This week I’ve been reading Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and Their Contemporaries, published this spring by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia. It’s a collection of essays, interviews, and letters by or about a group of potters who were closely (or loosely) connected to the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. These potters – Michael Henry, Tam Irving, Charmian Johnson, Glenn Lewis, Wayne Ngan, John Reeve and Ian Steele – were part of an exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in 2004. The book (“Far more than an accompaniment to an exhibition,” the editors write in the Acknowledgements) is a wonderful pairing of texts and images. For those of us who lived in B.C. in the 1970s, the potters and their work will be familiar. I look around my house and see pots that several of them made. This tea bowl by Wayne Ngan for example. I received it as a gift in 1976. I’ve never used it for tea but keep it on a shelf where I see it every day. The colour never ceases to amaze me.
I’m reading Thrown after the fact. After the fact of the exhibition, which I never even knew about, but also after the fact of writing a novella last summer and fall in which one of the characters is a potter living near Sooke in 1974. He even spent two years working at the Leach Pottery. I read Leach’s books to try to understand the impulse to make things with clay and I was intrigued by one of his colleagues, Katherine Pleydell-Bouvier, who used the ash from rushes and sedges for her pots. When my character returns to British Columbia, he works to develop glazes made from native plants, experimenting with scouring rush and nettles.
In this novella, Winter Wren, I wanted to revisit and re-occupy a time and a place still intensely important to me. I was 19 years old in 1974. I was a university student and I was finding my voice as a writer. I was often lonely and I felt like no one would ever love me. I spent a lot of time on Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke, almost at Jordan River, and in some ways I’m still there. I learned to keep my own company on that length of the coast, bedding down for a day or two at a time above the high tide line and making endless pages of notes in the journal that never left my side. I swam in the breakers and showered under the sandstone cliff where Sandcut Creek tumbles over the edge to meet the sea. The sandstone contains shell fossils from the Oligocene period and I loved running my hand over them for the sense of mystery they contained.
After John and I met in February of 1979, we took a tent and camped on the beach in March. The stars were extraordinary, and the sound of the surf just a couple of yards away was as familiar as breathing. We’ve returned many times and I have a chunk of sandstone on my desk, dense with fossils, to remind me. As if I ever need reminding — of both the early days of our relationship or Sandcut Beach…
The essays and interviews in Thrown are illuminating, shedding light on artistic practice and process, on materials, on friendships and relationships. I love Mick Henry’s letters to Glenn Lewis in which he describes the quotidian details of his life at St. Ives and then later at Roberts Creek – walking, baking bread, making pots. I wish I’d seen that exhibition but in some ways it’s all here, in this book: tables laid with jugs and platters, tea pots and wine cups ready.