal red and green fault line almost evenly divides purple-black bubbles from the gloss of white satin. So strong is this colour effect that the contours of the rim are subtle surprises to the visual feast. Although he frequently explores manipulating cracks in typical Oribe fashion here he creates a faux crack playing red and green complements off each other.
“I sure work at making it look accidental.. … I will make it, and remake it and remake it. Sometimes I will mess with it [a crack] and touch it up a bit. “ ¹
White River, 2012, Such visually and texturally luscious works as this plate dazzle us with colour and curves, with pebbled and granular glazes. The underglaze pencil design is an almost hidden surprise in the picture of the bottle. Such works are Chalke at his most exuberant. Here he has created his own Oribe shapes, textures and motifs that play off flat ceramic and shallow, gravelled and pebbled glaze surfaces like some dried-up creek bottom.
For me the part of Chalke’s work that I find most fascinating is that he manages to overturn “normal” stylistic conventions in clay and make them work. The mix of colours, surfaces and textures should produce a chaos. But they draw you in, deeper and deeper, to explore. They go beyond cerebral analysis to tweak at something deeper within.
Five Circles seems such an ordinary title with no hint of the complexity involved. What starts out as a simple lobed plate could be described on a simplistic level as pimpled, scabbed, flaked. Yet this would not do justice to the microcosm of undulations and cracks; of pearly gloss and earthy mattes; of smoothly blending forms contrasting with sharply defined outlines; contrasts of colours and tones, warm abutted against cool; and there is the use of underglaze pencil lines spring from and across colours and shapes to show that Chalke “meant to do this. This is what he wanted.”
Alberta Outline Plates
At times it seems as though Chalke had to lift himself from the intimacy of the nature of his surroundings to soar to atmospheric heights to capture the outline of Alberta. Its map-shape as outline is a design element that Chalke played with right up to his latest work. Of the Alberta map outline he says”
“It is an artificial thing. … a reference to time.” 1
He expands on the thought:
“The outline of Alberta is not pretty nor better than other shapes, merely familiar. Sometimes it looks better on its back, or upside down. It’s a symbol, a metaphor, a device from the past and a constantly unfolding future that serves as my set of art pictographs on my own obscure rock wall. I’m content to be contained by its shape. It’s about the rise of the sun and the slant of the rain. Like a plant it’s where I grow.” 5
Often the outline is recognizable, in a conventional north-south orientation; sometimes it is reoriented, or even split in an Oribe style split or shift form. But the frequency of its use says something about Chalke’s love of place. A few examples of the many are below.
Alberta Fan Plate. Here John combines motifs and cultures: the Alberta outline, bordered by what looks like a middle eastern carpet-edge. The upper right, in an Oribe effect, has an arc of Japanese fan-shaped decals. The ceramic surface itself is subtly divided, the lower half textured by a burned-off fabric overlay, the upper smooth. The rim is subtlety and gently broken with a brown toast-like texture and colour
Image Hard To Forget, Hard To Define. 2009. In this round-edged rectangle the title suggests Chalke’s self-assessment of his output. The heavily crusted pink and beige surface, looks grog-like in effect. Dark pencil lines suggest meridian lines. Like faux cracks they run the length of the plate. Alberta is a blue to lime green field with circular spots of white. Are they snow, or stars? Or am I trying to read too much into this work? It is so easy to do. Chalke’s works are not Rorschach tests but they do induce lingering thoughts as one tries to attach meaning.
Against A Night Sky. 2009. Here the Alberta motif is more subtle. The Alberta shape is cut, almost in half, as a crusted, intense orange shape that flows across two rectangular plates, themselves conjoined at their corners. This conjoining of similar – or different – surfaces and colours is a frequent arrangement used by Chalke. Here the background is a deep indigo, superficially smooth but on closer inspection pitted, scarred and torn. The expected Chalke Alberta features are there but re-arranged in a new, formal arrangement.
The First Horses Came Late, But Slipped Into The Province Like Ghosts on a Wet Day, 2013. Sometimes I think that John would deliberately use his titles as free-association titles to keep us looking at his work to uncover a literal meaning. It works! One does not just glance at a Chalke work and pass on quickly to another and another. If label reading is a must for a viewer it is best to do it after a reflective viewing of the work itself. Only then can one appreciate his two art forms: his visual and his literary humour. The plate form is cut on the right side, parallel to the eastern Alberta boundary; its surface is scoured and moulded. The upper edge has finger trails filled in with a shiny, light yellow glaze. The bottom and right portions are more energetic. Concentric coils, thickly applied, create a rolling, crusty blue-brown green Alberta shape. The provincial shape is encased, raised jewel-like in a bezel mount. Below to the left blue and white vague horse-head-like shapes, looking almost like breaking waves point to the Alberta outline. Although the title suggests “prairie” to me there is an almost weather-worn, marine “mollusc shell interior” feel. If meaning is important to the viewer perhaps it is best to just ignore the title and to enjoy its visual and tactile play.
