Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making
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Setting the Stage for Regina Clay

by Sandra Alfoldy

Tracing the influence of American approaches to clay in Regina, specifically the California funk movement of the 1960s, is a difficult task. The personalities involved overlap and differ, both chronologically and in terms of the remembered narrative of the period. At this moment in Canadian craft discourse, the accepted story is relatively simple—Regina established connections with California that led to a new sculptural approach in ceramics. While this essay does not seek to dispute that argument, it does intend to expand upon it by highlighting the importance of early developments in the creation of an open-minded environment toward ceramics in Regina. Relating the Regina clay movement to its initial supporters, individuals like Patricia Wiens, Beth Hone, Ann James, Ricardo Gómez and Jack Sures, demonstrates reasons for Regina's readiness to support the first Canadian funk scene in ceramics. The voices of these participants have often been overlooked in the later dazzle of the funk superstars, when in reality it was this group that set the stage for the phenomenon known as Regina clay.

            Although the movement has earned a recognizable name, those involved were never a cohesive group. Rather, they offered a different set of perspectives on ceramics that coalesced into one of the most exciting developments for clay in Canada. Their location within a university setting is central to this story. Whether in the department of Fine Arts (sculpture and ceramics), Education (art education), or Extension, the majority of those involved were directly related to the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus (since 1974 the University of Regina).[1] This academic environment allowed for divergent opinions on clay to co-exist and served as one of Canada's most successful examples of the institutionalization of ceramics at the post-secondary level.

            Prior to the 1960s Saskatchewan had worked diligently to develop ceramic education. As Executive Secretary of the Saskatchewan Arts Board (1947-58) and later as Western Liaison Officer for the National Gallery of Canada (1958-68), Norah McCullough was a pivotal figure in this development.[2] McCullough enjoyed a distinguished career as Arthur Lismer's full-time assistant at the Art Gallery of Toronto in the 1930s and later as a Carnegie sponsored art educator in Pretoria, South Africa (1938-46).[3] When she took up her position at the Saskatchewan Arts Board, she made Adult Education her focus. An avid supporter of the crafts, McCullough made it her aim to raise the level of cultural awareness in the province by introducing residents to the national art scene. She also perceived the economic potential for the crafts in Saskatchewan, and by the mid-1950s she had established several craft projects that promoted cottage industry. 

            In the early 1950s Patricia Wiens was hired by Norah McCullough to establish a pottery studio in Eastend, Saskatchewan. In addition to shipping the lime-free clay of the area to Plainsmen Clay in Alberta, Wiens was charged with the task of preparing a fully operational studio for the use of local communities.[4] During this period, McCullough was also instrumental in bringing in National Gallery of Canada shows to Western Canada, including an early exhibition on Japanese pottery to Saskatchewan. For Wiens, the Asian aesthetic in ceramics was inspiring.[5] She had received an appreciation of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada during her ceramic education at the University of Manitoba, where she had studied under Cecil Richards, a British professor who greatly admired Leach.[6] By the mid-1950s Wiens was teaching ceramics at the university and she is credited with setting up its studio: "She brought ceramics to Regina."[7]

            Jack Sures supports the idea that the Saskatchewan Arts Board "had lots to do with getting Regina ready for Regina clay."[8] In addition to McCullough and Wiens, McCullough's successor as Executive Director, George Shaw, and Saskatchewan Arts Board Consultant Sheila Stiven also encouraged ceramics. For example, in the early 1960s Shaw and Stiven opened a ceramic shop in the River Heights Shopping Centre in Regina.[9] While it should be noted that this store was one of the earliest fine craft retailers in Saskatchewan, what is more remarkable is that by the early 1960s an audience for ceramics was already present in Regina. 

