Dates: 1929 (Greffern, Germany) – 2010
Production Dates: in Canada, c.1957 – c. 2010
Locations: various: Winnipeg, MB; Corner Brook, St. John’s, Bell Island, NL
Types of Work: Functional; occasional one-off (Goof-Off ¹) pieces
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: gas reduction and electric
Preferred Clay: earthenware; explored the use of local clays from her location, whether from Gimli, MB, Corner Brook or Bell Island, NL; also Lantz clays from Nova Scotia.
Signature/Mark/Chop: in Winnipeg a painted signature, “Margo” or “Margo Winnipeg”;
Margo Meyer A Short Biography:
She has been called “the matriarch of functional ceramics” 7 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her pottery has sold from the Pacific to the Atlantic , A potter’s potter, Margo Meyer is not known much beyond her adopted province. At times outspoken, other times intensely private, she displayed and unrelenting commitment to the medium as she raised a family, set up and taught ceramic programs, co-started a retail outlet, served on craft organization boards, and overcame her frustration with government bureaucracy. She adds another dimension to the story of the flow of influential potters from Europe, England and the US to Canada.
At times she was such a private person there is a chance she would not have appreciated a page such as this on her life and work. But she did permit me to interview her many years ago. I hope this page’s presence would have met with her consent.
Meyer was a woman of strong opinion and referred to herself as a “quiet feminist”.5
“I consider myself a quiet feminist because I don’t like to be dictated to and I don’t like to dictate to others.” 5
She was also firm in who she was as a worker in clay. Without pretension she maintained:
”I am not an artist. I want to make the point straight away. I am a craftsman (sic).” 6
Early Years in Germany
Her interest in clay was a constant, seen from her early age. Perhaps one could consider her a bit rebellious. She was not from an artistic family. When a teacher showed her pottery shards from local Roman tombs, these caught her interest. 6
Against her mother’s wishes she went into the “masculine”1 work of pottery:
“I never really wanted anything else but to be a potter. … At age eighteen I went into training.”¹
“In those days women didn’t become potters. It was mens’ work; it was dirty and regarded as unladylike. But I wasn’t going to be put off and pestered my mother until she let me start at the local factory.” 6
Meyer fast-tracked herself. She started a traditional European three year apprenticeship in Baden Baden “learning discipline and basic technique.” ¹ She then moved on to the next level as a journeyman. Normally this stage would have taken five years. She completed it in three. She then completed her master’s designation in Landshut, southern Bavaria, working long nights in the studio.¹ She was twenty five when she finished. She then tried a few ventures, opening a shop, and for a while teaching at Aachen Technical University. 6 But this was not enough.
Early Canada: Toronto and Winnipeg
She came to Canada in late 1956 to visit he brother who lived in Toronto. Although she said she “fiddled around for a year and stayed,” ¹ she is reported to have worked at Blue Mountain Pottery in some capacity.6
Margo married and moved to Winnipeg for two and a half years. There she set up her own studio using a kick wheel,¹ making works out of local Manitoba clays. The exploration and use of local clays was something she practised throughout her career.¹
She moved to Corner Brook, NL, in 1960 when her husband found a job there.¹ She established and taught a full-time course in a ceramics program in Corner Brook Vocational School. Pottery, considered a “hard craft”, was in those days taught at the Vocational School in Corner Brook because there was insufficient space in St. John’s.4 It was only a one year programme but she felt she could give students the basic techniques and skills. A part-time course, she felt, was not worth the time for the students.¹ She also found herself a local source of clay with her students, labouriously prepared it, and built two electric kilns. She had brought her Winnipeg kick wheel with her. For a while, however, and uncharacteristically, between teaching and family she stopped potting for a while and actually got into CBC guest spots on television. 6 She would stay in Corner Brook for fifteen years.¹
All that time Meyer worried that pottery would follow a decline in the government support she had seen in other crafts. 4 Although the school was generously supplied with equipment her frustration with government bureaucracy and policy became strong: she saw the government craft programmes as off-target. Rather than being artistically or business oriented she felt they was used more as a rehabilitative program, making it difficult to get serious students involved.¹ Also, the support came from the Departments of Education and from Rural Development, not Arts and Culture.¹ This affected the type of students and the outcomes of programmes in those early years:
“The government position was that crafts were for the handicapped (sic) either mentally or physically … it seems you have to bang heads against a wall and I get tired of it.” ¹
Because of Newfoundland island’s isolation resources and training in the early 1970s were not reliable. Meyer helped many in their apprenticeship years because she was close to them geographically. The federal department, Manpower at the time, would fund relocation expenses for nine months but not for potters “starting their own business.“ 4 This bureaucratic limitation was complemented by provincial inefficiency in not helping artists set up their business. She was also frustrated when she noted that artists were brought in by the provincial government to teach a course but there was little follow up or information provided for potential students to continue.¹ In spite of an uncertain future for pottery Meyer provided the know-how through the years.
