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.
A while back I was contacted by someone who had an old lamp made by B.C. potter Hilda K. Ross. I was pleased to receive the email as I had never found a piece of Ms. Ross' work before. She was an important early contributor to the B.C. pottery scene and examples of her work are hard to find. I assume most of her pots are either in collections or have been lost to time.
Thumbing through my old exhibition catalogues I've always been impressed by how well her work showed and was profiled back in the 1950s and early 1960s but couldn’t readily find too much about her career. What follows is what I was able to summarize with a little digging…
Hilda Katherine Ross was born in Ottawa in 1902 and later began her artistic career when she studied art at the Winnipeg School of Art. There she studied under the tutelage of Group of Seven artist LL FitzGerald, who taught at the school between 1929–1947. After leaving Winnipeg she would go on to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ms. Ross then attended the newly founded British Columbia College of Art sometime between 1933 and 1935. While there she studied with another Group of Seven artist, Frederick Varley, who had opened the short lived school with his colleague Jock Macdonald. After concluding her studies, she became one of Vancouver’s first studio potters.
Starting in September 1948, Ross began teaching pottery alongside Mollie Carter at Gordon Neighbourhood House, on Broughton Street, in Vancouver’s West End. At the same time she also served as one of the designers for the Cottage Pottery in Pennsylvania. While some potter's craft circles existed in BC prior to the war – notably in Summerland and Victoria – these were some of the first independent pottery classes taught in Vancouver and by the end of 1949 they had 200 students.
Later, until the summer of 1952, their ceramics workshop was relocated to the basement of the U.B.C. library. There they were joined by Hungarian Zoltan Kiss (by way of Knabstrup Keramik in Denmark) who, on arrival, became one of the few potters in British Columbia with training and experience.
The Ross lamp I was interested in took me on a jaunt out to the west coast of Vancouver Island. The owner told me it was part of a downsizing purge by an elderly relative who was parting with some "quality stuff." The lamp she showed me certainly fit the bill in my mind. The textured body was reminiscent of other Ross pieces I've seen, and likely something learned from or influenced by Mason or Ball. It would have been a quality piece to acquire back in the day – likely the late 50s or early 60s – as it still had the original exhibition label affixed to the bottom with its price of $35 (about $350 by today's standard).
In 1951 and 1952 Edith Heath travelled north from Sausalito California to UBC to teach an Extension Department summer workshop to Ms. Ross and others which focused on clay, glazes and wheel throwing. Around the same time her classes were re-located from the basement of the UBC library to a more permanent home - the "Pottery Hut," a retrofitted former army barrack. Here, Ms. Ross continued to teach part-time alongside her former teacher Rex Mason among others.
The UBC Pottery Hut was a hive of creative sharing and development during the next decade. Luminaries like F. Carleton Ball, Konrad Sadowski, John Reeve and Kyllikki Salmenhaara (a renowned designer at the Arabia factory Art Department in Helsinki Finland) were all guest instructors at the Pottery Hut. During these years Hilda Ross was also busy working on the formation of the BC Potters Guild with Olea Davis, Avery Huyghe and Stan Clarke.
Another notable achievement that comes up in my research is the work she did with Olea Davis, Reg Dixon, and Stan Clarke to help BC studio potters find viable sources of clay in the province. In 1958 they used a grant from the Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation to prepare a report on British Columbia clays for the UBC Extension Department. Their findings were presented using examples of fired works with different clays in a well-received exhibit in the Spring of 1958 at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery.
Hilda Ross continued teaching and working at the Pottery Hut until it was closed in 1966. She then opened and operated the Ross-Huyghe School of Pottery with her friend Avery Huyghe until retiring from potting in 1969.
During her career she actively exhibited widely in BC, Canada, and abroad - many at which she won awards. Her work was accepted to the Canadian Ceramics Biennial in 1953, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1965, and 1967. Other notable major exhibitions include the Universal and International Exhibition in Brussels in 1958, the 3rd International Exhibition of Ceramic Art in Prague 1962 (where she received a gold medal), the Department of Trade & Commerce Exhibitions in Berlin and Florence 1964, and the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67.
M's Ross' work is notable for it treatment of surface the glazes she used. Heavy textures and rollered finishes are common as in these examples...
