Catalogue Essays and Images
Peter Powning’s technical prowess in so many materials is second to none, particularly, when he skillfully manipulates these materials into one, single work of art… What is also astounding is that Powning can work in such varied scale: small domestic tabletop objects, larger sculptural works to monumental public commissions. It cannot be said enough, that the breadth of materials and the dramatic change of scale in which he uses them is extraordinary.
Powning combines disparate materials to create a complex totality. He primarily works with bronze, steel, glass and stone finished in rich textures and colours evoking a sense of antiquity. “His work is multi-leveled,” says visual artist Susan Edgerley, who shows glass sculpture with Ainsley, “and brings together many elements – each piece has so much information. The work is contemporary, but it feels as if it’s being pulled through history, which implies that it will endure.
House as Vessel
We bought our first house when we were twenty, We still live in it 43 years later. I don’t know how this happened, I mean I do know but really I’m baffled that the series of accidents and diversions that have befallen us has left us still in this symbiotic relationship with the place we call home. The purchase of this place was a brash move at twenty, we barely considered the house, it was the land that we were most interested in not the century-old house. Within the next decade, in all probability, we will have lived in this house for a third of its existence when it will be 150 years old.
We and the house are mutually dependant. It’s the stage set of our lives, the machinery of our quotidian existence. We have shaped it and it has shaped us. The vicissitudes of home maintenance and repair have required us to acquire a wide range of skills, and to be humbled by our half-assedness in much that we’ve attempted to do.
Wood processing alone has been life shaping, keeping the furnace fed with well-seasoned wood occupies some part of every day at least half of every year, the nuances of stoking are subtle and often frustrated by the wood supply at hand.
The bones of this well-built house were assembled, we surmise, in the 1870’s, when labour was cheap, time was not of the essence, and insulation was apparently not an issue. We cut, split hauled stacked and burned 10-12 cords of wood in our early years here. After insulating, re-insulating, re-siding, replacing windows and then re-fenestrating with triple glazing we are down to about 4 cords of wood for our annual fuel use. An old house has character and builds character, over time you make it your own, you earn your place in it.
The workings of the house all meet in plenary session in the basement. The plumbing, electrical circuits, stored wood, root cellar, heat ducts, furnace, pumps, freezers, various rat and mouse traps, air exchanger; all the vital organs of residential existence congregate in the cellar, backstage, thrumming and humming, making what we take for granted as modern people possible. It wasn’t always thus. This house, for all it’s elegance was without plumbing, central heating, indoor toilets or electricity when it was built and didn’t acquire any of the modern inconveniences until the nineteen fifties or sixties, at this date roughly half of it’s life. When we moved in there was a derelict but functional 4 holer next to a similarly decrepit pig barn about 100 feet from the house.
People in their generations come and go, are born, age and die within the membrane of this shelter. There is a weight, a presence of circumstance that an old house has that the newer variety lack, no matter how audacious. There is a gravitas, a sense of experience that the well honoured and maintained house conveys I don’t mean the sort of place the monied tart up, but the kind of place that various occupants have put their hearts into over decades, centuries, into shaping and maintaining where they live; out of love and necessity.”
I have a mental image of the process of getting ready for a solo show. It’s like being in a tub of nice hot water (the ideas and plans being the water). Happily immersed in this bath, comfortably soaking, dabbing soap here and there, the water level gradually decreases (now the water is time passing), and suddenly, there I sit, wet and naked. The little water that is left is producing a swirling vortex around the drain making an alarming sucking noise. This is what I call the ‘circling the drain’ period in the months and weeks before an exhibition.’ This is where all the grand plans and visions have to meet the reality of production, the looming deadline inexorably sucking away the days.
There is no guarantee when a new show comes along that it will build on past success. Defining success is a bit slippery. Sales only determine a certain aspect of success, that’s the easy measure — while sales are critical, feedback from visitors and collectors feels more important to me. I take my work seriously, although I try not to take myself too seriously. Art making is both a personal quest for creative discovery and experimentation, as well as an engagement in a form of non-verbal communication. I don’t make my work with sales as my primary objective. I’m more interested in the value of each piece as a cultural object, rather than as a product for commerce.’ When I agree to do a major solo show it’s usually at least two years in advance. You might think I would begin producing work as soon as I’ve agreed to do one. That’s what I usually intend, despite the fact that I’ve never managed to accomplish such a feat yet. While I don’t physically produce any work in the first year before a show, I sketch, plan and mull over ideas a lot. I’ve been a bit ‘over committed’ in the last few years (with the distinct possibility of being permanently ‘committed’ as a result). So in addition to solo exhibition commitments I’ll also be working on a number of large public commissions, working on sculpture proposals for potential commissions, doing committee work for community and educational organizations, as well as supplying work to other galleries and having other smaller solo shows here and there. During preparations for a show I’m also likely to be involved in several group exhibitions, speaking, and giving workshops.
