Inside the Magician’s Lair with Gordon Hutchens

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Gordon Hutchens
Gordon Hutchens

A visit to the back rooms of master potter Gordon Hutchens’ studio is like a trip to a magician’s lair. Surrounded by the mossy, moody grandeur of Denman Island’s Douglas Fir forest, the studio is a jam-packed jumble of rooms, full of potions and powders, bottles and tubs, tiny tools, big machines, and hundreds of vases, mugs, bowls, and other pieces, all at various stages of production.

As Hutchens prepares for craft fair season, he takes a short break to show me around, allowing me an intimate peek behind the curtain of one of BC’s most celebrated potters. We start in the front room – an immaculately clean, elegantly-lit gallery showcasing the graceful shapes and magnificent surfaces of Hutchens’ pottery. This where his creations work their magic, engendering awe and wonder in visitors. I get very quiet for a while, taking everything in, and then I start with the questions: “How do you do this? How do you get these textures, this luminosity, this velvet iridescence, this metallic sheen that glimmers and shifts and plays with light, as if the glaze is alive? ”

The answer to such questions involves a combination of craftsmanship, creativity, advanced chemistry, hard work, and a certain mad-scientist, inspired-alchemist enthusiasm that has animated Hutchens for over 45 years.

“It really is a bit like alchemy,” he says. “Both disciplines are about the transmutation of minerals and metals. You take a pinch of this and pinch of that, add high heat, and transformation happens.”

As he speaks, Hutchens gestures to a wall-sized chest of multiple small drawers, each labelled with names such as Nepheline Syenite, Lithium Carbonate, and Stannis Chloride. He points out shelves crowded with bottles and jars of Titanium Oxide, Fluorspar, Spodumene, Magnesium Carbonate, Black Copper Oxide, and dozens of other substances. He reaches up to take a small brown bottle and shows it to me.

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Gordon Huchens

“This is of Aquaregia, which means royal water. It will dissolve gold! That’s what I use to make some of the golds you see, for instance in the centre of a plate or the lip of a vase.”

Up ahead is a room full of tubs, ranging from tiny yogurt containers to big garbage bins – dozens, maybe hundreds of them, stacked up on shelves, counters, and on each other. These are all full of glazes, each unique, offering nuances of colour, texture and shine.

Beyond that is the clay mixing room, the most industrial-looking space in the studio. Although many potters buy ready-made clay, Hutchens blends his own so as to have total control over its qualities. This an arduous process involving finding the best ingredients from around the world (English Kaolin from Cornwall, Denman clay…. ,) making his own recipes, loading all the ingredients into a big mixing machine, transferring the result into a pug mill (another big machine) for fine mixing, extruding the final product out of the pug mill, and storing it until use.

Moving deeper into the studio, Hutchens points out his two wheels, one for porcelain and one for iron-bearing clay. He shows me shelves of glazed work, ready to be fired, and talks me through a new technique he’s developing – using silk screened patterning to apply glaze, in order to reproduce the look of antique Japanese fabric patterns.

Leaving the work area behind, Hutchens takes me into the gallery and points out several globular vases that appear encrusted with colour and texture, like an artifact from the earth, or perhaps from outer space.

“With these pieces I’m trying to capture the feel of other worlds; I think of these as the imaginary other moons of Jupiter, out beyond Io and Europa and all the others. I’m experimenting with amalgamating different techniques: Denman lustre [a glaze based on high-metal-content clay from his own property], textural slips, and crystalline patterns. Look at this crawling textural pattern – that where it looks cracked, like mudflats or alligator skin; it’s overlayed on top of a colourful slip so when it crawls it reveals the colour beneath it.”

Gordon Hutchens

Whoa! Clearly, there’s a lot going on in a Hutchens piece. And probably the most crucial part of the process is one I don’t see in the studio tour: the firing. Hutchens uses a variety of kilns and techniques such as salt firing, Taku, and reduction firing, But he is perhaps best known for his Anugama wood-fired kiln, built in 1998 under the guidance of world master Yukio Yamamoto.

This kiln is fired up twice a year and the event is equal parts ritual, work marathon, and social gathering. For three days the kiln has to fed every ten minutes with firewood. Participants work round the clock on a rota system. When the kiln finally cools and is opened, the results, if all has gone well, are stunning. Each piece tells its own story of how it was caressed by the flame and wood ash.

Potters come from all over Vancouver Island to fire their work in the kiln and help keep the kiln loaded. The event has a celebratory feel, as accomplished artisans enjoy the opportunity to be together, to mentor younger artists, and to create new, exciting work.

Hutchens has been a leader in his field for years. He has has over 25 one-man shows and over 70 group exhibitions across Canada and the US, with three major exhibitions in Japan, taught many courses and workshops, authored educational videos, and written articles for ceramics magazines and books. Yet he is nowhere near complacent, let alone bored. Pottery continues to excite him and entice him with possibility.

Gordon Hutchens

“There are so many things I haven’t had a chance to experiment with. That’s why I love this art form,” he says. “I studied all the visual arts at university. I could have become a painter or sculptor. But what sucked me into clay is that ceramics is the most complex of the arts. It includes all the visual art disciplines, and more: it’s about three-dimensional form, line and form, colour, chemistry, and mineralogy, and to top it off, you get to play with fire!” he says.

Hutchens has been exhibiting at the Denman Craft Fair since the event’s inception 36 years ago. “The Island really puts on a top-notch show. There is the same quality and diversity as in the big shows I do in Vancouver and Victoria. At the same time, it very much feels like a neighbourhood event.”

Originally published in the Comox Valley Record, December 2016

Photos by Fireweed