Patti Willis Delights with Dragonflies and Fairy Homes

Patti Willis is inspired by wetlands and the wonder of children.

Ceramic artist Patti Willis was one of the novice crafters exhibiting at the very first Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair in 1981; now, 38 years later, she’s still there.

Back in the early days she was a young mother wearing an Indian bedspread skirt, with a baby on her hip. Today she’s a grandmother who shares a Craft Fair table with her now-adult daughter, the fabric artist Lily Harned. And these days she has two granddaughters, whose wide-eyed delight inspires new directions for her work. Over decades at the Denman Fair and many other British Columbia craft events, she has honed her technique and aesthetic vision, maturing into a respected master of her craft.

Willis delved into pottery soon after moving to Denman Island in 1970. She’d been living in Berkeley, California, studying philosophy while protesting in the civil rights and anti-war movements. She describes her route to Denman Island in the book Dancing in Gumboots: “My mate at the time and I had met a group of New Yorkers who had just bought property on the island. They carried a hefty duffle bag of crisp, ruby-red apples, which they had smuggled across the border.

Delicate vases adorned by hand-painted flowers.

“The apples were highly biblical; we bit into one and were seduced into visiting these people in their Denman Garden of Eden, and ultimately to becoming settlers ourselves.” Willis, her partner, and a group of friends bought 160 acres of farm, forest, and wetlands, added some cows and horses, planted gardens, and got involved in community life.

Finding her philosophy degree unmarketable in this remote location, Willis turned to pottery, which until then had been a hobby. She started out doing traditional stone wear, and then found her niche when another Denman potter, Gordon Hutchens, introduced her to the use of drawing and to white clay.

Willis’ work is highly recognizable: delicate, often tiny, porcelain bowls, vases and other objects, hand-painted with natural motifs like sunflowers, irises, oak leaves, dragonflies and moths.

Willis considers her work folk art, because of the simplicity of its aesthetic, its repetition of images, and its evocation of nature. “There are plenty of potters, like Gordon Hutchens, who make truly fine art—that’s not me.”

It may be folk art, but the techniques used to create Willis’ work are complex, involving multiple firings, underglazes and gloss overglazes, and fine brush work. “It’s quite a surgical procedure,” she says. “Because I work with painting on whiteware, I have to wash my hands a lot and keep everything really clean.”

“Living next to a duck pond for almost 50 years, how could I not be inspired?”

Willis’ images reflect the forest, meadows, and the water that surround her home and studio on the farm. “Living next to a duck pond for almost 50 years, how can I not be inspired?” she asks, rhetorically.

Her more recent muses are her granddaughters. “I got the idea of making fairy homes from watching them,” says Willis. The fairy homes are as cute and fanciful as the name suggests—small rotunda with domed roofs, whimsical decorations, tiny doors and windows, gentle pastel colours, and fun patterns.

Willis has combined her ceramics career with organizing and research work in the international peace movement. She still considers Denman akin to the Garden of Eden, and sees the annual Craft Fair as a powerful expression of the community’s essence.

“A vibrant community displays itself in art and artefact, in music and theatre—it’s the heartbeat of a community. And the fair embodies the tradition of the marketplace—a tradition that’s really really old. So when I get in my car that first morning to go down to the community hall, I feel a connection with those who bring their wares all over the world to a central place,” says Willis.

Selling at a fair, like any marketplace, supports authentic relationships with buyers. “I really honour the patrons who come to the fair year after year,” says Willis. “Some who I first met 38 years ago still come, some of them with walkers and canes. And there are also all the younger people, which is so gratifying. The fair is multigenerational.”

Medicine from the Forest Crafted by Philippa Joly

Philippa Joly takes care to harvest ethically from the forest, respecting the original people of these lands who have gathered plants sustainibly for millennia.

Philippa Joly just has to step outside her Denman Island home to find an abundance of materials for her craft. The surrounding forest provides almost everything  she needs to create her product line of healing salves and tinctures. Lichen. Elderberries. Oregon Grape. Cedar. Forest mushrooms. Even her hand-made chocolate (medicine for the soul, she calls it) contains wild rose petals from the bushes that grow in fragrant tangles in her backyard.

Joly is a clinical herbalist, medicine-maker, educator, and proprietor of Bright Moon Botanicals. “I create high-quality handmade medicine out of mostly wildcrafted plants,” she says. You can find Joly at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair, Nov 30 and Dec 1. This will be her seventh year vending at the fair.

