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Scott Watson in Conversation with Donna Balma

Bernard Leach and His Vancouver Students
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983

[ 3,392 words ]


Before the Second World War ceramics was almost unknown in Vancouver. Grace Melvin taught the craft at the Vancouver School of Art: she had her students make coil pots which they shaped with a wooden template. It was only after the war that the craft began to grow. Mollie Carter and Hilda Ross at Gordon House and UBC's Extension Department taught pottery and brought master potters from California to Vancouver. Reg Dixon and David Lambert were hired at the Art School.

At the time, Fred Amess, who was principal, thought the destiny of the school lay in teaching crafts — that UBC's initiation of art instruction in the Faculty of Education would take over the teaching of 'high art.' Dixon and Lambert had a profound influence on their students who included Michael Henry, Glenn Lewis, and the Reeves. Both teachers had an attitude towards craft that placed it at the centre of life and knowledge.

In a conversation with Lambert and Henry, Lambert told me that if a student (a good one) were dropped in the wilderness for a year he'd expect him to be able to start a pottery within a year from knowledge of his environment. For Dixon's and Lambert's knowledge included geology, reading maps, physics, chemistry, knowing a place, and centring one's life in the actual.

There was more to throwing a pot than technique and decoration. At stake was what Hannah Arendt calls homo faber — man, maker of things, versus what Octavio Paz has said our dream of technological progress seems to envision, the 'Eden of Robots.'

The crafts, then, are not about design or décor — although they figure largely in those discourses. They are about an image of man, community and nature which collapsed in the West with the industrial revolution. Dixon, Lambert, and the English master potter, Bernard Leach, and their students believed fervently that our heritage of object-making (some peasant traditions or potter traditions may date back to the neolithic era) is our contact with the beginning of social man. Dixon, in particular, had spent years learning peasant traditions in South America and Spain before coming to Vancouver.

The involvement with Leach among not only local art students but local collectors as well brought forward another issue. It introduced the idea into Vancouver that 'aesthetics' was a matter of daily life and that art and life should penetrate one another to the heart. The questions of production and ownership (what are art objects but trophies?) which are at the very basis of our image of man, alienated from the fruit of his own labour, were resolved by a dream — a return to a quixotic pre-industrial village. This vision, perhaps best articulated by William Morris and his nineteenth century Arts and Crafts Movement, is integral to modernism and, in a way, is at the root of the collaborative / communal experiments of the sixties and seventies.

What follows is an edited interview which took place between myself and Donna Balma (Reeve). It concerns the history of ceramics in Vancouver, especially the legacy of Bernard Leach.

Between us, separately or together we had talked to Mollie Carter, Reg Dixon, Michael Henry, Glenn Lewis, Gerry Gilbert, Sally Michener, and David Lambert. Those conversations form the background for the following interview.

SCOTT WATSON : So why and when did you and John Reeve first go to England to study with Bernard Leach?

DONNA BALMA : Reg Dickson was familiar with Bernard Leach's work, although he didn't agree with Bernard's 'Pot as Art' theory — and he turned John on to Leach. Bernard's book, A Potter's Book, was the Bible of the pot world at that time. John had to study with Bernard; that was all there was to it. Even then, John was a trend-setter. I think he had already decided he wanted to be a potter and the sort of life-style he wanted to live, but Bernard had techniques and glazes, and he had a wealth of material gathered both in Japan and England — a philosophy, a discipline, a religion. John knew that was the only place to go if he wanted to make Art Pots.

I wanted to be with John then and live that lifestyle, so we went to England in 1958 and John started his apprenticeship with Bernard.

SW : How did you and the Leaches live?

DB : The first time we went in 1958, the Leaches lived in the Leach Pottery Cottage which was on the grounds along with the pottery buildings. John earned £2.10 a week and rented a tiny stone workman's cottage just down the road. Janet Leach was from Texas and was always thrilled to see anyone from North America so we became close friends right away.

I was pregnant at the time we went to England. On our second visit to the Leaches for dinner, my amniotic fluid broke. John and Janet rushed about making negotiations with the midwife. I was left alone with Bernard, whom I didn't know that well, and I was terrified. I was preoccupied with counting contractions and I don't know if Bernard was just as frightened as I was or trying to distract me, but very tentatively, and gently, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Now my dear, tell me about yourself.'

Bernard was a complex man: a scholar, philosopher, writer, poet, pacifist, idealist, artist, and religious-minded craftsman. He was an Edwardian gentleman, polite and sensitive, and he lived in a comfortable, austere style. He was the product of an upper-middle-class background which traditionally produces spokespeople for new ideas and movements. He had spent four years in Japan and, as a young man there, had been introduced to the intellectual and aristocratic elite.

He felt that if the quality of craft was to survive it was necessary to define a set of standards which people could follow. Like Morris in England and Yanagi in Japan, he supported the craft movement. He saw himself as creating a bridge between the two cultures, which were both threatened: England by over-industrialization, and Japan by American influences.

Bernard believed that things made with the heart and hands were naturally beautiful. Pots to him were a humble, wholesome symbol, and pot-making was a powerfully simple, peaceful expression.

