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Review

Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and Their Contemporaries

By Scott Watson

November 4, 2013

Review By Maria Tippett

 

Thrown, British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and their Contemporaries has its origins in an exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia. Although every item in the 2004 exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC appears in this new volume, Thrown is much more than an exhibition catalogue. It pays homage to the influential English potter and writer Bernard Leach. It chronicles the experiences of those British Columbia potters who apprenticed, during the 1950s and 1960s, with Leach at his pottery in St Ives and/or with Reg Dixon and David Lambert at the Vancouver School of Art. It offers excerpts from the writings of the Japanese and English art critics Spetso Yanagi and Herbert Read. There is a learned discussion on the techniques of pottery making and the role that high-fired ceramics played in the studio pottery movement. Thrown gives the potters themselves an opportunity to discuss their work and to consider the milieu in which it was created either in St Ives or British Columbia. And the book’s large format allows for generous illustrations of pots, potteries, and potters. (Hornby Island potter Wayne Ngan gets a two page colour spread lounging in an open-air bath tub).

Divide and rule has become the mantra of most exhibition catalogue editors – dividing the responsibilities and ruling out nothing. This can lead to an uneven and dated publication. For example, many of the chapters –- Doris Shadbolt’s informative essay on Wayne Ngan, not to mention the insightful musings of Read, Leach and Yanagi –- were published many years ago. More recent essays, penned by the province’s most celebrated potters, are uneven in length and quality. The printed correspondence between them is not suitable to the large format. Lengthy footnotes might have been incorporated into the text. And difficult-to-see snapshot illustrations of every item exhibited in the 2004 exhibition do an injustice to the work.

Even so, there is much to learn from this anthology. Thrown makes clear that Bernard Leach and his English and Japanese contemporaries were not the only sources of inspiration for nascent potters in British Columbia. Long before the first potter apprenticed with Leach, the University of British Columbia’s Extension Department was offering classes in pottery making. Vancouver’s New Design Gallery was showing pottery alongside non-objective paintings. By the early 1960s, public institutions like the Greater Victoria Art Gallery and the Vancouver Art Gallery included potters in their exhibition programs. And by the 1970s pottery societies and pottery magazines –- The Western Potter and Craft Contacts – appeared alongside such commercial outlets as the House of Ceramics.

By the late 1970s, however, the momentum had gone out of the studio pottery movement. Tam Irving’s “aching back” forced him to quit making pots in 1973 (117). Before the end of the decade, Glenn Lewis and Gathie Falk had moved from pottery making into fine art. Following his apprenticeship with Bernard Leach, Ian Steele set up his studio in Britain.

For many potters, Bernard Leach’s example of making functional pots for everyday use at modest prices was difficult to sustain in a society where concerns for aesthetic and individual expression -– and reward — took precedence over the modest lifestyle of the unknown craftsman and woman. Nevertheless Charmian Johnson and Wayne Ngan, along with a few others, continue to make pots. And, thanks to Scott Watson, curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, much of what they and their contemporaries produced has been made available to a new generation of British Columbians through this volume.

Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and Their Contemporaries
Scott Watson, editor, et al.
Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2011. 304 pp.