Dates: 1931- 2015
Production Dates: 1956 – 2015
Location: Alberta and British Columbia
Types of Work: functional and sculptural.
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: electric and propane; reduction where possible; earlier stoneware, later raku
Preferred Clay: stoneware, earthenware
Signature/Mark/Chop: The name ‘DEXTER’ is incised or “painted”, usually in capital letters.
What we see and admire in Walter Dexter’s art overlays a life where others tried to influence his priorities; and one where he frequently struggled and relocated because of economics, often as a matter of survival. However, when I interviewed him and while I researched his life, my impression of him was of an unpretentious and generous man seeking a personal expression that was both artistically and economically satisfying. He would have a long journey.
Dexter started in Calgary. Ceramics in Alberta in the early 1950s essentially meant Luke Lindoe. Lindoe ruled, and if you were starting out at that time you were either an outlier or a disciple. Walter Dexter initially loosely fit into the latter category. But he was to seek his own horizons. Horizons that would take him to Sweden, the rest of Europe, England, and eventually British Columbia. In his art he would slowly shift from stoneware to raku, and shift from early earth tone glazes on functional ware to vibrant painterly hues on abstract ceramic sculptures.
As a child he liked to draw. This led to his taking a course at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Arts (later the Alberta College of Art) in Calgary with an interest in becoming a commercial artist. However, he was soon thinking of quitting.
“After the second year I was really unhappy. It wasn’t my thing at all and was about to quit” ¹
However, at a graduation ceremony in his second year he was approached by Luke Lindoe about enrolling in the ceramics program¹:
”Luke came to me and said, ‘I think you should be over in this [Luke’s] department.’ I didn’t even know the pottery department existed. It was stuck off in the corner of the campus, just a small place. So I came back for a year. It was fantastic!” ¹
Asked why Lindoe approached him Dexter surmised:
“I had taken a modelling course with him in clay in my first year. He must have noticed something.” ¹
He was to stay for two more years. The first pottery year was rigid, the final more exploratory.¹ He graduated in 1954.
“By the fourth year we were pretty well along. We had to make up our programme. Luke would approve it.” ¹
The facilities in the school were simple:
“We had two wheels and a big muffle kiln. It had tubes around it. We had to knock the tubes [for reduction]; otherwise, it was an oxidation kiln. We had one good wheel, a constant speed thing. And you learned to stand up to it. But remember, there was hardly anyone else in the class. There were only two of us in my graduating year.” ¹
On the influences on Alberta ceramics at the time he said:
“There was an awful lot of energy coming out of Montana, the Archie Bray Foundation. We all picked up on that. Luke went down there and brought back pots. We went mad about them. It was a revelation for us.” ¹
To become a potter was not yet a socially recognized calling. Studying in Calgary at the time was one thing; a life as potter was something else. Other employment opportunities could beckon:
“There was no market. I was idealistic. Times were so different. We wouldn’t have trouble finding work. You could walk out of the art school and get any kind of work. ¹
Asked why he initially stayed in Calgary rather than going elsewhere in Alberta, or to BC or Ontario Dexter simply replied:
“There was nothing else in Alberta at the time. It was easier to stay at home and study. Calgary was my home.” ¹
He stayed the course. He did start exhibiting soon after he left school, at Coste House, in Calgary, but there was a compromise. As insurance his parents:
” … forced me to take a course at business school … so I could find a job easily in typing and accounting.“ ¹
Dexter, however, wanted to continue in pottery. With the help of his brother he “started applying for scholarships like mad”, even to Mexico.¹
“I had to get to Europe to get out of this trap.” ¹
He eventually did receive a small scholarship from the University of Manitoba for a year of study in Sweden. This lasted from 1954-55 at the Swedish School of Arts and Crafts. He toured and produced in Sweden but the money ran out. The next stops were in England, working on a farm, and then washing dishes in a hospital in London. He thought about earning money to return home but he was having too good a time visiting art galleries and museums in London and touring Europe with friends. He was still in contact with Lindoe who, in fact, offered to pay his return fare home, to come and work for him at Lindoe’s new business, Ceramic Arts in Calgary. His parents would have none of this and it was they who eventually did pay for the ticket home.¹
Back in Calgary Dexter did work for Lindoe for a while at Ceramic Arts and picked up the necessary production discipline and skills he lacked. Dexter reflects on his mentor’s fortune, “Luke lost money continually.” ¹
He was soon working at Medalta in Medicine Hat, managing the plant. It was this Medicine Hat experience that helped him decide to become a professional potter, again, more as an escape:
“When I was in Medicine Hat … it wasn’t my thing to manage a big manufacturing plant. I was very bad at it, so I was reaching out. [Pottery] was what I was trained in and gave it a go.” ¹
From this time on his future moves were mostly financially based, sometimes in desperation. Possible locations were considered. He sought what he thought were potentially more profitable venues:
“What I was thinking of were the tourist areas, Kelowna, Jasper, Vancouver.” ¹
By this time he had a family to support. Kelowna was the next location.
