Production Dates: 1954-2013
Location: Sherbrooke and Longueuil, Quebec
Types of Work: Functional, Sculptural, Architectural
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: electric kiln; oxidation
Preferred Clay: terra-cotta, porcelain, mixed media
Maurice Savoie has been called the poéte de la céramique. His career and development are much different from what was going on in English-speaking Canada at the time. He travelled widely and felt it was something we should all do. For him ceramics is an expression in art and craft, a material that would be equal to any other material.
When I talked with him in the 1980s Savoie confessed that he didn’t quite know what he was. He felt he had been forced by circumstances to be many things at different times. At the time he called himself a “purist”. His approach was to identify a challenge and then attack the problem. He has thus been a “ceramist-at-large” and a muralist. Eventually he would become more a muralist and sculptor over the years. He would put to good use his commercial and industrial ceramics experience along with his talents in sculpture.
He was about 18 years old when he first saw pottery in Chambly near Montreal. The young Sherbrooker stopped there on a trip to Montreal with his father. It was industrial pottery and not very good but impressed him nonetheless. Looking at the artisan’s work he declared, “c’est ça que je veux faire!” Soon after, he was studying pottery at the École du meuble in 1948.
In 1952 at the École des Beaux-Arts, Montreal, his first teacher was Pierre Normandeau, a sculptor, who was himself sent to Sèvres, France , to study pottery, by Jean-Marie Gauvreau, the director. Gauvreau believed that French style and culture were important for his students to learn. Savoie learned a lot on the history of ceramics from Normandeau . As a student Savoie took sculpture since there was not a ceramic course per se; rather the course was a general culture or art course, very different from today. In his day “there was no hurry to learn.”But Savoie felt Normandeau was a sculptor forced to teach ceramics:
“It took Normandeau an hour to demonstrate how to throw one pot on the wheel: It’s not what we think about pottery today. It has to be fast, has to have rhythm. He was using the wheel with a feeling of making a sculptural piece.”
Savoie never went to Alfred as did many from English Canada. But he did have to use American books such as Parmelee, mostly for the technology. As an aside he mentioned that Gaetan Beaudin did use Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and for a while lost most of his trade as a result. Leach, it seems was not the guru for Quebec as he was for others in Canada.
It was in Paris around 1957 that Savoie discovered one-of-a-kind items. He liked the French precision and control of materials. Paradoxically, he did not think of one-of-a-kind as practical but because the process pleased him he began making pieces by hand. The philosophical underpinnings, the way it was done provided a quietness, a meditation that he liked very much.
He returned to Sherbrooke to set up his first studio. Communications about the medium at the time were narrow, sparse. He knew of only three or four other ceramists, such as Gaetan Beaudin and a little later, Jacques Garnier. Also, he found being a ceramist was a puzzle to many:
“At that time ceramics was not known at all. If you said you were taking a ceramics course you had to explain yourself.”
Savoie felt he became a professional in the early 1950s while in Sherbrooke but at the time he thought he “instinctively” wanted to become a sculptor. For a year after he graduated he had to build up money to set up shop, even acting as a delivery-boy at $25 per week; he became an art teacher for disabled children in Sherbrooke;and he also taught art at night. He bought things for his studio piece by piece, then with the help of his father rented his first studio space. But the market was almost non-existent; also, there were no stores around from which to buy ceramic materials. He had to either make or invent things or send to the U.S. for materials.
The first thing he had to do was find his own “clay mine” which he did near Sherbrooke. It was then the fashion in the Spring or Fall to go out and dig your own clay. His was a faience, low temperature clay.
In Sherbrooke he tried to make one of a kind work and struggled with the materials. About a year later Savoie went to see Gauvreau again, with a collection of his pottery. Gauvreau bought a whole satchel for $150, Savoie’s first big sale! Gauvreau then asked him if he wanted an exhibition at Central d’Artisanat.
While he was in Sherbrooke Savoie noticed that people would buy ceramics and put them in their country house because it was considered too unrefined for city homes. To Savoie this reflected an attitude as to what craft was: “it was of a very primitive nature belonging more to country or rustic living.” Buyer attitudes thankfully have since changed.
By 1958 Gauvreau knew about Savoie’s visits to Europe and wanted Savoie to take over teaching ceramics at the Institut des Arts Appliqués. Savoie was only about 25 or 26 years old at the time. He was put in charge of the whole ceramics department, a position he held for six years. He was not prepared for that but felt “who else was there to do it?” He had to learn fast how to become a teacher. But teaching was for him a “disciplinary” activity that he found more tiring than the studio.
During these early years small groups were formed by people who worked and talked together about ceramics and art but they did not talk about the business side at all. Savoie felt this was a weakness. Artists like Borduas and Riopelle were nearby but ceramists were not part of their group.
“Crafts were so new at the time there was no description of them or their social situation.”
Although he liked the sensory aspects of clay, the touch the smell, Savoie favoured the design part of his work; however, the consummate project manager, unless everything was ready technically he would not go to the design phase: this included size, materials, environment, contact with customers and architects and the like. “Only then”, he said:
“You are liberated and you can enter pure creation. Then it is a game determined by how well you know your materials.
He shifted to purely sculptural and architectural because he was discouraged about the situation for exhibiting. He did not produce enough one of a kind piece volume for boutiques or museums.
Savoie was also active in the art and architecture programmes in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, producing ceramic murals until 1995. His 1966 ceramic mural adjacent to the McGill Metro station is widely considered to be the one of the first examples of integrated art in the Montreal subway system. A year later he created a screen installation at the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. From then on however, when he worked on a commissioned mural he felt his financial cares were less. And architects were now coming to him.
ln the 1970s, he was involved with SlAL ll, a company that mass- produced ceramics and whose original 1965 goal was to supply base materials to potters in Quebec. Savoie admitted that he was also much more interested in the creative rather than the technical side of things.
He also felt himself more a city person than a “country potter”, believing creativity does not depend upon where you live. He tried the country but found the problems outweighed the benefits.By the early 1960s he had set up a basement studio in Longueuil, near Montreal.
From the beginning he chose to not use gas kilns, not liking open flame in a house. He used electric kilns; therefore, most of his work is oxidation.
More recently Savoie’s works have delved into the magical, the mythical, the toy. Symbolism and metamorphosis, play, ancient Mesopotamian and Japanese ceramics , nature, found objects, playing with the surface of porcelain and other materials, all of these merge into his forms and surfaces.
In 1994 Maurice Savoie was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and also made a Member of the Order of Canada the same year. In 2004 he was a Bronfman Award winner.