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Remembering Sally Michener

By Tam Irving

I first met Sally in 1974 when I was eking out a living making functional pots. She came to my studio to see if I might be an acceptable candidate to replace John Reeve who had returned to Cornwall to manage the Leach pottery in St. Ives. I remember clearly this elegant woman giving me the once over! Well, I passed her scrutiny and what followed, despite very different aesthetic interests, was a twenty year collaboration as the ceramics department transitioned from a simple wheel-throwing area to broader and more divergent art concerns.

Sally deeply appreciated thrown forms, she had studied under the famous potter Warren MacKenzie, but she became more interested in hand-building and the freedom to work on a larger scale. Accordingly, she established a separate hand-building area at the Vancouver School of Art on Hamilton Street. Ron Vallis remembering those early years talked about her coming down to the throwing area and suggesting to students that they might like to hand build as a different way to think about form. Happily the two areas were amalgamated when the school moved to Granville Island under its new name Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1980.

Sally’s friendly, curious and cheerful spirit had a big impact on both students and faculty. The department became more widely respected for its engagement with contemporary concerns. Her teaching practice set up projects to draw out the individuality of each student and inspire them to follow their own ideas in depth while providing the necessary technical support. Her core belief rested on the primacy of making – the direct and caring touch of the hand; above all, not simply the making of objects, but more importantly the openness to discovery.

A former student, Louise Bunn, commented “my experience of Sally was a kind and nurturing presence, but also as a teacher who had high standards and expectations. She provided invaluable advice, guidance and support to me – helping me gird my loins when my giant grad project collapsed and I had to start over again; and once I had graduated, helping me to find a studio on Granville Island, where I still am to this day. She will be sorely missed”.

Lynn Hughes who remained a friend many years after graduating said this “I was incredibly lucky to have her as one of my best teachers as I began trying to make things. At that time, it wasn’t so common to have a strong, open, intelligent woman as a reference. Even though I was not explicitly conscious of it at the time, I am quite sure that that made a huge difference to whom I was able to become”

In order to create informal exchanges and wider experiences Sally and I established frequent field trips, some as far as Mexico – there was less concern in those days about insurance and liability! Also, we were able to bring in visiting artists from many countries for short term demonstrations and longer term summer schools. I do remember when, on a trip to Seattle, I allowed Bill Rennie, a slightly hostile student to walk on my back – a foot massage. Our relationship improved immensely after he had stamped on me!

Sally’s art output was prodigious. She followed no particular trend or style but was very much herself. She was especially interested in sculptural installations with multiple components echoing and riffing on themselves. She liked to create spaces that invited entry – colonnades, arches, garden pathways, benches. Primary among other concerns was the human figure expressed through columnar constructions where human fragments danced forth in spectacular arrangements. Her ideas moved so swiftly that sometimes her columns turned into precarious constructions that defied gravity in a wobbly way! You hesitated to get too close lest the balance be upset! Fundamental to all her work was the need to express the imperfect, the human touch the quirkiness of the made by hand. She admired artists in many fields and travelled widely for direct art experiences. In recent years she became well known for her humorous mosaic covered figures and dogs modelled on her own pet Diego. To quote her words “I always hope that my conscious intentions will somehow be transcended and that the work will take on its own life and vitality beyond my expectations”.

Top right is from Sally’s Sit Stay Speak at the Seymour Art Gallery in Deep Cove September 14 to October 26, 2019. The two pieces above are from The Space In Between: Contemporary Wroks by Sally Michener + Tam Irving, West Vancouver Museum, 2016: (Left) Impression #2, 2009/2015 moulded, ceramic shards, ceramic and glass tiles, 38 x 28 x 18 cm. Photo Ken Mayer; (Right) About Face #4, 2014, hand-built, ceramic shards, ceramic and glass tiles, 75 x 50 x 36 cm. Photo Tony Westman

Turning for a moment to lighter matters, Sally was famous for wearing brightly coloured mismatched socks; her way of saying that she was not about to be cowed by sartorial convention; no, not Sally! But alas, her predilection came back to haunt her when, during her retirement celebration, a line was slung across the room festooned with brightly striped socks provided by the celebrants. She appreciated the humour but was slightly miffed that she was being remembered by trivia rather than accomplishment!

Sally became the Associate Dean of Visual Arts in her final years.

Monique Fouquet, the Dean of Foundation and Critical Studies, comments wryly, “I admired Sally but sometimes we had to argue for resources. Sally always felt that she had the best argument by emphatically stating that Visual Art was simply the largest area of the school. What can you say to that? Well I would remind Sally that Foundation was the first year for all programs at Emily Carr and back and forth we would continue. However, I bear no grudges against Sally because at the end we always arrived at a place that put all students first. She was a great role model for me.”

David MacWilliam, reminiscing about her said “she was always gracious and disarmingly engaging – interested in all that was going on, and she helped me, as a younger, sometimes opinionated faculty member, feel welcome beyond my expectations”. Her wisdom and social skills were invaluable contributions to the management and fostering of a positive learning environment.

The death of a parent is traumatic. My deep sympathy and condolence to Katy and Dan and to Eric for losing his grandmother.

I am immensely grateful for Sally’s assistance over the years in demonstrating ways of teaching through her fine example. Thank you Sally.


Sally Michener passed away on May 15, 2023. Obituary and condolences

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