Artistically the move allowed him to continue his functional work. The first studio was in an old shed in the Pandosy Mission area in the south part of Kelowna. To say it was a tough time is to understate the pain.¹
“I hated [Medicine Hat]. I pulled out and tried to making a living in Kelowna and damn near starved, literally” ¹
“But even though people were starting coming around to see what I was doing, and I could see it as a way of making a living. I went through hell at the time trying to survive there … The struggle was intense. That’s why I took up teaching.” ¹
It was a personal disaster also. His marriage fell apart.
Business-wise it was an emotionally and physically draining time. He tried selling from his studio but he found this confining:
”You always felt you had to be there.” ¹
Fortunately he was able to find a continuing source of income, as a ceramics instructor from 1968-1974, teaching at the Kootenay School of Art, Nelson, BC. His business, Dexter Pottery, was taken over by Gerald Tillapaugh and Bob Kingsmill in 1967.7
He replaced Santo Mignosa who had gone to Italy to study. 4 He had some seventy students.8
“I went into teaching for a while for about five years because I was having a hell of a time. All of sudden I was making money. … Teaching was one of the best times, apart from the time I was studying. … There was a lot of excitement.” ¹
Basically he quit full-time production for a while but still had to market his part-time pottery:
“I used to get in my car and drive to Vancouver and literally hustle … and sell twenty five bucks [worth] even then.” ¹
His work at the time is described as:
“…slab work of good calibre, hand-built pieces which were very good, and thrown pieces which were excellent. There were four pieces of raku of good size. Reduction produced exciting colours and showed the true delights of oxides, the body and irridescent beauty obtained through these techniques.”7
In the early teaching years he found:
“The students were very demanding … they reduced me to a shivering idiot.” ¹
It was In Nelson he met and married Rona Murray, poet and academic. She would have a stabilizing effect on his moving.
He would only move two more times: first to Surrey, BC, when Rona obtained a position teaching at UBC and then to Metchosin, near Victoria on Vancouver Island, where she would teach as at the University of Victoria. In talking of these times Dexter seemed more at peace, willingly following the lead of his wife’s professional needs. Surrey came first:
“… because of the kiln, and horses, we had horses. My wife was restless too. … I don’t think I would have come if she hadn’t pushed me.” ¹
While setting up his studio Dexter continued teaching, from 1979-83 with Emily Carr College of Art Outreach Program.
Initially times were still tough financially. He was not a kiln builder per se, so he bought a kiln kit from a Seattle and put it together. He scrounged tables and chairs and set up his studio in a garage.
Finally, in the mid 1970s they moved to Metchosin, on Vancouver Island. His marketing style evolved over the years. In early years he was selling small volume batches across the country to such stores as Canada’s Four Corners in Ottawa and to Bowring. This involved his personally “hustling” to stores and galleries. By 1981 he was selling on Saturdays out of his showroom. People were coming to him. He now had trouble keeping up supply to the stores since he was doing so well in his showroom. Even this transition had hiccups at times:
“People would come in and see wholesale prices on works being prepared for shipment and assumed those were the retail prices.” ¹
By 1981 he had found a new focus;
“ [To] do a mostly decorative work, not [as] many casseroles and goblets.” ¹
However he now had to re-energize his glaze research:
“I had to do an enormous amount of testing in an area I didn’t know much about, moving into a mid-range temperature, cone 2, 3 and 4. I got hold of Jack Herman’s ideas. I took a few of his [recipes] and worked for two months on glaze tests, trying to get a half dozen. It took me a long time to get them working properly for me so I could get a continuity. “ ¹
With economic and personal stability he and Rona began to travel more. By 1995 he was developing new forms, a new line, his later work, his “Torsos.”
