Des Loan - Renaissance Man
I met Des Loan in the fall of 1982. He was my high school English teacher and he was different than the rest of my teachers. Des taught differently, talking to us in seminar as opposed to marching us through a textbook. He told stories - including one I remember about his friend “Zeljko” who had been a prisoner of war during WWII. (I would later discover this man to be Zeljko Kujundzic, another prolific and important Canadian artist who spent a considerable part of his career in British Columbia). Another time I remember him singing to us in sonnet and then admonishing us for being embarrassed by it. Yes, Des was certainly different than the rest of the staff at my high school but I credit him for reigniting my interest in reading and writing that had been dispatched over the previous three years by the drudgery of a traditional education.
Their pottery career started later in the 1950s when Peg took a pottery course on hand building at the Naramata Summer School of the Arts with California potter Hal Riegger - who headed the pottery department at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
As it happened, the ceramic seed was now planted and Des was soon getting his hands in the clay too. By the early 1960’s Des and Peg had generated enough work and interest in what they were making that they began selling pottery directly from their home in Summerland.
Wanting to further his ceramic skills and deepen his understanding of the whole process, Des enrolled in UBC Summer Extension Programs at UBC in Vancouver. The classes all took place at the “Pottery Hut” - the crucible of ceramic art in British Columbia. Starting in the early 1950s and on into the 1960s, the pioneer potters of B.C. learned from the likes of American luminaries Edith Heath, F. Carlton Ball and Marguerite Wildenhain and also from international artists like Alexander Archipenko and Kyllikki Salmenhaara. Des attended for two consecutive summers; the first hosted by Stan Clarke in 1961 and then with John Reeve in 1962. Reeve had just arrived back in Canada after completing his apprenticeship with Bernard Leach at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives England (1958 - 1961).
So began their fascination and journey with pottery. With an electric kiln to get them started, they established their first studio “Okanagan Pottery” on Bottleneck Drive in Summerland. Des was involved in a number of exhibitions during the 1960s, including the Western Ceramics touring exhibit in 1967. His work was one of many featured in this juried show of western Canadian artists that travelled to over a dozen galleries.
His drive to explore, experiment and have a dedicated space for making pottery led Des to make the move to Peachland and build the Okanagan Pottery Studio in 1968. Right on the side of Highway 97, just past the foot of Princeton Avenue, Des constructed his studio facing the lake and looking out across at Rattlesnake Island. Here they had both a retail and studio space that was easily accessible to the public. Another big step forward here was the purchase of a gas fired kiln for producing stoneware and porcelain work. This larger scale kiln allowed for not only a huge range of glaze possibilities but also sculptures and larger scale ceramic vases like the one shown below. This is a collaborative piece signed by both Peg and Des and dates to around 1972.
The 1960s and 1970s were exciting times in B.C. pottery. Artists were coming into their own, programs and careers were becoming established, and the exchange of ideas was in full swing. The Leach apprentices were back from St. Ives and luminaries like Wayne Ngan were emerging. Many notable artists moved freely between B.C. and Alberta sharing ideas and influence. Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, Nelson, Vancouver and the Island were all very prolific hubs of creation.
The Okanagan valley was no different. With the passing of the Schwenks in the mid 1960s, it was the next wave of Okanagan potters like the Loans, Zeljko Kujundzic, Frances Hatfield, Walter Dexter, Leonhard Epp and Frank Poll who would create their own creative epicentre. While Dexter’s stay was fairly brief (he would leave for Nelson in 1968 to head the Kootenay School of the Arts) - Des, Zeljko and Frank would form three of the Five Okanagan Contemporary Artists collective. Along with Weldon Munden and LeRoy Jensen (later of the Limner group in Victoria) the group injected a great deal of energy and leadership into the valley art scene.
Looking at Des Loan pieces created during these years you can see the mutual influence and interchange of ideas between many of these potters. You can see it the works of Kujundzic, Mignosa, and Poll at this time. The influence of Thomas Kakinuma can be seen on some of the figural animals Peg produced during these years. You can also see it in the work of his friend Les Manning who asked Des if he could work at the studio for part of the year during his sabbatical from the Banff Centre in the early 1980s.
Les and Des had a great rapport with one another and inspired each other in clay and philosophy. Des had such an appreciation and deep understanding of literature that he could easily share and discuss at depth a great variety of authors, poets and playwrights. Les found this most inspiring and would often tell Des how he would incorporate ideas and quotes he had learned from Des in lectures and keynotes he would deliver.
For Des, having Les working in the studio opened his eyes to a whole new range of design ideas and especially glazes. Les was a great artist and especially keen as a careful technician in formulating and firing a wide range of very interesting glazes. Des continued to use many of the recipes Les shared with him from that time. Especially a Shino glaze of Japanese origin that Des used right up to his final days of working with clay.
When I was doing some research on Des' pottery career I connected with his son-in-law Peter Flanagan. Peter is also a talented and widely regarded potter who has been actively creating for the past 40+ years. Peter is known for the incredibly large plates he throws - some requiring 70 lbs of clay! They’re impressive and they’re beautiful. You can check out Peter’s work here.
One of the things Peter impressed on me was that Des was a Renaissance man. He had varied interests and was good at many things. He enjoyed playing his grand piano for visitors to his home. He was an avid painter in oils and exhibited throughout the Okanagan. He was also interested in photography who had a knack for portraiture and candid capture. Des was also a published poet, his works appearing in literary journals and also in a book of his own collected works. He shared this interest with his friend George Ryga, a notable writer from the valley whom Des first befriend in the early 1960s.
Peter also shared an excerpt of one of Des’ poems with me and reading it immediately took me back to 1982, to my desk by the window on the second floor, to my English teacher reading poetry aloud to the class…
I held in sleep
a hollow cylinder
of carved Brazil nut
a curved window in it opened
on a totally negative presentiment
a chocolate Haida face
with empty eye sockets
today at the kickwheel
two angled wire-cuts
in a cylinder of clay
a final cut at the base pick it up to ball and discard the excess
folding in the pointed flaps
and through the window of the severed underside
my unremembered dream
lies once again in my fingers
I honour the moment
by making it the handle
of a new pot
which ironically was my intended purpose
A big thanks of gratitude to Peter Flanagan for his assistance and the information he provided for this post.
Identifying and dating Loan pottery
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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.