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.