Paula Murray Capsule
Dates: 1958 –
Production Dates: 1980 – present
Location: Meech Lake, Quebec
Style: Sculptural, Public/Architectural
Clay/Materials: own porcelain clay recipe and fibreglass surface veil; throwing, slip casting hand-building
Kiln Firing: electric and gas kilns
Paula Murray, a Short Biography
Paula Murray is an artist who morphed from science to art. Although she is very much the ceramic artist, her inquiring and experimental mind is an overtone of her earlier interests. The externals and structure of her work reflect a deeply spiritual and reflective nature of her soul. Although her work on the surface might seem to change over the years there are themes of nature and introspection, individuality and collectivity that constantly resurface. She says of the inspiration that led her from chemistry equations and biology charts to pottery and sculpture:
“After all these years, I’m grateful that my work has continued to grow and that I’m still working in this medium. I was hooked on clay the first time I touched it.”1
“I was always interested in the connection between the mind and the body… We are, at our core, spiritual beings having a physical experience in this world.”5
“I believe the artist’s role is to try to understand this life force by articulating it and giving it form. My intention has always been the same. I want to make objects about the nature of being in and honoring the natural world.”2
Paula studied in Science at the University of Ottawa from 1977-75, graduating in that last year. Yet a few short years later, in 1979, she was studying ceramics with Ruth Gowdy McKinley as her mentor at Sheridan College, Mississauga.
This experience was soon followed by a summer session at the Banff Centre in 1979-78. In the following years she shared studio space with other artists in the Ottawa area until she finally set up her own full time studio in 1986 in Meech Lake, Quebec. The search for a harmony of spirit, art and lifestyle had now been set. Along with many further awards and exhibitions , Paula has exhibited throughout Canada, in the United States, China, Korea, Germany and Italy, and has been included in private and public collections in Canada, the United States, Korea, Italy, the United Nations, Germany, Russia, and Paris. A major honour was bestowed with her election to the Royal Canadian Academy in 2007.
On her artistic approach Paula says this:
“When I create a porcelain piece, I have to balance the physical and spiritual. You have to respect the material, which is the clay, and the process it goes through. Each piece I make has been on a journey. Porcelain’s fragility and its strength mirrors human experience and nature.”1
“I am interested in the resilience of the human spirit, and how we choose to engage with the stresses experienced in our environment, our relationships, ourselves. Porcelain undergoes a remarkable transformation as it dries and is fired. The cracking and movement of the porcelain in my process, captures a physical entity in transition. It is the result of the tension between clay dug from the earth and industrially made fibreglass. I respond to the change in form and energy that takes place as the porcelain dries, finding meaning in the movement, the spaces created. Much of my imagery is inspired by observing the forces of nature, the complex patterns and relationships in the world around me. I use my relationship with process and material as a metaphor to investigate our perception of the nature of reality.”3
“To date my pieces have reflected the individual’s response to universal experience. I have recently begun to work on the relationship between the individual within groups. The underlying connectedness of every dimension of life is something I am trying to wrap my head around. I have a great time working through my ideas in the studio. I am very grateful to be able to keep going- I have a lot to learn.”7
Paula Murray’s Work and Technique
Much of Paula’s work involves the interconnectedness between forms and surface on bowls, shells, vases, curls and pods. More recently she has moved into multi-piece scroll wall works. She has also been successful in commission works.