Her table will focus mainly on her winter product line: Kick the Sick, an immune booster; Sunshine in a Bottle, which treats winter time depression; a cough syrup which is a client favourite; and a new heart medicine which works for physical disorders like high blood pressure, as well as for emotional challenges of the heart like grief and heartbreak.

Products like Kick the Sick and Sunlight in a Bottle provide help during the winter months.

All are made by hand, in small batches. “This allows me to pay attention to every detail and to ensure the medicines are high-quality.” Herbalism is a complex science and Joly draws on years of training, including programs at Wild Seeds School of Herbal Medicine on Salt Spring Island, and Pacific Rim College in Victoria.

Joly is motivated by her love of plants. “I love what plants know and offer us; they’re so generous. I enjoy being the messenger, the intermediary between plants and people. And once you get to know the plants, you’re never lonely. You always have friends around,” she says.

This intimate relationship with plants, like all relationships, can’t be a one-way street, says Joly. It has to be reciprocal. That means practicing ethical wild crafting.

Making small batches allows Joly to pay attention to every detail, ensuring her medicines are high quality.

“A big part of this is that I think about the ancestors of this land and the people whose territory this is,” she says. “I’m aware that these are places where for millennia people have gathered plants and I’m gratefully and humbly walking in their footsteps.

“And it’s really important to know the places you gather from, so you can go back and see the effects of your gathering with an awareness of how each plant grows and spreads, and what a healthy population of that plant looks like. It’s important to give back. Some places really like it when you bring them some compost.”

The Denman Craft Fair is a favourite annual event for Joly. “It’s very affirming, because many people are excited with what I have to offer. It’s nice to be part of the community of artisans, and I love the festive feeling.”

Nurturing Young Artists: Craft Fair Kids Grow Up


The kids’ table at the Denman Christmas Craft Fair is always a busy place—full of creativity, young talent, great deals and, well, cuteness. It’s also a training ground for Denman’s next generation of professional artisans.

Lily H
Bags by fabric artist Lily Harned

This year, there are three (at least) adult vendors who got their start as kids at the fair. Looking back, they say their experience as young participants brought them inspiration and confidence, honed their art skills, and taught them basic entrepreneurial attitudes and know-how.

“I grew up at craft fairs,” says fabric artist Lily Harned, who sells pouches, bags and fabric baskets. Her mother, ceramic artist Patti Willis, and her father, glass artist John Harned, were part of the original fair 37 years ago and are still selling at the fair in 2018.

“I have so many great memories,” she says. “Not just of the Denman fair, where I sold jewelry as a teenager, but also many others that my parents took me to: the renaissance fair in Courtenay, early Circle Craft in Vancouver, and I remember one at the Empress in Victoria—it was so much fun!

“I was lucky to grow up in a culture of people making things by hand—not just my parents, but also all my neighbours were potters and weavers and what not. On Denman, it’s just part of the culture. I took it for granted but now I realize how special it is. Of course, there are makers everywhere but not such a concentration of them.”

Craft Fair regulars know Megan Rose Babb as the Denman Island artisan who sells beautiful jewelry made from recycled bicycle parts and inner tires. Now 36, she started out at the fair as a creative 10-year-old.

Megan Babb necklace
Megan Rose created this necklace from recycled bicycle inner tubes

“There’s a funny story about my first year. I was selling beaded earrings that were the same style as ones LeeAndra Jacobs [a long-term Denman Craft Fair vendor] makes—a big mix of different colours that LeeAndra calls Jambalaya. I’d seen the ones she made and just copied them! LeeAndra was very gracious about it. I still sometimes see [Denman ceramic artist] Bev Severn wearing the pair she bought from me back then,” says Megan.

As she grew up, Megan moved into other adventures such as making music, living in Montreal and London, and travelling across Canada by bike. When she returned to Denman six years ago, she had already established herself as an artisan with a line of jewelry that she sold on-line and in various outlets. She returned to the fair with these products, adding home-made organic chocolate-hazelnut spread to sweeten the deal.

“This fair is really well organized and attended, with a really high caliber of artisans, and it’s so fun and festive. Everyone on the island seems really happy; we get to see each other, make money, and get beautiful gifts, helping neighbours do their thing and supporting the local economy,” says Megan.

Elishka Hajek creates digital illustrations, such as this one, on a graphics tablet

Elishka Hajek has been creating art since she was old enough to hold a pencil. She still draws, but her main genre is digital painting and illustration. She started vending at the fair when she was in grade five at Denman Elementary School, selling photography cards and pinwheel cookies.