            Another potter hired by the Saskatchewan Arts Board to do workshops was Beth Hone. Educated in England at the Farnham School of Art, Hone was heavily influenced by Leach.[10] She found that her workshops on functional pottery were well received throughout Saskatchewan in both small and large centres. Hone met fellow ceramist Ann James at the university where they were both teaching in the Extension Program, and it was there that they were introduced to one of their most famous students, Marilyn Levine. Levine, who had a master's degree in chemistry, moved to Saskatchewan when her husband was hired at the university in 1961. Upon arrival, she quickly realized that her career as a chemist would be limited: "I was brought up in an age when women lived through their men and gave up their careers. I didn't want to give up my career."[11] Instead, Levine switched directions and began pursuing art courses. When she signed up for a ceramics course at the university, she reports that there were three wheels in the room.[12] Although a formal ceramic education at the university was in its infancy, Levine found a well-developed arts community:

In 1961, when I arrived in Saskatchewan, Regina had a small group of people working in clay, nurtured along by Beth Hone and Pat Wiens. There were the [Norman] Mackenzie Art Gallery, the School of Art, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Emma Lake workshops, the Regina Five painters, and practicing artists, teaching art in the high schools. All this resulted in a citizenry interested in and receptive to the arts. Regina in 1965 was thus ripe for the arrival of the likes of Jack Sures.[13]

Before discussing Jack Sures, it is important to note that between Levine's appearance in 1961 and Sures' in 1965, the first contact with California had been established with the arrival of Ricardo Gómez.

            In 1964, at the age of twenty-two, Gómez arrived in Regina to head up the sculpture department. Born and raised near San Francisco and educated at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), Gómez did not come directly from California to Regina; he had been living in Vancouver from 1960 to 1963. While in Vancouver, he built one of British Columbia's first large gas kilns and established a studio on the south side of the Granville Street Bridge. He soon met many artists living in Vancouver at the time, including Saskatchewan-born Roy Kiyooka, and it was through these connections that Gómez received a letter from Kenneth Lochhead at the university, stating that they were looking for a sculptor. Gómez applied and "to my amazement I got it."[14] For Gómez, it was an interesting opportunity to build a sculpture department from scratch: "I was a California kid on an adventure."[15]

            By the time Gómez arrived in Regina in 1964, a well-established ceramics scene was in place; however, the university's ceramics department was small. Though Gómez was in sculpture, he was also responsible for overseeing the ceramics department. When Gómez visited the ceramics department for the first time, he met Hone and Levine and he shared with them his amazement at its small size and lack of equipment: "When I met Marilyn I said, 'Where's the clay lab?' She said, 'We're in it.'"[16] Gómez believed that ceramics "needed someone who knew the basics, yet was experimental enough in clay to get out of the strict confines of the basics."[17] Sures would be the person hired to build up this department, and Gómez saw to it that he supported it both financially and academically from the sculpture side. Thus, from its inception in the 1960s, the university's ceramics department was an interdisciplinary endeavor.

            It was Marilyn Levine who suggested that Sures be hired as the new ceramics instructor. She had met Sures at a 1965 Western Potter's Association meeting in Weyburn, and she was very impressed with his work and his professional approach to ceramics.[18] In addition to teaching in clay, Sures also taught printmaking at the university, and his functional forms reflected his interest in surface design. Levine was immediately taken with Sures' work, which she described as "luscious . . . I was heavily influenced by Jack and couldn't see any other way to make pots. . . . He had an exquisite sensitivity to the plastic nature of clay, which along with his disciplined work habits became very influential to me and other students."[19]  Having completed his master's degree at Michigan State University, Sures was dedicated to functional ceramics. "Jack was all about functional works," recalls Levine. "He would tell people, 'If you want to make sculpture, go to the sculpture department.'" Sures was instrumental in developing the university's ceramics department, which included building the first gas fired studio kilns in Saskatchewan.[20] As the focus of his work was functional, it was only a matter of time before his students' work began to reflect this approach, and "ceramics became almost exclusively high fire reduction stoneware or porcelain pottery."[21] This is made clear in the catalogue for Norah McCullough's exhibition, Canadian Fine Craft, which she curated through the National Gallery of Canada for the centennial year in 1967. Levine and Sures are both highlighted for their small functional objects, including spice jars, vases, and planters, all made of stoneware.[22] By the time McCullough's catalogue was published, much had changed in terms of the Regina clay movement. However, despite the radical aesthetic changes that were on the horizon, Regina's ceramic milieu in 1965 was in line with the Canadian devotion to functional stoneware vessels that paid homage to Leach.  This is what Victor Cicansky encountered when he first started taking ceramics classes with Sures at the university that year.

