The Craft Fair as a Nature Meditation

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Gordon Hutchens

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  — Albert Einstein

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” —  Rachel Carson

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” – William Shakespeare

Earrings by Cheryl Jacobs
Earrings by Cheryl Jacobs

The connection between contemplating nature and doing your shopping at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair may not be immediately obvious, but let me make a case for it: the Fair is, in its own way, an enchantingly beautiful invocation of the natural elements.

Earth is predominant. A crystalline-glazed vase, a two-foot in diameter wine-red platter, a leaf-patterned tea mug – all tell a story of mud, transformed through human hands and imagination into art. And the earth element shines, literally, in the metals and stones used by the fair’s many jewelers.

Water shows up in artisanal teas from wildcrafted plants, and wine from local vineyards. Also, scented soaps, lotions, and cosmetic oils invoke the warm soothing waters of a bath where we can pamper ourselves with products made from natural, locally-sourced ingredients.

Fire collaborates with earth in the ceramic arts, and also provides the transformative power found in glass arts and metalwork. The fire of the sun is also captured in dried flowers arranged as ornaments or made into teas.

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Fern Niedermoser
Fern Niedermoser’s fragrant soaps are made with farm-fresh goat milk

And air? You can’t make crafts out of air, but you can smell it in the many luscious scents of the fair: rose and sandalwood, espresso and hot apple cider, beeswax and fir sap. You can see its movement in the fluttering of a hand-dipped candle flame, and hear its vibrations as you listen to local children playing mandolin outside the Community Hall.

Nature is everywhere: the forest manifests in exquisite wooden bowls, boxes and baskets. The animals that graze Denman’s fields contribute, whether via a pair of woollen socks, hand-knitted by the farmer who raised the sheep, or an irresistibly cute little needle-felted mouse. Denman’s gardens provide big firm garlic heads for braids; fruit for jams; and hot peppers for salsas and relishes.

By gathering together so many beautiful objects that come directly from the earth, craft fairs reconfigure our relationship with shopping, with the objects we use for play, utility and pleasure. The fair offers a welcome counterpoint to the disconnect created by global mass-production, and it brings our relationship with stuff a few satisfying steps closer to sustainable.

In a world where “nature deficit disorder” is a recognized syndrome associated with a host of physical, mental and social problems, taking part in a craft fair, as a vendor or shopper, feels ever more meaningful.

Originally published in The Island Word, November 2017

photos by Fireweed

Inside the Magician’s Lair with Gordon Hutchens

Denman Island Craft Fair artist 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

“Farm to Home” – Fabric Artist Basia Pryl

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Basia Pryl
Denman Island fabric artist Basia Pryl
Fabric artist Basia Pryl

The locavore movement brought us the term “farm to table,” which points to the many benefits environmental, social, culinary, and economic – of eating food from local sources. The Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair has plenty of local food products to take home or eat on-site, but it goes much, much further: alongside the home-grown yummies we find clothing, jewelry, baskets, soaps, salves, toys, and more, all originating from Denman Island farms.

It’s time to coin a new term: “farm to home.” And the Denman Island Craft Fair can show us how this is done.

Fabric artist Barbara Pryl (known to her friends as Basia, pronounced Bah-sha) is one of Denman’s “farm to home” rising stars. The starting point for most of Basia’s gorgeous knitted, crocheted and woven creations is her flock of sheep, which graze her farm on Northwest Road. The back-story of her hats, mittens, and scarves includes the many hours she spends tending her flock and shearing, washing, carding, dying, and spinning their wool. That stylish shawl or those funky fingerless gloves you’ll see at Basia’s craft fair table trace their existence back to the Denman soil and water that keep her sheep happy and healthy.

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Basia Pryl
Basia Pryl ‘s cozy socks

Basia traces her love of working with wool back to her roots in Poland: “During World War II my Grandmother used to knit and crochet shawls and sell them on the streets in Warsaw just to survive. She had to walk 20 kilometres a day just to get there and back. During the occupation my family moved from Warsaw to a small town. I was born there. I started learning about wool from early childhood. One of my aunts taught me knitting; another taught me crochet.”

At five years old, Basia was crocheting tiny dresses, hats and even, she remembers, umbrellas for her dolls. She loved it, and as she grew up, her fascination grew. However, she didn’t find the chance to explore the full spectrum of yarn arts till she moved to Denman Island six years ago.

“I’ve been dreaming about spinning since I was 14, but never got the chance to even touch a spinning wheel till I moved here. I had to move to Denman to make my dreams come true.”

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Basia Pryl
Fabric artist Basia Pryl

Once on Denman, Basia found a community of mentors, teachers and supporters in Denman Island’s extensive community of fabric artists. “There’s so much talent here to learn from. And people are so generous. All you need to do is ask,” she says.

Basia says that fulfilling her childhood dream has been every bit as wonderful as she hoped. In the past four years, she has learned a host of skills for taking wool along the “farm to home” journey.

