QB potters in their natural element

Vase and bowl, John Shauer. Small oyster shell serving dish, Sue Wilkinson.

Many of us are missing the pottery shows that normally pop up like spring bulbs across Vancouver Island, events now dormant due to pandemic restrictions. Fear not aficionados, our local potters have been quietly working in their studios over the past year, producing works of art that are currently available at several nearby locations.

Like sourdough starter, pottery requires only a few common ingredients, in this case clay, water and a hot fire. And just like sourdough bread, these basic elements rise from the ashes, so to speak, transformed into works of art. The creation of clay pottery has been central to human civilization from the outset. The oldest pottery work of art discovered to date is a finely-honed pre-Neolithic era figurine of a woman whose creation in central Europe dates back to 29,000 BC. And so today, pottery remains central in our lives, providing practical objects for daily living and beautiful artworks that nurture the soul.

Pottery making is deceptive. To the casual observer, this ancient art appears to be a simple, even meditative, practice. Mix earth, water and fire and voilà, an exquisite work of art emerges. Scratch the surface of pottery making (as many have) and suddenly one is immersed in math, chemistry, myriad creative avenues to explore and even a little bit of magic. Will this combination of glazes produce a striking effect? Should I try a different technique to create the desired shape? Will an innovative clay vessel design emerge intact from the kiln after the rigours of firing? Did I use the right clay to begin with? Fire the pieces at the right temperature? The deliberations can be overwhelming but glance over, and you see that your partner is just having fun, or as she puts it, “playing” at the potters wheel.

John Shauer and Sue Wilkinson are partners in life and in the art of pottery making. As potters, they have chosen different routes to explore. Sue says she likes to create practical pottery for everyday use in the home, while John enjoys making decorative vases and bowls featuring intricate glazing patterns.

Sue, a Yorkshire lass with a ready smile, emigrated from the UK to BC in 1992. She took her first pottery class in 2003. The lessons were a Christmas gift from her daughter, and she “was hooked” right from the first class. John says, “I never connected with art in school,” but in his mid-forties he saw a television show about pottery making that inspired his lifelong passion. Trained at Red Deer College in Alberta and BC’s Kwantlen College, John has taught pottery classes for several decades.

In 2013, John and Sue moved to Qualicum Beach from the Lower Mainland. It wasn’t long before they became immersed in the local arts scene, joining the Arrowsmith Potters Guild.

Handy patio features doors on both ends of the studio, for easy access and good ventilation.

The couple built a studio on their Qualicum Woods property with enough room for each of them to work at their own potter’s wheel at the same time.

Airy and light-filled, the studio looks out onto the property’s inner courtyard. The studio is outfitted with two electric kilns, a small one that John uses for testing glazes, and a large kiln that can accommodate a bigger load and larger pieces of pottery.

Adjacent to the studio is a small patio with a table and two chairs, a perfect spot for taking their morning coffee breaks.

An example of wheel-thrown pottery created by John Shauer.

At one end of the creative spectrum are the household objects that Sue designs. While she uses a potter’s wheel for some of her pieces, Sue’s preference is to create hand built pottery, pieces made either solely by hand or with the aid of only the simplest tools.

“I love working with my hands, making things from nothing,” she says. A natural creative spirit, Sue has done woodworking, metalworking, sewing, crocheting and knitting but she says all that went by the wayside when she was introduced to pottery. “I love to design things that can be used for a variety of practical purposes — things I would like to use myself.”

Crystalline bowl by John Shauer.

John’s passion is experimenting with glazes, in particular producing “crystalline” glazed pottery. This is pure alchemy. A natural chemical reaction between zinc oxide and silica occurs as a result of the heat generated in the firing process, followed by carefully controlled cooling.

The process is similar to what occurs in nature when molten rock cools. The “recipes” for crystalline glazes are infinite, and include materials like boron, magnesium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, and even rare earth minerals. The shimmering crystal patterns of the finished pottery are unique to each piece.

Creating pottery for exhibits and shows is time-consuming. The complicated production process includes creating a kiln-load of pieces, drying, glazing and firing batches over a period of weeks, sometimes months. Many hiccups or outright disasters can occur along the way but, says John with the confidence of a seasoned pro, “that’s all part of the journey.” Sue says the pandemic restrictions had a bit of a silver lining. Without the pressure of creating pieces for show deadlines, Sue “got to just play, without pressure.”

Avid gardeners, the couple’s creative instincts and their works of pottery extend into the leafy oasis of their property.

Several years after they relocated to Qualicum Beach, John and Sue were invited to become members of the Mid-Island Potters group. In 2018, John was invited to exhibit his work for sale at the Potters Place Gallery in Courtenay, and Sue was invited to sell her pieces at Pyromania Pottery in Coombs.

Currently, John and Sue are creating a series of soup bowls for an upcoming Salvation Army fundraising event.

Potters Place Gallery, 180 5th Street, Courtenay 250.334.4613 (Covid) Hours: Tuesday – Virtual appointment — Wednesday – Private in-store shopping by appointment — Thursday, Friday and Saturday – Open 10am to 3pm 

Pyromania Pottery, 2344 Alberni Hwy, Coombs (over the bridge from Goats on the Roof) Phone – 250.954.1775  (Covid) Hours:  Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 11am to 4pm

Arrowsmith Potters Guild, 600 Alberni Hwy, Parksville (in the old Train Station) Phone – 250.954.1872 (Covid) Hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday – 10am to 4pm — Sunday – 12 to 4pm