Elemental Clay and Glass, by Peter Powning

In the past 25 years, Peter Powning has earned respect among connoisseurs of fine craft as one of Canada’s most innovative ceramists. Many people recognize his distinctive and commercially successful raku pottery, but few realize that he is also a sculptor with an international reputation. Gloria Hickey has curated the first national solo exhibition of Powning’s sculpture for the Canadian Clay and glass Gallery, and Peter Powning: Elemental Clay and Glass documents this exhibition with 46 colour photographs, curatorial essay and artist’s statement.

Powning has exhibited his clay, glass and bronze works in over 60 galleries and museums in Canada, the US, Germany, Scandinavia, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan. He has gained international recognition through the Mino International Ceramics Competition, Fletcher Award Show in New Zealand and the Kanazawa International Exhibition of Glass in Japan. In New Brunswick, he won the 1991 Deichmann Award for Excellence in Craft and the 1993 Strathbutler Award.

Gloria Hickey’s curatorial essay tells how and why Powning made the pieces in the exhibition. Candid yet sensitive, it assesses Powning’s importance among Canadian ceramists and glass artists, and it interprets the interests and values that permeate not only his pottery and sculpture, but his personal life as well.

Peter Powning’s studio is near Sussex, New Brunswick. He has served on the New Brunswick Arts Board, the Premier’s Advisory Council on the Arts, and the New Brunswick Craft Council, and he has been a visiting artist at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Gloria Hickey, a St. John’s writer and curator, twice won the Betty Park Award of Merit for her contributions to critical writing about craft in North America. In 1994 she was nominated for the Imperial Oil Award for Excellence in Arts Journalism.

Peter Powning: Elemental Clay and Glass
Ratwing Press 1996
ISBN 0-9680884-0-6
32 Page, 9″ x 12″ colour catalogue
50 colour images plus text.
Sturdy softcover with 4″ endflaps.

Artist’s Statement

How does one find some kind of balance and clarity amidst the demands and clutter of daily life?

I have a knack for being so busy that I lose track of the point of my busy-ness. All the activity of producing work and its attendant infrastructure can be a terrible distraction from the core purposes of this activity. In fact, that core is somewhat elusive. Am I simply making a living? Seeking fulfilment, meaning and expression through acts of creativity? Fulfilling other people’s expectations? All or none of the above?

Keeping it all in perspective and finding balance is a daily struggle. Keeping the creative spark alive is much like tending a wood fire. Ignore it – it dies. Throw on too much fuel – it goes out, billows smoke or becomes an uncontrollable conflagration. Get too caught up in elaborate fixtures and equipment and you can lose track of the fire and its centrality.

The biggest challenge of making a living as an artist is balancing the need for expression and experimentation with the need for income. Most of what I make has to pass the test of the marketplace. While I haven’t let this dictate what I make, it does mean that much of what I do must not only have appeal to me but also be accessible to others. This forces a certain practicality over my working life. Frequently I chafe at this; it offers an imposed discipline that perhaps, in the long run, has been beneficial, but it can also lull me into a false sense of accomplishment. $ = artistic success; quantity = achievement. There is something in me that rebels against the practical.

While the process of producing an almost unconscious stream of work can permit occasional gems to arise from the mulch of experience, ideas, universal forms and themes, the habit of production can also become a crutch or distraction from the practice of developing more individual work. The two ways of working can co-exist, but it makes the balancing act even more difficult.

I have a bi-polar creative life. I need the mindless and the mindful; repetition and singularity. By “mindless” I mean what Gary Snyder calls “relaxed inattention”, “an intuitive capacity to open the mind and not cling to too rigid a sense of the conscious…”. (*Gary Snyder., The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964 – 1979. New Directions Books, p.35, (1980).) This process or state is difficult to attain and transitory, but at its best is transcendant and, for me, it can apply to both production and the creation of singular objects, although much more frequently with the latter. It isn’t achieved by sticking with the safe and previously successful; it requires an openness to new avenues of exploration, sometimes new materials, and a willingness to take risks and deal with failures.

So far, my best solution to the quest for balance and clarity is to keep trying – not give up even though the requisite conditions seem to be constantly evolving and shifting. Mistakes mean growth, at least I dearly hope so.

I’ve become increasingly aware that time I spend in the woods, along brooks and in the fields is an important source of stability and perspective in my life. My wife Beth and I have lived in the same house, in rural New Brunswick for twenty-six years. Our intimacy with place is an important element of our lives. Seeking balance between disparate demands can be maddening, but being in the grip of the creative act is what I love most and makes the struggle worthwhile. I also thrive on the sense of this shared experience with other artists. The compulsions and obsessions that drive artist’s creativity may vary, but at the core of all our striving is an intense connection with some elemental condition.

Once, when travelling in England, two other potters and I spent a wonderful afternoon with David Leach. We were having a terrific talk about work and life, when David Leach in his shy way, laughed in delight and said how much he loved “…the community of potters.” I have since come to feel that the same notion extends beyond potters to include the community of artists; that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As artists, we may live and work in relative isolation from each other but we still form a community within society that is critical to the health of society; cultural and otherwise. Despite all our differences we have much in common.

I am lucky in my life to live with a talented and dedicated artist, and to have a son who has plans for a similar life. I am lucky in my work to gain a livelihood, but also through it, to be engaged in a wide range of pursuits, from the aesthetic and philosophical, to the material and technical. I am defined within my community by what I do, and it provides me with a base from which I can view and react to the world. It is both a challenging and rewarding existence.