Embracing the perfection of imperfection

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The pottery of Gunda Stewart

The pottery of Gunda Stewart

“There is such immense beauty in imperfection,” says potter Gunda Stewart.  “When I load my kiln, I have to embrace that I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I can guess, and there are certain elements I can try to control, but I never know exactly how everything is going to turn out when I unload all the pieces.”

The Japanese have embraced imperfection for centuries.  Emerging in the 15th century, the wabi-sabi aesthetic encouraged simplicity, intimacy and appreciation of the natural world.  The concept is now deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and in today’s Japan the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity”.  In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty”.  It is a concept that Stewart knows well.  “The Japanese potters were, and still are, tuned into the natural forms and the imperfections found in nature.  They embraced the random effects of their kilns.  I try for certain drip marks and ash marks, and certain colours and textures, but it’s always a surprise.  And there is always a sense of natural imperfection.”

Stewart was heavily influenced by her four years at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.  “My teacher was influenced by one of Bernard Leach’s apprentices.  Leach was a British studio potter who spent a lot of time in Japan at the turn of the century.  Many of his apprentices made up the Canadian west coast pottery scene of the 1970s.”  Focusing on simplicity of form, glaze and texture, Stewart’s work is not peppered with loud unnatural colours or pithy sayings.  “As well as having a traditional aesthetic, my pieces reflect my own personal preferences.  I’m not an extrovert and I don’t wear colourful loud clothing; I prefer a quieter existence, and my pieces are a reflection of that.”

Creating her pottery is no easy task.  “I actually do a relatively quick firing of only sixteen hours, stoking the kiln every eight or ten minutes.  It makes for a long day, but some potters fire for as long as thirty-six hours.  I don’t have that in me anymore,” says Stewart.  “I’m not a young potter, and I get really exhausted at the end of every firing.  The wood-fired kiln goes through a cord of wood each time, and I have to climb in and out of the kiln a hundred times.  But I still love making pottery.  And I grow very fond of my pieces.”

Life as a full-time potter in the quiet Creston Valley is certainly a change from Stewart’s younger years in Vancouver.  “I was a single mom in art school.  And I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I wanted to go so badly.  Clay has always called to me, and still today my heart is in clay.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to get rich.  I did it because I had to.  I had to feed my soul.”  Although it took a long time to get from part-part time potter to full-time potter, Stewart has no regrets.  “I feel immense gratitude every time I come down from the house and walk into my studio, and I know I won’t have any regrets when I’m on my death-bed.”

Stewart is contemplative as she looks over her latest creations, and her older stock that line the shelves.  Tucked into the verdant hills of Canyon, Stewart’s Orde Creek Pottery studio and her wood-fire kiln sit among the quiet serenity.  “Overall, I am happy with the colours.  I like the orange shino glaze, and the yellowy-brown ash glaze.  I like the tea dust glaze that gives me the green temmoku or matcha coloured flecks.  I like the speckled effect that comes from fallen ash, and the rivulet patterns, and the tendency for the glaze to run in some spots.  I like the way the black breaks into brown along the edges – you can’t get that in an electric kiln.  I’m not into modern hip colours, I guess, and you won’t find any strong blues in my work.  There are only natural, rustic earth tones.  It’s what makes me happy.”

Stewart is hosting an open house this Sunday.  “I want to invite the public into my studio so they can see how things work around here.  It’s a show ‘n’ tell: the wheels, the studio, and the kiln.  There’ll be some new pieces, and there’ll be some older stock and seconds.  There’ll be music on, and tea and treats, and it’ll be a nice social event.  I get to meet those who are buying my pieces and I hear about where they will go, and it’s also nice to get positive feedback.  It encourages me to keep going,” says Stewart, “and it justifies my desire to find beauty in the inconsistent nature of what I do.”

Orde Creek Pottery is located at 4999 32nd Street.  The open house is on December 11th from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.