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.
“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.”
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.”