Outliers: other forms and inspirations
Although well known for his plates and functional ware Chalke played with other form and surface effects. Sometimes the form can be a pod shaped, almost phallic form, or a conventional plate, or a modified tableware; surfaces can drip and run or glisten in the light. George Melnyk succinctly writes:
“ Chalke’s clay objects are of various difficult-to-classify shapes that suggest a peculiar functionality.“ 21
Mushroom Bowl, 1988. Chalke create many non-plate forms. Though this is a ”bowl”, it is non-functional. Here on the exterior the glazes drip along a vertical surface in runs of intense blues, greens and oranges. The effect is of an experiment of glaze on vertical surface. The upper and interior clay and glaze surface are of a dried and cracked, mud texture that unabashedly show their clayness. The effect is one of potential functionality.
Wire Cut Plate, not dated. Chalke also produced the occasional work that shows a finer, purposeful control and a further depth of his technical repertoire. The wiggle-wire cut ridges are precise, the glaze colourings carefully located. A shimmering silvery wide rim surface drops down into a black and white well. A splash of emerald glaze runs from the well down to the lower exit area of the cutting wire. Minor cracks in the upper portion give the piece an almost archaeological, artifact effect. Although more tightly controlled than the usual Chalke work it still speaks to John’s love of craft and accident.
St. Patrick (crossing the sea). 2002. Current location unknown. Chalke would frequently use this table top form. From the front the work looks like a broken half plate. The edges are rough, the surfaces blistered. The colours are contrasting blues, oranges and greens. He has added, full centre, a recognizable shape, a bottle. The addition of the bottle complicates the work and possible “meanings”, giving the arrangement a subtle boat shape. Or is the bottle just floating in a sea? Or is it an historical fossil emerging from some ancient midden? Is the reference to St. Patrick a humourous dig at the Irish or a celebration of Irish whiskey globally drunk? So many possibilities that could be all wrong or all right.
Prelude To A Popular Rest. 2008. What looks like a familiar form can have different sources, including the perspective studies of Quattrocento Italian art. Familiar objects become new inspiration. Amy Gogarty in the catalogue to the 2015 John Chalke: Surface Tension catalogue best describes this plate-become-chair:
“The connection to the source is never obvious or prescriptive, but evocative, ephemeral, and shaped by perceptions of resemblance. In 2008, Chalke worked on a series of circular chargers inspired by a turquoise wooden stool in his studio. Long fascinated by the perspectival renderings of Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello, Chalke explored the progressive deconstruction of the stool through a series of flattened planes rendered in clay. … chrome red legs protrude obliquely from a rough, lavender-grey border, while fragments of tissue paper transfer impart delicate patterns across the shiny white centre, the bottom to the stool. A thin splash of blue references the original source.” 32
Deep Blue Pool and Cranes. The split ovoid form is a Chalke favourite. As he so often splits his surface textures and colours on plates so also does he with dramatic effect on split shapes. The form is an echo of oribe inspirations. Conjoined, rough-edged ovoids contrast in their blues and oranges. The left is a cool and dark a play of blue washes, grey crusts and a blue-black well that seems to descend to abyssal depths. The overlapping right side is lighter, warmer a tripartite division of oranges and yellow with a slight underglaze pencil scalloping line and distorted blue-white crane transfers in the well. Although he would sometimes use a vertical arrangement this is horizontal. While it is shown resting on a surface it is in fact a wall piece.
John Chalke is known for his artPlates and other forms but he was at heart still a potter and made functional ware, often in cooperation with his wife Barbara Tipton. Such wares were frequently seen in exhibitions at the Alberta Craft council gallery in Edmonton and at the Willock and Sax gallery in Banff. They are simple and direct, almost plain in comparison with the shapes, colours and textures of the re-fired works. The original form is clearer, easily seen through the glaze be it celadon, salt or soda. They are clean-shaped, unbroken, and sometimes contain decal images or slip-traced text or design. Also, they are smaller in real-life than photos suggest.
