a life in clay

a life in clay

Sharon Reay tells us about her journey in becoming a ceramicist in conjunction with her installation, Illuminating Autumn.

The installation will be on view from August 31 to October 1, 2022.

The feel of clay in the palm of my hands centers me. It provides both a feeling of calm and a feeling of excitement. Clay holds the promise of something about to happen. It is one of the most malleable of materials: you can keep changing it, even reducing it back to liquid form if you wish, and yet take it all the way through its process to the conclusion, and its permanence astounds. Oh, and the possibilities! The choices and decisions you have at your fingertips around techniques and methods, types of clay, finishes and firings can just make your head spin. But, as I hold the clay in my hand, an image begins to take shape. It is its own form of magic.

“‘Busy hands are happy hands,’ my mother would say.

Growing up with five siblings on a small farm outside Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, we were all fortunate that our parents recognized and nurtured each of their child’s individual gifts. Although money was scarce, when my eldest brother showed musical talent, a second-hand guitar was procured. The same held true for sporting equipment, for those so inclined. I was neither. My childhood was filled with endless creative materials: drawing and painting supplies, clay from the Millstream Creek near our home; playdoh made from cornstarch and salt, and often tinted pale green or pink, was always there for the asking. “Busy hands are happy hands,” my mother would say.

My father – a planer by trade, who worked for a series of sawmills throughout his life, believed in the power of books. His nightly bedtime stories filled my head with images that inspire me still and provided me with a lifetime passion for illustrated children’s literature which has turned into an eclectic and extensive collection of books. Being shy and sensitive by nature, I found comfort and escape from the harsh realities of life in the pages of those books. Even tales with trolls and dragons were less frightening that speaking out in a classroom full of my peers. This carried through into high school, where oral report days often found me hiding out in the library instead of attending class when my turn came around. Some teachers even allowed me to draw TV personality caricatures or do clay projects at home in lieu of oral presentations, although I do recall one science teacher who got extremely miffed when the plasticine supplied to hole test tubes became instead a series of bizarre heads lining the front of my desk.

My last Grade 12 semester was the highlight of school life for me. Having finished all the academic courses in the fall, my last semester was comprised of the following courses: ‘Graphic Arts’, ‘Applied Design’, ‘Art 12’ and ‘Study’ (spent in the library, of course). I had pretty much a free reign in all the programs, to explore whatever took my fancy. I was living the dream. I went from there to the foundation course at Vancouver School of Art in the fall of 1973, where drawing and sculpture were my favourite courses, but the cost of rent and tuition sent me back home after a year, to work and repay my student loan.

By the end of the 70’s I was married, with children, living in Burnaby and dabbling in a variety of artistic pursuits, when I rediscovered clay by chance. While visiting my sister and sisters-in-law in Nanaimo, they invited me to attend a clay course they were enrolled in, sitting me in the corner with a bag of clay to amuse myself for 3 hours. By the end of the night, the table was filled with creatures that had obviously been floating about in my head for some time. I took the bag of clay home with me and that was it. I began taking throwing classes at the Burnaby Arts Centre with the legendary Gail Carney and never looked back.

I spent the 80’s learning, making, selling, exhibiting, teaching and building my own studio, with family’s help. Eventually, I moved into arts administration at the BAC, which became the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in 1995. First, I was the ‘Adult Arts’ and then ‘Ceramic Arts’ Programmer there for 27 years, until my retirement in 2017. Throughout those years, I continued to work in my home studio, all the while learning different methods and exploring new techniques from the outstanding teachers, staff and guest artists I was surrounded by.

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as the Ceramic Artist in Residence at the Museum of Anthropology. Again, I found myself living the dream: working in the Judy Cranmer lab within the Multiversity area for 9 months. I met hundreds of visitors from all over the world. I talked about what I was doing and making, while studying the art and artifacts in the collections; I was particularly drawn to the Koerner Collection of European Ceramics. Two pieces, which I finished during my time there, were purchased by MOA and are now included in the Koerner Collection, near the pieces which inspired them.Now I’m back in my renovated studio – still living the dream: A Life in Clay.

“A passion for art and literature has been a driving force throughout my life. So when the timing of this display coincided with several artistic and literary events being sponsored by local organizations – I was thrilled to assist in spreading the word. 

Works on display range from some very old creations, to very new and experimental – designed to show how my process has evolved. However, the colourful hanging leaves and small hanging pumpkins were created specifically to celebrate the imagery of Fall, with my portion of sales for these items being donated evenly to the organizations listed below. I thank the Craft Council of BC for giving me this opportunity – and for their continued support of artists in all mediums.” Sharon Reay

Decoda Literacy Solutions

Support literacy programming

Art 4 Life – POMO arts

September 15 – October 30, 2022