Reflections Retrospective 2006-7: First Sculptures

Posted by Diane Sullivan on

In 2006 I went to China for a 7 week residency followed by 3 weeks of travel. I received a lot of grant money for the trip and you will notice the images get better from here on because I bought a new digital camera for the trip with part of the grant. The earlier images you’ve been seeing were pretty bad digital transfers of my slide film images. A sad thing as I took pride in taking good quality photographs back then. I believe it got me juried in to a lot of shows and earned me a fair number of grants.

China was a watershed trip for me. I was going to the residency on the premise that I would be travelling to the birthplace of carved porcelain decoration, the city of Jingdezhen in the province of Jiangxi. The residency was called San Bao (“Three Treasures”) and was set in an idyllic valley where porcelain clay was still mined from the mountains. I wanted to play in the studio, big time. No expectations or deadlines. I was leaving a very busy life for the residency. Christmas of 1999 I had begun a life with Ralph Christoffersen, a 6’3”, 250lb. Danish-Canadian who I met through another former student (okay that teaching gig had paid off). We lived together for 8 years. Ralph was Mr. Calgary and Fun was his middle name, and lord knew I needed some of that. We travelled extensively, spent most weekends when not travelling in Waterton on the border with Montana, camped, kayaked, fished, road motorcycles, held the best dinner parties, and enjoyed the theatre scene in Calgary intimately. I learned how to live apart from my studio and to work 5 days a week, 8 to 5. I also gained a 4 legged companion: Molly, a blue heeler crossed with a catahula. She was Ralph’s dog to begin but became mine (actually she chose me). Children? You’ve probably figured out they were never on my agenda, nor Ralph’s.

Just before I had left for China, I had finished a special order for a friend of a sculpted wall fish. I had dragged my heels on the commission for a year, I hadn’t really wanted to do it. While I had introduced a fish themed line to my wholesale after a transformative trip to the Shuswap to see the salmon run, sculpting a fish was something else. I did it finally probably because I had to cover costs while I was away. It worked quite well and I was pretty excited about it when I got on the plane for China. Et voila! The fish started hitting the table in the residency. Inspired by the wooden Ming dynasty carvings incorporated in to the resident spaces I carved the designs in to the fish. I also discovered and started playing with underglaze transfers, something you might recognize from my current work. I made a number of fish, 3 I think, and a set of boddhisatvas (a follower of Buddhism) inspired by imagery from a trip to Thailand in '02. I was happy. None of the work survived the firings with out excessive cracking, so all I brought home was a camera full of photos and about 200 underglaze transfers I had made for me. But the wheels never stopped. After the residency Ralph met me in Shanghai and we travelled for 3 weeks. The museums blew me away; tomb figures, historical pottery, the terracotta warriors. Snap, snap, snap. All I wanted to do was take those tomb figures home, build them myself and decorate them!!!! Hahaha. All roads lead to decorating in my world.

Upon my return from China in 2006 I had to get to work on the pottery for my galleries and show season. The following year I had a solo exhibition, To China with Love, at the Alberta Craft Council Gallery in Edmonton. I spent 6 months building the work along side my studio production. It was exhilarating returning to larger scale with engineering challenges. I do remember a moment where I wondered why I thought I could build this work, oh yes! I used to build 10' tall pots!!! Many of these pieces were built in sections due to the restrictions of my kiln and epoxied together after firing. All of the work was built hollow with slabs of clay in a high-fire stoneware clay body but down fired to a low temperature, offering forgiveness to the handbuildt seams, a technique I had started using in undergrad. I returned to my low fire glaze palette and incorporated the underglaze transfers as well as the carved decoration (any area that is not carved in these photos has a transfer under the glaze). Inspired by Chinese tomb figures, Thai templar sculptures, my personal yoga practice and fly fishing. The first two pieces were purchased by our Canadian government and ended up in 2 of our embassies; my first attempt at a horse, Lost Carousel (was 32" wide), to Bangkok, The Crowned Head with Magpie (was 42" tall) to Peru.

The rest of the work found homes in the Calgary area. The first of my headstands, Balance, was 4' tall and I delivered it in a cube van to the customer's beautiful private home on the Bow River with cathedral ceilings. We actually put the piece up on a sideboard (they had young kids) and it fit in to the space perfectly. One could almost think the bird had flown down from the lofty ceiling.

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