“Even after immigrating to Canada my wood-fired pots remained innocent. Appropriate clay-body composition never entered as a factor – only getting the right balance of fuel and air for the kiln did. So much to juggle then – the throwing, the glazes, the packing the chimney height the size of the wood.” 20
Alberta Beef Mugs, mid 1970s. Chalke in his early years in Canada enjoyed the imagery of his adopted place. Here long-horn steer appliqués adorn two conventionally thrown and glazed mugs. The different mug shapes and glazing styles show that he was not planning on becoming a production potter. The throwing marks are here obvious, unabashed. The glaze a celadon type. I particularly enjoy the mug on the right showing the sharp precision of his cutting of the glaze-free and flared foot.
Mug with integrated handle. He would also experiment with the conventional. In this mug with an integrated handle he creates a form that is as sculptural as it is functional. The overall effect is rustic, with a few pits and speckles in the red clay. The grey lip is irregular, deliberately “crude”. The body colour with some minor flashing is a subtle, changing red. Apart from the grey lip the only decorations are horizontal bands that define the handle’s top and bottom. Dead centred is the “Wild Rose” studio chop.
Bottle, c. 1998. Sometimes a bottle is just a bottle. The overall form is simple. But here the spirals of glaze and a highlighted crack on the bottle face make it a Chalke bottle. Globs of white spiral inwards on a surface of oranges and browns. The sides are more plain: black bands wrap around a muted soda-fired surface. The bottle neck and lip are a smooth but of a pitted white and soft green that run down into a crusty join at the shoulder.
Shino Tea Bowl, not dated. The Selfridge’s, have a number of John’s works in their extensive collection, works that they collected by trading at workshops. Here the distorted bowl form and thick, crusty glaze are typical of bowls of the han tsutsu-gasta shape. They show the influence of John’s several trips to Japan. The shape is distorted, deliberately, from the simple clean geometry of the original throwing. Bulges occur unexpectedly on the waist. The lip undulates. The clay is thick, as is the glaze. Cracks occur, but less frequently. Rather than pits there is a bubbling on the surface. The deep orange and white colours are enhanced by dark specks of carbon trap and the loosely drawn diamond shaped design. Such a work is useable but not for just a morning “cuppa tea.”
Crow Plate. 2012. Chalke’s use of antique images and transfers of wheat sheaves, plants, and hogs are part of an older English tradition of illustrating clay surfaces. Several such ware could be seen in the Alberta Craft Council’s galleries in 2013. Such “functional” ware perhaps harkens back to, an acknowledgement of roots, of origins not forgotten. The red clay form is immaculate. The gloss of the soda glaze is almost deliberately primitive. The profiled bird sits full centre, totally within the well. A slight, curved, underglaze pencil line snakes out to the rim. The mottled black of the bird blends with the specks of ash glaze creating an effect is as though of falling snow. Although functional this is certainly not production ware.
Eat Pie Plate, not dated. Even in the simplest forms the humour is literally writ large on this soda-fired pie plate. The words are a playful contradiction: “eat, but not off me,” the words declare, even command; but they shift the work from the purely functional to the collector realm. There is a rustic simplicity to the form and glaze. The technique hearkens back to traditional English slipware of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sometimes such Chalke plates and bowls would have transfer designs added to the decoration. With Barbara he also did a series of holiday plates in the same vein, with sayings such as “Happy Holly Days” (with slip-trailed holly), “Cowboy Christmas”, or “Good Solstice”.²
John Chalke never pretended to be something he was not. He was a British cowboy without affectation; a thought provoking artist whose surfaces and colours raised questions not only as to the “what” but also as to the “how”; a maker also of simple elegant pots; and a generous, patient man. His clay works not only capture the eye and sense of touch but also reach into deeper depths of the imagination. As an author, and yes, even an undeclared poet, his technical and “philosophical” writings flow easily while his work-titles tease the mind and eye to hold longer his images, textures and forms.
Videos On John Chalke
- 291 Film Company. Cinematic Television. http://www.291filmcompany.ca, 6 Mar 2011. The Searcher with John Chalke Governor General’s Award-winning ceramicist John Chalke is an explorer, cowboy, and child at heart. His search for the perfect clay leads him to Saskatchewan’s Frenchman River Valley. Later in his Calgary studio, he uses both rigorous and playful techniques as well as sophisticated glazes to create experimental pieces. Finally, a firing in his kiln transforms the earth into elegant works of art.
- 22 WEST OF SHINO. 52 min. John Chalke in the Rockies: A documentary of John Chalke constructing a three chamber climbing woodburning kiln on his land. A review of the video can be found in Ceramics Monthly June 1997, page 30.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Auckland Art Museum, New Zealand; Alberta Foundation for the Arts; Edmonton Art Gallery; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo, Ontario; Art Gallery of Burlington; Ontario; George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto; Claridge Collection, Montreal; Canada Council for the Arts Art Bank; Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau; Carol and Richard Selfridge Collection, Edmonton.
