For those familiar with the story of pottery in British Columbia much has been written about Bernard Leach and his four Vancouver apprentices who came to work with him at St Ives in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Mr. Leach was a central figure in the 20th century "mingei" (folk art) movement due to his close relationship with master potter Shoji Hamada and philosopher Yanagi Soetsu. The four Leach apprentices; John Reeve, Ian Steele, Glenn Lewis, and Mick Henry have been rightly recognized and celebrated for their work which has become sought after and collected. All four were active in Vancouver in the early 1960s after returning from their St. Ives apprenticeship before then moving on to various locales. Leach, Hamada and the four apprentices featured centrally at the landmark "Thrown" exhibit at UBC Belkin Art Gallery in 2004 – so important and foundational was their influence. In a 1975 interview Leach expressed his "hope of something in Canada" as a result of their work.
What's also interesting is how Wayne Ngan factors into this milieu. Mr. Ngan was also featured prominently at "Thrown" but he never went to St. Ives and never met Mr. Leach or Mr. Hamada. Rather, he "maintained independent study and travel, gaining reference from his exploration of collections throughout Europe." To my mind he operated somewhat outside but also alongside the trends of the Leach Hamada tradition. While Mr. Ngan forged his own path and style that is uniquely his, he also immersed himself in and soaked in the influences of the great Eastern traditions.
According to Doris Shadbolt, who knew him well, and promoted him as an artist, she wrote "He has well-thumbed books on Korean and Japanese pottery and on the great Japanese potter Hamada, to whom he frankly acknowledges his debt and whom he refers to by his first name, Shoji, as a familiar friend and colleague, even though he never met him." Mr. Ngan never met Bernard Leach either, according to his daughter Gailan, but he must've also admired his work as evidenced by the charger he made (shown below left)...
The charger is very similar to this piece by Bernard Leach (above right) on display in a Japanese museum. The similarities between the two are striking enough to lead me to believe this was some sort of tribute piece or that Mr. Ngan appreciated Mr. Leach's design enough to make his own version.
Being a central figure in the development of the culture of west coast ceramics – Mr. Ngan was enjoying inclusion in a number exhibits and winning numerous awards – he was certainly interacting with other potters and acquiring knowledge of their techniques and influences. This would align with what Doris Shadbolt wrote about him learning "everything for himself." She went on to explain that "this probably reflects not only an inadequacy in his training but also his own inclination, however long it takes, to push by himself through the grey areas of the unknown to illumination as a means of understanding his results more intimately, – from the inside out."
I imagine this time to be an exciting and burgeoning time of creativity and mutual influence in the British Columbia pottery scene. It's interesting to see such a direct example of Mr. Ngan's work that honours and makes such an obvious tie to Bernard Leach. I believe it would be a mistake to consider it a copy of his work though. According to Jan Verwoert, this type of appropriation is a common technique, which "occurs when artists adopt imagery, concepts and ways of making art that other artists have used at other times to adapt these artistic means to their own interests."
To me, this is more of an example of something autobiographical and adapted. A piece which reflects the results of his research and self education. Its more an example of something which would have "helped to shape Vancouver’s cultural and place identity in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically through… contributions to the back-to-the-land movement and early Vancouver postmodernism." This cultural shift was something Mr. Ngan was certainly a key part of and it also may have contributed to helping "Leach's 'hope' to materialize…"
Leach, B. (1975). An Interview with Marty Gross. London: British Library
Lambley, A. (n.d.). Mingei and its Transnational Reception: The Translation and Appropriation of Mingei Theory and Practice by Bernard Leach’s four Vancouver Apprentices (1958-1979) (thesis).
Verwoert, J. (2007). Living With Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art. Art and Research, 1(2), 1–7.
Shadboldt, Doris. (1978). Pottery by Wayne Ngan: [exhibition] Vancouver Art Gallery, December 2, 1978 to January 7, 1979.
I've read all I can find to learn about Wayne Ngan's career - various books, gallery catalogues, newspaper articles, etc. One of the things that has resonated with me was his philosophy regarding his connection to nature and the importance and pursuit of balance. Perhaps it was the difficulty he faced in his younger years (growing up poor in rural China, immigrating alone to Canada as a youth, getting kick out of his home by a disapproving grandfather, etc) that pointed him in that direction? Whatever the case, throughout his years as a potter on Hornby Island, his connection to the land and the sea was intentional – from the home he built on Downes Point from natural found materials to the components he sourced for his clays and glazes. Through all of this he felt people should "do things in balance in their daily lives."
So it was interesting to me when I met a lady with a couple of Ngan pots to sell who referred to her conversations with Mr. Ngan about that balance. In 1989 she bought these two pots (shown below) from Mr. Ngan at his second studio on Ostby Road. Likely made sometime in the mid to late 1980s, he had coined them the "Sun pot" and the "Sea pot."
