Reflections Retrospective 1996-98: Creating Arabesque Pottery

Posted by Diane Sullivan on

January’s mark major anniversaries for me and I usually feature a retrospective of my career on my social media. I began this blog last year and got waylaid by the busy-ness that the pandemic caused in my business. So here I will continue from where I left off.

Calgary, circa 1996-7. In my second year living in Calgary I had landed a visiting artist job teaching ceramics at the art college for a year, which is what my lengthy education actually did qualify me for. One morning, walking to work, I thought; all of that work, all of that study and here I am heading to yet another job that I hate. WHAT!!!!??? Was the point!!!! I wanted to be a potter of that I was sure. The pure joy I felt in the studio made that an easy realization. Doing the math; if I was selling my pots for $500 in the gallery with the gallery taking half, to make a decent living I would need to sell 200 of my pots. But first I would have to make 200 pots of that size. Both the selling and doing seemed unattainable for someone starting out, so I joined the potters’ association and started talking to potters who were actually making a living from their pottery. My takeaway from my on the ground research was 1. work in series with identifiable patterns, 2. offer variety of forms and 3.make less expensive things too! One of my new friends from the Banff Residency was a potter from Australia who had had a successful career (we’re talking 6 digits some years) on the Gold Coast for decades. While at Banff he had looked at my process, the intricate hand carving and cajoled my artist ego in to realizing if I wanted to go forward solely as a potter I was going to have to make some moulds of work with the decorative surface carving completed so I could reproduce more efficiently. Now I’d made and used moulds for most of my creations in the past, the kicker was what I was making moulds of. I remember I walked around for a year with my hands in front of me saying “nothing bigger than 12 inches”. I took my friend’s advice and started making press moulds like crazy (technical note: a press mould is used with slabs of clay pressed in to it, this is not the slip-casting of liquid clay technique growing popular today and used in the paint-your-own-pottery shops).

I may have reduced the scale of my work, but I made up for it in volume of pieces. I thought I had to make dinner ware to be a potter. I designed 2 patterns, one named after the arabesque and the other named after the wintergreen wildflower. The glazes were from my MFA thesis exhibition adapted to electric kiln firing (I actually received a grant from the Canada Council to make this transition). I rented 2 rooms in the basement of the home of one of my (mature) former students, using one as my studio the other was my bedroom and paid for the hook up of my new kiln in my roommate’s garage, 12 steps up and across the backyard from my studio. I bought my own slab roller, potters' wheel and built enough ware shelves to accommodate a business (all of which are still in my studio). I stayed here for 3 years, $400/month plus extra for electricity for the kiln (still pre-boomtown Calgary). And that is how I began my business, Arabesque Pottery, in 1996.

A note on the name of the business: from previous work you will know that an arabesque is a decorative stylization of the life energy force. I was teaching an evening continuing education in Calgary at the time I began my business and would ask the class what they thought of my business name ideas; Mountain Wildflower Pottery? Two thumbs down. Arabesque Pottery? Two thumbs up. And so it went. My friend, Yin Hoskins, an award winning graphic designer created my logo, which I love to this day. 

My first hard wall booth at a wholesale trade fair in Toronto, 1997.

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