Other Sources and Works of John Chalke. A Selection
A Selection of Articles By and About John Chalke
- Ceramics: Art and Perception, 1996.
- Ceramic Review. July 1995 (also September 1994, March 1989, December 1988, November 1987, March 1982, February 1975).
- American Ceramics. Winter, 1993.
- Ceramics Monthly. March, 1975, November 1990, December, 1992.
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. John Chalke. Interview with Barry Morrison. February 20, 1981.
2. Barbara Tipton. Conversation and email correspondence with Barry Morrison. December 10, 2014ff.
3. Alberta Craft Council John Chalke Page -2010 Clay.
4. London Potters Guild. London Clay Art Centre. . John Chalke Workshop. Friday, August 5, 2011. London Potters Guild John Chalke workshop
5. John Chalke. The Shape I’m In. May 2009. A short thought piece provided by Barbara Tipton.
6. Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts: Fine Crafts 2000 . John Chalke Page.
8.Nancy Tousley untitled Chalke review . The Calgary Herald. December 1, 2006.
9. Alberta Craft Council. Clay 2010. Page on John Chalke.- 2010 Clay – Clay 2010 – John Chalke. Although the ACC indicates he was elected to the International Academy of Ceramics in 1975, John provided me with a resume indicating he was elected in 1971. The IAC website has no mention of election dates.
11. Alberta Craft Council. Linda Stanier and Family Memorial Awards Chalke
12. John Chalke. Surface Sourced. Not dated. Short thought piece provided by Barbara Tipton.
13. Brooks Joyner. Impressions, an undated review of a John Chalke exhibition at the Calgary Galleries. Calgary Herald.
14. John Chalke. Resume from c. 1981 provided by John Chalke..
15. Anonymous. Undated (pre-1981) review of a John Chalke workshop. Provided by John Chalke.
16. Anonymous. Uncredited review of an Ontario Potters Association Newsletter review of a pre-1981 Chalke workshop. Provided by John Chalke.
17. John Chalke. Handwritten addendum to resume provided by John Chalke c. 1981.
18 Upfront. Surface Embraces Shape. Ceramics Monthly, Volume: 58, Issue: 9, Page: 18.
19. John Chalke: ‘Throwing On The Radio’. Ceramics Monthly, Volume: 38, Issue: 9 Issue Date: 11/90. Pages 33 – 35.
20. John Chalke. A Body of Work. Ceramics Monthly, Volume: 52, Issue: 4, Issue Date: 04/04, Pages: 60-64. John writes here at times poetically, at time scientifically on his experiments with a variety of clay bodies resulting from workshops he and Barbara Tipton conducted at their Sundre, Alberta, studio.
21. George Melnyk. John Chalke: Ceramist/Alchemist. Ceramics Monthly. Volume: 50, Issue: 3, Issue Date: 03/02. Pages: 61-64.
22. John Chalke. Old Glazes, New Words. Ceramics Monthly. March 2002. P. 65.
23 John Chalke. Surface Thoughts. A Ceramics Monthly Portfolio. Ceramics Monthly, Volume: 40. Issue: 10, Issue Date: 12/92. Pages: 53 – 60
24. Robert Fournier. Illustrated Dictionary of Practical Pottery Paperback. September 29, 2000.
25. Amy Gogarty. John Chalke 1940-2014. ACAD Ceramics Program, School of Craft + Emerging Media. Spring News 2014.
26. Connections: Canadian and British Studio Ceramics. May 31, 2012 – April 14, 2013. Gardiner Museum, Toronto. – John Chalke, cited from “Bridging East and West,” Artichoke 2002.
27. Tudball, Ruthanne. Soda Glazing. University of Pennsylvania Press 1995. Pp.47-49.
28. Barbara Tipton. Chalke: works on Clay. Exhibition catalogue essay. Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, 1987
30. Souren Melikian. The Aesthetics of the Imperfect. The New York Times. November 22, 2003.
31. Alberta Craft Council, Manitoba Craft Council, Saskatchewan Craft Council. Prairie Excellence exhibition catalogue. 2010
32. Amy Gogarty. John Chalke: Surface Tension Catalogue: Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary. 15 October – 19 December 2015. Curated by Michele Hardy. Contributions by Barbara Tipton, Amy Gogarty, Susan Sax-Willock.