Hilda Ross' work is signed with her "H.K.R." initials (left) or with her full name "Hilda K. Ross" (hard to make out on the right). Pottery simply signed "Ross" is often mistakenly attributed to her.
I purchased the lamp of course. It is in perfect original condition and at 13" tall it is certainly an impressive piece of Ms. Ross' work - very representative of the time. It was missing its original shade but I soon managed to find an old Lotte Bostlund spun fiberglass shade that is a good match for it.
I'm still enjoying the lamp and glad I spent the time digging into Hilda Ross contributions to the BC pottery story. It sits prominently in my home and gets used every day, providing necessary light to a naturally dim corner. When I pause to look at it, I'm reminded of a time when the energy around ceramic culture in BC must've been electric with all the connections that were created between prominent artists – the people who's work I love. It also reminds me of a lazy drive along the ocean on a sunny day, in the company of my daughter and her dog, and yet another good memory thanks to this hobby of mine.
After searching for years for a piece of work by Hilda Ross, I was able to buy the lamp. Recently I was fortunate enough to find another, and I think, better example of her work. This chun glazed and perfectly thrown bowl was likely made in the 1950s. It features a textured back and is 11" across by 3" high.
Neighborhood Artists to Register. (Sept. 24, 1949). The Vancouver Sun.
photo, page 36. (October 5, 1949). Vancouver Sun.
Perreault, E. (July 8, 1950). School's In For The Summer. The Province.
Art of Pottery Making to Be Taught at UBC. (June 29, 1950). Surrey Leader.
Pallette. (March 22, 1958). New Exhibit Covers Wide Range of Effort. The Province.
Dollman, R. (Aug. 18, 1962). International Awards, Tours Favor City Cramics and BC Painting. The Province.
Allan, R. (July 25, 1964). Teachers and Talent Abound At Summer School Of The Arts. Vancouver Sun.
Every once in a while I come across a truly special piece of ceramic art that deserves its own post... This ceramic sculpture, shown below, was made in the early 1960s by Santo Mignosa. It stands an impressive 765 mm (30") tall and is 460 mm (18") wide across the top. Santo is known for his large sculptural pieces, a technique he learned in his native Italy before leaving his teaching job at the Institute of Art in Siracusa, and immigrating to Canada in 1957 to become a ceramics instructor alongside Olea Davis and Thomas Kakinuma at the UBC pottery hut in 1959.
Santo was featured in a February 1963 edition of Ceramics Monthly and was interviewed on his techniques and ability to create such large sculptural pieces. He explained that his method "consists of just building anything you want by adding a piece of flat clay on top of another and, in doing that, giving a specific direction to the line of the sculpture." He went on to say that "it is necessary that the artist have a very clear picture in his mind of the finished work, as second thoughts are not allowed. Of course, experience makes everything easy..."
The clay he chose was also unique as it was "a cone 8 dark- brown-burning clay which is used commercially to join sections of sewer pipe."
The Etruscan motifs on this piece are clearly evident and in line with other sculptural works he made during these years. In fact, he wrote "Etrusco" on the bottom where he signed it to leave no question of his intent.
At the time of it's creation in the early 1960s, Santo was teaching at the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson BC, with Zeljko Kujundzic. I've seen photos of other sculptural pieces Santo created during that time frame and can see Zeljko's byzantine-style influence in some of it. This one though is entirely Santo and may have been finished earlier when he was still teaching at UBC.
Always eager to show his work internationally, the sculpture, titled "Impressions of Vancouver, B.C." was accepted for the 22nd Ceramic National Exhibition in Syracuse New York. The show, held in 1962, was a survey of American and Canadian contemporary art pottery held annually and featured the best work on the continent.
"Impressions..." had long been in the possession of an art collector since purchasing it directly from Santo in Nelson in the mid 1960s. There it sat alongside world class pieces by Hans Coper and Toshu Yamamoto. It was important to the family of this gentleman that the Mignosa piece would find its way and end up in a collection where it would be fully appreciated and admired. It is, and now sits among works created by his friend Zeljko, perhaps some of which were thrown or fired at the same time...
I recently uncovered this photograph of "Impressions" in the installation at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. The photo dates to between November 4 - December 30, 1962 just before the show went on a two year long tour of the United States. According to the exhibit catalog, Santo listed the piece at $335 USD (approximately $3500 in today's currency).
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.