“It’s a very long process that connects you to the seasons of the year. In late Spring, there’s shearing. In the summer, there’s washing because you need the heat to dry the wool, in the winter when it’s time to stay indoors you spin and knit. I love that you can start with a pile of dirty fleece and transform it into something beautiful,” says Basia.

Basia’s pieces vary in texture, colour and pattern. “No two pieces are the same,” she says. As well as pure wool from her own farm, she uses silk to add light, colour and texture, Buffalo wool for its softness and strength, and acrylic for headbands to avoid itchiness.

Originally published in The Denman Island Flagstone, December, 2016

photos by Fireweed

Matta Schaal’s Images From The Earthfold

Denman Island Craft Fair artist Matta Schaal
Denman Island Craft Fair artist Matta Schaal
Artist Matta Schaal creates multi media images referencing the textures, colours and shapes of nature

So much of what you’ll find at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair comes from the earth: clay becomes pottery; silver and stone become jewelry; willow branches become baskets.
On first glance, Matta Schaal’s multi-media art doesn’t follow this theme whatsoever. Her materials are paper, canvas, photography, acrylic paint, glue, gesso, and plaster. Her photocollage paintings have an edginess that doesn’t match some people’s idea of “craft fair” aesthetics. But thematically, Schaal’s art fits right in – it comes from the deep dark depths of the earth, telling stories of the ways humans and nature interact, reflecting the wild mix of love and anger, hope and despair, reverence and fear so many of us feel about our natural world and our place in it.

“If I were to give a title to the work I’m doing these days it would be ‘Of Earthfolds and Excavations,’” says Schaal, a Denman Islander who is exhibiting for her 5th year at the Fair. “Picture the earth folding over on itself. What would turn up?” Layers of buried material: industrial ruins and the toxic wastes of civilization, but also bones and middens, and seeds waking up as they’re brought to light.

“You could say everything in my work is a metaphor for the interplay of industry and nature. I carry a lot of sadness and sorrow about the world. My work is a way of processing my grief. They are not pretty pictures,” she says. For instance, one of her photo-collage paintings mourns the extinction of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow with a heart-rending image of the small bird trapped in a glass jar. While Schaal feels called to visually reflect on such dark themes as extinction, environmental destruction, colonization, and oppression, her work is not all unrelenting gloom.

“My work these days is becoming more hopeful. I’m fascinated with beginnings, with seeds, with the way fresh things grow out of decay, with the idea of creatures waking up and coming to life,” she says. Her collages feature images of flowers blossoming, people embracing, and hands touching. Even when the subject is dark, her work is visually beautiful, with deep colours, flowing lines, and rich, evocative imagery.

Schaal’s process begins with a camera. She takes herself out on “photo dates,” for instance to document sandstone formations on a beach, the charred pile left when a friend’s house burnt down, the textures and shapes of derelict cars, the combination of industry and marine life at an oyster farm. She then selects shots, makes multiple prints, and spends hours, scissors in hand, cutting out shapes.
Every spare surface in her studio is covered with piles of these cut-out shapes, organized by theme: mossy tree trunks, rusty nuts and bolts, bones and skulls, flowers, hands, electrical cords, wires and outlets, entrails and organs from a slaughtered deer, and more.

Denman Island Craft fair artist Matta Schaal
collage/painting by Matta Schaal

Much of this imagery reflects the elements, further connecting Schaal’s work to nature. “This pile is all bones and skulls. That’s the earth element – the ancestors, the old ones, history, things that came before. There’s my feathers, wings and leaves pile; they speak to me of air, of wind, thought, intellect, liberation and freedom.” There are waves, fish and seashells for water; flames and electricity for fire.
Her finished pieces combine these images with painting to create semi-abstract, complex, highimpact art. Her work has immediate visual and emotional appeal, and also invites the viewer in closer to muse on the potential meanings the images convey.

“I love the idea of communicating in a visual way through metaphor and symbol,” says Schaal. She can tell a story for every single image in a collage – these are her friend’s hands, holding a bloody deer heart, these are old bricks from another friend’s kiln, this is the tire swing from the Denman Guesthouse, and more, so that each finished piece includes a “secret” record of her community and home. But Schaal expects viewers to create their own meanings.
“I can’t control what you’re going to see. You have to make your own story, and that’s good, that’s awesome. There’s so much room for subjectivity.”
Schaal happily admits to being driven by an obsessive drive to create. “I have a whole world of dreamscapes and creatures inside my head,” she says. This world insists on expression, which means Schaal sometimes works long hours in her studio, a cozy cabin in the forest on the Denman Island land co-op where Schaal lives.

This drive to create has been with Schaal her whole life. She received formal training at the Victoria School of Art, gaining a Fine Arts diploma in 1991. Over the years she has worked as an illustrator and tattoo artist, and participated in a number of group and solo shows. She currently works part time as youth programs provider while continuing to create art.

Originally published in The Island Word, December 2016 photos by Fireweed