Walter Dexter received many awards and recognition. Some key ones were:
- 1962, Dexter was awarded a silver medal at the International Ceramics Exhibition in Prague,
- 1963 received the outstanding Stoneware Award at the Canadian Ceramics Biennial.
- 1992 the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Craft.
- election to the RCA
Rona passed in 2003. Walter stayed in southern Vancouver island until his death in June 2015.
A Walter Dexter Gallery
Early Years, Alberta, c.1956 – 63
The first two works above are probably student works since they are illustrated in the catalogue Studio Ceramics in Alberta 1947-52, while he was still a student at art school.³ The slipcast Bear could be the type of work that attracted Luke Lindoes’ attention. The stoneware Vase is typical of the style of work being produced by potters at this time.
“The Leach book was our bible, that damn Leach book; and Parmelee For technical things.” ¹
The Vase on the left shows the influence of Lindoe and his own travels:
“I picked up forms from Sweden and brushwork from Luke Lindoe.” ¹
Broad brushstrokes and sgrafitto form a regular movement around and up an ovoid form. The colour is simple, the design strongly graphic in its repeating pattern of arrowhead shapes, all combing to accentuate the vertical dimension of the work. Even in his early years there were hints of Dexter’s later directions:
“Walter Dexter has a love for decoration that occasionally leads to thoughts of painting on canvas, but he will never discard the medium that is essential to his well-being. He has said that when he is not working in clay he is not ‘in a state of grace’ ” 6
By 1961 Dexter was exhibiting in the bi-annual Canadian Ceramics exhibitions organized by the Canadian Guild of Potters. Interestingly he is listed as working out of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a place he said he needed to escape from. In this 1961 exhibition he had five stoneware works accepted: thrown, slab and coiled, incised with brown, green yellow and “purplish” glazes. Dexter’s works are the two needle-necked bottles on the right of this grouping. They are described as “two bottles, stoneware, thrown and coil, dark brown
glaze, white incised decoration.” These bi-annuals were important exhibitions for him:
“They gave us a focus, an exhibition to try and get into, … it was the big one, it gave you some prestige … I used to be better known down east.” ¹
BC Early Years, Kelowna, BC (1963-68) and Nelson, BC (1968-74)
In his early years in BC he obtained his clay from Jorgen Poschmann’s Pottery Supply House in Oakville, Ontario. In the Okanagan he started to use Luke Lindoe’s Plainsman Clay. In Nelson he used to dig up the clay with his students.¹ Eventually in the 1970s he was to shift to Green Barn. ¹
Blue and White Shallow Dish. Here Dexter is using broad bands of blue and white glaze with wax resist designs. The designs are similar to what can be found in Surrealist and Picasso works. Perhaps more relevantly they are motifs picked up by the American Abstract Expressionists of recent decades.
Items such as this charger below, from his time in Kelowna, are now showing up frequently in the secondary market of auction houses and dealers often with such titles as “Mid-Century Modern” and “Studio Art Pottery.” They reflect the the rise of the ceramic collector. There is an irony in the success of these sales at a time they are no longer of value to him. Such is the art world. This example shows Dexter freeing up his design with large red and white colour fields broken by brown overlays. The effect is one of a circular canvas.
His penury commanded that he still make conventional functional ware. A thrown bowl such as this below is simple in form design and colour. The lip is thick, unglazed, the belly has thin washes of light brown glaze, interrupted by Japanese style, sumi-e brush strokes in resist that add an energy an movement to the form
The BC West Coast Years: c.1975 – 2015: Surrey and Metchosin
Dexter’s potter has obviously changed over the years. While a student he was doing stoneware but after school he had to “go down to an electric kiln, firing around cone 2 or 3″ ¹ because he couldn’t afford a kiln, keeping the temperature low, using glaze stain. He produced more earthenware and began to think about colour.¹
“I started thinking about colour really mixing stains like a painter would.” ¹
These two stoneware bowls show Dexter’s move away from his earlier earth tones in his use of a wine red glaze.. Already there is a use of what might be termed a “Dexter line”, a broken but fluid, almost organic line that moves around the belly of his works.