“I loved the atmosphere, the busyness. And I really liked talking to people about my art,” says Elishka. The fair became an annual highlight. It was mostly about sharing her art and having fun, but it also provided an education. “I learned how to explain my techniques. Also I learned how to sell my products—to think about how to set up a display, and how to be organized.”

This year, Elishka is 18 and a grade 12 student at G.P. Vanier, and will be having her own table for the first time, selling greeting cards, prints and stickers. “I’m looking forward to having more space and having complete control over that space, and to being taken more seriously as an adult artist—not that we don’t take the kids seriously; they are good artists. But it feels different having my own table.”

Like Lily and Megan, Elishka says Denman provides a nurturing environment for a young artist. “It’s such a supportive community, and being surrounded by nature has really influenced me.” Next year, Elishka plans to go to college to study art and animation.

Copper Creations: Metalwork artist Mary Hicks plays with light

Mary Hicks
Mary Hicks

Denman Island metalwork artist Mary Hicks traces her inspiration all the way back to King Tut. Or more specifically, to the renowned international exhibition called The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which toured the world from 1972 to 1979, sparking global interest in the life and culture of this Egyptian Pharoah, who ruled 3000 years ago.

At the time, Mary Hicks was a pre-teen living in Chicago. Already a lover of art, Mary spent much of her spare time visiting the city’s many museums, galleries and sculpture gardens. When the King Tut exhibit came to the Chicago Natural History Museum in 1977, Hicks braved the long line-ups, and was not disappointed.

“I remember maneuvering through the crowds to get to the front of the showcases and being so struck by the beautiful metalwork, the brilliance of it, the play of light and the enduring quality of it. These things had been created so incredibly long ago and still remained. For me, that was the start of wanting to create objects of beauty that will arouse emotion or intrigue.”

Mary Hicks

It took a couple of decades, however, before Hicks began working with metal. In her formative years she attended California Institute of Arts, and was an art photographer/mixed media artist for over 30 years prior to becoming a sculptor.

It was literally a search for light that led Hicks to metalwork. She wanted a wall sconce for a bedside light, and decided to make it herself, out of copper foil. “When it was done, there was something about the quality of light when it hit the metal. It was so warm, so vibrant, so alive. I was completely captivated, and while photography will always be one of my main passions I have worked primarily with metal ever since.”

Metal offered the opportunity to move beyond the two-dimensional realm. Hicks began creating sculptural pieces, exploring weaving, grids and multi-layered patterns.

Mary Hicks necklace cropped

“I’ve always been drawn to abstraction,” says Hicks. “In my photography, I’m often shooting the innards of flowers. It’s the patterns of things and the quality of light—that’s what has always fascinated me.”

Hicks also makes art jewelry. “People started asking me to make jewelry. They’d see my sculptures and say, ‘I’d wear that if it I could.’” says Hicks. “I have woven copper jewelry pieces, pendants, earrings and hair barrettes.”

The jewelry will be the main feature at Hicks’ table at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair, along with small sculptures, ornaments, and photography. Hicks has been vending at the Denman fair for 10 years, and says the event is a highlight of the season.

“I’m honoured to be part of this community of incredible artists. I’ve attended several fairs and this is one of the best,” she says. You can see Mary Hicks’ artwork at

Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair

Nov 30 & Dec 1, 2018, 10 – 4

Free shuttle from the ferry, so you can walk on at Buckley Bay.

Home-made meals and treats available all day.

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Art You Can Play With: Celebrating The Life Force With Susan Cain

Cain flying bird sculpture

Susan Cain’s puppets straddle worlds. They are toys, and they are art. They are whimsical bundles of feathers and sequins, and they are archetypal figures, seeming to emerge magically from the numinous world of fairy tales. For a psychologist, they are therapeutic tools;  for a teacher, educational aids. They are 100% artifice, but if you look at them for long, it might occur to you that they are creatures of the wild.

Cain cat sculpture close up

“When I’m making them,” says Cain, “I can’t just crank them out. I have to wait for them to come alive. And that’s what attracts people to them. They’re alive. They have soul.”

Cain, who lives on Hornby Island, fell in love with puppets during a stint as a member of a puppet theatre troupe in San Francisco in 1980. She has been making them ever since. She also creates paintings, drawings and mixed media sculpture. Holiday shoppers can find her work at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair (see below for dates and more info) where her table has been a favourite for over ten years.