            According to Cicansky, the ceramics program focused on "mugs and pots and teapots," and he found himself thinking, "Why am I doing this?"[23] When he began taking ceramics courses, Cicansky was a history teacher, and as a mature student he was willing to challenge the Leach aesthetic: "I made casseroles, but then I filled them with clay veggies and things, painted them red and yellow, and put on zippered tops to make them non-functional."[24] Sures' interest in the Asian tradition of ceramics and his dedication to utilitarian forms did not suit Cicansky's desire to push the boundaries of clay. Indeed, the California funk approach to ceramics was disseminated through Gómez in sculpture, and Hone and James in their private ceramic studio, rather than through the ceramics department.

            Gómez "introduced us to California clay ideas," states Cicansky, by teaching him and Levine how to mix fibreglass and clay to begin working sculpturally.[25] The textile-like quality of this clay mixture led Cicansky to experiment with replicating cloth forms like shirts and bags in clay, and he was inspired.[26] Almost simultaneously, Gómez arranged to have one of his friends from San Francisco, James Melchert, brought to Regina by Hone and James to give a workshop in their ceramic studio: "I told them that Jim would be an interesting guy to have . . . and it was a good workshop, very intense, away from the university. . . . It put these ideas into the community and opened people's eyes."[27] It was at this workshop that Levine famously made her first shoe from clay. It is interesting that the two earliest experimenters with ceramic sculpture—and the two students from Regina who went to California to pursue their education and careers—were also two of the most technically confident and mature students in the program. Levine came from a chemistry background, enabling her to run experiments with clay that were beyond the means of most ceramic students, and Cicansky was the son of a wheelwright / blacksmith / carpenter, "so I grew up making things, and clay was easy."[28]

            What is often overlooked in the history of this shift toward ceramic sculpture in Regina is Jack Sures' involvement in the movement. Hone points out that while Sures continued to produce large platters and bowls with beautiful brushwork, "he was not limited to functional ware. He tried a wide range of things."[29] While Cicansky notes that Gómez was instrumental in showing the technique of mixing fibreglass and clay, Levine credits Sures with developing a process of mixing fibreglass strands into a dry clay mix in a dough mixer before adding water.[30] A key factor in the success of the Regina clay movement was Sures' willingness to co-exist with sculpture. "I consider myself to be a liberal educator. People will find their own way," says Sures, a sentiment that is supported by Gómez. According to him, "Jack never stood in anyone's way. Once they knew the basics they could take off."[31] Cicansky recalls getting into a debate with Sures over the expectations of clay, which inspired him to explore master's programs in the United States. However, Sures himself was impacted by the events unfolding in Regina:  "I did some funky sort of things, but not off-the-wall. They were more abstract, slightly sexually-oriented sculptures."[32]

            By 1969 three key events that form the accepted narrative for the Regina clay movement were underway. First, Cicansky had met Robert Arneson at Haystack in 1967, while en route to Expo '67, and by the fall of that year Cicansky was studying with Arneson at the University of California, Davis. Cicansky thrived in the open atmosphere at Davis: "It was the late 1960s and things were blowing wide open.  We were encouraged to take risks and not to limit ourselves."[33] After exposure to Canada's love affair with the earthy tones of stoneware, he was excited by the opportunity to use colour and he began experimenting with the bright colours that were available through commercial glazes.[34] It was there that Cicansky first met David Gilhooly, a recent graduate of the program: "He was this big hulk, carrying a tray loaded with cats and dogs and frogs."[35] Second, following up on Gómez's suggestion that she apply for a Canada Council grant, Levine received $250 to visit the West Coast of Canada and California, a trip that helped her decide to attend graduate school in 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley to study with James Melchert, Peter Voulkos, and others.  Levine recollects, "The activity in the United States blew me away, it was so different from Canada."[36] In her opinion, Canada at the time was still entrenched in functional stoneware: "There was a difference in how new work was received in Canada. . . . Pots did well in Canada and there was very little interest in sculpture."[37] Central to the story of Levine's leaving Canada to pursue her graduate studies in the United States is the lack of graduate programs in Canada: "At the time there was no place in Canada to get a master's degree, so I was forced to go to the U.S. . . . There art departments were in universities and in Canada they were in technical schools."[38] Third, in 1969, after both Cicansky and Levine had left Regina, David Gilhooly was hired to teach ceramics at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus. His sculptural ceramic approach contrasted with Sures' more functional interests, but it could be argued that it was this combination—and the willingness of Sures, Gómez, and others to embrace difference—that created the Regina clay movement. To Gómez, "Gilhooly merged vessel forms with sculpture and it got all mixed up—utility and sculpture. . . . This opened up a better situation for clay sculpture and vessel making."[39]