He was to say of this red colour:
“One success was a “store-line”, copper red which I can’t seem to get out of.” ¹
He started working in raku around 1972 while working with Hal Riegge in Nelson.¹ More change was to come.
He says of his creative processes at the time that hint of an “action painting’ approach to his surface designs:
“ [They are] spontaneous. I think about it a bit but I get on a kick. I’ll get a kind of idea and try to work it out… but I tend to go on until I’m bored. I’ll do a certain kind of pattern and then I’ll get bored. I gotta change this and try to to change things. Generally I’ll mess up a a lot of pots until I can get it settled down and get something I like.” ¹
I’ll have my colours around me . I might have a colour chart. And then I’ll go.” ¹
He did admit to sketching at times, not for decoration but for new shapes, new forms, particularly for his raku.” ¹
“The big change was only three or four years ago [1977-78]. I felt my work after all these years was finally shaking off the past.” ¹
“I’m a surface man. I think the form is important but I get a little careless. I just love to add the surface.” ¹
On finishing the surface:
“I scratch them or I use a lot of wax resist … and scratch the surfaces when they are wet. I apply slips with raku. I’ll glaze certain sections. I’ll spray them with an airbrush or use a slip trailer.” ¹
The 1983 Raku Bottle (left) Ilustrates a new direction in form and firing and colour treatment . The colours are a basically a study in browns and white, giving an immiscible effect of contrasting matte and oily gloss surfaces. . The shoulders in a sharp angular movement to the neck, prefigure the forms of his later torso works.
The ceramic vase (below) of 1989 made six years later is of approximately the same height yet it has a fuller belly. However the effect is much different. The surface is textured with deeper ribbing from the act of throwing. But it is the colour that shows movement in a new direction: the pastels blue, pinks and violets, The effect is almost Southwestern American. The horizontality is broken by the diagonal slash of black, like a sash, itself overlain with that organic Dexter line. His colours would now become intense.
Torso works 1995ff
In 1995 Dexter started to produce abstract bottle forms that became his signature work. They are both painting and sculpture at the same time. The Torsos are painterly in their colouring. Their shapes are a mix of flat, or ridged, or grooved forms covered in brightly coloured geometric and stencil shapes, with splashes and strokes applied in a tachiste fashion. Colours are primary and secondary. The colour flatness covers and contrasts with with the rough surface texture of the clay body. This texturing, sometimes made by applying cloth to the surface prior to firing, unites form and surface. The design is contained within the essential shape of the “body”; sometimes framed picture-like on the frontal surface, sometimes reaching garment-like around the shoulders to the back.
Dexter’s production of these works was prolific to say the least. There are tremendous numbers and varieties in size, shape and surface design. These below are only a few to give you a taste. Enjoy the slide show.
Links to Sites for More Works:
- Clayspot: Dexter Clayspot
- Jonathan Bancroft-Snell. Walter Dexter: The Torso Masterworks with Ronald P. Frye publishing, 2012.
- Claridge Collection, Montreal, Quebec
- Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa Ontario
- Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo, Ontario
- Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec;
- Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
- University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta
- Burlington Art Gallery, Burlington, Ontario
- Alberta Foundation of the Arts, Alberta
- Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Luke Lindoe. Interview with Barry Morrison, February 21, 1981
2. Brian Grison. Ceramic Art And perception, No. 76, 2009, pp. 18- 23.
3. Studio ceramics in Alberta 1947-1952. Alberta Art Foundation, c.1981.
4. Sandra Alfody. Crafting Identity: The Development of Professional Fine Craft in Canada. July 2005, p.139.
5. Canadian Guild of Potters, Canadian Ceramics 1961. Catalogue.
6. Studio Ceramics in Alberta 1953-1963. Alberta Art Foundation, 1982.
7. Western Potter 1968 12. p.23.
8. Western Potter 1968 11. p.14.