This may give you a bit of context for what my life is like while I am either intending to produce work for a big show or am (finally) actually engaged in the process of physically making the work. I think I become a bit of a mad wraith to my family as this process progresses.’ I tend to work on many sculptures at once, partly because most of them involve a range of materials, and casting bronze in batches is more efficient than doing one piece at a time. (Most of my work includes cast bronze.) A major solo show typically has 30-40 pieces. Each piece has many parts in different stages of completion. Some are large outdoor sculptures.
During the run up to my last solo show as the months and weeks dwindled there was little lee-way for time-consuming problems to be solved. Twenty of an eventual forty pieces were unfinished with about two months to go. The pressure became increasingly intense to make decisions, assemble work, and try to figure out technical complications on the fly. This may sound a bit crazy, and I don’t plan it, but for me there is something intensely creative about working in this pressure cooker atmosphere. I have to be very focused, very disciplined. I work long hours totally immersed in the work. It was hard, however, to see the forest for the trees during this time, in fact, I really didn’t get a good feel for how the show held together as a body of work until we had installed it in the gallery. This is in stark contrast to the large public commissions that I make, where everything is planned, scheduled, and done well ahead of deadlines.’
I have to say that making the last show in particular was a wild roller coaster of a ride, one that I was sure, as I neared the deadline, I would never, ever want to repeat. Once we loaded the four huge pallets of finished work on a full sized transport truck wedged into our gravel lane with the very shaky forklift prosthesis on our ageing tractor, I was hugely relieved. It was great to see it all headed down the road.
When I got to the gallery in Toronto five days later I was faced with all the crated work to be uncrated and set up. I’m not sure why this surprised me since it was the whole point of the effort, but I was daunted at the prospect of not just the work involved in setting it all up, but the challenge of how to display the show well. Fortunately that’s a group effort. I’m left mostly to my own direction with the help of gallery staff, but I get good feedback and Sandra Ainsley periodically reviews what we’ve done (she’s very good at this) and we make changes and tweak lighting and fuss around with placement until after three long days and two nights work it’s all up and looking like it was well planned from the start (not sure how that happens but probably simply because it has to).
By noon of the opening day, almost everything is done. Price lists, labels, some last minute lighting changes and the set up for the evening’s opening go on all afternoon. The caterers set up in one of the gallery’s many rooms, we test the audio visual equipment with the usual head scratching and muttering and eventually half an hour before the opening we all scurry off to closets and store rooms to don our glad rags, splash cold water on our faces and prepare to face the public.’ I am to do a talk. I show an eight minute video about my studio and how I work. The film was made by the Canadian Musuem of Civilization for the Bronfman Award, it is very well produced. I know it’s cheating to hide behind a DVD as a public speaker, but people always inexplicably applaud at the end of it. My feeling is that they applaud in relief that they didn’t have to suffer through listening to me trying to do the same material without a director, many editorial cuts or music. I’m happy that they are happy. I then show a whack of digital slides about my work and yak about how I make it, and talk about my life as an artist, take a few questions, get a nice response from a good turn out, stagger to the wine bar and then mingle and answer questions, hoping that my mouth isn’t foaming.
It’s all a bit of a blur. Although it’s a high, I’m still worn out from the set up and months of effort and stress. I talk to so many people I can’t take it all in. From this point on, it’s Sandra and her crew who take on the job of explaining and marketing the work to collectors and the public. I retreat back to our little green valley in New Brunswick to recover, try and pick up the pieces of all the things I’ve put off, see if my family remembers who I am and try to avoid commitments for another big solo exhibition any time soon. Trouble is I’ve already got a GREAT IDEA for the next one. Go figure.
Catalogue essay for Transmutations, solo show at Ingrid Mueller ~ Art + Concepts 2009
In looking over the range of work that I’ve included in this show, I’m pondering some common themes in the selection. The book images, and some of the sculpture, involve either unreadable text, glyphs, or what looks like writing: cryptic calligraphy. I started using this “calligraphy” in response to stella, tablets and other ancient artifacts bearing indecipherable symbols. For a long time, I have been engaged by the humanness of them and their sense of meaning without the burden of specific content.
My use of cryptic glyphs is an attempt to engender a sense of inherent meaning, meaning that is visually contextual but perhaps beyond the capacity of text (words
) to convey. It is also an exploration of the power of lost languages as represented by obscure human artifacts unearthed from a time beyond cultural memory. It might also represent the murky evanescent text of dreams, that kind of dream reading in which the text is visible but the words and meaning dissolve and distort when examined, and yet still have power.
