Worth their salt

By Aaren Madden, May 2013

This year’s Fired Up! exhibition celebrates history, process, and function in ceramics.

When you describe someone as “the salt of the earth,” you are valuing their inherent goodness, their awareness of and commitment to something greater than themselves. The phrase takes on broader meaning as the compelling theme of this year’s Fired Up! Contemporary Works in Clay exhibition at the Metchosin Hall, May 24-26 (with a preview show at Eclectic Gallery). 

After each year’s show—this one will be the 29th—this esteemed group of nine potters from Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and BC’s mainland, brainstorm the next year’s theme and invite five guest artists to participate. Pat Webber, an original member of the group, explains from her Salt Spring Island studio: “We have a couple of people with salt kilns, and we decided that would be a great theme. Within that, as a mini show-within-a-show, we each decided to make salt and pepper shakers.” Salt of the Earth, therefore, refers to both object and process in the ceramics context. 

Webber found great inspiration there. “I sort of went crazy making [salt and pepper shakers] in January and February, and I have all these creatures all over my table,” she laughs. In addition to the charming pair of penguins pictured (above), “I have the tortoise and the hare, Red Riding Hood and the wolf, and umpteen others—salty dogs, and so on. It has been such fun!” she enthuses.

This menagerie is not surprising, since, on vessels that are wheel-thrown, hand-built or a combination of both, Webber often places small animals she forms from clay. With their addition her work moves beyond elegant contemplations on function and form to include both whimsy and greater meaning. A frog climbing a teapot handle delights, but is also “a metaphor for the beauty and fragility of nature,” she explains. 

Once a year, Webber makes a pilgrimage to Oregon, where she studied, to wood-fire many of her pieces. It involves many people keeping a fire stoked over a few days. The resulting surface finishes are more organic and unpredictable than what an electric kiln creates. Everything from the placement of the pots within the kiln, to the direction and intensity of the flame, will affect the end result. It can be quite a journey. “Often I will get something home and I’ll be a little disappointed at first. Then about six weeks later, I will think, “Oh my gosh, I love that.” Often what you are hoping for is the last thing you thought you could do that would enhance your pot, but then something entirely built on that, but richer, will come along. And it’s absolutely thrilling,” she shares. 

Salt firing is similar. It actually derived from wood firing, the historical method of firing ceramics. Back in 16th century Germany, foods were preserved in barrels containing salt brine. “The theory is, when the barrels were too old, they would recycle that salted wood in the kilns,” explains Cathi Jefferson. “They paid attention and discovered that the salt in the kiln would interact with the silica in the clay body and make this wonderfully yummy orange-peel glaze surface.” The practice died out but was revitalized in the 1950s by American potter Don Reitz, and when Jefferson first started working with clay in 1974, it was those pots that attracted her the most. “I loved the colour tones, the textures, the way they kind of capture light in the surface. It was my dream to have a salt kiln,” she says. She got her first in 1993, and is now on her third (the method is a bit hard on a kiln, she says). 

Jefferson will present a series of salt boxes along with salt and pepper shakers and a selection of her work, all of which will be in the earthy oranges and greens she favours. She adorns her work with motifs from nature—leaves, Chinese lantern blossoms, ferns—using terra sigilata, a fine clay slip that becomes a luminous glaze in the firing process. 

She moved to Vancouver Island and began teaching ceramics at UVic in 2007, but has been part of Fired Up! for 17 years. She is thrilled to be hosting a salt firing for the entire group in April at her Duncan studio. “The whole gang’s coming. It’s going to be wonderful!” she says. “This is really outside people’s boxes,” she says, adding that such opportunities for sharing knowledge is a major benefit of membership in the group. “The themes are really great for that; they really challenge us to do different things we haven’t done before.”

Gary Merkel would certainly agree. “I have not done it yet at all, so it’s very exciting for me to think about having some of my pieces done that way,” he says. Most of his work, which is in galleries and collections world wide (and locally at Madrona Gallery), is composed of elaborate hand-built forms that are meticulously adorned with glazes in a variety of vivid colours and shapes. After the fact, he sometimes adds additional materials for support or embellishment. His pieces are theatrical; “They speak about function,” he says, “but they are much more interesting as sculpture than for their functionality.”  

Having the privilege of seeing Merkel’s work in progress at his Victoria West studio allowed for a direct connection to the aesthetic sources of the unusual handles, spouts, and embossed surfaces on his vessels. “I grew up in a Texaco station in Thunder Bay,” he says. His parents owned it and he later worked there; he absorbed the visual riches and reinterprets them as, say, a spout reminiscent of an articulated hose or a handle that looks like it could be a piece of machined metal swiped from a carburetor. A pair of salt and pepper shakers he presents, as yet unglazed, resemble tools that might be brandished by a burly mechanic (they even say “lever” on the side). 

Once these pieces are glazed and fired, however, their utilitarian look will be counteracted. He calls them “unpainted canvasses” for that reason, and approaches them very much with a painter’s eye, working with each piece to “hear” where the colour wants to go. He does some wood firing, though, so he understands the unpredictability of the salt firing he is about to partake in. “For me, it’s a fabulous exercise in trying to let go of my obsessive-compulsive control-freak self,” he laughs, reflecting, “I think working with clay and some of the lessons that it teaches you—patience, humility—are applied to life skills and relationship skills, too. It’s really kind of a nice development of character within yourself.”

Salt of the Earth indeed.


Salt of the Earth: Vessels for Tasteful Living runs May 24-26 at the Metchosin Hall, 4401 William Head Road. Opening gala May 24, 6-9 pm. A special preview show runs May 6-25 at Eclectic Gallery, 2170 Oak Bay Avenue, opening reception May 9, 6-8pm. More information and participants’ list: www.firedup.ca.

Aaren Madden shares Pat Webber’s view that a beautiful ceramic piece “elevates daily tasks to acts of affirmation.”