Animals have always been Cain’s greatest inspiration, she says. “Animals have inspired many myths and fables and with my puppets and sculptures, I celebrate this life force.

“On Hornby, animals are woven into our everyday life, from the frogs and herring in the spring, the fawns that wander by with their mothers, and all of the amazing birds, from the eagles to the hummingbirds, that are all nesting and raising their young. Insects are everywhere you look, foraging and pollinating.”

Cain is also inspired by materials. Her studio is chock full of bags and baskets of fabrics, buttons, beads, trim, fringe, shells, bones, rocks, wool, and mysterious objects that don’t yet have a purpose, but will some day. There are bags of silvery painted faux feathers that someone gave her, and bundles of particularly well-shaped twigs from a pruning job. The space is a treasure trove.

Since moving to BC, Cain has enjoyed a successful artistic career. Her work has appeared in several dozen solo and group exhibitions in Canada and the United States and has sold all over the world.

Susan Cane

Cain’s colourful Craft Fair table offers the chance to buy a major art work, such as a wire mesh cougar sculpture, or pick up smaller items such as baby bat finger puppets or shiny Christmas tree ornaments, which make great stocking stuffers.

Visit Susan Cain and over 80 other local artisans at this year’s Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair, NOv 30 & Dec 1, 2019, 10 – 4:00.  It’s free, and there’s a shuttle from the Denman West ferry terminal, so you can park at Buckley Bay and walk on to the ferry. As usual, a variety of delicious lunches and snacks will be available, created by local cooks and farmers.

More info:, or find us on Facebook.

Glass Art Shines at Denman Craft Fair

Denman Island Craft Fair Glass artist John Harned
Denman Island Craft Fair Glass artist John Harned

The Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair struggles a bit with stereotyping: some people hear the name and imagine a draughty hall full of all-natural, home-spun wares that hearken back to a simpler time, or perhaps to the 70s—macrame plant hangers spring to mind. While those adjectives could describe much of what’s there (although you might not find macrame plant hangers); the world of craft today is highly sophisticated, and a visit to the Denman Craft Fair is a full-on artistic experience. There are plenty of examples of old traditions exquisitely maintained, but also works that are highly contemporary and creatively innovative.

Glass artist John Harned, who’s been an exhibitor at the Denman fair since its inception in 1981, is a case in point. His glass tableware spans an aesthetic palette stretching from bold, abstract geometric patterns to floral and leaf motifs; with colour schemes ranging from cool black-and-white to vibrant rainbow hues, and deep velvety textures contrasting with metallic sparkle.

Harned says that ideas about what a ‘craft’ is have evolved over the decades. “I didn’t think of myself as an artist when I started, but along the way people starting telling me that’s what I was. It’s something that’s been debated over the years—the line between craft and art. These days there is no division.”

Denman Island Craft Fair artist John Harned

Working in his idyllic Denman Island studio, with the ocean close by and the forest all around, Harned is inspired by nature, but also by art both old and new, and all types of design. “I’m sort of a magazine freak,” he says. “I have quite a collection: anything to do with interior decorating, architecture, painting and print making. I’m interested in pattern so I research all the other disciplines that have to do with pattern, such as tapestries, fabrics, and graphic design. Also, I have many books of art imagery throughout the centuries which I use as reference and inspiration.”

Harned didn’t start out as a visual artist, but rather as a classical musician. While studying for a music degree from prestigious Oberlin College, he also took courses in drawing, painting and art history. Years later, living on Denman Island, he discovered glass work while recuperating from an injury. He began with stained glass and then in the 80s discovered kiln-fired fused glasswork. This relatively-unknown technology offered exciting new design possibilities. 

He began teaching himself through trial and error, and then in the 1990s he took a course on fused glass at the Pilchuck International Glass School, which, he says, literally transformed his life. “I had all this new information, inspiration and motivation. There is so much to explore, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Harned is one of a handful of Denman Island artisans that have been exhibiting at the Denman Craft Fair since its inception. Over the decades, he’s seen it grow from a local get-together to an iconic regional event. He’s attended many other fairs, but the Denman one is always a highlight.

“The Denman fair is rich with character. I get to see what my peers and doing and discover new artists. There are always people emerging out of the woodwork who have great skills and who are taking their work seriously.”

