Playing with mud

by Mollie Kaye, November 2010

Renowned potter Robin Hopper’s new glaze-paintings are just one reason to check out the Stinking Fish Studio Tour.

Firmly rooted in my “city life,” Metchosin seems like a long haul; it really isn’t that far, but I do sense I’m in another world when I arrive at ’Chosin Pottery, the home, gallery and studio of celebrated local ceramicists Robin Hopper and his wife Judi Dyelle. Turning up their circular drive, the mature trees towering over the quaint heritage house are charming enough, but it’s the 2.5-acre, Japanese-inspired garden out back that really steals the show. On this dreary autumn day, I savour the decay, the colours and forms that the vegetation takes as it decomposes. I’m in a philosophical mood. Nothing dies, I’m thinking. It just changes. It becomes pure, nourishing energy to feed new life.

Browsing the gallery annex of the home, I see work that runs such a dynamic gamut of styles that I assume it’s a cooperative of twelve or more artists. When I find out that it’s just Robin and Judi creating all of these pieces, I’m astounded. I have to look twice at every placard to be sure I’m reading them correctly. Judi’s pieces are a delicate, minimal and modern affair; her glazes are monochromatic, her shapes graceful and diminutive. There are bottles, cups and bowls, some with perforations that evoke tatted lace textures. Although simple, lean and clean, the groupings are mesmerizing. 

I then study the work of Robin, and the riotous variety of vessel forms and styles—his glazing, though, just like his garden, is stealing the scene. There’s everything here from Florentine-paper-style intricacy to watery, painterly florals and whimsical animal forms. I get the sense that over the six decades or so this artist has been creating works in ceramic, there have been many, many incarnations of his “style.” And no doubt, he’s done them all terrifically well, if the current display is evident of a lifelong dedication to technical prowess.

He comes to greet me, this jolly old elf of a man (I’m tempted to make a comparison to St Nick—whoops, there it is), decked out in his mud duds: weathered jeans and a clay-and-glaze-spattered yellow t-shirt screaming in big block letters, “PLAY DIRTY.” Sitting down in his cathedral-style timber-framed kitchen, accompanied by an orchestra of teapots and a choir of cups, Robin discloses that the thing that really floats his vessel these days isn’t a vessel at all; it’s work for the wall: Glaze-paintings on wafer-thin, super-strong ceramic sheets which, up until Robin recently re-imagined them, were anything but an artist’s material.

Developed as a substrate material for electronics, the white, translucent sheets take the artist’s glazes in astonishingly beautiful ways. He saw the material 20 years ago, and “tucked it away. Just last year, when my regular assistant wasn’t able to help me with large-scale production, I got out some samples and started working with them. This is a high-tech material...the techie people had never seen anything like this. I realized, I’ve got a tiger by the tail, so I started working a lot harder, seeing what is possible, and there’s not much that isn’t possible with this.”

“It’s almost frightening, the potential that is there, to use this material in architectural ways,” Robin enthuses, and to demonstrate the material’s durability, he flings a piece of it onto the hard floor. It clatters, but remains completely intact. “Anybody who knows my work or anything about ceramics has been very excited.” Most of all, he wants to act as an ambassador for this material and get other artists exploring the possibilities. “It’s like discovering paper!”

Robin’s background in painting, drawing, and printmaking has him scurrying around in his studio to “try everything that has come into my mind.” He’s off next week to teach in Texas and North Carolina, and these new discoveries will feature heavily. “I decided to eliminate the range of functional things I’d been doing and just do things that excite me...I don’t have a whole lot of time left to play with mud; I want to make it as meaningful as I can for myself.” 

His garden, which he designed, is a narrative of his life’s journey, decay and all. Far from fading away, this septuagenarian is taking on a new form, and the purity of his creative energy is nourishing others. 

 

’Chosin Pottery’s 27th annual Christmas Sale is November 27th and 28th, 10am to 5pm. The studio and garden is located at 4283 Metchosin Rd., phone 250-474-2676. The Christmas Sale is part of the Stinking Fish Studio Tour; see www.stinkingfishstudiotour.com.

 

Writer Mollie Kaye finds enthusiasm and zeal extremely contagious, and is always happy to be infected.