Judy Blake: Capsule Information
Birth date: 1951
Production Dates: 1978 – present.
Current location: Lincoln, NB.
Types of work: Early – functional / decorative.; Later – Non-functional / sculptural.
Preferred Kiln and Firing Process: Electric, Saggar, Raku, Metal Bins (Saggar, Naked Raku, Sawdust and Black-firing).The metal bins are used just for the sawdust and black-firing.
Preferred Clay and Source: Red and white earthenware, stoneware and Porcelain from Tucker’s Clay Supply.
Signature / Chop:
Judy Blake of Lincoln New Brunswick produces sensuous pots. Sensuous. Yes, that’s the word I would use; and intimate is the word I would use for her birds. Two feelings to two sides to the ceramics of Lincoln, New Brunswick artist.
I am not alone in my admiration:
“There’s a sense of calm … [p]erhaps it’s the mixture of the warm colours on her large pottery pieces that gives her work a deep sense of wonder and discovery. ” 4
“Her work is incredible … the result is a luminescent softness.” 5
Judy achieves these effects by extensive experiments with unglazed surface treatments using alternative firing techniques such as sawdust-firing, naked raku and saggar-firing.³
The ceramic roots of Judy Blake’s work are deep and familial, extending back into her mother’s early years at Central Technical School – 1928 – in Toronto and continuing during Judy’s high school years. Family was very important for Judy. Bear with me for an early but small diversion. Look at the pitcher below.
Pitcher by Eleanor Brewer (née Maclean), Judy Blake’s mother. This is the first piece which Judy’s mother made as a teenager at Central Tech in 1928.¹ Why do I have a pot that is not by the featured artist? Well, images of pottery produced in the 1920s at Central Tech are hard to obtain, to say the least; plus they show that Judy’s personal and ceramic inspiration go well back into the early years of Canadian studio ceramics. The pot is heavy with a crackled blue and pinkish glaze. A student work for sure but Judy has kept it for forty years after her mother gave it to her.
Born in Toronto in 1951 Judy Blake moved with her family to New Brunswick – “for Dad’s job” – when she was in grade 9.¹ Her mother continued to take pottery classes at what was then the New Brunswick Craft School – now the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design (NBCCD). Her mother would
“… bring home assignments. We would make a few pieces with the clay. That was what inspired me to later on get into clay.” ¹
However, there was, for a while, a diversion. Judy graduated from Teacher’s College with a major in art in 1971 and taught elementary school in Labrador City, NL.² In the evenings she took pottery classes. After five years she resigned, wanting a career in art. Her younger sister, Sandy was then enrolled in the Craft School’s certificate program. Judy likewise registered, and graduated two years later in 1978. She studied under Peter Wolcott:
“He had a big influence on my style. He had a great sense of form and was quite a perfectionist.” ¹
1978 was the true start. Her parents took out a loan to help with building a gas kiln. Blake along with her sister and mother set up their own studio in Cambridge Narrows, NB.¹ They produced high-fired functional ware in their gas kiln for the next four years selling their work at the farmers’ market to pay the rent for the studio:
“My mother would do some baking, e.g. bread, muffins and scones and my sister and I would sell it along with our pots at the farmers’ market in the late ’70’s to help make the loan payments. It was a lot of work but we really enjoyed it at the same time.” ¹
In the fall of 1983 Judy moved to her current location in Lincoln, NB, to set up her own studio and gas kiln.¹ This took until 1984. The property was large enough she could build a a studio to smoke-fire outside without bothering her neighbours.¹
Always the student Blake investigated other cultures and styles of ceramics. Initially this was by reading, mainly because there was no one around to teach or show her new techniques in her developing interests. Key influences here were Jane Perryman’s books, “Smoke Fired Pottery” and “Naked Clay.” They became her bibles.¹
While she had been producing her high-fired stoneware she would also experiment over the summer months with low-fired smoke firings of unglazed work she had discovered in her readings. She was constantly testing and experimenting. Initially, these explorations were quite frustrating:
“The climate in New Brunswick is not conducive to pit firing. The ground was too wet to make a fire that would last.”¹
1998 was a seminal year. She and her husband were on sabbatical in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trip was a catalyst for her work today. ¹ While in Sedona, Arizona, she took a private workshop with Rico Piper. It was there she saw him using a brick, above-ground, pit kiln. She was immediately entranced by his colours and textures reflecting the landscape. It was also there that she came face-to-face with Southwest American Indian and Mexican Mata Ortiz pottery, work she had only seen in magazines and books.