Paula creates about 25 sculptures a year in her 600 square foot studio. She makes up her own clay recipes which she then throws, press moulds and slip casts. Bowls fold over like shells. Cracks, dents and crevices are stained to show their form, not to be hidden as faults or mistakes. She generally works in four-month cycles: “stabilizing the forms over several electric-kiln firings, then glazing the work and firing it in her salt kiln. “2
“There is so much trial and error and manipulation involved. A single piece has to go through so many processes and can be fired up to six times. I spend a lot of time organically altering the form.”1
“I found that over the years of working with clay my curiosity about life’s big questions were being explored metaphorically through my process. The resilience of people, overcoming adversity, becoming richer and deeper, surviving difficult experiences is what I see in my pots. Great care is taken in their making. Porcelain is a refined delicate material to begin with, and much attention to detail in form and surface was taken. In my thrown work, the surfaces were wet/dry sanded after careful trimming and bisque firing to ensure an even density/porosity of the surface so that the flames would respond to the almost naked clay- not a finger print left behind. Dressed only in the lightest layer of engobe of terra sigilatta, I loved that the firing resulted in such a subtle and nuanced response to a rigorous risk laden process, yielding far more interesting results than what I could have designed. Flames a foot high shoot out the exit flu when reducing the kiln heavily, and there was always the possibility of bowls collapsing under the weight of other pots. Those that survived spoke to me of the beauty of working in harmony with powerful elements much greater than oneself. It was an examination that challenged my relationship to control and my willingness to sacrifice safety in exchange for what I saw as a greater often elusive reward.”7
This love of the firing process reflects the influence of her mentor Ruth Gowdy McKinley:
“Porcelain is like pure spirit, always white. Pots are put in the kiln, touching each other to make a maze through which the flames must pass. Glazes speak of their journey through the transforming fire. In a sense it is mystical. You are only a player, challenged by a process where things come out better than you could ever create yourself.”4
Post firing work entails sanding the surfaces with fine wet/dry paper and applying a sealant or wax encaustic.
“I love working with mysterious process of firing in an atmosphere where the path of the flame imparts its mark on the transformation of the piece. The art of firing, working with the power of the elements, involving ideas around control and submission is very a very compelling component of my attraction to clay as an artistic medium for expression.”6
Nesting Bowls, 1984; 38 x 38 x 8.5 cm: This is an early low temperature salt-glaze work. Paula used slips and terra sigillata so the surface would be dry enough as the pieces touch each other when stacked in the kiln.
“All of my technical approach is not conventional firing or casting. When one usually thinks of salt glaze – high temp. orange peel comes to mind- at lower temperatures it works to enhance flame pattern and textural variation in a slip – shiny to matt areas depending upon exposure. I tried to avoid fusing the pieces together during a firing- walking a fine line of enough salt to get the flame response- not to much to minimize scarring the surface where they touch.”7
Bowl on Base, 1988, slip cast porcelain, 35 x 35 x 17 cm. Much of Paula’s work is about variations on the bowl form in varying degrees of enclosure and stability of the base. She consistently returns to the form throughout the years. This work shows her early use of other media as she uses the natural material of carefully arranged twigs to support the form. The salt glaze is shinier than most due to the proximity to the salt. More hit this piece directly, causing the crackle pattern in the surface. The shape is open with an smooth almost opalescent interior and a blue craquelure exterior. The use of colour will vary throughout her career.
All That Remains, 2005, 35.6 x 36.8 x 41.9 cm. Her shell works are most obviously autobiographical in referring to the physical world and the cruising voyage with her family. Not only are the forms clearly recognizable but glaze colours can be Caribbean blue, earthy red, green, black and brown. Surfaces can be matte or an show an opalescent gloss. This is a subject and theme she returns to over the years.
Paula first completed a year-long sailing trip down south in 1985, and later cruised the high seas with her husband and children for her second major trip in 1990, sailing predominantly in the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean. Taking her children – then aged two and five – on the four-year voyage may sound like a daunting task, but spending almost a half-decade on a sailboat was a refreshing experience, Paula recounts, and one that is often reflected in the shapes, colours and figures of her work.
“You’re not living with a lot of objects – it’s a materially stripped-down existence, but spiritually very rich. You feel how small you are … what your role is.”5
“The years I was away from the studio, raising my two kids while living on a sail boat really allowed me the time to think about the ephemeral nature of existence and the fragility of life. I grew up in a home rife with uncertainty. The taboo of mental illness, the secrecy and isolation, never knowing what would happen from one day to the next has clearly shaped my evolution as an artist. Woundedness and healing is part of life that everyone can recognize. It is a shared experience. My works with cracks and healing them has been a part of recognizing this universal condition. There is a image that I have traced to Sufi writings that has been made famous by Leonard Cohen; “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I see beauty in those cracks, and strength in the will to survive whatever comes.”7
Shell 1996, porcelain, 34 x 34 x 24 cm. With spiral metal base. There were pauses in her production but not in her inspiration when she went on the multi-year live-aboard cruising trip to the Caribbean and South America. There she found inspiration in the natural forms of the shore and sea. Water and shoreline, ripples in the sand, shells, dry, cracked earth, these she saw as renewal and regeneration. Shapes modified by stress would become a constant theme. There is always the balancing of the physical – sometimes literal – and spiritual in her work.