Denman Island Craft Fair artist John Harned

You’ll find John Harned and over 80 other artisans at the Denman Island Craft Fair, Dec 1 & 2, 10 – 4:00 pm, at the Denman Community Hall and Activity Centre. It’s free, and there’s a shuttle from the Denman West ferry terminal, so you can park at Buckley Bay and walk on to the ferry. As usual, a variety of delicious lunches and snacks will be available, created by local cooks and farmers. 

Photos by McKinnon Photography 

Corlan Vineyards

Denman Island Craft Fair Pat and Selwyn Jones of Corlan Vineyards
Corlan Vineyards is Denman Island’s only winery

Pat and Selwyn Jones can boast something rare for a commercial vintner: they have quite possibly met every single person who has ever bought a bottle of their wine. In spite of requests from restaurants, and the convenience that retail sales would offer, they choose to sell their product in person at farmers’ markets and local events like the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair, so they can ensure that all their clients know where their wine comes from and how best to store and serve it.

This dedication to authenticity, quality and personal connection is what draws people to the Denman Craft Fair year after year, says Craft Fair Coordinator, Autumn White. “I’m excited that Pat and Selwyn, of Corlan Vineyards, will be selling their wines at the fair again this year – they’ve been a big hit since they started vending at the fair two years ago. Their wine exemplifies the Craft Fair’s values of small-scale, hand-made, local and sustainable.”
As well, this year the Jones will also take part in the event’s food fair, offering comfort food such as home-made soup and shepherd’s pie, all based on products from their farm.

The personal touch is important for Corlan’s wines, says Selwyn, because the wines do not contain potassium metabisulphite, a preservative used in most commercial wine, including many organic wines. This reflects the Jones’ commitment to purity.

Denman Island Craft Fair Selwyn Jones among the grapevines at Corlan Vineyards
Selwyn Jones among the grapevines at Corlan Vineyards

“We want our wines to be completely natural,” says Pat. Some people have allergies to sulphites, or find them hard to digest, and many people simply prefer to avoid preservatives in food and drink.

However, without sulphites, wine needs to be drank within three days of opening to ensure quality. After that, it begins to oxidize, compromising its flavour.
“It’s best to open our wine when you have friends over,” says Selwyn. “We need to be able to explain this to our customers, so we need to have face-to-face sales. It’s also important to explain that the shelf life of the wine, if unopened, is great. It just gets better and better.”

Corlan produces four wines, sold under the label To Ewe Wines: Sandy Island White is made with Corlan’s estate grown Ortega, a cross between Muller-Thurgau and Seigerrebe, which produce a crisp aromatic wine with citrus overtones. Siegerrebe is another aromatic white which is a personal favourite of the winemakers.

Chrome Island Red features Marechal Foch grapes, a French-American hybrid which ripens dependably in our climate, and produces an inky red, which is aged in neutral barrels.
Blackberry dessert wine is Corlan’s only sweet wine, and a favourite on Denman Island, where blackberries grow abundantly.

“Our wines have a strong fruit flavour,” explains Pat. “This is because we don’t irrigate the vineyards. This also means we’re not depleting the groundwater, which is important for sustainability. There are parts of Europe where this is practiced. It gives the wine more flavour.”

Corlan is Denman Island’s only vineyard and winery. All the wines come from fruit (mostly Ortega and Marechal Foch grapes, and blackberries) grown on the sunny 10- acre certified organic farm, which also includes Clun Forest Sheep, three working border collies, a large flock of laying hens, a propagating greenhouse with nursery, and a tasting room.

Running a certified organic farm is labour intensive but the Joneses wouldn’t have it any other way. They love the work itself, the long days in the garden and vineyard, and the payoffs. “It gives you a tremendous feeling of independence. We produce most of our own food. We’re almost completely self-sufficient. And the biggest blessing is that we know what we are eating. We know it is chemical-free and healthy,” says Selwyn. Weekends find them at the Denman Farmers’ Market and the Qualicum Farmers’ Market, making those face-to-face sales. They are looking forward to the Denman Craft Fair, partly because it’s a magical and fun community event, but also because the sales are brisk.

“The Fair is great for us,” says Pat. “We get people coming back each year. Wine makes a great gift.”

Busy though they are during the Fair, Pat and Selwyn also find time to do their holiday shopping on site. “It’s such an easy, nice place to buy presents, without having to go into stores at this time of year,” says Pat. Just like their clients, they love the face-to- face exchange of hand-made, high-quality, sustainable products.

Originally published in The Island Word, November 2017 photos by Colby Rex O’Neill

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