Dates: 1883-1944, Molodia, Ukraine.
Production Dates: after 1905 – 1944.
Studio Location: Endeavour-Usherville region, Saskatchewan.
Types of Work: Functional, small sculptural.
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: Self-made kiln, wood fired; self-made glazes from local materials and powdered glass from the local garbage dump.
Preferred Clay and Source: Local Saskatchewan clay, earthenware.
Selected Major Collections: Ukrainian Museum of Canada; Museum of Civilization, Gatineau; Saskatchewan Craft Council, Saskatoon.
This page owes much to the extraordinary research of Judith Silverthorne and her book, Made in Saskatchewan: Peter Rupchan, Ukrainian Pioneer and Potter and her online articles. Thank you, Judith.
Peter Rupchan, Saskatchewan’s first potter, typified the true pioneer spirit of Canada. Born in 1883 in Molodia, the Ukraine, he worked for a potter at a factory near Chernivtsi where he picked up his pottery skills and his fascination with the medium. In 1905 he immigrated to the Endeavour-Usherville region of northeastern Saskatchewan. After his attempts at basic homesteading were less than successful – he set up six homesteads – he took up pottery again, partly as a passion, but also as the principal means of supporting his family. The constant conflict between homesteading and pottery provided much unhappiness for his family and himself.
He built his own pottery wheel and kiln, mined and processed his own clay and glazes; fired his own work, and marketed his work, selling from his wagon or sleigh to the local communities.
As he moved around to a number of his homestead properties he would constantly dig holes looking for a suitable potting-clay. After two years he was finally successful. His production consisted of functional ware, bowls, crocks, jugs, cups, plates, flower pots and even childrens’ toys and whistles.
Rupchan built his first kiln on his land out of local flat stones and mud. He also built his own wheel, consisting of a lower three-foot diameter wooden kick-wheel disk fastened to a rotating metal shaft which he’d found in the dump. He worked the kick wheel mostly with his bare feet, and was soon able to transform his crude clay into crocks, cups, saucers, plates, bowls, flower pots, candlesticks, vases, urns and teapots. “Horschoks,” used for souring cream and “makitras” for grinding poppy seeds were some of his best sellers.1
Rupchan described how he worked:
“First, I sift the clay and throw out pieces of limestone and other objectionable matter. Then I grind the clay and mix different varieties. Adding water, I knead it for two whole days. My wife helped me for some time but it was too hard for her. Now I do it all myself. I cut it in strips and examine it, then knead it again. I keep cutting strips off until there are no streaks in the clay and it is as soft as live rubber. Then it’s ready for the potter’s wheel.”1
Rupchan’s son John continues, describing his father’s technique with a description of the initial bisque firing:
“It took two nights and three days for baking. I don’t know when he was sleeping. He started a little fire first, very slowly or the pots would crack. He increased it day and night and then about the second day or so he would start decreasing the fire and open the draft a little bit — not too far or they would crack for sure.”1
Then Peter would prepare for the glaze firing. After 24-28 hours of cooling he would direct his older sons to go into the kiln and start unloading. While the pots were still warm Rupchan decorated them with glaze, and then he fired the earthenware for another twelve hours. The whole operation from raw earth to baked pots took Peter about two weeks to complete.1
Rupchan’s kiln was big enough to fire approximately five hundred pieces at a time. Eight to ten inches was left on either side of the stacks for Rupchan to light fires down the whole length of the kiln.1
Rupchan worked in general isolation relying on the styles and techniques learned in the Ukraine. Like other “pioneer potters” such as Emily Carr and Axel Ebring he did not leave any school or following of his work, nor did he meet nor probably know of them. But he was not totally isolated. Visits from people such as Dr. George Dragan, the Liberal MLA from Saskatoon, and ceramics professor W.G Worcester of the University of Saskatoon, (himself a key figure in the development of western clay and pottery), told others about Rupchan and his work.2
Rupchan sold his pots from farm to farm, but his main destination was the towns, where sales could be plentiful. His pottery prices ranged from five cents for whistles to forty-five cents for two-gallon crocks. It usually took him a week or two to sell a load of pots, bringing in a total revenue of only $50 to $80.1
According to historian Norman Harris,
“all his efforts were met with scepticism and ridicule. Being a potter just wasn’t the manly thing to do. No one seemed to entertain the idea of a cottage industry in official circles. The pervasive attitude was that Canada needed settlers to fill in the landscapes, the goods they produced to be hauled out via rail. There were several early potters, as well as Doukhobors with their brick factories. These received no encouragement or recognition.”1
Rupchan appears in another, now almost humourous, episode of Saskatchewan history according to the historian Norman Harris:
“Peter Rupchan, a devious local potter, spread rumors that he found gold nuggets on his land located near Usherville in the early thirties. This attracted a gold company which bought his quarter section for $3500. The gold company decided to drill an exploration hole on the Rupchan property. In the final stages of drilling, Rupchan snuck up at night and poured some engine oil down the hole. The gold company later reported that they didn’t find any gold but they discovered some traces of hydrocarbons. This report caused a flurry of exploration for oil and natural gas in the east central region of Saskatchewan.”3
Rupchan died in 1944 in an accident while felling a tree.
With the end of the Second World War, the increasing economic prosperity, the momentum of ceramic courses in schools and the increasing number of studio potters across the country his pottery remained relatively unknown until the 1970s. Historical research and donations brought Peter Rupchan and his work to the attention of a wider audience and eventually to collections of his work in the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, the Museum of Civilization and the Saskatchewan Craft Council.
Peter Rupchan’s pottery was always true to his eastern European roots. It was solid and functional earthenware, often sizable in scale for the needs of his rural clients, with minimal fussiness but never plain or boring. The slide show gallery above shows the variety of his solid forms, glaze-colours and decoration. This last could could be as simple as fluting on the rim, or bands, dots or wave-forms circling the body. The wire netting seen on some of the larger works was for support, to prevent the work collapsing or cracking when in use.
Endnotes and Bibliography
3. Canadianinsight Rupchan oil and gold. Scroll about 1/3 down the page. The oil story is in the left hand frame
- Silverthorne, Judith. Made in Saskatchewan: Peter Rupchan, Ukrainian Pioneer and Potter. Prairie Lily Co-operative Ltd. 96 page, soft cover .Reprinted 2003 by Spiral Communications Inc., 108 pages, soft cover.
- Silverthorne, Judith. Rupchan: Spirit of a Prairie Potter. This is a half hour television docu-drama produced by Grasslands Productions Inc. in 1992. This show is based on the book Made in Saskatchewan by Judith Silverthorne. This docu-drama features modern day Saskatchewan potter, Wayne Pollock as Peter Rupchan, and interviews with Zach Dietrich, Ralph Jarotski, Joan Kannigan, Norman Harris, and several members of the Rupchan family. Producer: Ervin Fehr. Writer: Judith Silverthorne. Available in VHS and DVD from Judith Silverthorne.