Walking in the garden with Robin
By Aaren Madden, May 2016
Robin Hopper’s legacy in ceramics encompasses production, education, publications, institutions—and a beautiful garden.
THIS IS ONE OF MY greatest artworks,” says Robin Hopper, the ceramic artist. He’s referring not to one of his many functional or decorative ceramic pieces or his two-dimensional glaze paintings, but to his garden. “The reason I have a garden is I don’t have to go looking for inspiration; I can just walk out the door and it’s there. It feeds me all the time,” he says. If you see one of his pieces embellished with a clematis design, it is one of the 50 varieties that grow in his garden.
At 77, Hopper is not as spry these days. He was diagnosed with cancer about six months ago. For five years now he’s not kept a regular studio practice. Still, he keeps busy with legacy projects like Swan Song, an autobiographical/ educational DVD he recently produced (available online soon). And he tries to walk in the garden “at least once a day,” he says.
A dear mutual friend and I are being given a tour of this celebrated, award-winning space by its creator, who bashed out the brambles and gradually nurtured it into being amidst resplendent Douglas firs shortly after he settled on this Metchosin property in 1977. The goal was to create an attractive space for family—he has two daughters and a son with his first wife—along with a studio and gallery area for potential clients to come and see his wares.
Hopper studied ceramics, theatre design, painting and printmaking at Croydon College in South London from 1955-61. After nine years working in theatre (both on and offstage) and as a travel guide, he returned to his “first love” with a ceramics studio and teaching. Having emigrated from his native England in 1968, Hopper then taught in Ontario, eventually setting up the ceramics and glass department at Georgian College in Barrie. By 1973, he turned to studio production full time, though he continued to teach workshops internationally for decades. Just before moving west, he gained renown as the first recipient of the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the fine crafts.
“The first fall I was here,” Hopper recollects, “I was somewhat devastated because I had come from sugarbush country in Ontario, where the fall colours are fantastic.” So, as he does with any undertaking from glazes or gardens, Hopper dove in and “started to research all of the plants that had the best fall colour for this area. Invariably, they came from Japan, China, Korea. He refers to the resultant blend he created as “Anglojapanadian” in design.
A storyteller at heart, Hopper is an edifying and engaging tour guide. We learn about the types of Japanese gardens that he drew upon for inspiration, beginning with the Stroll Garden. Often narrative in their symbolism, they reflected the experiences of the owner.
At the start of his garden is a meandering gravel path. “This is not a pathway,” Hopper corrects, “this is a symbol for a river—and you are on a journey as soon as you go through that gate.” We breathe in fragrant viburnum (“Osmanthus delavayi,” he declares), while Hopper points out three large fan-shaped stepping stones, explaining, “The fan in Chinese and Japanese is a symbol for education and authority.”
Fitting that education is one of Hopper’s greatest contributions to the local and international ceramics fields. “Robin is a real teacher,” said Diane Carr, a leading authority on the ceramic history of British Columbia, when we met to discuss the artist. In her catalogue for Back to the Land: Ceramics from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands 1970-1985, an exhibition she curated at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, she writes, “Perhaps his most important contributions to ceramics have been his teaching, glaze exploration, and the several books he has written on various aspects of studio pottery.” His first, The Ceramic Spectrum, “has become an essential text for studio potters.”
A little further down the path, my friend delightedly points out several clumps of ceramic mushrooms with various glazes: some black with pocks of crackled white, some earthy swirls of red, all created by Hopper. “Fungus ceramicus,” he quips. “They come up all over the place.” Referring to his British heritage, Hopper remarks that English gardeners like to incorporate “things that make you laugh and things with a touch of history.”
Both are important to Hopper in life and in artistic influence. From a young age, he was fascinated with the ancient pots he would see during his many haunts of the Victoria and Albert and other museums. Circumstances led to a fairly solitary childhood: he was born in London in 1939; his twin sister died ten days after birth. Save two older brothers who were working age, most of his five siblings were evacuated during the Blitz. He stayed behind, having contracted chicken pox. While his mother ran the family grocery business and his father was working in the war effort, he would wander among the bomb craters, scooping up the exposed clay. He sculpted birds and other animals that interested him—and still does: After a storm broke the branches off a cherry tree in the garden, Hopper fixed ceramic dog masks to the cut ends: “It became a dogwood tree,” he grins.