Shell, 1997, porcelain, 34 x 34 x 26 cm. Here the shell form does not resemble a weather-etched gastropod, rather it more closely linked to the faceted and monochromatic carapace of a turtle. Thus it is still a shell but that of a marine vertebrate. This effect is typical of a series of shells and forms of the period.This particular play of surface and colour becomes a more frequent feature of her work. The scalloped facets of the surface have a subtle resemblance to the shifting facets of Cubism, defining and obscuring surface and image at the same time.
Tidal Pool, 1998, porcelain, 34 x 34 x 38 cm. This is similar to the twig-supported Bowl on Base, 1988, slip cast porcelain shell form above but here the form is almost fully enclosed with an undulating surface, rib-like rippling sand beds surrounding a deep central well of a tidal pool. Although she often returns to these landscape forms she uses them as a platform to explore other surfaces and effects. There is a dramatic contrast between the textured white ripples and the smooth blue surface of the interior and exterior bowl surfaces that is at the same time eye-catching and pleasing.
Nautilus, 1990, 2.6 x 1m, commissioned by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton for the atrium of its new building. In the late 1980s Paula began to experiment with a fibreglass material called surface veil. She embeds this into the clay to create patterns and stress lines. Surface veil was at the time a solution to a technical problem for this large scale sculpture but is consistent with her exploration in using multi-media. As Nancy Baele said in Ceramics Monthly:
“This marriage of materials has become central to her ideal of 21st century life, where clay—a symbol of primal earth—and fibreglass—a symbol of a highly developed commercial technology—are in balance through creative choice and an appreciation for the ephemeral moment when there is a unique conjunction of forces.”2
Paula says of her use of fibreglass:
Luminous Breath, 2006, porcelain and fibreglass, 15 x 18 x 14 cm.
“My work with incorporating fibreglass into porcelain casting slip is a metaphor for the inevitable stress we are exposed to. Working with the inevitable changes to create beauty out of chaos engages me. I have rejoiced in the success of “getting the ring back” in my cracked porcelain vessels. Especially the ‘Luminous Breath” series- they are translucent, full of movement in response to the stress, and the veins are now filled, coursing with energy, and the vessels have a resonant sound when struck. Thinking of art as a set of relationships frames my approach. Art, through the development of poetic metaphor, familiarizes us with universal principles and has the capacity to touch our soul.7
Paula has continually explored the material and technique since for its warping, and patterns. She explains:
Parting the Veil, 2002, 29 x 22 29 cm. The form here is vase-like yet is split, penetrated, the gap in-folded and taped together with paper clay bridging the gap, providing a tension that at the same time holds the sides together and also defines and emphasizes the break.
“I like the tactile intimacy of this process. A lot of my pots express fragility and beauty, stresses. I want to convey the shape of a feeling, and always, in my finished work, I want the firing technique to reflect the sense of mystery that comes from the process. I want each piece to carry with it the idea of being on a journey with other pieces. When they support each other in the kiln and influence each other’s coloration by their very presence, they are, for me, a symbol of the strong sense of community I felt at sea, where there was a great sense of interdependency necessary for survival, even though each boat, like each pot, represents an isolated and individual way of life.”2
Paula describes the “why” and the “how” of her creative process:
Hollow Reed, 2005, porcelain, 39 x 25 x 20 cm
“For a number of years I have been developing a body of work that I call my “Stress Management” series. These pieces are made of porcelain casting slip with a 25% ball clay content to encourage movement of the clay when the work is drying. I layer the casting slip in a plaster mold and embed a pattern of fibreglass in the clay as I go. The fibreglass I work with is a type called “surface veil,” which was originally acquired to restore a cedar strip canoe. Purchased by the foot in 48-inch-wide rolls, the fibers resemble angel hair pasta.”2
Reciprocity , 2007, porcelain, 24 x 50 x 20 cm, wood base.
