The poetry in the pottery of April Gates
Billy Bragg sings, “I’m not any good at pottery so lets loose the ‘t’ and shift back the ‘e’, And I’ll find a way to make my poetry build a roof over our heads” kind of nails how I feel sometimes about being an artist. While Bragg is referring to his lack of handyman skills I could easily make these lyrics my own since making things is supposed to be what I do. Other than limited painting skills, I admit to being no craftsman.
April Gates on the other hand is one of those renaissance people who can make a Tourtiere, a song, an artwork or even a Christmas party a singularly extraordinary event. April makes things special. Her pottery is different from any one else’s. While it is also tea pots and cups, her painting of them and her writing on them separate her from the recognizable, standard idea of what pottery is. Today pottery is all kinds of things and innovation in it has never been higher yet April’s work still stands alone mostly for what exudes: an intimate discussion, a rural Ontario Gothic moment and a delicate insouciance usually meant for a more expensive and high toned audience. Blackbird Pottery, April’s nom du plume (as I think she is as much a writer as a potter) rests itself comfortably in that earthy pottery world where organic form and the natural world are constant subject matters but Blackbird Pottery is alone in its diligence to pushing its surfaces into bigger artistic realms.
It comes as no surprise to me that the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in Minden made April one of three crafts people to investigate and elaborate on Function vs. Expression, the title of their current & tiny but wonderful exhibition. This kind of investigation April does regardless because she embodies that niggling question “can craft be art?”; she does both and in fact I think is mostly an artist. I say this not because I see a difference, and really what the hell is an artist today any more?(another blog) but because April’s motivation and commitment has always been solidly in the creative. She seeks to innovate, challenge herself, learn, inspire and explore. You can push someone like that into the narrowly defined “arterpreneur” role but they will always make decisions based on their creative goals and not financial.
This year promises to be a very good one for April as she has purchased an old school house in Haliburton County, laying down roots and committing to a studio enterprise. As a maker of special places and things there is no doubt in my mind that her studio will fast become a major destination in the county. I have many Blackbird Pottery pieces and hope to have more. But I am far more interested in April’s forward thinking ideas about pottery, and the success of her current installation (intimate! smart! lovingly done! unique!) makes me crave her doing more for art’s sake alone. I think she will.
I have learned a lot about pottery from April as she is someone dedicated to demystifying the artistic experience. We share that in common. Being generous with one’s time, helping in discourses involving artist’s fair compensation for their work, sharing opportunities among her creative friends and always supportive during doubtful moments, April excels in artistic totality because she is utterly devoted. This as well as being talented and driven makes one a very good artist. If you don’t own any of April’s work I suggest you buy it now while you still can because she could stop making them one day in her pursuit of greater, more challenging and extraordinary investigations.
Don’t leave! I put some questions to April, here are her answers: You mentioned you worked with porcelain for these pieces. Can you elaborate on why you made that decision and a brief description of your process?
This piece was a conceptual and material investigation. The Message series has become a small part of my regular production for which I typically throw each vessel on the potter’s wheel with a porcelain clay body. I’ve been fairly attached to the process of hand-crafting my pieces. This show in particular, investigates and makes us consider what production work is. I wanted to play on that by using a method of production that in theory removes the maker (just slightly) by reducing the amount of ‘hands on’ time with each piece. A technique called Slip Casting. Plaster moulds are made from original models. Once dried and cured, they are cast with a liquid mixture of clay, called slip. Typically, in a production atmosphere, the top reasons using moulds would be to replicate pieces more precisely, uniformly, quickly and efficiently – consistency being the key. Bend the standard a bit, and one can easily manipulate the casted pieces to each look more hand-crafted. I used the slip casting technique to produce over 100 pieces, that are each intentionally unique. (The other thing about the mould-making process, is that it requires a whole other set of skills and expertise. Mould-making is a craft unto itself!) One can adjust/control the thickness of the casted clay body with timing and skill (also true of throwing on the wheel, to a degree, but much easier to achieve with the use of a moulds and casting slip). A very thin cast with porcelain slip was desired for ‘While you were out…’ relating to the delicacy of relationships and the piece’s theme of absence. If you hold the pieces up to the light, you’ll find a lovely translucency. The selected clay body also lent itself perfectly to an unglazed exterior surface. The clay itself is called ‘Frost’ and for a clay junky, it is exquisite. It felt like bringing out the ‘silverware’….
You ask in the materials that go with the exhibit, what happens when you use functional objects as forms for personal expression? Are you getting any answers to that question?
This has always fascinated me. I think that we do it, perhaps subconsciously, all of the time. If not as makers, or artists using our craft to express through or with, then as collectors who select and surround themselves with favourite or meaningful pieces. I think what happens, is that we start to tell our stories with the objects that surround us. Some may be the stories we want to be true and portray and others might be more truthful.
Usually potters exhibit their work in retail spaces or shows that are more concerned with sales, how was dealing with an art gallery different?
This was interesting for me. I’ve had small shows here and there, and participated in many group exhibitions, but developing a larger body of work for this exhibition was a challenge ~ though a lot of that struggle was internal. The title of the show pitted production vs. expression… and at first, I as a bit hung-up on this, as it fundamentally challenged my ideas and values around hand-crafted work as a maker. Eventually, I realized that I had to just take those challenges head-on and work through the deeper themes within the ‘While you were out…’ series. Working in a gallery setting versus a retail setting allowed for deeper conceptual explorations with the space and time to build an interactive element into the show. So, while at first, I had a bit of an identity crisis, feeling as though I had to become something else… once I came to terms, I realized that what I’m doing is on target and a natural progression for me. Somehow, this experience has been validating, which in turn is a bit liberating. I see developing this piece further.