The "Sun pot" is a raku mizusashi (Japanese water jar used in tea ceremonies). Standing 165 cm x 220 cm across it is an impressive piece of work very similar to the one on display in the Bronfman Collection at the Canadian Museum of History. It features a silver nitrate overglaze, very slightly concave sides, a deep chop mark and a perfectly fitting lid topped with a knot of clay he often used.
The "Sea pot" is a very different piece altogether. While also raku, this one has a more experimental glaze from what I've seen of his work. It has a fine pebbly surface and a blue and green iridescence about it which likely inspired the name he gave it. There are fine flecks of metallic sand in it, and according to Mr. Ngan, some of the sand popped during the firing leaving random little white areas of pitting on the glaze surface. The shape is also that of a classic eastern influenced vessel, with banding around the middle, a small circular opening at the top and two lugs on the sides. It stands 235 cm high x 220 cm across.
When the buyer went to purchase the pots she learned first hand how his philosophy on balance also transferred to his way of business and interacting with his customers. She had initially wanted to buy two similar versions of the "Sun pot" but Mr. Ngan dissuaded her, insisting "it was too much sunshine." He spoke to her of the need to seek balance and suggested she should offset the sun with the sand and the sea. He then handed her "Sea pot" explaining it's name due to its colour and that it had beach sand in it. He further explained it was a good match to counterbalance the Sun pot since "you can see the reflection of the sun in it…" He went on further to say that "everything has a life force and that nature strived for balance and so should we."
The pots were an expensive purchase at the time. Mr. Ngan's reputation was firmly cemented by then and he was widely celebrated and awarded for his art so the prices would have been accordingly substantial. These two pieces would have represented wares at the higher end of his pricing spectrum and rare to find today. The original buyer recalls having to borrow some extra cash from her friends (who accompanied her to the studio that day) who were aghast at how much she paid for the pots. It was a lot to spend for "something you couldn’t eat or wear."
The pots were sold as a pair and remain that way today in order to maintain the balance Mr. Ngan spoke of. They now sit together by a window, capturing the sun in one and reflecting the sea to the other.
Daniels, A. (1976, December 11). An Empathy With Clay. The Vancouver Sun, p. 40.
Roberts, R. (1977, March 17). Potter Finds His Art Becomes a Way of Life. Alberni Valley Times, p. 3.
I always look forward to spring break. Even more so this year. After spending 30 years as an educator I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythm of the school year, and spring break always signals a renewal in my own energy reserves. The longer daylight is welcomed and a chance to get out of town as the winter roads open up is certainly inviting.
With the restrictions lifting it felt like a good opportunity to get out of town to spend some time with my daughter. It was also a chance to get out and connect with people, travel outside my region and look for some good B.C. pottery in my spare time...
Things started off great when I was able to purchase a matching pair of impressive Schwenk table lamps (one of two pictured above). The lamps are large at 21" tall and were made as a custom order in 1959. I enjoyed a nice visit with the gentleman who told me the story of how he bought them new from Adolph Schwenk who had purchased a brand new VW bus from his car dealership in Penticton that year. The bus must’ve been a good one as it had to be imported as a specialty order from Germany. They apparently hit it off and became quite friendly. As a thank you, Louise threw the pair of lamps and Adolph glazed them in a green glaze (by request) to match the green shag carpet in this gentleman’s new Penticton home. He's had them ever since and agreed to part with them if I gave them a good home. They now sit amongst other significant works I have by the Schwenks.
The next two finds were just as historic - a beautiful chun glazed Hilda Ross bowl that likely dates to the 1950s, and a Tam Irving sculptural vase from around 1966. Both were significant to me as the Ross bowl is similar to a piece exhibited at Ceramics 63 and the Irving vase has his early signature and denotes an experimental phase of his career before he opened a studio and moved towards more functional ware.
Fast forward a couple of days to a visit at a friend’s house for coffee. My daughter had stuff to do and I had a couple of hours to fill. My friend is a great guy who I met a few years ago. He has a passionate interest in a variety of fields related to factory ceramic art and has a keen eye for good studio pieces as well. He has always been a generous with his knowledge, happy to share what he knows, and is kind enough to pick up stuff for me in his travels that he knows I’ll like. This time around he had a couple of Wayne Ngan pieces for me as well as the strangest Des Loan I’ve seen to date.
I’ve written about Des in prior posts and I really like his work for its sheer variety. I also feel Des is an important potter in the history of BC pottery but frequently overlooked as he spent his career outside of the Lower Mainland. Des took course from John Reeve and I can always see a hint of that Leach-Hamada vibe in much of work. This one though, is decidedly not… This one has odd looking clay additions to the exterior including a partial disc sticking out. I laughed when I saw it but appreciated it too. This is Des at his most whimsical.
