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.”