Jinny Whitehead - A tribute
by Gordon Whitehead
Jinny Whitehead was president of the Potters Guild of BC from 2005 to 2012, and was a tireless advocate for BC ceramics and the documentation of its history in our province. This is an excerpt of the tribute her husband Gordon will be presenting at the North-West Ceramics Foundation "That Pottery Thing" event on Sept. 30 (read more about "That Pottery Thing" and the NWCF here).
We have in our home an ancient terra cotta sculpture of the “Mother Goddess” from Mohenjo-daro in what is now the Sindh Province of Pakistan. By “ancient”, I mean a piece that was made around 2500 BCE, a period contemporaneous with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Minoan Crete.
Jinny always loved that piece and, in some strange, mystical way I think it spoke to her and told her she was meant to become a potter. Was it because she herself was born in India, of a family that had lived there for 3 generations? Perhaps. Was it also just the sheer rugged beauty of the piece speaking to her ? Yes. Possibly. But what she particularly loved about the piece was its incredible durability, the memories it held and so successfully passed on about its maker and its maker’s culture—-it seemed somehow miraculously able to carry those messages clearly and sharply down through long, long centuries of human experience. The durability of the memory and the strength of presence in that piece came to echo strongly through all of Jinny’s work as a potter.
Jinny began to learn about clay from a local potter when we lived in Merrickville, Ontario. But at the time she had a full -time and demanding job as the Executive Assistant to the first head of Canada’s new security and intelligence agency (CSIS) and that job greatly limited her pottery studio time (while earning her the nickname from me of “Money Penny). Her focus on working with clay really stepped up with our move to Vancouver in 1995, a move which saw Jinny joining the Potter’s Group at the West End Community Centre (where she ultimately became President).
At the West End Centre, Jinny worked closely with an old friend from Portugal, Joan Barnet, and made a new pottery buddy in the person of Pia Sillem. These friendships became the nucleus of what was to become “Studio 3”. As Joan notes: “Five of us from the West End Centre decided to form our own studio in 1996. Jinny found a space, negotiated the rent, and everyone set to work tearing down walls, ripping up old carpet, building shelves, setting up lighting”. When its initial location was demolished for re-development in 2003, Studio 3 relocated to the Mergatroid Building on Vernon Drive. Studio 3 thrived at the new location until 2018, its partners actively participating in the Annual East Side Cultural Crawl. Studio activities were many and varied. Jinny collected hundreds of donated bowls for Loving Spoonful’s annual gala and the FVPG U2 Can Raku fundraiser on Granville Island.
With Pia, Jinny developed an abiding and overriding interest in wood-fired ceramics. Together she and Pia took part in firings at the Tozan Kiln in Nanaimo and attended a Wood Fire Conference in Iowa. In Iowa, they met potters from Seabeck who invited them to partake in firings at their Naborigama kiln. There, in turn, they met potter, Al Tenant, of Coupeville in Washington State. Al mentored them in subsequent firings that he hosted at his train kiln along with prominent wood-fire potters, Frank Boyden, and Tom Coleman. Al encouraged Pia and Jinny to build their own train kiln at Pia’s property on the Sunshine Coast. Thus encouraged, they poured over plans, collected high-fired bricks and other construction materials, and with the additional assistance of friends, Jan and Ron, of Rare Earth Pottery in Lund, built a magnificent train wood-fired kiln.
As a potter, Jinny was never as happy and wrapped up in her work as when she was creating her hand built pots in anticipation of a wood firing. Her pieces are solid, organic, earth-toned and masterful, sometimes granitic in texture, sometimes craggy, sometimes with the sheen of aged bronze. (View a wonderful video of Jinny, Pia, Jan and Ron loading and firing the Earl's Cover woodfire kiln here.) As a friend and fellow-potter, Keith Rice-Jones, says of them: “Jinny’s pots say a lot about her. They are distinctive, quiet, and subtle but strong, with all sorts of stories to tell you if you sit quietly with them”.