A day later I was able to acquire a nice salt glaze Ngan vase from a local dealer on my way out to meet a lovely elderly lady and her son who had an early Wayne Ngan bowl for me to view. She has collected many interesting and beautiful pieces of art over her lifetime including this bowl, which she bought on a trip to Hornby Island in the 1960s. She is in the process of downsizing and parting with a few things her family didn’t want. The bowl is spectacular in its size at 15" across, the largest Ngan bowl I’ve seen or found. The photos here don't do it justice - there is a depth and richness to the glaze that the camera (or my lack of photography abilities) can't capture. It shows Wayne’s extensive skill at a time early in his career. We agreed on a fair price for the bowl and it was mine to take home.
Towards the end of my time away I enjoyed a visit over coffee with another good friend and a passionate collector. This gentleman has the definitive collection of pottery by Jan and Helga Grove, something that is beyond the scope of any museum. If you have a significant piece of Grove pottery (such as a yard sculpture or any of Helga's fable animals), that you would like to sell (and see them go to the right place), please contact me and I will help make that happen.
My friend also has a keen eye and broad knowledge of good B.C. art and design. He's another great guy who is also very generous – giving me a great little shino vase by Wayne Ngan which I absolutely love. Small and simple but expertly done.
The next pair of finds fell into my lap right before I was due to return home. A couple of exceptional Wayne Ngan pieces I dearly wanted (see pics below). These were certainly no bargain but I felt I had to grab them when I had the chance or they would’ve ended up at auction. The gal who had them was kind enough to give me first chance at them which was nice. Pieces of this quality are hard to find, let alone acquire, so all in all I was grateful.
Finally, the last piece I found this trip is a great little Mick Henry bottle. It was a thrift store find I nabbed at the end of the day, likely passed over by scores of pickers who didn't realize what it was. What to some might seem to be a dour little piece to some is in fact an important example of early Leach Hamada influenced BC pottery. Henry is one of the four Leach apprentices who travelled to St. Ives in the early 1960s to apprentice with Bernard Leach. It has an early version of Mick's chop mark and finger trails through the glaze. It's got the heaviness I see in John Reeve's work - a solid example by a sought after potter.
Driving home I enjoyed sunny weather and good roads. It felt great to get out of town again but I find I always look forward to returning home. During the drive I had several hours of time to quietly think and reflect on my good fortune. The pottery was certainly nice to find but my take away was that the best part of this trip - as usual was the people. The friendly and gracious strangers who kindly invited me to their homes to share their stories of how they acquired their items and their impressions of the artists who made them. My friends, who I look forward to seeing each time I travel out that way - spending time together, sharing stories about our common interest, exchanging knowledge and leads on good pots, etc. And my daughter of course. She's the primary reason I wanted to get out of town and who I spent most of my time with. If I came home empty handed, only to spend time with her, I would be no less fortunate…
Mayer, C. E. (2007). Transitions of a still life: Ceramic work of Tam Irving. Anvil Press.
Wayne Ngan made a bunch of these I suspect. Over my years of looking at, and collecting his work, this is one of the more common forms I see. What I appreciate about them is their functionality (they're quite useful as a "catch all" or would be great to use as a serving plate), their consistency (all the ones I've seen always lay perfectly flat which is testimony to Mr. Ngan's skill as a master craftsman), and the creative variety in the way he glazed and decorated them (which is testimony to his talent as an artist).
Here are some examples to show this variety in a simple standard form - slip trailed designs, hakeme brushwork, colour variations, and sgrafitto carvings. These themes surface time and again on his other ceramic work as well.
This form would have been relatively simple and straight forward for him to make. The clay would have been rolled out on a wedging table to a uniform thickness - usually 10mm thick. This gives these trays a solid and substantial feel when held. The slab of clay would then be draped over a hump mould to give it it's shape, and would then be trimmed to size. The size of these is quite consistent, they are close to 9" x 9" with the small variation you would expect of any hand built piece of studio pottery.
Four pieces of clay would then be added to serve as feet. Generally they are "squared" (as seen below). There can be some variety to the way he finished the feet; distance from centre to edge, how cleanly the feet were finished, etc. The edges were then smoothed before bisque firing to ensure no sharp edges, and he signed these pieces by placing his chop mark underneath in the centre.
Once bisque fired Mr. Ngan had a blank canvas on which to apply the artistic flourishes that are unmistakably his. The example below is one I feel is among the best. He simply applied thick hakeme brush strokes across the face of the tray. Anything less, or any added decor would take away from the simplistic beauty of this piece of work. I was fortunate enough to be given this example by a good friend. It now sits among other fine examples of Wayne's hakeme.
While these trays are beautiful, they are prone to damage - presumably from use. Look for chipping and fleabites along the edges. Regardless, they are beautiful to look at and popular among Ngan collectors. If you have one of these trays you would like to showcase and have me add to this post, or if you have one you wish to sell, please feel free to contact me.
Studio Pottery Canada
Pottery enthusiast learning about the history of this Canadian art form and curating samples from the best in the field pre-1980.