I attempt to create a sense of being at the threshold of meaning, a place where you have to accept the experience as the meaning, and relinquish the need to explain. The direct experience of the object is sufficient, more than sufficient. The experience is the point. Explanation and analysis diminish or confuse the reality of the moment and become something else, their own reality, not the reality of the experience. The ongoing experience of the physical presence of things deepens our awareness of seeing, just seeing, without the filters and intellectual garnish that analysis encumbers us with.
Analysis and historical contextualization have their place, but to my mind, not as a substitute for a direct engagement with art. There’s a
big difference between watching a bird in flight… just watching, as opposed to analyzing, as you watch—thinking about “bird flying,” where it’s going, flight mechanics, its species, what it eats, etc. Those are different experiences. Direct, unmediated experience is what interests me most. A flood of associations and other thoughts soon enough invade the experience; alter it, and inform it. Associations are made, and the whole web of analysis of one kind or another takes over. I aim for objects that are curious enough to evade immediate classification, not as puzzles, but mysterious, with a presence of their own that engage the viewer directly.
This is what it seems like I’m up to. The process of making art isn’t this clear to me as it’s happening. It happens in a state of “attentive inattention,” as the poet Gary Snyder put it. There’s a kernel of an idea as a starting point; the rest of the process develops its own logic. The glyphs or unreadable script are only one aspect of each piece. The form of the objects is yet another realm to consider.
I’m also grappling with transmutation in my work—the act or state of being changed from one form into another, for example, the book from a familiar common object, to something other. The transformation of objects or fragments of objects into different materials: wood to bronze, bronze to acrylic, glass to bronze. Fragments of objects that are reconstructed in the original form but altered in the process. This process is rich ground for metaphorical exploration. While this is a personal journey for me as an artist, my hope is that this work provides others with the chance for a journey of their own.
What I like about what I do is that, despite the frustrations and risks of self-employment, I am engaged on a daily basis in activities and concerns that matter to me. I have, I tell myself, control over my own working life and if I feel like it’s getting out of control I’m in a position to change that. It’s not always easy answering to oneself but at least there is no question about whom I answer to… at least as far as my work is concerned.
I’ve made my living since 1972 as a… What? Object maker? Certainly as a ceramist but also making sculpture, architectural commissions from tables to fireplaces in a wide range of materials but chiefly in clay, cast and slumped glass and cast bronze. I thrive on experimentation, transformation by fire (raku, bronze and glass casting, saunas!) and the pursuit of creative ideas. I like challenges. I also seem to need the balance periodically that throwing and trimming provides to the chaos of my other creative pursuits.
My working life is always in flux. I used to think that once I’d found the formula for a successful career, found the groove, it would be easy sailing. Fat chance. I now realize this whole business is about flux and change and one’s ability to adapt and be flexible with changing times and changing interests, not to mention ageing body parts. I’ve learned from some mistakes, sold others and seem to find some impossible to resist repeating frequently. I feel that if I’m not screwing up every now and then I’m not trying hard enough, not exposing myself to enough risk.
Seeking balance between all the disparate parts of work and life keeps me thoroughly engaged and forms a central theme for much of my work in recent years. Life as an object maker, vessel smith, balance seeker, mud-slinger, silica slumper… is great; I wouldn’t have it any other way… most days.
Much of my approach to making art is improvisational; akin to playing jazz. I do sketches; ideas progress or are discarded, variations and themes develop. I experiment with materials and techniques as I go. Most of the work starts out as a series of experiments. I rarely have a title for a piece until after it’s finished. The work is more likely to suggest a name than the name suggesting the work; quite often the title evolves with the piece.
Improvising doesn’t mean I start with an empty head. I have ideas and a starting place, or at least a way to start finding a starting place, as well as qualities and forms I am looking for. I leave room for discovery and accident as a piece progresses. If the end result is too programmed, preconceived or self-conscious the life goes out of the process and the work . It becomes akin to playing notes rather than feeling the music.
My work is metaphorical and allusive, but in loose felt ways, rather than by use of conscious specific literal references. I’m usually seeking qualities of antiquity and mystery, something unmoored from time and place. I strive for work that projects a feeling of obscure provenance and yet evokes feelings of deep recognition and connection.
2003 Catalogue Statement
My work is metaphorical and allusive, but in loose felt ways, rather than by the use of conscious specific literal references. I’m usually seeking qualities of antiquity and mystery, something unmoored from time and place. I strive for work that projects a feeling of obscure provenance and yet evokes feelings of deep recognition and connection.