She continued to travel and study at workshops in Georgia, Massachusetts and Colorado. She also taught part-time at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design.
Judy has been the recipient of numerous awards and has exhibited internationally across Canada, the United States and Korea. Her work is collected internationally in private and public collections.
Judy Blake Gallery
Judy produces elegant, simple forms and surfaces that tempt one to touch yet caution against leaving a messy fingerprint. Although one is captivated by the surfaces of her work Judy sees herself as mainly interested in form:
“The firing process is there to enhance the pieces … I am a form person but I spend a lot of time on surface. Burnishing is a wonderful, meditative process but throwing is my first love. ” ¹
There is a simple, elegant simplicity to her pot forms but she likes smoke and its effect on the surfaces of her work. There are three main approaches she uses to achieve her surfaces: saggar, sawdust-firing and naked raku. Their burnished surfaces, mostly semi-gloss, gently reflect light. Her works also have simple names and titles. More recently she also uses all three techniques in producing her bird forms.
There is, therefore, a careful balance between form and surface. The former is precise, calculated; the latter purposefully accidental. The surface designs can be softer colour fields in minimalist tones and colours like mist on a morning’s twilight; other times they are a more intense, harder edge, gestural, abstract expressionist in effect, like some satellite view of a red Martian landscape. Such is the loosely controlled and “surprise” effect of her firing techniques.
Judy actually began experimenting with smoke-firing in the spring of 1978 when she was still a student at the New Brunswick Craft School. ¹ Her fuller exploration of the techniques was to come almost two decades later
Early Work (1978-c. 2000)
Judy continued to produce earlier functional style into the early 2000s. Early work in stoneware reflects the Leach-Hamada tradition of her student days.
Stoneware pitcher, 1985. 17.8 cm h x 16.5 cm w. The full belly of the pitcher is mirrored by the curve of the handle. The neck and lip are separately coloured with a speckled yellow glaze. The body is a matte, red stoneware with a fern imprints, black as though branded onto the surface. Blake would also use carbonized leaf forms on the surface of some of her later sawdust-fired work.
Carved Rutile-glazed Bowl, 1996. 10.1 cm h x 35.6 cm w. The form is that of a large petallike flower. Rutile and iron in blue and brown run in rivulets down into the central well. A large, deeper blue patch catches the eye giving an off-centre counterpoint to the subtlety of the flowing glaze. The bowl form is smooth, its contour gently undulating in harmony with the soft gloss of the glaze.
Shino-glazed covered jar, 2000. 20.3 cm h x 25.4 cm w. The jar is a subtle two-piece form that slightly changes curvature at the shoulder. The shift is enough to define the glaze into two areas: a generally matt black upper shoulder with a more variegated speckling of carbon trap and bare red stoneware of the foot.
Judy was, and is, an avid reader and student. Direct inspirational resources in Lincoln, New Brunswick, were limited at the time. Books and magazines were her go-to sources in the mid 1990s.
She has moved on from these earlier Leach-based works but Nature’s forms still provide an ongoing inspiration:
“My work is also inspired by my love of natural beauty – the graceful, undulating curve of an eggplant, the delicate fronds of a woodland fern or the exquisite beauty of a humble seed pod. With each clay vessel, I strive for a delicate balance between strength of form and sense of presence … My work continues to evolve as I search for ways to enrich the surfaces of my vessels, creating forms that become canvases for ‘painting with fire’.” ³
This leads us to her more familiar recent work.
Pit Firing (1998-2000)
On her return from Arizona to New Brunswick Blake briefly experimented with pit firing using seaweed, cedar bark and copper carbonate. There was much trial and error. The results could be unpredictable, exciting but also disappointing with breakage.¹
Pit fired Lidded Vessel. It shows the more scabrous surface texture that pit firing can produce, here buffed to a smooth texture. The form is a favourite of Judy’s.
