La céramique : sa présentation et son essor

Rising Up: Presenting Ceramics

Montreal, September 26, 2021

La Guilde strives to be an ambassador for crafts practices since the beginning of the 20th century. Once again, we are completely amazed by the variety of the works La Guilde presented from Coast to Coast. With the opening of our new group exhibition, dedicated entirely to contemporary ceramics, we thought it would be a good time to look at the history of ceramics at La Guilde. La céramique en plein essor allowed us to compare and contrast what has been done and how our overall vision evolved through this one incredible medium: clay. Instead of doing a deep dive into the history of the practice, we decided to look at a few special moments that helped us grow and defined our contemporary actions.

Rising Up: Presenting Ceramics

Although textile and First Nations works were at the heart of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, pottery quickly took its space amongst the artistic practices presented on a regular basis. “Like weaving, the making of pottery started in the home, then became an art and graduated to an industry” (Family Herald and Weekly Star 1948). From throwing to scoring or glazing, works of ceramics rose to the occasion. Three aspects are worth mentioning to see the role ceramics took in La Guilde’s history: the place of pottery in annual exhibitions, the creation of a new committee, and the beginning of a series of exhibitions dedicated entirely to ceramics.

An Annual Occurrence

Throughout the years, a few ceramics plates and bowls have been visible in different exhibitions since 1902, but always scarcely. In its effort to include all crafts practices in Canada and show the influence of new immigrants—and their specific techniques—on different mediums, La Guilde started adding more and more works made out of clay in its exhibitions. In the mid-30s, we started seeing more displays of ceramics in most of La Guilde’s annual exhibitions held at the Montreal Art Association. One of the most impressive displays we’ve found is from the 1934 Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition and Prize Competition, where a complete display case took over the centre of the room [fig. 1]. On a placard accompanying the works, one could read “Pottery: Since the coming of White Race, pottery making has not been much practised in Canada. Lately however artistic experiments have been made with clays in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, & British Columbia” (Pottery Exhibition 1934). It is clear from that moment that pottery works are not appreciated only for their utilitarian purposes but their aesthetic and artistic values. Whether it be a teacup, bowl, figurine of a duck, or a jug, all have their own quality and place at La Guilde, and an increasing number of ceramics made their mark in the Prize Competitions. We are particularly charmed by the handbuilt frogs on the bottom right corner of figure 1.
A similar display was part of the 1936 annual exhibition [fig. 2]. We also start to see the influence of other cultures in the decorating features of some of the pieces, such as the glazing and lettering. Although we only use these two exhibitions to show the evolution of ceramics at La Guilde, countless moments such as these are noted throughout our archival documents.

The Pottery Committee

As of 1935, a new Committee came into action at the Montreal Branch: the Pottery Committee of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild. From what we gathered from annual meetings and their short minutes, this special Committee had two main goals: (1) offering classes for those interested in ceramics along with a space to share and discuss that interest, and (2) presenting special exhibitions that highlighted what was available in Canadian pottery. The mention of a search for a new teacher for the classes organized by the Committee in 1938-1939 clued us into the educational vocation of La Guilde, although there is not much detailed information on this project. The pottery classes were held in the house of one of the group members, but they didn’t have access to a kiln and needed to work with a new pottery business to fire the works “at a very satisfactory heat” (Annual Reports 1935-1941). Before that time, they used a kiln built and stored in the garage of a member of the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.
The first exhibition of the Committee, Pottery Made by Canadian Clay, was held in 1939. They started promoting ceramics just as raw clay and ceramic pieces became harder to import due to World War II, and for that reason, we see a boom in Canadian clay worked by Canadian artists. The following year, the Committee was in charge of Pottery Week where “it was decided to have a display illustrating the process of pottery making” (Pottery Exhibition Committee 1940). Just as we saw with exhibitions on textiles where a loom was in the space for demonstrations, La Guilde's ceramics exhibitions were also a space for education, sharing knowledge, and raising awareness.

In a letter by Mr. Phillipson, a professor of Ceramics, regarding a lecture he gave for La Guilde, he states that “[...] if it were not for ceramics we would have no spark plugs, insulators, brick, tile, sewer pipe, many kitchen utensils and dishes. These are all branches of the ceramic arts” (Letter Mr. Phillipson 1939). These go along the lines of thoughts that are felt throughout the documents and articles we’ve encountered. Ceramics are—and we believe the women of the Pottery Committee truly believed in its power and possibilities—part of so much more than we think. It is something we use every day, it is a part of us, and we are proud to be a destination for it.

The Beginning of a New Era

For the 1940’s Pottery Week, La Guilde held the Pottery Exhibition [fig. 3-5] in the gallery space of 2025 Peel Street. The exhibition, organized by the members of the Pottery Committee—Mrs G. S. Currie, Miss Terroux, and Miss Eleanor Perry—displayed works by artists from coast to coast. It also included works by a few associations and schools, such as the École du Meuble (QC), Charlotte County Cottage Crafts (NB), École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal (QC), Mount Allison University (NB) and the Halifax Technical College (NS). It is important to note that the move from 2019 Peel Street to 2025 Peel Street played a major role in making exhibitions such as this one possible since in-house exhibitions started around 1938 (see The Many Changes: A Story of Growth).