Over the span of her teaching career she was able to change some minds and was eventually able to screen the students entering her programs but the long fight with bureaucracy was taking its toll.¹ However, by 1981 she was able to say with perhaps a bit of humour:
“The Government got much better … now [with] sensible help.” ¹
Government policy reflected public attitude at the time. Meyer also had to fight early questions such as:
“Why would you diddle (sic) away in [craft] when you could work in an office? That was infuriating!” ¹
One can only admire her tenacity. I’m not quite sure how she responded to these attitudes and comments publicly but in our interview she was quite emotional in her tone and phrasing.
St. John’s, NL
In 1975 she moved from Corner Brook to St. John’s to teach in Memorial University’s Extension Department. She also co-started The Salt Box retail store on Duckworth with fellow crafters Sharon Puddester, Bonnie Leyton, and Don Beaubier. Although she sold across Canada, the store was her primary outlet at the time.6 By this time she was also reaffirming her confidence in her skills and her role:
“I’m a very good teacher. I see myself as production potter.”¹
There was also luck and an inspirational element. Bonnie Leyton remembers the shop as :
“ … a huge success, because we didn’t have any competition.” Margo helped her Newfoundland-born partners have the courage to break new ground.” 9
Bell Island, NL
In 1982 she moved to Bell Island with her family. Bell Island, in Conception Bay, was a new studio and sanctuary for her. The move developed out of family boat trips to a “beautiful island.” ¹ Also, there was a practical reason. In St. John’s her workshop was small. She needed to clean up everything every time she wanted to glaze.¹ On one trip she saw a house and decided to buy it. She also admitted to the need for some quiet space:
“It’s better for me. I’m away from town and don’t have as many visitors.” 8
She could now return to her roots in full time potting. On Bell Island she now had the luxury of a gas kiln. ¹ She could re-establish a rhythm:
“Summer is the time for visitors. … I work steadily in the dark months through the winter. I’m a good self-starter, getting up early in the morning. Some days I’ll do a complete run of cups in the morning, and then switch over in the afternoon to plates. I like the repetitive rhythm.” 6
But there was a lighter side to her work also. After Christmas and January clean up there was also “Goof-Off time” ¹ in February. Although there was no real market for them “Goof-Offs” consisted of such items as one-offs, mixed media or fragile, clay-covered folded fabric. She would also use her gas reduction kiln for such pieces.¹
A major part of her reputation was her work to overcome the Newfoundland’s isolation and lack of an island studio pottery tradition at the time. She invited other potters such as Robin Hopper to come and deliver workshops. Sometimes she had to innovate by “piggy-backing” on Halifax, Nova Scotia, events.¹
As a potter she needed to sell. Her market stretched across Canada from Vancouver to New Brunswick. By 1981 for example her New Brunswick sales at one shop over three years progressed from $600 to $2,000 to $5,000.¹ As well as selling across the country she also sold locally and at fairs.¹
By 1981 she felt public attitudes had changed:
“In the old days the market was people with money and nowadays it’s 50% young people and 15% old money.” But it’s only my opinion.”¹
Her optimism about her future on Bell Island was such that in the early 1980s she was already planning an expansion so that her daughter Sophia, who was completing ceramic studies in Montreal at the time, could work with her.¹
A Sample of Margo Meyer’s Many Accomplishments:
Margo did receive recognition from within the craft community. At a ceremony in St. John’s she was awarded a lifetime membership in the Canadian Crafts Council where the presentation stated, “Her CV reads like an entry from the Guinness Book of Records:” 10
- she was the first professional potter in the province and first to exploit local clay
- she organized and taught the first professionally oriented classes in the vocational school system
- she was a driving force behind and founding Member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Development Association (NLCDA) and a member of its executive council for eight years
- she was the first Newfoundland delegate to the Canadian Craftsmen’s Association
- she was the first Newfoundland Director and Vice-President of the Canadian Crafts Council
- she organized and conducted countless workshops
Perhaps the present general lack of awareness of Margo Meyer, her work and accomplishments can be best summarized in her own words:
“I am not good at self promotion but I am confident in my work. If I like what I created I don’t need anyone else’s approval to feel good about it. In my life I am glad I make useful, practical things people can admire. I couldn’t make things that are just to look at.” 5
Margo Meyer was a selling potter, not a gallery exhibitor. She sold her works across the country in galleries and shops but her work has essentially disappeared from view. You will not find it in major exhibition catalogues and would be hard pressed to find it in regional or local catalogues. Rather, it exists as a vast reservoir in homes and personal collections. Many people have her treasures in their homes and do not know it.
