Portrait of the Artist with Eric Sparling
I used to make pottery. I don’t anymore. Sure, you’ll see “my” work for sale at the Amherst Train Station Artisan’s Gallery, but I didn’t make any of it. I realized a long time ago I could improve profits by sending production offshore. There’s a zoo in North Korea that trains chimpanzees to make pottery. I pay ten cents a unit and another ten cents for shipping. (Before you get all testy about chimp abuse, I’ll have you know their feed is 80-per cent cadmium-free and they see the sun every month.)
Jennifer Houghtaling – it’s pronounced ‘Kirby’ – makes pottery the old-fashioned way. I visited her studio outside Pugwash recently to see why someone would possibly want to fashion things out of clay when there are other primates to do it for them.
“It’s addictive,” she said.
“Like bath salts?” I asked.
She said she wouldn’t know. (I won’t say if I would know or no, but let’s just say the wife doesn’t buy jars of expensive tub scrub anymore.)
Houghtaling said the payoff in pottery is seeing yourself improve over the years. When the artist started school in Fredericton at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, she thought fiber would be her medium. But she discovered she loved being “with the clay.” Being right on centre, she explained, was the addictive part.
The potter sat at her wheel in the studio and began throwing a mug. ‘Throwing’ is pottery-speak for ‘making’, although at the zoo factory overseas, throwing can sometimes mean literally throwing. Chimps are temperamental.
“Definitely mugs,” said Jennifer, when asked her bestseller. Everybody uses them and they’re the perfect size for a gift.
Most of what she makes is functional: bowls, cups, tea pots and such, fired in an electric kiln. She “dabbles” in sculpture – and shows at least one piece annually – and wants to make raku.
“My guys in Pyongyang will do raku,” I said. “They melt truck tires for the glaze. Gorgeous effect, like petroleum swirling in ocean water.”
Houghtaling sells pots in more than half a dozen locations in the Maritimes. I sell my North Korean pottery to more than half a dozen armies in former Soviet republics. You can make ten bayonets by breaking a single one of my large, heavy bowls.
My pottery is all about profits – Thailand has a Dixie cup knockoff I’d love to market here as “paper-thin porcelain” – but Jennifer is interested in the form of what she’s making. She wants each piece to contain what she calls a “perfect curve”. When a pot has that, people pick it up and don’t let go, she said…which I’m guessing is different from the first pots North Korea made for me: the glaze had this solvent that stuck to people’s hands. But I say a few chemical burns are a small price to pay; using trade deals, I’m prying open the hermit kingdom one cup at a time.
Another mug followed the first, and then another. For the briefest moment I thought back to my own start in pottery. I was more idealistic then, back when I still believed ceramics should be made by humans. The absorbing quiet of sitting at the wheel is completely at odds with the violent chaos of a chimp factory.
Like I said, the moment was brief. Greed intruded. I made $1.2 million dollars last year selling dishes at village markets throughout the Indonesian archipelago – and every piece was 80-per cent cadmium-free.
Portrait of the Artists is mostly a pack of lies. A different artist from the Amherst Train Station Artisans’ Gallery is profiled each week.