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REVIEW: Modern in the Making

Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia

Vancouver Art Gallery - July 2020 to January 3, 2021

Curated by Daina Augaitis, Stephanie Rebick, and Allan Collier – recent recipient of the Citizen of Craft, by the Craft Council of BC

  • Catalogue available

  • 300 pieces

  • 132 artists represented

  • 47 BC Ceramicists represented

ARTISTS INCLUDE: Axel Ebring, Gertrude Weir, Frances Hayman, Marian McCrea, Olea Davis, David Lambert, Jean Clarke, Stan Clarke (Greenbarn), Barbara Baanders, Avery Huyghe, Hilda Ross, Ruth Meechan, Alice Bradbury, Reginald Dixon, Gerta Herz , BC Ceramics Ltd, Crown Ceramics, Thomas Kakinuma, Santo Mignosa, Chief Henry Hunt, Robert Weghsteen, Zoltan Kiss, Zeljko Kujundzic, Rex Mason, Leonard Osborne, Ravine Pottery, Adolph Schwenk, Louise Schwenk, John Reeve, Glenn Lewis, Gathie Falk, Michael Henry, Ian Steele, Charmian Johnson, Heinz Laffin, Walter Dexter, Wayne Ngan, Frances Hatfield, Kathleen Hamilton, Jean Marie Weakland, Marjory Hamilton, Tam Irving, Judith Cranmer, Gillian Hodge, Desmond Loan, Janet MacLeod, Rodney Maxwell-Muir

Review & photos by Debra Sloan.

“The West Coast received influences from a lot of different places, in the world, Modernism from Europe, American aesthetic from draft dodgers, values from Asia and of course, the indigenous peoples, the very foundation of culture in BC. This exhibition is one of the very first in Canada to include indigeneity in a survey of the modern movement ”. -Diane Augaitis, curator, Vancouver Sun , August 15, 2020.

Modern in the Making is a thoughtfully structured and beautifully displayed discourse on the evolution of craft in BC between the years of 1945 to 1975. All of the works on view have been made available through the generosity of collectors who were astute enough to recognize pieces that best represent the craft practice of BC.

The show is broken up in several sections – Post War 1945 – 49, The Foundation Years 1949 – 59, Toward More Expressive Forms – 1960s – 70s, and, Blurring Boundaries 1968- 75, with sub-groups - Craft and Industrial Design, Art in the Living Group, and Metal Furniture. Considered for the show were examples of BC-made furniture, ceramics, textiles, fashion, jewellery, metal work, and enamel ware. The installation is spacious, and every piece given consideration. The circular wall displays for ceramics are particularly effective, recalling the alluring round doorways seen in Asian gardens. Only the jewellery displays are covered, leaving all the other works - their materials, textures and methods of fabrication, open for close inspection.

Post-war optimism is suggested by the use of beguiling colours highlighting the walls of the Gallery exhibition space , augmented by blown-up images taken from 1960s Western Living magazines, where design concepts around living spaces integrated architecture with locally-made furniture, paintings, ceramics, and weaving . BC artists, indigenous and non-indigenous, were engaged with interactive artistic pollination. Deliverance from war and evolving societal perceptions, opened realms of possibility. Mid -Century Modernism in BC was affected by many imported influences as well as by the authoritative form-line elements of West Coast indigenous art. Diane Augaitis, curator, was quoted in the Vancouver Sun – “The West Coast received influences from a lot of different places in the world, Modernism from Europe, American aesthetic from draft dodgers, values from Asia, and of course the indigenous people, the very foundation of culture in BC”.

For those of us raised in BC during the post-war years, the exhibition is a nostalgic experience, re-visiting familiar names, objects and the forward-looking design that informed childhood homes. Also familiar are works by indigenous artists, re-vitalized when the Potlatch ban, at long last, was removed in the early 50s. This is evidenced by Bill Reid’s culturally complex carved gold jewellery, and Guud San Glans - Robert Davidson’s, elegant interpretations of tradition expressed though modernist design. Even the cozy, ubiquitous Cowichan sweater, once an icon of Canadian design, makes a welcome appearance. Perhaps the most transitional piece is by an unknown Nuučaan̓ ułʔatḥ (Nuu-chah-nulth) weaver, whose graceful lidded basket, with its oversized abalone shell/lid looming over an exquisite traditional narrative woven into a bottle form. The integration of indigenous and non-indigenous works contributes enormously to the success of this exhibition. To finish the quote from Diane Augaitis . “This exhibition is one of the very first in Canada to include indigeneity in a survey of the modern movement.” An unsettling revelation.

Many of the non-indigenous artists represented were immigrants from between or after the world wars. Some brought their craft knowledge with them, or had apprenticed abroad, and returned as teachers of the next generation. Others were community trained and discovered they could make a living as craftspeople. Artists explored the industrial materials at hand, as seen in the sleekly designed and clever plywood and metal rod furniture. It should be remembered that by 2020 the BC ceramic practice is barely a century old, as clay was not used by the indigenous population, which means that early potters had to import knowledge, technology and materials, or discover how to work with local resources.

This exhibition is one of the very first in Canada to include indigeneity in a survey of the modern movement.” -Diane Augaitis

Forty -seven BC ceramicists are represented, covering a wide range of influences and ideologies prevalent between 1945 – 1975, and when the BC ceramic entity was still juvenile. (Perhaps we have now reached middle-age.) Some pieces were intentionally selected to indicate that some artists were at the beginning of their careers. The exhibition does not cover the earthenware and majolica movements of the early 70s, and only in the last room is a nod given to the 70s funk movement with edgy works by Evelyn Roth, Glenn Lewis and Gathi Falk.