My life and work are intertwined. The concerns of my life are reflected in the themes, even the techniques of my work. I work principally in glass, clay and bronze. They all involve transformation by fire. A good deal of the work I have been engaged in over the last few years deals with metaphor based on ideas concerning balance, fragmentation and transformation: of the body, heart, mind, spirit, nature, language & culture. The work is meant to have the feel of the artifact: an emotional artifact made solid, a cultural artifact from some future/past, reconstructed or guessed at. Some parts are original, some new, others are assumed. These concerns inform much of my work either very deliberately or often in some subtle, even unintentional way.
Essay from Galarie Elena Lee Catalogue 2004
What I’m attempting with my work is to produce objects that excite me as well as engage others. It’s really as simple as that. I’ve had the experience so many times of seeing: art that moved me, exhibitions that have left me stunned, museum artifacts that made my heart sing…that had the pulse of the real… that captured something essential and perhaps universal. I try to do that with my work.
While each piece may deal with a different variety of concerns and influences, all the work comes from the same well of desire to connect with myself, my surroundings and other people.
I sell my work so that I can afford to make more and to share it with an “audience.” Being an artist is a perilous and peculiar occupation that has many and varied rewards as well as many and varied insecurities and pitfalls. Exhibitions are a chance to come out of the woods and see if the work really works and hasn’t just become a delusory obsession.
2006 Saidye Bronfman Award acceptance speech
I’ve got a brother who is a phone hoax specialist and has hoodwinked everybody in my family at one time or another posing as a cop, salesman, client, beautician, Julia Childs … you name it. As a result I’m a bit slow to believe phone calls bearing unlikely news.
For that and other reasons, when I got the big call, it took a while for it to seem possible that I’d been selected for the legendary Bronfman Award. I couldn’t entirely believe that it wasn’t a hoax or a mistake.
I owe many, many, thanks. First to my nominators, the New Brunswick Craft Council. Thanks to Trudy Gallagher, the president of the council, and especial thanks to Kate Rogers, the executive director, who quarterbacked putting the application together.
I’d like to emphasize the importance that support from publicly funded arts grants and awards has made in my life and how essential they have been for me at critical times in my career. Grant and award funding has allowed me to pursue goals that would have been beyond my means otherwise, which have enriched my creative abilities, allowed me to experiment and not have to gear my entire artistic production toward sales. I have been able to achieve these goals with aid from, among others, the Canada Council for the Arts, The New Brunswick Arts Board, The New Brunswick Arts Branch, ACOA, the National Research Council, as well as private foundations and arts patrons.
A successful career in the arts requires a great deal of risk taking and a lot of support and nurturing. Without grant support I wouldn’t be here today. I am not unusual in having benefited from and at times having been reliant on grant support. Public funding and support for cultural endeavours is a sign of a healthy nation.
Arts grants are an indicator of a functional society, not a sign of cultural inadequacy. I’d like to express my deep thanks to the grant funding institutions of this great country. I hope that I’ve been able to make a cultural contribution commensurate with their support.
A career in the arts doesn’t happen in a void. I have had a great deal of support and help from parents, siblings, my son, mentors, friends, colleagues and most of all the usually patient encouragement of my wife Beth. The people of New Brunswick have been wonderfully supportive of what I do, even if occasionally baffled, and formed the solid base from which I have pursued a career in the arts. I can’t begin to enumerate all the people who have been important to my life and career and I’m terrified that by trying to list some of them I’ll miss others, there are just so many, they know who they are.
I also wish to thank the galleries that have been so crucial to my survival and growth as an artist. There have been many but I especially have to thank Sandra Ainsley and Elena Lee for their friendship and support.
I feel privileged to be part of the tribe assembled for this occasion. Certainly the biggest influences in my life beyond my family have been
fellow toilers in the arts. To receive this award juried by my peers is an honour beyond measure.
Finally, I’d like to thank the Award partners. The Samual and Saidye Bronfman Foundation, The Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the Canada Council for the Arts. The Canadian Museum of Civilization plays an essential role in mounting contemporary and historical exhibitions and building historically important collections. The Canada Council is the flag ship of public arts organizations and it does an enormous amount of very important work across the country for artists and the organizations and institutions that support the arts. The Bronfmans through the Saidye Bronfman Award and in many other ways make it possible for us to honour one of our kind each year. I am thrilled to see my work amongst the work of other Saidye Bronfman Award recipients and craftspeople from coast-to-coast in the exhibition, Unique, and to be included in the Museum’s collection.
The Saidye Bronfman Award has been a wonderful encouragement to us all and has enormously enriched the cultural landscape of Canada.