When one thinks of important early Alberta potters, the name that usually comes up is Luke Lindoe, and rightly so. Lindoe gave much to the movement in Alberta between his stays in Calgary and Medicine Hat. However, the brief and dynamic arrival of Sibyl Laubental to the north, in Edmonton, in the early 1950s, should give one pause to consider her immense and important contributions as well.
Marie Sibyl (Budde) Laubental was born in Halle, Germany in 1918 just at the end of the First World War to Martin Luther University professor Werner Budde, and his sculptor wife, Grete. Grete Budde was a gifted sculptor and portrait artist at a time when instruction at art academies was typically denied to women. She took private lessons instead and, as a result, produced a great many portraits and scultures in the 1920s and 30s. The Budde family's Jewish heritage put them in tremendous danger with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and in 1937, Werner was one of 39 lecturers to be removed from the University due to newly instituted racial laws.
Sibyl Budde started her career in ceramics at 18. She first studied as an apprentice around Salerno, Italy from 1935 - 1938 before returning to Germany and being hired as an assistant at the prestigious studio of Danish born modernist potter Jan Bontjes van Beek in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. As the war progressed, and things got much worse, Van Beek's daughter Cato was arrested and executed for her involvement in the "Red Orchestra" resistance. Van Beek himself was also arrested for the crime of sipperhaft - or shared responsibility. Ms. Budde, who had been married to architect Carl Laubental, was forced to spend the remainder of the war in hiding with her husband and young family in the attic of a baker. The van Beek studio was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943.
After the war, with Sibyl spending a couple of years working in a Stuttgart tile factory, the young Laubental family emigrated to Edmonton in the spring of 1952 where her extraordinary talent was recognized almost immediately. She helped teach at the newly formed Edmonton Potter's Guild where she instructed students on the wheel, taught them how to prepare clay and glazes, and how to produce high fire stoneware. These were early days and would likely seem primitive to today's potters but the knowledge base was in its infancy and Ms. Laubental was a major factor in its growth. Her skill on the wheel even caught the attention of Luke Lindoe himself who drove hundreds of kilometres to see her demonstrate. He recalled "(she) taught me what I needed to know about throwing." (Crawford, p.201).
As Ms. Laubental's reputation grew she was invited to teach at more locations including the Banff School and the University of Alberta Extension Department. She gave a great deal of her focus to her students, distracting from her own personal production. As a result her work is now quite scarce and difficult to find. She did manage to send juried pieces off to important exhibitions where she won awards. These included Canadian Ceramics 1955 ($50 prize for a stoneware vase) and 1957 (see below) as well as the 19th Ceramic National in 1957 at Syracuse, New York. This recognition would likely have to be considered the pinnacle of her career.
She also exhibited at;
Sibyl Laubental's work reflects the Bauhaus design ethic we see in other European influenced potters like Marguerite Wildenhain, Jan Grove, and Leonard Osborne. She believed that glaze and decorative motif should not detract from the lines or designs of a piece but rather should enhance it. All the examples of her work pictured in this article illustrate this.
Sadly, Sibyl Laubental's life was cut short by a terminal illness, in 1961, at the age of only 43. She was succeeded in her teaching role by the likes of Walter Dexter and Noboru Kubo. During her brief decade in Canada she influenced and started the careers of a great many Alberta potters, contributing tremendously to the development of the Alberta ceramics movement along with Luke Lindoe.
I've been fortunate enough to find and acquire but one piece of Sibyl Laubental's work - this bowl. It is a fine example and emblematic of her Bauhaus approach. Simply glazed but with incredible depth and feel. It does not distract from the perfectly thrown form. Likely dating to the mid to late 1950s, the bowl is 8 1/4" across and 3 1/2" high.
Ms. Laubental's only solo exhibitions occured after her death in 1962 - one in Winnipeg, the other in Edmonton. Interestingly, her mother, Grete Budde recently had over 90 of her sculptural works recognized at her first solo exhibition - Grete Budde. Works for the University - in 2021 in Halle, Germany.