Non-indigenous BC artists were consciously attempting to create a British Columbian identity. Indigenous artforms, as the original art of this region, were re-vitializing. Chief Henry Hunt, one of the few indigenous artists who used ceramics at that time (as well as being a respected carver), used form-line designs on pottery, as did Judy Cramner who was non-indigenous, but married to Doug Cramner, an established indigenous carver. Non-indigenous ceramic artists like Ruth Meechan and David Lambert ventured into indigenous design during the 1960s, usually with permissions. They thought their designs were a tribute to BC’s original art. This practice is now being viewed as cultural appropriation. (David Lambert’s 1960s indigenous inspired ceramics in the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s 2019/20 Playing With Fire - Ceramics of the Extraordinary, curated by Carol Mayer, were probably the exhibition’s most controversial component.)

Axel Ebring, BC’s first trained ceramicist, came from a pottery family in Sweden in the 1920s . He used local resources for kiln bricks, throwing clay, and glazes. Other early, and re-discovered ceramicists (by Allan Collier) from the 30s to the 50s, were Gertrude Weir, Francisca Hayman and Marian McCrea. Herta Gerz, and her ceramic engineer husband, immigrated from Germany in 1952, set up a successful slip-cast factory, BC Ceramics 1955 – 1967 on Hamilton Street. Crown Ceramics 1945-57, was another little-known slip-casting company, is represented with works attributed to designer Victor Fabri. Trained European potters like Barbara Baanders, who taught at the Ross-Hughye School in the 60s, brought an influential Bauhaus sensibility to Vancouver, as did Helga and Jan Grove, German trained potters who arrived in Victoria , via Istanbul, and set up a long running pottery that was featured in the 2017 exhibition Life With Clay: Pottery and Sculpture by Jan and Helga Grove curated by Allan Collier, at the Greater Art Gallery of Victoria. Louise Schwenk, born in BC, and Adolph Schwenk, a German immigrant, both trained with Reg Dixon, and then at the Vancouver School of Art, and set up a pottery in the Okanagan during the 1950s. Wayne Ngan, born in China, emigrated to BC when he was 13, and trained at the Vancouver School of Art, graduating with Honours in 1963. Potters like Thomas Kakinuma and Santo Mignosa had art training from their countries of origin. However, they learned their pottery skills in classes organized by Ontarian, Olea Davis, in the 1950s at the Pottery Huts at UBC, and later became important teachers. Olea invited international ceramic artists to teach at UBC, and consequently influences in BC, from early on, have been wide ranging and experimental. Hiro Urakami had art training in Japan, but learned pottery at the Vancouver School of Art. His House of Ceramics (1972-77) has been the most synergic ceramic gallery in BC - the twice-monthly exhibitions supporting and influencing scores of young artists. The other skilled group of potters were the Leach apprentices, John Reeve, Glenn Lewis, Mick Henry, and Ian Steele –who influenced generations of BC potters with the Leach/ Mingei philosophy, as witnessed in the landmark exhibition “Thrown” held at the Belkin Gallery in 2004. Charmian Jonson, also influenced by Leach, travelled widely and incorporated many influences in her practice. Robert Weghsteen, a highly skilled potter, immigrated from Belgium in the 1950s, and brought his materials and equipment through the Panama Canal. He established a ceramic programme at the Vancouver School of Art ( ECCAD, ECUAD). ) Among the teacher/students later involved in that programme were David Lambert, Reg Dixon, Rex Mason, Leonard Epp, Wayne Ngan, Joh Reeve, Don Hutchinson, Hiro Urakami and Tam Irving. In 1964 a sole exhibition of his work was held at the Vancouver School of Art.

All of the post-war crafts, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, evolved rapidly, responding to new materials, concepts and societal shifts. Perhaps the most exciting aspect was the cross-pollination of technologies and philosophies between the various art practices. Artists and collectors were excited and awed by the re-immergence of indigenous arts. There was optimism, experimentation, and sometimes a refreshing lack of worldliness.

After decades of curatorial disinterest, this exhibition is a welcome recognition of what the craft practice, its various antecedents, and rigours, bring to the aesthetic lexicon of this region. In addition, as a survey exhibition, it has set a precedent by recognising that the narrative of our regional craft and art practices are best understood and experienced when indigenous and non-indigenous works are exhibited side by side.

Both “Playing With Fire, November 2019 to March 2020, and Modern in the Making , July 2020 – January 2021, have been casualties of COVID 19. One closed early, the other opened late - it is a pity these significant exhibitions could not run concurrently. Combined they demonstrate the vast range of ceramic expressivity found in BC. Catalogues for both are readily available.

There would be no exhibition of this scale or depth without the four decades of exhaustive research and remarkable dedication to the BC craft practice untaken by Allan Collier – recently awarded as a Citizen of Craft by the Craft Council of BC. It is also important to acknowledge the vital role of responsible and knowledgeable collectors like John David Lawrence, who recognize significant works, and protect their collections. Perhaps these collections generated curatorial confidence - John loaned most of the ceramics for this exhibition, and Allan, most of the furniture. Modern in the Making is an exhibition where mindful curatorial direction has been critically supported by the art of knowledgeable collecting. Go see.


Post media content, Vancouver Sun, August 15, 2020

Galleries West, August 10, 2020

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