But Jinny’s joy in developing her skills as an artist was matched by her love of the BC pottery community and her desire to see that community cohere, grow, and evolve. Where did this impulse come from ? At its core, I think it sprang from Jinny’s take on the very communal nature of objects made in clay. For her, clay vessels were never just beautiful, but supremely functional. She knew that pots had been used throughout human history to transport foodstuffs, to store valuables, to carry water up from village wells. In fact, they are central to communal life. That is why a prevailing motif in Jinny’s pots is the “water carrier”—- she was always intrigued by the vital and fundamental task exemplified by village women in bringing well water to their communities. To Jinny, pottery meant community — and community was vital in sustaining the ongoing production and refinement of pottery.
Jinny’s metaphoric “Village Well” was the BC Potters Guild. She assumed the Guild Presidency in 2005 after serving first as Vice-President over the years 2003 and 2004, during an especially turbulent period of fiscal stringency when the Guild almost collapsed. Her first year in the chair saw the celebration of the Guild’s 50th anniversary. In the words of Debra Sloan, it was : “An extraordinary successful year-long cerebration. There were numerous exhibitions that took place around the Province. The Guild supported Al Sather’s “Source Book” , a publication that included images and biographies of 123 BC potters , and included written histories of 21 associated pottery guilds in BC—-creating a snap shot of 2005. The year culminated in a provincially catalogued exhibit “TransFormations 2005”, that took place at the Burnaby Art Gallery , juried and curated by Dr. Carol E. Mayer and Hiro Urakami.”
In 2005, the BC pottery community also awoke to the realization that there was an imperative need to retrieve, assess, and safeguard historic materials illustrative of the origins and development of ceramics in BC. Jinny took up this challenge with special energy and zeal — many colleagues recall seeing her clambering up a 10 foot ladder in the Guild’s premises, hauling heavy boxes of archival materials up and down and in and out of storage. To build a foundational B.C. Ceramic archive it proved necessary to collect a paper copy of every edition of the Potters Guild newsletter — a daunting task that took several years to accomplish.
Debra Sloan observes: “It was Jinny who found a grant in 2011 managed by the UBC Irving K. Barber Learning Centre to fund the digitization and annotation of the Guild’s newsletters”. Debra also notes that Linda Lewis was able to digitize the Guild’s newsletters from 1965 to 2003, to annotate them, and to render them searchable—thus producing a precious research resource for collectors, curators, scholars and gallerists. Jinny, Debra, and Linda sent many hours working with UBC’s complex Archive program on this project and it should be proudly noted that the BC Ceramic Archives are now securely stored with the Craft Council of BC while hard copies of the Guild’s newsletters repose at both the UBC Library Rare Book and Special Collections and the Craft Council of BC where they are both searches on line at www.arch-bc.org.
Jinny stepped down as Guild President in 2012 but despite failing health, she remained in active in support of the Guild and Gallery.
Sheila Morrissette, who worked closely with Jinny on the Guild’s Gallery Committee and on the Guild’s Board of Directors for a number of years, remembers Jinny in the following terms: “Jinny was an amazing President for the Guild. She led with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and transparency, always keeping the needs of the organization at the forefront and dedicating countless hours to the task, at the expense of time lost for work in her own studio. Hers were hard shoes to fill when she stepped down. I stayed on the Board for an additional year to help ease the transition but Jinny was always unfailingly available for help and advice”.
In 2018, ill health finally obliged Jinny to close down Studio 3. Shortly after that, she found she no longer possessed enough strength or energy to continue with her pottery. In 2018, she was distressed to witness the end of the Guild’s Gallery on Granville Island for financial reasons — but perhaps very fittingly, her exhibit titled, “The Guiding Hand”, was the Gallery’s last exhibit by a Guild member before its closure.
I believe that the title of that show —“THE GUIDING HAND” — also perfectly summarizes Jinny’s many contributions to the BC Pottery community. Equally, I think it fair to say that my beloved wife has carried more than a full share of brimming water buckets from the communal well to all the potters in her village.