At the time, pottery was still a growing practice in Canada, and the exhibition aimed to celebrate local talents and uniquely Canadian styles. Following its opening, The Montreal Star—one of the many positive reviews—stated: “The show is a revelation of Canadian clays and what Canadian hands can do with them” (Ayre 1940). These reviews encouraged pottery collectors to visit the exhibition and “[...] realize that Canadian pottery, though still admittedly in its experimental stage, has a charm which rivals that of the work of Californian or Mexican craftsmen” (The Gazette 1940). The exhibition presented some of the best-known potters of the time, such as Kjeld and Erica Deichmann, whose pieces were being sold in New York. It included utilitarian objects such as jars, pots, vases, and figurines, as well as works by students [fig. 4] that showed considerable skills and a promising future for Canadian ceramics. The influence of First Nations was also mentioned by the press, one article goes as far as to say that “[...] you may compare ancient Canadian methods in the fragments and reconstructed cooking pots of the Iroquois and the Algonquins — the one scratched a design in long lines: the other pricked” (Ayre 1940). It is interesting to see how La Guilde managed to create dialogue, just as it does today between Inuit art, First Nations art, and Fine Crafts.

A letter from the Secretary and Treasurer of The Canadian Handicraft Guild to the President of the Manitoba Branch mentioned that La Guilde was “[...] anxious to have all Provinces represented” in the exhibition (Letter Mrs. Drummond 1940). Many more letters—stating similar motivations—were sent to the other branches to ask for artist recommendations. We are amazed by the dedication of La Guilde’s team in trying to represent artists from all provinces within this first major ceramic exhibition. This is something we strive for today as well. People were extremely keen to visit the exhibition, making it a true success. Mrs. Drummond added in a letter to the Pottery Studio that “[...] comparatively little has been done in Canada and it is amazing how people respond to these special exhibitions” (Letter Mrs. Hagen 1940).

In 1941, the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts organized the exhibition Contemporary Ceramics of The Western Hemisphere, sponsored by Mr. Thomas J. Watson, chairman and CEO of IBM. Director Anna Wetherill Olmsted reached out to The Canadian Handicraft Guild to help them gather pieces by Canadian artists. As stated in the request, “[...] we particularly desire the outstanding work of living artists and probably about 50 pieces would make a good selection to represent Canadian ceramists” (Letter Syracuse 1941). The works were then purchased by Watson’s Art Director for his private collection. The exhibition stressed for recent works by living artists who dedicated their careers to their practice. It was also the 10th anniversary of the National Ceramic Exhibition and the first ceramic art exhibition in the western hemisphere, with works from the United States, South America, and Canada. With over 500 pieces, this was the largest ceramic exhibition ever shown in America. The continuous exchanges we found with the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, up until the beginning of the 60s, testifies that this exhibition established La Guilde as an international destination and reference for Canadian ceramics.

In December 1944, La Guilde held a joint exhibition [fig. 6-7] with potter Nancy Dawes and painter Geraldine Major Wrangel. Nancy Dawes made various kitchen items, such as baking dishes and casseroles, described as “uniformly good in design and variety” (The Gazette 1944: 3). It might have been the first of its kind, but it sure wasn’t the last duo or solo exhibition with ceramic artists.

In 1948, La Guilde developed special year-long programming, featuring one craft at a time. Pottery was the first in the series. The exhibition [fig. 8-11] was presented alongside dynamic programming of lectures, demonstrations, conferences, and classes. The goal of the whole series was “[...] to pool ideas, discuss problems and raise standards in the various types of work” (The Gazette 1948: 4). In addition to a call for submission, Mrs. Edward Winslow-Spraggee, who was in charge of the pottery program, travelled from coast to coast to meet artists and encourage them to send their pieces. The best works were, then, selected by a jury for the exhibition.

In an interview, Mrs. Winslow-Spragge explained that “[...] the purpose of our show is to get potters together so that they may learn to know each other and their work. [...] They should gain thereby greater stimulation for their own creative efforts” (The Montreal Star 1948). The exhibition also had educational purposes: pictures of kilns, posters of ancient types of pottery [fig. 8], and models showing the processing of clay in its various stages. It had a special section presenting works from students of the Montreal Art Association, Saint-Georges School, Collège Notre-Dame, and Collège Saint-Laurent. We are happily surprised by the Avant-Garde concept of this exhibition which is quite similar to how we envision our exhibitions today. Our exhibitions still have educational purposes and aim to support artists to push their artistic practice further while engaging in dialogues with each other and the public.

