thoughts on our collaboration: essays by debra sloan and drew shaffer

thoughts on our collaboration: essays by debra sloan and drew shaffer

Explore the depths of artistic inspiration with essays by Debra Sloan and her collaborator, Drew Shaffer, offering intimate insights into the creation of ‘The Big Skirt’.

Les Grande Dames is currently on view in our gallery until July 25, 2024.

“The Big Skirt – A Museum stands like an implacable fortress.

The Big Skirt – A Museum
By Drew Shaffer

Shortly after Debra invited me to collaborate with her, I paid a visit to her studio to discuss our project and get a feel for where I’d be working over the next while. She showed me the work she’d already completed for the show (an imposing assembly of female figures in floor-length dresses), and said that in addition to this, she wanted to fulfill a long-held ambition and create something on a larger scale.

Here, apart from the requisite pots of glaze, tools, kilns and bags of clay you’d expect to find in a ceramic studio, is an impressive overview of Deb’s past creative output, featuring several examples from every period of her career. As I looked further, I came across a shelf full of plastic trays filled with broken shards of various shapes and sizes. Some were nondescript bits of colour and pattern, while others were recognizable pieces of the hand-built sculpture that typifies Deb’s work. I asked her why she kept them and she told me that they served as samples to aid in creating future work, explaining they would help her to learn from past mistakes.

Inspired by the shards, I was reminded of the engravings of 18th century German illustrator Martin Engelbrecht in which he creates composite images of people covered in objects relating to their trades, as well as the colossal figural sculptures of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle that are full-scale buildings that can be entered (and even lived in.) Though not as large as Saint Phalle’s pieces, our lady still had to come apart in several sections in order for her to fit in the kilns. Once she was fired and assembled, I picked through the trays and “curated” an exhibition of fragments for her to show.

“The Big Skirt – A Museum” stands like an implacable fortress. With her tightly folded arms and wry expression she guards the collection of ruined treasure that lines the ornately buttressed ledges of her gallery dress while protecting an assemblage of 15 diminutive sisters.

“Methodology was discussed, for instance, how many blue corbels, how, and where to cut the skirt into kiln size pieces, and how wide to make the shelves. The skirt became a playground.

The Big Skirt – “I am Large, I contain Multitudes.”
By Debra Sloan

I knew that working with Drew would be enlightening, and by asking him to take over the surface of the figure, that the outcome would be removed from ‘clay-thinking.’ Drew came bursting ideas and discussed these while drawing upon his memorized and vast rolodex of artist references.

My idea of a big stern female with a big skirt, came from thinking that being a ‘Big Skirt’ matched being a ‘Big Cheese’. I took charge of building the form, Drew helped with the heavy work. Ideas were flying about, time was short – we had two weekends. Drew arrived with lace, and after one short afternoon of making tests, we were committed to the use of porcelain-dipped lace, display ‘shelves’, silver buttons, and deep blue. Methodology was discussed, for instance, how many blue corbels, how, and where to cut the skirt into kiln size pieces, and how wide to make the shelves. The skirt became a playground.

As a material artist, Drew was efficient, a natural problem solver, and quick to adjust to working in clay. After the surface work and painting were complete, the pieces were disassembled, force-dried with fans, and whipped in and out of kilns while still wet – a harrowing and reckless tactic, but necessary.

While I was away, Drew, my sister, my daughter, and even my granddaughter assisted in locating and cleaning bits and pieces from studio and garden. In one short day Drew incisively and deftly assembled his ‘museum’, thereby consolidating our joint concept around feminine authority. What fun we have had.

about debra and drew

Debra Sloan is an internationally exhibited artist who began as a self-taught ceramicist in 1973, eventually receiving her ECUAD BFA in 2004. Maker, teacher, adjudicator, writer, presenter, served on provincial craft boards, and currently president – North-West Ceramics Foundation. Attended international residencies in Hungary, Italy, UK, Japan, and 12 months at UBC MOA. She has received many awards including Best of Show – 2023 FIREWORKS, hosted by Fusion, in Toronto. Her community practice includes the creation of the BC Ceramic Mark Registry, hosted by CCBC. In May 2024, she attended the Wallace Steger Residency in Saskatchewan.

Drew Shaffer (b. Victoria, Canada) attended the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, USA (1989) and Emily Carr University (1990-1994).

Shaffer is a multi-media artist who has a wide and varied exhibition history ranging from exhibitions in Canada, United States, and Europe. Recently, he exhibited his works at the 4by4 Gallery and the Griffin Projects Gallery in Vancouver, Canada.