“Through much trial-and-error with a very high loss rate, I have developed quite an expressive tool to explore my interest in our strength and fragility, and the ephemeral nature of life. The organic warping and cracking of the forms and the wonderful patterns that emerge are the result of the tension created as the clay shrinks in relation to the fibers, the thickness of the clay, and the speed of the drying process. The vessels are fired in stages. First they are fired unglazed to Cone 10 in an electric kiln using saggars filled with silica sand to support the forms. The stress cracks are filled with slips, glazes, eroded by sandblasting or knit together with paper clay as work on each piece continues. The work is completed in a small, low-temperature salt kiln. Terra sigilattas, slips and glazes are applied with an airbrush, with a final coat of sugared water to toughen the surface. The pieces are stacked directly touching each other, filling the kiln to enhance the flame patterns and texture induced by the reducing salted atmosphere. This kiln is fired to Cone 06 over eight hours, reducing heavily after 800°C (1474°F) and salted twice above the burners.”2
The enclosure of form has taken a more complete direction in her more recent hollow reed and Sanctuary works.
“To date my pieces have reflected the individual’s response to universal experience.I have recently begun to work on d the relationship between the individual within groups. The underlying connectedness of every dimension of life is something I am trying to wrap my head around. I have a great time working through my ideas in the studio I am very grateful to be able to keep going- I have a lot to learn.”7
Hollow Reeds, 2012, porcelain. The 2005 Hollow Reed vase is transfigured into scroll-like flames and is a multi-piece work and wall mounted, a format that she has been following over the past several years. Although superficially similar each reed is in fact quite individual in size, shape and texture. The reeds themselves are a logical extension of her interest in folding, rolling and enclosure. The surfaces are simple, off-white and matte. Each form displays a unique pattern of ribs that provide a counterpoint to the linear extension of each reed form. The reeds can be arranged in groupings of seven or nine or whatever number Paula chooses
Sanctuary 2012, porcelain and wood base, wall mounted, 80 x 54 x 18 cm. This is one of Paula’s latest essays in this direction toward installation works. Cylinders rise from the wooden base like a petrified, truncated forest. The flat-ended tubes are a more pronounced three-dimensionally, wall-mounted, not just stuck to a wall, but projecting from it. The matte scroll surfaces show the same individual surface textures and patterns seen in the hollow reeds and contrast with the sheen of the wood base.
Slide Shows and Interviews of Paula Murray’s Work
- Paula Murray You Tube video: Paula Murray Live Interview with Liana Voia. 28:33 min. A well done radio interview with a local radio station host. The video also includes a slide show of Paula’s works.
- A 3:45 video of Paula describing her exhibition Connection x Connexion an installation of suspended porcelain scrolls that explores themes of interconnection, individual and collective identity and the acquisition of wisdom at the Maison de la Culture, Gatineau, QC, May 22 – July 19, 2014. Produced by Chris Munro. The exhibition was part of a later exhibition, Exquisite Woods, January 18 – March 15, 2015, at the Clay and Glass Gallery , Waterloo, ON.
Some Galleries Representing Paula Murray
- Galerie des métiers d’art du Quebec.
- Prime Gallery. www.primegallery.ca
- Galerie Elena Lee. www.galerieelenalee.com
- Lafrenière & Pai Gallery. www.lapaigallery.com
- Oeno Gallery. www.oenogallery.com
- Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Interiors. www.jonathons.ca
- William Zimmer Gallery. www.williamzimmergallery.com
- Elaine Erickson Gallery.
- Galerie Marianne Heller. www.galerie-heller.de
Endnotes and Bibliography
 Fragile beauty: ‘I was hooked on clay the first time I touched it.’The Ottawa Citizen May 10, 2008
 Paula Murray, Honoring the Natural World, by Nancy Baele , Ceramics Monthly May 2006
 General fine craft, art & design blog , http://generalfinecraft.com/?page_id=426
 Honouring the fragmented earth, by Catherine Joyce “The Low Down to Hull and Back News” in the June 08, 2005 issue.
 Laura Cummings Murray Lady and the Water. Ottawa at Home. July 2008
 Paula Murray’s Website http://www.paulamurray.ca
 Barry Morrison. Interview with Paula Murray, July, 2013, and email correspondence with the artist.