More recently Judy has reduced her pit firing output due to the higher incidence of breakage. ¹
Naked Raku (1999 – present)
Judy started researching the naked raku process in 1998 and started producing work in 1999.¹ Her form making became more ambitious:
“ I create pieces almost to the point of collapse.” ¹
An extra step is now included in her work: burnishing of the thrown form with river stone at the leather hard stage while cradling the work in her lap, becomes a meditative ritual.¹ Form begins to morph into polished surface; the polished surface into “canvas” for “painting with fire.” ¹ The polishing enhances the beauty of each coat and achieves a depth of colour or tone.
For naked raku, or raku without glaze, she follows a regular process. Judy will spray on three or four layers of terra sigillata,
“polishing each coat when dry. Any more coats and they begin to peel off in the firing. A thin coat of resist slip is added then a crackle glaze is applied. The piece is fired in a small propane kiln to 850 degrees Centigrade, removed from the kiln, ‘red-hot’ and placed in a metal container with combustibles such as straw, sawdust or newspaper. The fracturing action of the slip and glaze layers, when penetrated by the smoke, leaves both striking and subtle patterns of dark, smoked lines on the white clay surface).” ²
After taking the work out of the kiln she spritzes the piece with water and then peels off the cracked surface like an eggshell. ¹ The results are always random and surprising. The final phase of the work is a coating of beeswax rubbed into the surface and polished.
Naked Raku Lidded Vessel, 2005. white earthenware in sawdust, 24 cm h x 25 cm w. The surface although monochrome is dramatic. With large shard-like shapes the contrasting areas of black, grey and white give the full bellied work the look of an ancient reconstructed pot. The lines of the glaze are mostly vertical reflecting the movement of the rising flame and smoke licking around the curves. The antique effect is enhanced by the axe-handle lid impressed with a lozenge and dot design. The accidental and intentional combine in harmony.
Naked Raku Bowl, 2000. white earthenware in sawdust, 18 cm h x 33 cm w. Here is a simple conical bowl with a more finely crackled pattern. The effect is of mud cracks drying and baking in the sun. Darker smoke patch adds weight to the foot. The results can thus be quite evenly spread or widely irregular in pattern and effect.
Naked Raku Bottle, 2012. White earthenware in sawdust, 29 cm h x 21.5 cm w. This work has an oriental quality and shows Blake’s preference for thrown, rounded pots. The shape of the pot also reflects the areas where smoke more aggressively attacks the belly in thicker more defined lines as opposed to the thin, elegant neck with its finer crackle pattern.
Naked Raku Vessel, 2009. White earthenware in sawdust, 20 cm h x 27.5 cm w. Here Judy is experimenting with an occasional element of control in her design, the horizontal line of rectangles just below the lip. The strong, linear pattern is made from a template with cut out squares. ¹ The horizontal, geometric linear movement is a counterpoint to the vertical lines of the naked raku. In later works she would play with the idea of varying the size and shape of the patterns and also carving a morse code-like patterns on her pieces. ¹
Like her saggar and sawdust-fired works, after firing these works are gently burnished with beeswax to give them their subtle glow
Sawdust Firing (c. 1999 – present)
Judy actually started the Sawdust-firing several months before the Naked Raku process). ¹
Sawdust firing begins in a similar manner to the naked raku. Layers of terra sigillata are applied, each polished. The work is then fired to around 1000° centigrade, then placed in a metal or brick container with different types of sawdust and left to smolder for several hours, letting the smoke and flame lick the surface.³ The combustibles are deliberately placed in intimate contact with the surfaces.
“It is my hope that each vessel fills the viewer with a sense of mystery and wonder, drawing them beyond the soft light of the clay’s surface and into a landscape infused with exciting visual textures and subtle patterns of colour and earthiness, evoking a sense of tranquility and contemplative serenity.” ³
Sawdust-fired Vessel with ‘Fern Shadow, 1999. Porcelain, Sawdust, various kinds and textures, 33 cm h x 18.5 cm w. This work is from 1999 but she had been reading and experimenting with the process the year before.¹
The thrown form is elegant and simple, pod-like, as the vessel almost closes in on the narrow mouth. What is immediately obvious is the softer edge to the smoke and flame-touched areas. They have an almost wet-in-wet watercolour quality. More like mist moving across the surface
Sawdust-fired Lidded Vessel with ‘Leaf Shadow’, 2012. Porcelain, fired with various types and textures of sawdust, 23 cm h x 25 cm w. In her pit firings the works are characterized by creamy whites, smoky blacks and browns with softer edges and forms. The polishing of the final surface can produce surprising results. The dark body form swells into misty landscape hints. The maple leaves’ shadows shimmer like a diffused photographic negative, floating in a lighted patch that glows like a window into the interior.