We walk on, past nodding chocolate lilies, pink and purple hellebores (helleborus orientalis), daffodils and ferns, whose tiny fists are being pulled upward by the dappled sun. Hopper stops in a grass clearing. “We came down the river, and this is an ocean. Once you are on an ocean, all the oceans of the world unite,” he explains.
In such a gathering place, one can find another metaphor for Hopper’s legacy. Carr had said of Hopper, “He drew other potters around him; he sparked energy.” With the help of his second wife, Judi Dyelle, herself an accomplished potter who shares their ’Chosin Pottery business, Hopper started the Fired Up! Contemporary Works in Clay exhibition group. In 1984, Hopper had returned with Dyelle from a year spent in the vibrant, colourful arts scene in Montreal to the depressed economy of Vancouver Island. Sales were slumping for artists, they saw, and in contrast to the colourful glazes they had seen in the east, “everything was brown,” Dyelle laments with a laugh. So they gathered some local potters and sought a solution. After he and Judi spent weeks weeding, the first Fired Up! show and sale took place in the garden. It has since moved to nearby Metchosin Hall and is about to enter its 32nd year.
“The whole idea was the education of the public, to be continually showing them interesting and different things,” Dyelle relates, adding how, at the 25th anniversary show, “the potters were blown away by how people could talk to them, because they had a better understanding of what they were doing; they had grown alongside them.”
That same summer, Hopper saw a dearth of quality arts teaching and a nearby space to provide it. He was teaching part time at Pearson College and had recently travelled to Australia to teach workshops. While there, he saw a model for a summer school that could apply here, and he and four other artists (Carole Sabiston, Cheryl Samuels, Fleming Jorgenson and poet Rona Murray) co-founded the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts. Four initial courses have grown into an internationally renowned multidisciplinary program with 45 workshops offered. Dyelle also deserves credit. “I’m surprised that Jude and I actually passed the first year, because I’m the idea guy, and she’s the person that makes it happen!” Hopper admits. Judi nods, smiling: “He’s the ideas, I’m the work.”
Back in the garden, we come to the “River Koi.” “In a lot of Japanese gardens there is a stone river or a stone waterfall,” he says. Embedded into cement, complete with removable Japanese bridge, we find a variety of ceramic “koi” with multicoloured glazes. The bridge is removable because for years, this was actually a functioning road for truck access to the septic field. “There are 100 fish in the river. Ninety-two of them swim downstream, and the other eight swim upstream. They represent me,” Hopper offers: always against the current, but steadfast in his thinking that “you might as well make it beautiful if you are going to make anything.” It’s that way of thinking that Carr calls Hopper’s “true genius.”
Finally we settle on a sheltered bench in a private area of the garden. Fish bob to the surface of a sun-glazed pond. “In here, there are about 11 different types of Japanese maples. They change colour sequentially, starting at about the middle of August and going right through to the beginning of December,” Hopper says, his fatigue visible. He seems content to enjoy the sun on his face as my friend and I wander and admire the water lilies and the sparkling fountain.
We sit back down and I notice a small ceramic house just to our left among the foliage. “That’s actually a copy of a sarcophagus from Crete,” Hopper explains. “It is one of [Cowichan Valley potter] Cathi Jefferson’s. It’s one of my final resting places.” He continues, “We hope to keep the property in the family, but you just don’t know. I’m going to sit in there and cast evil spirits to anybody that does anything to this garden that shouldn’t be done,” he says, eyes twinkling.
Robin and Judi ’s garden at ’Chosin Pottery (4282 Metchosin Road) is open to the public by donation. Gallery open weekends 10am-5pm (watch for “open” sign) or call for appointment: 250-474-2676. www.chosinpottery.ca. Fired Up! Contemporary Works in Clay is on May 27-29 at Metchosin Community Hall, 4401 William Head Rd.
Aaren Madden can safely say the garden at Chosin Pottery feeds not only its maker, but all who visit.