He talked a lot about the myth of the Unknown Craftsman, one of the millions of people who make things out of a learned tradition of craft without any concept of the work as art or as related to aesthetics. He used, as example, Japanese farmers who made pots in the winter when they couldn't work on the land. Their names weren't recorded, but some of their works are now considered art treasures. In the twelfth century, tea masters associated with Zen Buddhism worked side by side with potters, encouraging a spontaneous, joyful, vigorous, imperfect approach to throwing pots. The pots were fresh, of the moment.

John and Bernard both wanted to assimilate the high standards of the tea master and the unconscious action of the 'Unknown Craftsman'. Once, when the kiln was being unpacked at St. Ives — a very exciting and anxious event — I watched him carry one of his big pots, a first-class exhibition piece, along the path from the kiln shed to his cottage.

He laid the pot down on the living room floor, took from the mantelpiece an old Korean pot (made to ship pickles in, and then be thrown away) and sat it alongside his own. Squatting down to compare the two, he took off his glasses, put his head in his hands and shook with despair. He said, 'Damn, damn, damn! I'll never be able to do it.' At that time he was over seventy, and at the height of his powers.

While Bernard talked about it, John did it. John looked at photographsof these Japanese pots and decided he wanted his work to be like them. There was something in that way of working that appealed to him. He emulated the way they did it and eventually started wearing Japanese kimonos and toe-thonged sandals and became the image of the Unknown Craftsman. He lived in the country, and that environ- ment produced a similar sort of pot. He eventually invented new forms out of that style — pushed it further.

Bernard, on the other hand, had studied under a Kenzan — a master potter in Japan, where he learned to make the same traditional Japanese forms over and over again for years. The idea was based upon the principle that if an apprentice subjected himself to the discipline of copying pots of someone else's design and mastered this discipline, it contributed to putting down the ego. He felt it was a real discipline and an act of faith. If you apprenticed with him, you had to accept that Bernard's way was the way and start at the bottom.

There is an old Japanese tradition of the master aesthete and the foreman in the workshop. Well, Bernard was the aesthete, if you like, and William Marshall the foreman and between them they ran this discipline which you were committed to for two years. You started making the lowly egg cup or ashtray, very simple shapes, and you made them day after day after day. William Marshall would look at a board of pots and say, 'No good, scrunch them, start again.' Bill would then also sit down and make the model over and over again for you. Bernard would come down from his studio and discuss the properties of aesthetics. He would make drawings on the blackboard and would criticize student pots or even his own pots. His way of criticizing was to use his own body. He said that pots have feet and waists and bellies, hips and shoulders and necks and lips. He would look at the pot that the apprentice was making and if he recognized a weakness in any of those areas, he would wiggle or scratch that part of his body which corresponded to it.

SW : So the pot was an image of the body. How did he criticize, what image of the body did he want the pot to have?

DB : I am trying to think how Bernard related to his own body. He was quite eccentric. When he went to the beach, he would never take his tie off. He would roll up his pant legs, take his jacket off, but always leave his tie on. When working, he would still wear his shirt and tie with a smock over them. He made erratic body movements. When he threw pots, he followed the motion of the wheel with his head. You could get dizzy watching him. His hand gestures were a bit erratic, too; very expressive. He used his body in a unique way. He described himself as stork-like, gangly, and he thought of his pots in the same way. He never considered himself a good thrower — often William threw the larger pots and Bernard decorated them.

SW : When did Gerry Gilbert, Glenn Lewis and others come to St. Ives?

DB : In 1959, Gerry Gilbert came to St. Ives, early spring, and he came because he knew John and I were there, and it was a place to start his cultural journey. He came with his wife, Susan Phillips, who was a graduate from the Vancouver School of Art. They stayed and lived with us. Susan did some painting and drawing and became involved with the Penwith Gallery in St. Ives. Gerry was gathering material, talking with Bernard and the other artists. He was going to become a poet, a writer.

SW : But he took up pottery?

DB : In St. Ives, he worked as a waiter. Pottery came later when we established Longland's Pottery.

Gordon Smith came on sabbatical to St. Ives and rented a cottage there. He did his series of Turner-like paintings while living there. Bernard, meanwhile, was very accessible to all of us from North America. He saw that we were going to return to North America and that we would be his disciples. We were going to spread the word. He definitely influenced our thinking. He didn't talk to you, he talked about the importance of the cup you were drinking from and where it had come from and its importance in tradition. The talk was all about ideas, religion, and philosophy and how we relate to the objects in our environment. We were fascinated. It was like going to church. We all listened and we did become disciples of a tradition. Bernard Leach felt John was his 'rightful heir'.

Glenn Lewis apprenticed at the Leach Pottery after we came back to Vancouver in 1961. Glenn had been taking Japanese lessons, was all set to go off to Japan. Janet and Bernard got letters from all over the world, from people who wanted to apprentice at St. Ives; we knew that if John recommended Glenn, Bernard and Janet would be more likely to accept him. So, that's what Glenn did. He went there and did a two-year apprenticeship.

