The Arts and Crafts movement that started in the British Empire in the 1880s began as an anti-industrial reaction to the impoverishment of the decorative arts. Advocating for the role and product of the traditional craftsman, it lasted for decades, and influenced a similar movement throughout Canada. It also emerged as the Mingei movement in Japan in the 1920s having a profound effect on pottery in that country through Yanagi Soetsu and Shoji Hamada.
The Summerland Art League was thus founded in 1922 as a way to promote art, craft, and cottage industry to help improve the employment prospects for seasonal orchard workers. They began by constructing a log cabin in 1922 as a sales room. Built under the direction of local pharmacist Jack Logie, the log cabin opened on June 1, 1922 along the Kelowna-Penticton Highway.
The group decided to start with pottery and take advantage of the natural clay banks in the area. Clay samples were gathered and sent away to be tested in Ottawa. The clay was deemed unsuitable for pottery so they mixed it with clay from Medicine Hat to improve its plasticity.
In Winter 1923 the Art League hired Mary Young of the Banff pottery for a short residence. Young had five years of experience working as a technician for the Mines branch in Ottawa giving her a unique knowledge and understanding of earthen materials. She also had formal pottery training at the famed Alfred University in New York, taking summer sessions in 1918 and 1919. In 1920 she quit the Mines branch to move to Banff and started the Banff Pottery producing pieces incorporating designs from the local indigenous peoples.
For two months, beginning in March of 1923, Mary Young taught the first pottery course ever held in BC to about 20 adults. They learned the fundamentals of mixing and firing clay as well as elementary glazing work. Using a kiln loaned out by a local resident, they produced vases and tiles which they began to sell at the log cabin in June of that year.
Of all the people producing pottery in the Summerland Art League, a Mrs. Doris Cordy would prove to be the most prolific. While most participants in the Art League disbanded by the late 1920s, Cordy produced her wares into the late 1930s. She was even brought in by a similar group being established in Victoria in 1924, sharing instructional duties with Margaret Grute from England.
As tourist traffic to the log cabin waned (as a result of a rerouted highway and the use of Logie’s cabin as a theosophy centre), Cordy sold her work out of Vancouver. She exhibited at the PNE in Vancouver, the CNE in Toronto and won second place at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in 1934 in Montreal.
Just after the establishment of the pottery group in Summerland, Axel Ebring would start production pottery on his new site at Notch Hill, outside of Sorrento.
A big thanks to Allan Collier for sharing his knowledge and research on this topic. Allan is a historian and curator who has produced important exhibits like "The Modern Eye" (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2011), and "Modern in the Making" (Vancouver Art Gallery 2020).
If you have any information on the Summerland Art League, its potters or its pottery, 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.