            The story of Gilhooly's presence at the university has an almost mythical quality. The fact that his work with papier-mâché animals motivated Joe Fafard, one of Canada's most well regarded sculptors, to move away from kinetic sculpture into portraiture, has contributed to Gilhooly's stature. The wit and humour of Gilhooly's work was inspirational to many, including Cicansky and Levine, who returned to Regina from California at various points to teach. After Gilhooly left the university in 1971, Cicansky, who had returned to Regina after completing his M.F.A. in 1970, continued to teach clay sculpture.[40] 

            The exchange of professors, students and ideas between Regina and California led to an invigorating movement for Canadian clay in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Over the years this movement has been interpreted widely to suit several agendas, from those that bemoan Canada's slow conceptual development in ceramics, to those who view the movement as an example of the inequities between functional and sculptural ceramics. To those directly involved, however, this is not merely a tale of Canadian versus American achievements in clay, nor is it a story of hostilities between ceramics and art; rather, it is about a unique situation where a variety of ceramic practices were encouraged to intermingle well before interdisciplinarity became a buzzword. For Gómez, "The work was more focused than simply where you are from . . . or preciousness of materials. . . . The nexus is that the focus was on clay."[41] If the Regina clay movement is examined in these terms, it opens up the possibility of acknowledging earlier ceramists who contributed to the open-mindedness that was required to accept these bold new expressions in clay.


Notes

[1] I will refer to the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus as the university in this paper.

[2] "New Cultural Vistas Open to Rural Areas," Leader-Post (Regina), 10 February 1948, 7.

[3] Jane Gorjevsky, Curator, Carnegie Collections, e-mail to the author, 22 August 2003.

[4] Patricia Wiens, telephone interview by the author, 28 August 2003.

[5] Wiens, interview.

[6] Jack Sures, telephone interview by the author, 29 July 2004.

[7] Sures, interview.

[8] Sures, interview.

[9] Sures, interview.

[10] Beth Hone, telephone interview by the author, 2 October 2003.

[11] Marilyn Levine, telephone interview by the author, 20 October 2003.

[12] Levine, interview.

[13] Marilyn Levine, e-mail to the author, 25 November 2003.

[14] Ricardo Gómez, interview by the author, Kingston, Ontario, 26 December 2003.

[15] Gómez, interview.

[16] Gómez, interview.

[17] Gómez, interview.

[18] Levine, interview.

[19] Levine, interview.

[20] Levine, e-mail.

[21] Levine, e-mail.

[22] Canadian Fine Craft (Ottawa: Queen's Printers, 1967). Three Saskatchewan potters are listed in "Section A" under ceramics: Hansen-Ross Pottery, small earthenware dish; Marilyn Levine, spice jar, vase and bottle, all stoneware; and Jack Sures, hanging planter, planter, and green and black plate, all stoneware.

[23] Victor Cicansky, telephone interview by the author, 24 August 2004.

[24] Cicansky, interview.

[25] Cicansky, interview.

[26] Cicansky, interview.

[27] Gómez, interview.

[28] Cicansky, interview.

[29] Hone, interview.

[30] Marilyn Levine, e-mail to the author, 20 October 2003.

[31] Gómez, interview.

[32] Sures, interview.

[33] Cicansky, interview.

[34] Cicansky, interview.

[35] Cicansky, interview.

[36] Levine, interview.

[37] Levine, interview.

[38] Levine, interview.

[39] Gómez, interview.

[40] Cicansky, interview.

[41] Gómez, interview.

 



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