Alchemies of Change: The Ceramic Sculpture of Ann Roberts

Article excerpt

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ANN ROBERTS, AN INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED ceramist, is also valued in Canada where she is an elected member of the Royal Academy of Arts. I have long admired her sculpture, which I have enjoyed in public places and in exhibitions around Waterloo Region, Ontario, where we both live. It was therefore a particular pleasure to walk through a long garden, full of birdsong, frogsong and fragrance toward a red board-and-batten house, to find Roberts and her work in her own home, in the small town of Conestogo.

Her house and garden could be seen as metaphor for her work: idiosyncratic, multi-layered, open to surprise, close to the natural world's shifting seasons of light and colour. The house, well back from the road, is built over and into a much older one. It sits on the edge of a wooded incline which slopes down to the Grand River, a river Roberts describes as generally benign but seething with ice floes in the spring flood, eroding banks and depositing unexpected seeds and plants from up river. "The rabbits here are indomitable," Roberts tells me, "while I am filling in one hole, they are digging another one a few feet away." The garden acknowledges wildness, while it includes carefully placed flowering annuals and perennials. Throughout are Roberts' earlier life-sized ceramic sculptures.

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The studio, where Roberts works quietly alone, is upstairs, lighted by high windows opening into the treetops. "When we were designing the house, I did not want a studio on the ground floor," she laughs, "because I would wander out into the garden to pick a dandelion and end up spending the day there. I do my best thinking hanging from the waist like a bent paper clip."

That sense of solitude and reflection makes its way into the clay under her hands, as she presses it against itself and against the boundaries which might otherwise define our world. Interior and exterior spaces of the sculpture merge, accented by glazes which suggest the vulnerability of the interior even as they demonstrate the strength to withstand outdoor elements.

Roberts reports: "People have often asked me why I don't just find a form or process and stick with it. I believe the task of the artist is to explore, to test the limits, to grow." She began as a landscape painter, moved to throwing pots on a wheel and then made her way into handbuilding, each stage building on the one before it. She reminisces about the strangeness of growing up English in South Africa, not African and not really English, always aware of the possibility of brutality--in human relationships and in the sea--which could be blue and beautiful but could turn into wild storms that claimed lives. It was a time of teetering on the edge of change: in social relations, in the weather, in politics.

Roberts speaks with respect and admiration about African potters, especially the women of Lesotho, who make the pots of the village. They work within a particular style, she explains, but their pots have an individual stamp too. They go to dry creek beds and choose their clays, which they dig out with help from other women, then they mix clays, red and white, along with broken shards of other pots to give their finished product strength and a particular texture. They dry their pots slowly in the sun. With her students at the University of Waterloo and a Pottery Supply House, Roberts designed a ceramic clay which will withstand several firings and which dries slowly, so that it can be re-worked and does not need wrapping to keep it moist.

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Reminiscing about African potters, Roberts acknowledges their influence on her, respecting their work as part of the history and life of ceramics, more appealing to her than the small perfect figurines of the 19th century English style. They point toward times and places where ceramists operated on a larger scale.

Always experimenting with glazes and with colour, Roberts has developed a process of several firings, often as many as six for a single piece, where glazes and colourants are added between firings. …