Carved Sawdust -fired Vessel, 2013. Red stoneware fired with various types and textures of sawdust, 33 cm h x 25 cm w. Occasionally Blake played with the idea of piercing the form carving a morse code-like patterns with a paper template.¹
On this particularly darkly uniform surface the piercings produce a strong vertical counterpoint to enliven the surface and the gently curving form. The red body subtly glows, warming the black surface.
Saggar- and sawdust-fired vessel, 2012 White earthenware fired with straw, sawdust and newspaper, 35 cm h x 24 cm w. This large bottle form received an honourable mention in the 8th Annual Vasefinder International Online Exhibition in 2013 which included 127 ceramic artists from 7 countries.
This work is not a transition from one firing process to another but is the result of Judy using two techniques to explore the result. Why is it more brown than her other sawdust-fired works? Blake explains:
“It had been previously saggar-fired and I was unhappy with the results so I thought that sawdust-firing would
enhance the surface. It was fired in the open with straw and sawdust and newspaper…unsure
why it is more red/brown but a happy accident!” ¹
Saggar Firing (c. 2004 – present)
The saggar-firing research began in the early 2000’s. There were a couple of years of experimenting before she attended saggar-firing workshops in 2004. ¹ Over the next three years her workshop studies took her to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with Judith Motzkin and to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with Charlie Riggs. ¹
Terra sigillata, a favourite surface medium of Blake’s, is applied and reacts well to the saggar process. She may fire pieces several times to achieve an effect. Unlike the sawdust-firing:
“In the saggar firing the combustibles are very close to the pieces otherwise there would be no marks. Colour but no marks.” ¹
Saggar-fired Lidded Vessel, 2002. White earthenware fired with sawdust, shavings , and metallic soaked straw, 30 cm h x 34 cm w. This work was shown This piece was at the David Rice Gallery in Winnipeg.
Countering the simplicity of the squashed ovoid form these surfaces display an almost geological, tectonic energy as blacks visually sink as rifts and fault lines into an orange planetary surface
Saggar-Fired Vessel, 2005. White earthenware, sawdust firing showing lines from the fuming of copper wire on the shoulder, 30 cm h x 28 cm w. This is an early work and a favourite of Judy’s. It shows her love of the ovoid form. She will play with the opening whether it be bottle or vase.
Saggar-fired Lidded Vessel, 2012. White
earthenware fired with straw, sawdust, shavings, coffee grounds, seaweed and copper wire, 47.5 cm x 35 cm. Saggar firing is where colour comes to the fore in Blake’s work. The forms are similar to previous works but the surface colours are now dramatically different: more intense, vivid with strong contrasts and sharper contours in places.
The naked raku and sawdust-firing surfaces seem almost controlled by comparison.
Saggar fired bowl, 2012. White
earthenware fired with sawdust, shavings , and metallic soaked straw, 11.5 x
47 cm. The piece below was in “A Quiet Beauty” exhibition, at Studio 21 in Halifax, NS. Judy also continued to produce open bowls as well as bottle and vase forms. The stacking and layering of the combustibles is most evident as their colours pooled in to the well producing their reds and grey-blues. This layering adds a further visual depth to the bowl. The lip is loosely defined by the white clay crossed by red.
Saggar-Fired Vase Vessel, 2011. White earthenware fired with sawdust, shavings and metallic soaked straw, 38 cm h x 20 cm w. This work is in the Canada House Collection. The vase form is typical of Blake’s avoiding the strict cylinder shape to play with smoke and fire effects. The gently bellied surface is three layered, shifting from a denser, smoky black foot to a patchy, red waist, then a whitish neck and lip. The colouring shows the layering of the combustibles and the curving flow of flame and heat as they define the body elements of the vase.