Her works are waiting to be re-discovered. Keep an eye out for them. And if you have pictures of them pass them on to me so others can enjoy them.
A Look at Margo Meyer’s Work and Her Approach
The following are a few observations about Margo Meyer’s pottery followed by a short slide show.
- Her pots, especially of later years, are refined and elegant. She advocated a familiar aesthetic: “they are a pleasure to see, touch and use.” ³
- Her works have a simplicity of form, mainly cylinders and cones, occasionally spheres, wheel thrown. The surfaces are smooth.
- Her words on how she approached her work hint at the messages she gave to her students:
“I like best to make pots; the actual making of it before glazing it. This just seems the most natural thing to do. When it comes down to brass tacks, when I make a pot I never see the pot coloured. I am interested in shape, the silhouette, and texture, that is what is important to me – the glazing and decoration is really secondary. What strikes your eye is the decoration and finish but I think subconsciously people like the whole pot, not just the surface.“5
- Although she wanted to vary her work she readily acknowledges that she continued lines because buyers liked their feel, their touch to hands and mouth and their look to the eyes.¹ Words that production potters yearn to hear. She was also customer savvy.
“I added more surface decoration than I wished to.” People wanted her to continue familiar lines. “Since I like to cook I make kitchen things, I’m practical.” ¹
- In her slip and in glaze decoration she always used her own glazes, since they were less expensive and she had more control.¹
- Favourite surface base-colours are white and cream with floral, fish-like or linear forms in vertical patterns or frieze – like designs.5 The simple elegance of her forms and glaze designs increased over the years: notice the change from Winnipeg to Bell Island in the slideshow below.
- On Bell Island she was using Lantz clay as well as some local clays but found the latter was taking up too much time prepare.¹
- She would use white slip on Lantz clay works. She found that if she just glazed the clay it came out in an “ugly liver colour.” ¹
- She would handle each piece some twenty six times by her count, between such phases as forming, drying, glazing, firing, etc. 8
- Sometimes she would fire pieces three 3 times, e.g when using gold lustre.
- Her usual firing temperature was 1093 degrees C (2000 degrees F.) 8
- An example of one of her “goof-offs” from around 1975 is also included in the slide show below.
Margo Meyer: A Short Slide Show
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Margo Meyer. Interview with Barry Morrison, St. John’s, NL, September 1981.
2. Anne Manuel, Executive Director, Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email correspondence, March 12, 2014
3. Colleen Lynch Pastore, in a review of Craft Profiles, April 12 – April 20. pp. 22-23. Memorial . University Art Gallery, Newfound land, 1975.
4. Decks Awash, Volume 1. Number 10, Extension Service, Memorial University, October 1972. pp 16ff.
5. Marian Frances White. The Finest Kind: Voices of Newfoundland and Labrador Women, Creative Book Pub. 1992. pp. 107-108.
6. Philip Hicks. Margo Meyer. A Traditional Potter. Evening Telegram, August 23, 1986.
7. Gloria Hickey craft writer. One in a Line–Margo and Sophia Meyer’s Creative Legacy. Sunday, 2 February 2014.
8. Margo Meyer on Pottery Making. Bell Island Transmitter Project, Tape 12. Memorial University of Newfoundland. Distance Education, Learning and Teaching Support (DELTS) Identifier 00970, 1984.
9. Early history, and the first teacher… The earthenwareproject.
10. Peter Weinrich, Executive Director, the Canadian Crafts Council. Notes for a Lifetime Membership Award, St. John’s, NL, September 1981.
11. Don Beaubier Craft Newsletter May/June 2010. p.12. Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador.
12. Manitoba Crafts Museum and Library Permanent Collection. Winnipeg, MB.