Since this first special programming with pottery in 1948, ceramics has been highlighted almost every year with either solo, duo, or group exhibitions. The series organised by Mrs. Winslow-Spragge was the beginning of what we now call our regular programming. This article could go on forever—and we wish to make more in-depth inquiries in the future—but we wanted to focus on the diversity of the ceramic pieces presented and the evolution of this medium in the early years of La Guilde. When it comes to ceramics, having access to permanent exhibition spaces on Peel Street played an important role in placing La Guilde on the map. We are constantly inspired and amazed by how contemporary and forward-thinking the actions of the women behind La Guilde were. They are a true inspiration to us and a constant reminder that La Guilde can do anything when the right persons are involved.

Genevieve Duval / Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif
Programming and Communications Manager / Gallery and Communications Assistant

REFERENCES

  • “Annual Reports”, 1935-1941. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Ayre, Robert. “Three Exhibitions Divide Interest.” The Montreal Star, Saturday, April 6 (1940).
  • “Canadian Handicrafts Guild Holds Pottery Exhibition.” Family Herald and Weekly Star, Wednesday, May 26 (1948).
  • “Canadian Pottery Exhibit Open At Handicrafts Guild Shop Here.” The Gazette, Wednesday, March 27 (1940).
  • Letter from Mr. Phillipson, Calgary Branch, 1939. C14 D1 047A 1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter from Mrs. Drummond, Montreal Branch, February 14, 1940. C14 D1 047A 1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter to Mrs. J. C. Hagen, The Pottery Studio (Manitoba), April, 10 1940. C14 D1 047A 1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter from the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, June 19, 1941. C14 D1 058 1941. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • “Pottery Exhibition Committee Minutes”, February 16, 1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Pottery Exhibition (Photograph of Educational Group), 1934. C11 D3 214 1934. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • “Pottery First of Handicraft Exhibit Series.” The Gazette, Wednesday, October 20 (1948: 4).
  • “Pottery Show Opens Here.” The Montreal Star, Wednesday, November 3 (1948).
  • “Private View Today of Joint Exhibition: Geraldine Major Wrangel Shows Paintings and Nancy Dawes Pottery.” The Gazette, Saturday, December 3 (1944: 3).

Figures

(1) Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition and Prize Competition, 1934, C11 D3 214 1934.
(2) Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition and Prize Competition, 1936, C14 D1 007 1936.
(3) Pottery Exhibition, 1940, C14 D1 047 1940.
(4) Pottery Exhibition (Students from École des Beaux Arts, Montreal), 1940, C14 D1 047 1940.
(5) Pottery Exhibition, 1940, C14 D1 047 1940.
(6-7) Exhibition of Geraldine Major Wrangel and Nancy Dawes, 1931,C14 D1 082 1944.
(8-11) Pottery Exhibition, 1948, C14 D2 207 1948.
© La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.


3 comments


  • Susan Weaver

    Thank you very much for this text. regarding the history of ‘La Guilde’.


  • Jean-Pierre Dion

    Toutes nos félicitations à la Guilde pour cette série de textes sur l’histoire de la Guilde et notamment pour ce dernier concernant sa contribution à la promotion et diffusion de la céramique canadienne. Les recherches de Geneviève Duval / Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif mettent à profil les riches archives de la Guilde pour nous offrir une merveilleuse étude bien étoffée des efforts de la Guilde en cette matière de son début à 1948. Les photos d’expositions tenues à la Guilde ajoutent un intérêt supplémentaire à cette narration déjà passionnante. Les collectionneurs de céramique du Québec vont reconnaitre sur ces photos des œuvres de plusieurs céramistes d’ici, notamment Jean-Jacques Spénard, Marcel Choquette et Valentin Shabaeff. Nous allons recommander chaudement la lecture de ce texte auprès de l’Association des collectionneurs de céramique du Québec (ACCQ) et du grand public. Nous avions déjà signalé de façon épisodique, dans quelques-unes de nos publications, l’implication de la Guilde, par exemple à propos de la peinture sur porcelaine au Québec, des céramiques de Shabaeff, de celles de Michel Jolivet ou plus récemment dans la publication sur La céramique du Québec de 1800 à nos jours : un regard de collectionneurs. Mais voici que se développe et s’annonce une histoire plus riche de la contribution de la Guilde à la céramique canadienne. Il faut souhaiter que ce travail de recherche et de diffusion se poursuive. Bravo encore!
    Jean-Pierre Dion, Ph.D.
    Rédacteur en chef de Céramag, la revue de l’ACCQ


  • Michelle Joannette

    Toutes mes félicitations d’avoir, encore une fois, fait ressortir les richesses de nos archives et la concordance avec notre programmation et nos actions actuelles ! Merci Geneviève et Laetitia ainsi qu’à celles qui ont participé à la rédaction de cet article ! Vous faites voir aux lecteurs le coeur l’âme de La Guilde !!! ❤️ Bravo !