In 2006 my friend Jack Angell introduced me a deposit of excellent clay. I tested the clay, and then decided to do some research on the site. I discovered that not only did someone hold the mineral titles to the site, but there had been great interest in it since the very early 1900s. A few days of researching in the library turned up a fair amount of history, and I discovered documents that outlined testing done on the clay body in the 1940s.
I took a sample of the clay to Wayne Ngan, a potter on Hornby Island. I grew up near there, and knew that Wayne used clay and glaze materials from around B.C., so I wanted to know what he thought. He encouraged me from the start to use this clay – that this was part of my life journey as a potter – that this clay would connect me to the earth and the connection would show in my work. Our conversation spoke right to my heart. The words couldn’t have been more encouraging, and exactly reflected my feelings. But my hands were tied! Someone else had the mineral titles to most of the area. Every year I checked, and every year I saw someone had the titles, and every year Wayne called me.
One day, immediately following one of those phone calls, I decided to check the mineral titles again. The previous owner had let them lapse, and I was able to acquire the titles. I put a lot of effort in to researching, and figuring out the situation. It had taken luck, good timing and perseverance. Besides Wayne, I had been encouraged by Jack and my two friends Karen and Jim. They have been with me from the start, helping me keep the dream alive. Every step was a logic problem and it often seemed impossible.
After I got the titles, I approached the property owners for permission to access the claim. They told me they absolutely did not want anyone trespassing as they had been abused and disrespected in the past, and they weren’t open to further negotiation. I could imagine how they felt. How I would feel if someone wanted to access my property? It took another year to figure out my rights, but at the same time I put more effort into befriending them and helping them understand my motives. My approach paid off, and now I have their support and encouragement.
From the early 1900s, there was interest in this clay for industry. WWI postponed further investigation until the 1940s. A road was built using a government grant and 20 tons were shipped to Vancouver for testing. The road is still there, but it is rough and only suitable for walking or ATV use. We made three trips in this summer, walking and borrowing or renting ATVs. Jim Rawlings and I made our first trip in June. When we got there, he looked around and said, “I thought this would be more glamorous!”. We managed to dig almost 2000 pounds of clay in just four hours, which was very was encouraging. With ATVs, we made two more trips in August and September to haul out the clay.
This year, it actually cost more money to access this clay than it would have had we bought clay that was mined in Alberta and shipped from Vancouver. As this was a learning year, that was to be expected though, and I think of this as money well spent on potters’ education. We have already made plans for next year that are more efficient.
Besides the money spent, there is a fair amount of work to process the clay. After digging and hauling, it has to dried thoroughly. When it is absolutely dry, then it must be soaked in water till it is “slip” then poured through screens to remove impurities. The slip has to sit in buckets, till the water separates. The water is poured off and the clay is put on plaster bats to dry to the right consistency. After that, it is hand-wedged or pugged to make it smooth and get any air bubbles out. Finally it is ready for us to build our creations. To me, that is when the glamour starts, and peaks when the work comes out of the kiln.
Many people have commented to me that there is clay everywhere. That is true, but, not all clay is alike. This clay is very special. It is high fire, meaning its maturing point is very high – over 1700C, and it is durable and strong. Most clays in B.C. mature at a low temperature, so they are not as useful. I also like it because it has beautiful color, and texture and it is nearby. It takes us a bit of time and work to make our pottery with it, but that is nothing compared to the millions of years it took mother nature to create it.
* This article "Potter's Clay" was published with photos in the Arts North Fall Edition 2010. ARTS NORTH was a quarterly publication of CIRAC (Central Interior Regional Arts Council)