Sibyl Laubental signed her work simply "SIBYL" on the edge of the foot, as shown in the examples above.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, December 9). Jan Bontjes van beek. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Bontjes_van_Beek
Ausstellung zu Grete Budde: Aus der Vergessenheit Geholt. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.campus-halensis.de/artikel/ausstellung-zu-grete-budde-aus-der-vergessenheit-geholt/?cok
Crawford, M. G. (2005). In Studio Ceramics in Canada: 1920-2005 (pp. 201–203). Goose Lane Editions.
Collier, A. (2011). The Modern Eye: Craft and Design in Canada, 1940-1980. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Canadian Guild of Potters. (1955). Canadian ceramics.
Canadian Guild of Potters. (1957). Canadian ceramics.
I correspond occasionally with a gentleman who shares my interest in the ceramic work of Wayne Ngan. We haven’t been in touch for a number of months, mainly due to the disruption of my recent move to a new town. The time vacuumed up by buying, selling, packing, moving, renovating and settling took much longer than I anticipated and left me no time for my hobbies. Now that life has returned to balance for me, I’ve been able to devote more spare time to my interests, including this site. A recent update I made to a couple of pages here prompted his latest email which I was happy to receive.
In our last series of back and forths he wondered aloud whether the pieces I have are a selection or a collection? I had to reread that line a couple of times because it was something I hadn’t ever really pondered. The question interested me enough to remain with me for a day or two and for some reason I felt compelled to work it out and answer it for myself. I’m presenting my thoughts here in case anyone else has wondered the same.
A little light digging into the question revealed that others have asked the same as it relates to their hobby – astronomy, birdwatching, etc. Folks there seem to delineate the two terms on the basis of need and want. "What tools do you need to engage in your hobby?" - as opposed to those items you want in order to fill a gap but which may or may never be used. My conclusion drawn on this basis was that my ceramics would be more of a collection then, as I really don’t need any of them. I suppose I could find a practical use for most of them (as containers for instance) but they are really only out on display for my enjoyment. So, it’s a collection then?
Moving next into the dictionary definitions led me to distill a variety of explanations for the two terms down to the following:
After thinking on all of this I decided I've experienced both and its been an evolutionary process. What began, for me, as a collection has morphed into a carefully curated selection.
Examples of great Canadian pottery including work by Kakinuma, Lindoe, Hamilton, the Schwenks, Dexter, Springer, Kujundzic and Ngan.
When I was first attracted to Canadian studio pots, and before I even acquired my first piece, I was drawn to their variety (forms, glazes, functions, etc), the various eras, and the stories behind the makers. The mystery of the chop mark as an identifying clue further appealed to me. Soon enough I began to drag home every drab little brown pot I stumbled across because of this variety and their affordability. Space eventually became a challenge and clutter naturally ensued causing a shift in paradigm. By necessity I began to become more choosy and pass on pieces that didn’t fit a set of criteria laid out in my mind. I began to keep "better" pieces and let go of "lesser" ones.
A few examples of exceptional Canadian ceramic work that I've had to let go over the years - some with considerable difficulty...
From left; a perfectly executed yunomi from Lari Robson, a fantastic vase by Toru Hasegawa, and an important lidded jar by Olea Davis.
As my knowledge and collection grew I realized there is far too much great Canadian ceramic work to have it all. The creativity in the ceramic art our nation has produced is amazing really. I came to realize that I can appreciate this vast scope through other people's collections - mine needed to be focused and I landed (almost) exclusively on Wayne Ngan’s work.
Examples of acquisitions that necessitated others to be bumped off the shelf under my "one in, one out" policy
When I look at the selections I've acquired over the years, I realize I'm interested in a few main aspects of Wayne's work that I feel tell his story, specifically; the eras, the forms, his techniques and his glazes. How do I select and curate samples that show his progression and style from student pieces at the VSA to his most recent contemporary forms? How can you see his story without raku work? Or salt glaze work? Or a selection of his tea bowls? Form becomes important, as does glaze, and on it goes.
To focus further, I've placed a numeric limit (a cap) to the number of pieces I allow myself to keep. Perhaps this is the part I enjoy most as it manages the clutter and challenges me to always "upgrade" what I keep under my "one in, one out rule."
So I've decided, for me at least, what started as a collection years ago is now my curated selection. Time will tell if I have a critical eye and have kept the right examples for what I'm trying to do...
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.
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.