Magic in the Kiln

When Darryl Barnes is feeling dejected, he turns to his pottery to lift his mood. On the wheel he sits, his melancholy flows into the delicate earthenware like tears flowing into a river, creating a rippled texture with his sorrow. His emotions are held frozen in time, dated at the bottom and masked by a plethora of colours.

It’s hard to tell from just looking at it what emotion Barnes felt the day he created one of his ceramic pieces. But flip it over and check the date scored into the bottom and you’ll be staring into a memory forever engraved in the hardened piece of clay.

Barnes’ emotions are sprinkled in many Toronto homes on coffee tables, up on shelves and of course, on the fateful mantle, the quintessential place on which to place treasures like his handmade bowls, plates and vases. Even with the melancholy that’s burned into its core, there is an instinctive happiness that emanates from his pottery. According to Barnes, the emotion that he pours into his pieces somehow transitions into functional, beautiful art that uplifts him and adds a bucolic undertone to its new home.

“A lot of people tell me that my pottery is very happy,” Barnes said, describing himself as a potter by hobby. “I make happy pottery. It must be because I love to use bright colours.” Barnes is one of many local potters who work out of their Toronto home or a small studio, crafting clay pieces that are functional, decorative and affordable. They engage in a tedious process: it can take them weeks to create a single piece through extensive shaping, decorating, glazing and the eventual firing, an irreversible step that will transform the moulded clay into pottery, the appearance of which will vary depending on the ambiance inside the kiln. ”

My pieces are all one of a kind, no two pieces are the same,” he said. “I like that it’s not mass-produced and not everybody can have the same bowl or the same mug.”

His pieces are moderately priced at $25 for plates, goblets and smaller bowls, and go up to about $80 for larger bowls with covers.

“Clay has a lot of versatility. It’s a hard material [to work with],” said Jenanne Longman, a potter whose pieces are often displayed in art shows and commercial galleries including the Harbourfront Gallery on Queens Quay. “People don’t often want to pay a lot for things made of clay.”

Like Barnes, Longman’s pieces start at $25 for cups, vases and bowls and go as high as $500 for teapots, which she says are the most difficult to construct. “When you’re buying something that’s handmade you are paying for that in itself,” Longman said. “When people are buying things handmade they’re looking for something unique that has [artistic value].”

Textured mugs by Jenanne Longman

Textured mugs by Jenanne Longman

Longman likes to consider her pieces functional paintings and sculptures.

For centuries, clay vessels have been created for functional and decorative uses dating as far back as 1000 BCE.

“Every civilization in the world that has access to clay and fire has produced ceramics,” said Charles Mason, chief curator at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto which has an extensive collection of ceramics from around the world and across centuries. “It has a universal appeal and I think that that persists even to this day.”

Clay has the ability to transform a room by being unique and handcrafted in addition to serving as a functional piece, which like Longman and Barnes’ pieces, can be used for eating, drinking and storing. For collectors, possible uses for ceramic pieces are as limitless as the clay itself. “It can fit into so many types of interior decoration,” Mason said.

“It can be decorative, it can be conceptual, it can be provocative and raise questions or it can be nice to look at too. ” Longman is currently focusing on a series in which the experience of pouring is enhanced by means of teapots, mugs, oil and vinegar jugs and goblets.

“What I do is take a drawing and put it on a cup so you’re experiencing that drawing every day. There are so many chances for there to be loss, so many stages. Things can crack in the process of making it, or the glaze won’t turn out so a lot of those things can be frustrating. But when things turn out really well, a sort of perfect thing happens and you end up with things that makes you want to keep trying.”

The persistence of the timeless clay as a multi-functional material allows it to adapt to the evolving natures of art and interior decor and oftentimes allows the two to flow harmoniously.


Spazio Magazine, Winter 2010/11

3 Responses to “Magic in the Kiln”
  1. Bobbi says:

    I love your writing because it’s so fresh and so well written! But I think I might be partial to you because your my cousin ! Hi rishma! Please email me!

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