Saggar-Fired Bottle Vessel, 2012. White earthenware fired with sawdust, shavings , and metallic soaked straw, 40 cm x 27.5 cm. Also in the Canada House collection this work has a distinct demarcation line at the waist. Judy explains:
“I think it is the result of a small opening where the 2 saggars fit together just above the centre allowing more air to circulate around that centre and making the colours more intense. The top part of the saggar probably had a tighter fit (so not as much air circulation), resulting in more subdued colours along with the grey/black around the shoulder. The pinks and orange colours come from salt soaked saw [sawdust or straw?] and the blues, greys, greens and reds come from copper soaked straw. The results can vary so much and depend on the length of the firing, the temperature and the atmosphere inside the kiln. There is a lot of alchemy at play!” ¹
Birds (1995 – present)
Birds are more of a theme change for Blake. She is still using the same firing techniques. They are continuing part of her interest in Nature as fauna, flora or landscape. What is different is her occasional pairing or grouping of the birds, establishing new spatial dimensions and suggesting familial and flock relationships.
“The birds began in 1995 and I just made a few here and there when I had time. I really began making them more often around 2002 and they have become a large part of my work since I was invited to have a solo show of my birds at the Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery in the spring of 2010.” ¹
Naked Raku Sparrows, 2010. Each 15 h x 12 w x 20 l cm. Burnished, unglazed and naked raku fired. The birds add a new element to Judy’s forms, life. To the wheel-thrown bodies she adds a hand-built tilt or twist of head or tail. Unique features are now not in the surface but in the forms themselves as birds look at each other or gaze out at the viewer. Judy began exhibiting the birds in her 2010 exhibition “Winging It” at Jonathon’s. Since that time she has developed larger forms. The birds are now becoming a more important subject. ¹
Saggar-fired Bird, 2013. 38 cm h x 33 cm w x 42 cm l . Some birds are round pot forms as though they are fluffing up against winter’s chill and are like variants of her pots. She will add human-like eyes with eyelids and pupils, and a line for the simplified wings to double gourd forms.
The birds take a bit more time to produce because the beaks and eyelids need special care in the burnishing. Each has its own personality.
Smoke-fired Penguins, 2013. Adult sawdust-fired, 58 cm h x 33 cm w; and naked raku Chick, 28 cm h x 20 cm w. Judy contrasts scale, surface texture and technique to mimic the silky adult coat and the downy fluff of the chick. The relationship is intimate as the parent a Blake vase form with an added head and beak twist stands sentry-like, while the chick gazes up at its parent.
Saggar-Fired Owl. 2013. 23 cm h x 17 cm w. Here a modified vase form with modified “lid” stares out with an almost human face. The eyes capture the viewer in a reciprocal stare, bringing the form to life, giving each their “individual spirits.” ¹ The beak has become a nose, the eyes human in shape and look. The head is a simplified pastry form. The bird’s surface firing pattern is now more muted, congruent with the form and subject, giving each bird a dignity of presence.
Small Birds on Cliff, 2010. Burnished, unglazed saggar-fired birds on sawdust-fired cliff. 25.5 cm h x 15.5 cm w x 21.5 cm l. This work is a further extension of Blake’s bird imagery into a more complex landscape. Not only is there a flock relationship but also an environmental context. Smaller grey, white and pink birds feed atop a rocky cliff, oblivious to the viewer. The subject is typical of Blake’s exploration and use of natural form.
Where Judy Blake will go with her next theme or subject will be seen. All that we can know is that Judy will explore her throwing and outdoor firings deliberately and slowly, exploring the element of surprise she enjoys so much.
Links to Sites for More Information on Judy Blake
- Artisan Canada. A new site that looks at many aspects of artisan work in Canada.
- Youtube; Jonathon Clayspots. Uploaded on May 9, 2010 Clayspots featuring Ceramicist Judy Blake. 1:51 min. This video gives an idea as to the actual size of her bird forms.
- Judy Blake’s Facebook Page
Judy’s bird creations and exhibitions has resulted in a book by Frye publications.
Selected Major Collections: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick Craft Council Permanent Collection, New Brunswick Museum, Foreign Affairs, Canada House.
Judy Blake is represented by the following galleries in Canada:
- Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery, London, ON
- Studio 21, Halifax, NS
- Madrona Gallery, Victoria, BC
- Botinicals, Fredericton, NB
Endnotes & Bibliography
1. Judy Blake Interview and email correspondence with Barry Morrison.
2. Judy Blake. Resume 2014. Provided by the artist.
3. Judy Blake website: : http://www.judyblake.ca/
4. Julie Sobowale. Bowled over by Blake: The quiet beauty of pottery. The Coast, June 21, 2012.
5. Rachel Minto. Arche Pottery. June 1, 2012.