Michael Henry went to St. Ives in the same tradition, that is, to visit Glenn. Mick was interested in how industry related to ceramics. He told me that when he got to the Leach Pottery and saw all those people working together he said, 'This is it; I want to do this.' He got taken on as a clay mixer and then became interested in staying.

SW : When did John Reeve start Longlands Pottery, and what were some of the ideas he had?

DB : John and Glenn and Warren MacKenzie started Longlands in Devonshire in 1961. Glenn left in 1962. Warren is an American potter; he and his wife Alix had apprenticed at the Leach Pottery around 1949, and returned to Minnesota to establish their own pottery. Gerry Gilbert came in 1963, apprenticed as a potter, and worked with great enthusiasm. Clary Illian and Marbeth Celotti from Iowa State University also worked at Longlands. There was a wonderful exchange of thought and borrowing of ideas from one another. Canadian artists weren't too sure who they were, and so were willing to learn from others. Staying in England for a while, and then going back to Canada and seeing the differences, helped them to define what Canadian culture and art were.

SW : Why did they want to start a pottery in England? Why didn't they come back here and start one?

DB : John thought Canada wasn't ready for him. But then, neither was England. John was single-mindedly intent on imposing a style of art and a method of making it onto the western world. I asked Glenn why they chose Longlands, because it seemed so impractical. He said, 'Well, it was so beautiful.' We operated pretty much on that level. If it looked right, it was right. John wanted a refuge from the world, and he tried to start a collaborative pottery without a master. But, with his personality, that wasn't possible. There were always problems.

When John approached stores or galleries with his work, he was besieged with problems. He would drive to London with a vanload of pots, and the pots were out of place. The storekeepers or gallery owners would say, 'Is this a sample? Will we see more of the same? What colours can we expect to see? Can I reorder the same pots in two years?' The answer to all these questions was no.

The gallery in London where Bernard and Janet and Lucy Rie and all the established artists / potters exhibited their work was the Primavera Gallery. John had been given an exhibition there too. But Henry Rothschild, the owner, had problems choosing John's pots. Rothschild would say, 'What is this? They look messy and they are too heavy and thick.' John was outraged. It was how he made them that was important, not that they look like every other pot around. He was not concerned with public taste.

SW : How he made them — what does that mean?

DB : The process. John had created at Longlands a total physical environment, comparable with that of the Oriental craftsman. He worked in the same way, followed the same process which allowed those particular pots to form.

SW : How does that differ from the way Bernard Leach worked?

DB : Bernard worked as an artist, from drawings, designs, and concepts, realizing the manifestations of his artistic vision. He had a limited-edition series which he produced from time to time. John set up a system of working in a very physical way, without direct reference to models or designs, and the pots were the consequence of how he worked. Although he paid great attention to the quality of clay bodies and glazes, function was never his primary concern. If he threw a hundred mugs, each one was unique, a direct expression of the experience of throwing it. John was setting about — as Bernard said — 'from inside out rather than outside in.'

The Leach tradition manifested itself in a different way in the work of Glenn Lewis, Michael Henry, and John Reeve. John is the only one of the three still making pots. He works in a style which has kept its vigour for centuries. It is always unfinished and imperfect, waiting for someone to energize it again.

SW : How long did Longlands last?

DB : Seven years. We were there for the full seven years and our children grew up there. I didn't work in the pottery, but was housemother, preparing food, looking after the grounds, animals, children, and the continuous stream of visitors. For me, as a woman, there were no role models — not only for collaborative living, but for a working woman with a family. My heroes had been Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a relationship where they led separate lives and came together from time to time; or Emily Carr, who was a single woman and had no children.

At that time you had a career / job or you got married, had babies and stayed at home. I wanted male companionship, children and time to paint. I didn't know how to ask for the time, to delegate the work to my family, and to work out our interests as a couple. There were no painters for me to work with, or be inspired by, and I felt very isolated.

SW : But people kept trying collaborative living and that model lasted. Longlands seems to me to have been a prototype.

DB : Yes, it was. But I still ask, 'Why did they choose Longlands?' because although it was beautiful, there were no customers. The villagers worked in factories or as farm labourers. There was only one farmer who bought John's pots.

SW : You were concerned about being self-sufficient, having a simple life, yet things became so complex.

DB : You pay an incredible price for beauty and simplicity. Attention to detail requires a lot of people. A beautiful place like Longlands with its thirty acres of land, gardens, children and a pottery, needed a community to support it. John's imaginary world was too big for the two of us to realize.

SW : I guess one of the reasons you had difficulty is that you had to move into a culture against the grain. Everything you needed had to be invented by you. It was an elaborate system for a simple, beautiful life.

You wanted to integrate people, objects, and land, and that must have been exhausting if not impossible.

DB : Difficult, but not impossible. Culture isn't always reflected by the civilization you happen to be living in. You have to find people who are like-minded and stay with them. You become ill-fitted to the rest of the world. You know there's not room for many of you around and sometimes it can be quite alienating, but we have survived. There are periods of growth and decline but our way of life has become a part of Canadian culture; it's an acceptable lifestyle now.

From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

Text: © Scott Watson. All rights reserved.

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